Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Rwenzori Journal

Bamwanjara Pass, 14,600 ft (4450 m), Rwenzori Mountains

Bamwanjara Pass, 14,600 ft (4450 m), Rwenzori Mountains

For the past three weeks, I’ve been in Uganda doing research on my next book, Lost White Tribe: Explorers, Scientists, and a Theory of Race that Changed Africa (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). The book begins in 1876 in East Africa, where the journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley encountered four Africans whose light complexion and European features “aroused [his] curiosity to the highest pitch.” They came from the slopes of Gambaragara, a snow-capped mountain west of Lake Victoria. That such a towering range existed in the heart of equatorial Africa was astonishing enough. “But what gives it peculiar interest,” Stanley wrote, “is, that on its cold and lonely top dwell a people of an entirely distinct race, being white, like Europeans.”

 Stanley’s story had the ring of the fantastic about it, but was taken seriously by scientists, explorers, and the general public — and came to be supported by evidence ranging from the origin stories of the Hebrew Bible, the discovery of ancient ruins in Egypt and Zimbabwe, the kingship legends of African cultures, and the physical differences observed — by Stanley and many others — among African tribes. The existence of white tribes of Africa was a theory, defenders claimed, supported by many pillars. Lost White Tribe traces the rise and fall of this theory, the Hamitic Hypothesis, and the scientific expeditions that gave it life.

 After completing my research at Makerere University in Kampala, I took a bus west to Kasese, and then hired a motorcycle taxi to Kilembe.  This small town was the gateway to the Rwenzoris, the tallest mountain range in Africa. Just east of here Stanley glimpsed the massive blue silhouette of Gambaragara (now called Mt. Stanley) for the first time. I spent eight days on Mt. Stanley with a Bakonzo guide and porters, recording what I could of the mountain, its people, and my own subjective experiences. Here are some brief excerpts:

Kilembe, Western Uganda. Gateway to the Rwenzoris.

Kilembe, Western Uganda. Gateway to the Rwenzoris.

10 January 2013
Sine Camp 8576 ft (2596m)

At 9:30 we walk into Kilembe village, past wooden huts and kiosks, men raking coffee beans, selling cell phone time, children driving cows. Rows of single-level dormitories stretch off to the left covered by rusty metal roofs,  goats graze the courtyards between.  The dorms were originally built as housing units for workers of the British copper mining company that came here years before. Now muzungu money enters the valley only from coffee sales or trekkers like me. The presence of whites is now rare enough to peak interest. Or fear. As we climb the trailhead, we pass a woman bringing her children to work the vertical fields of bananas and cassava ahead. Her daughter, about three years old, is ahead of us on the trail. As the girl sees us approach, separating her from her mother, she begins to cry. When she sees me, her cries grow sharp. I remove my sunglasses thinking it will help. Bad idea. She screams, covers her eyes, leaps off the trail. Scary muzungu.

William Kiminywa finds a path through the mud.

William Kiminywa finds a path through the mud.

11 January 2013
Kalalama Camp 10,327 ft (3147m)

My guide William Kiminywa is Bakonzo, a member of an ethnic group that inhabits the lowlands of the Ruwenzoris, from Western Uganda to Eastern Congo. All of the porters are Bakonzo too, mostly from Kilembe. He’s heard no talk of “white Africans” living on the mountains, but clearly the mountains are a place of the sacred and the strange. William will not say the names of the mountains that tower above us on both sides of the valley – 13,000ft pinnacles that drop straight down to the heather trees of the valley. He writes out the names in my journal instead. Unwise to say the original Bakonzo names out loud. He is no mere folklorist though. William knows the Rwenzoris like no one else. We hike through knee-deep swamps and bogs, oceans of mud. He always sees a way through though – rocks, branches, tussocks invisible to me – stepping stones through the black ooze. I call him the mud whisperer. He laughs. But its true, his knowledge goes deep, sensory and academic. Where I see a mass of ferns and heather, he sees colobus monkeys, dikas, rock hyrax, turacos. He points them out to me quietly with his walking pole, whispering their Latin names so as not to scare them away. I nod, write, take pictures.

Blue Monkeys, 12,000 ft.

Blue Monkeys, 12,000 ft.

12 January 2013
Bugata Camp 13,327 ft (4062m)

Today we approach the lower arm of Mt. Stanley. We are now closer to the mountain than Stanley was in 1876 when he climbed a small mountain near the Katonga River and “caught a passing glimpse of the king of mountains Gambaragara.” It was at the summit of this great mountain, Stanley’s African troops told him, that the white Gambaragarans lived amid the snow and craters lakes. Still, my head is elsewhere today. Tess completes in the final round of an oratory contest in Bloomfield, a big event in her life and  to miss it hurts a bit. More than a bit. I feel the isolation of the mountains as we go higher. William is fantastic, and his crew of porters are polite, knowledgeable, professional, but no companions. I am a client, not a friend. The porters bring food, supplies, then retreat to their own tents. Tea and biscuits at 4pm, even in rainstoms, on windy cliffs. When I visit their quarters to talk, they stand, go silent. I’m unshaven, unshowered, caked with mud, but I’m still the Earl of Grantham and I’ve come to servants’ quarters unannounced. My liberal politics, my critiques of colonialism, Victorian explorers, mean nothing here. I enter a fixed role, one that’s been set in place in Africa for hundreds of years and is kept in place by all kinds of trekkers organizations here, Kilimanjaro, maybe the Himalayas too? (I must ask the Everest people). I’m head muzungu. It’s Upstairs Downstairs, only at altitude. Where’s my pith helmet?

Summit of Mt. Stanley, border between Uganda and Congo, dividing point between the watersheds of the Congo and Nile Rivers.

Summit of Mt. Stanley, border between Uganda and Congo, dividing point between the watersheds of the Congo and Nile Rivers.

15 January 2013
Margherita Camp  14,714 ft (4485m)

We leave at 3 am for the summit, headlamps on. I stay very close to William. I never know if the blackness covers a slope or sheer void. After an hour of hiking we’re in snow, then glacier. We take thirty minutes to put on crampons and harnesses, rope up. The march across Elena Glacier is calming after the rocks. Black sky and an ocean of white, just the sound of our feet. We descent a sharp pinnacle of rocks, then we’re on Margherita Glacier. This is not calming. The glacier is steep here, very steep, and the wind howls. I don’t know how many knots but its enough to push flinty pieces of ice up the 50° slope towards the summit and into the skies over Congo. They hit us and keep moving. The air is so thin, it cracks my lips and it’s impossible to catch my breath. I shuffle like an old man. William seems unaffected. Three hours of this and we are finally the rocky crown. It’s so hard to move up this craggy face, I have to crawl at points towards the summit. When we’re there, I stand and sob. I can’t help it. An accumulation of feelings over the six day ascent, and longer perhaps, the three weeks in Kampala and Western Uganda. There are many points of contact between Stanley’s description, those of his African soldiers, and what I see here. The ice and snow, the small lakes in the shadow of the glacier, the great elevation. But there are no lost whites up here – well — none except for me. And maybe there’s something to that. Stanley wasn’t the only one to think he saw white people in weird places. Not a product of lying, I think, but, more likely wishful thinking. A racial Rorschach test. It may have given Stanley – already a lonely man — some comfort to imagine Africans who shared his color, his features, perhaps his kinship, so far from home.

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32 Comments»

  Joyce Ashuntantang wrote @

I enjoyed reading this. Two images stand out to me: Your passionate comment on missing Tessa’s big Oratory contest resonates with me. While I was in Hawaii with honors students for two weeks I missed David’s All State Soccer Player award from the city of West Hartford. I was in the middle of sunshine in Hawaii but in my heart there was a cold void but these are some of kinds of sacrifices we make so we can in turn improve the quality of life for our children.

Your account below got me pensive and sad.

“When I visit their quarters to talk, they stand, go silent. I’m unshaven, unshowered, caked with mud, but I’m still the Earl of Grantham and I’ve come to servants’ quarters unannounced. My liberal politics, my critiques of colonialism, Victorian explorers, mean nothing here. I enter a fixed role, one that’s been set in place in Africa for hundreds of years and is kept in place by all kinds of trekkers organizations here, Kilimanjaro, maybe the Himalayas too? (I must ask the Everest people). I’m head muzungu. It’s Upstairs Downstairs, only at altitude. Where’s my pith helmet?”

The fact that the racial heirachy instituted by colonialism still holds sway for the most part in Africa is a sad reality indeed.

I look forward to reading your book and journals. I am already hooked!

  Anonymous wrote @

Ironic how your presence as a Caucasian elicits the interest of the locals, as the existence of the White Tribe did in years past! I look forward to reading more….

  V Olson wrote @

Welcome home, Michael! Epic fieldnotes: wonderful representation of the excitement and anxiety of encounters with the unfamiliar. I’m curious if your research has yet revealed any expressions of a relationship between these “white Africans” and their environment — i.e., whether there is an element in these stories, a kind of ethno-ecology, explaining some isomorphism between the mountain and its ecology and the white tribes…making the mountain a place they “belonged” to? I can’t wait to learn more about your trip.

  Louise wrote @

Beautiful essay, Michael.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Hi Valerie! There were many Victorians who believed strongly in climactic determinism — that the races were designed for specific environments and you were asking for trouble if you tried to settle race A in region B. Since Europeans seemed to drop like flies in West Africa, some took this as a sign that Europeans needed cooler, drier environments to live and prosper. So the lakes region of East Africa — 4000 ft up and more temperate — was seen as a sort of Switzerland of Africa. There’s a newer theory — put forward by Nina Jablonski about skin color and UV exposure which I think correlates to the Ruwenzoris as a low UV zone. I need to read her work more carefully though.

  5thingstodotoday wrote @

I really like your blog and would love you to feature on mine, http://www.5thingstodotoday.com. All you have to do is write five suggestions along with a link back to your site. Please check out the blog and see the sort of things people have written about.

  greentorrents wrote @

I really enjoyed the post.Good writing skill

  magdalene2012 wrote @

I completely enjoyed your post. Great descriptions of your journey – must be exciting!

  Patrons of the Pit wrote @

The mud whisperer.. I like that guy! Very cool trip!

  dudegoogleit wrote @

Super cool blog. Keep up the amazing work. I just started blogging. Perhaps you can take a look at my site. Peace! Beau.

  erin wrote @

Your book sounds fantastic! Your writing style is very emotive – I’m going to go back through your blog and read more. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  Lakia Gordon wrote @

Congrats on being FP!

  Java Girl wrote @

What an interesting blog! I just had to follow you! :)

  katrinamillen wrote @

Sounds like such an amazing adventure :)

  It’s only P! wrote @

Ehh, Africa. Your book will be impressive.

  Jenny wrote @

This is one of the most fascinating WordPress entries that I’ve read in a long time. What a singular life you’re living.

As a Downton Abbey devotee, I appreciated your reference to Lord Grantham. I’ve always wondered how it must feel to be a “muzungu” exploring in Africa, and don’t think that I ever consciously realized how amazingly isolating it must be. A white person in a weird place, indeed.

Despite that isolation, it certainly seems that you’ve had a very rich time. You’ve piqued my interest in your blog (awesome title, by the way) and book, and I look very much forward to following you, the mud whisperer, and whomever else you meet on your journeys. Godspeed!

http://www.spokesandpetals.wordpress.com

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Thanks for the kind words Jenny. Good luck with your book. I grew up in Maine — and spent many years in Boston. Sounds like an interesting project.

  Jenny wrote @

Thanks very much! What part of Maine are you from?

  rimassolosailingaroundtheworldm wrote @

Thank you so much for your blog

  jamesspencerphoto wrote @

A fascinating read, and a very different take on the African experience we all see on the television. It’s heart warming to know that exploration still continues today and that although perhaps the great explorations and discoveries have all been made, there’s still plenty more out there to intrigue us.

  James R. Clawson wrote @

Enjoyed reading about your adventures there in Africa.

  rockyc5 wrote @

What was your inspiration to begin writing about this? I’ve always wanted to go to Africa, but have not yet been able to. I really hope you are enjoying your adventures and learning a lot from what Africa has to offer.

  jimceastman wrote @

It’s very challenging and an extraordinary journey through the African wilderness. I’m sure it was a remarkable experience for you! Thanks for sharing. Well deserved to be on FP. Congratulations!

  OyiaBrown wrote @

Reblogged this on Oyia Brown.

  Mz Zoomer wrote @

Great blog posts and pics. Thanks so much Rwendzori is on my bucket list some day. So many places, so many times. Your post reminds me again why. Keep having an amazing adventure.

  Freshi Ice Sticks wrote @

congratulations on featured in Freshly pressed.

  harrithomas wrote @

these photo’s and articles are great. You should look into contributing to nowhere magazine. It is an independent quarterly that looks right up your alley. When you’re not writing your book….I’ve written a piece on it here. Keep up the good work! http://meandmymoustache.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/nowhere-magazine/.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Thanks for the kind words Harri. I will check out Nowhere Magazine. Cheers.

  wanderfulpeople wrote @

And the list just got longer after reading this- Uganda’s in!

  Amanda Carlson wrote @

Michael,
I share Joyce’s sentiments. Lots of Americans are thrown by the dynamics of class and standing that they encounter in Africa. Coming from America, its disappointing to be treated “differently.” But it takes a very long time to understand these complex social dynamics, it can’t all be blamed on the pith helmet.

I’ve worked in Africa for over two decades and I am still learning the ins and out of social protocols, and constantly asking for advise from friends. I’ll never forget the time I did a semester of language studies in Nigeria as a graduate student. The employees at the guesthouse where I was staying were so excited to tell me that an “oyibo” (“white person”) had arrived. I thought, ah ha, my American friend who was on a Fulbright finally came to visit! However, it turned out to be a very wealthy Nigerian man from Lagos (who the staff equated with “oyibo” because of his manner and money). My point is that class divisions and expected social behavior are extremely complex. It’s also possible that the porters were tiered and didn’t want to chat.

I may have mentioned to you once about the Congo River Golf Adventure in Florida, which is based upon the story of Stanley and Livingston. I think you must go play some miniature golf, its worth the trip. I recently wrote about it within a chapter on amusement parks in “Africa in Florida: 500 Years of African Presence in the Sunshine State, coming out later this year with University Press of Florida.

Your book sounds great. Sorry I’ll miss your lecture at UH, I’m on sabbatical and traveling.

Best,
Amanda Carlson
University of Hartford
Art History

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Amanda. I found the service issue disconcerting because it was so different from my experiences in Kampala. Then again, I was with friends in Kampala so there were no issues of professional protocol. I learned later from other climbers that this Victorian style of service was common on other mountains, too, particularly Kilimanjaro. One Ugandan told me later that they were told not to speak to white clients, a role reserved only for guides. Your oyibo story is very interesting. Looking forward to reading your book!

  Amanda Carlson wrote @

Yes, the tourist industry is very structured!


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