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:
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.
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.
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?
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.