KAMPALA, UGANDA — Kagayi Ngobi still recalls the teacher’s puzzling question: “What were the challenges faced by missionaries, explorers and British colonialists in Uganda?”
Why, Ngobi wonders years later, didn’t the instructor ask how those outsiders harmed Ugandans?
“I knew something was wrong with the history curriculum,” says Ngobi, 34, his eyebrows raised. “The history curriculum we have today is a single narrative that praises and tells experiences of the colonialists and their agents and disempowers the African narrative.”
Ngobi — a poet, lawyer and teacher himself — and thousands of other Ugandans want that to change.
Apollo Makubuya, a Kampala-based lawyer and author, started an online petition in June urging the government to rename public spaces, specifically roads, that honor colonial-era administrators and British royalty.
The petition has triggered a larger conversation about how to reshape a national story that some historians and teachers say has shunned the harsher facets of British rule and distorted Uganda’s history.
“It affects one’s confidence, identity and self-esteem,” says Samwiri Lwanga Lunyiigo, an author and retired history professor at Makerere University in Kampala, the capital.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda
Makubuya says the idea of a petition came to him last year after he researched Uganda’s history for a book. He saw, he says, “how little we know or celebrate our leaders who worked a lot for the independence of our country.”
Makubuya unveiled the petition in early June, a couple of weeks after the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in the United States, kindled worldwide protests. The petition says the outcry after Floyd’s death shows “the urgency to address all forms of injustice and discrimination everywhere.”
The lawyer addressed the petition to, among others, Uganda’s president, members of Parliament and the Kampala Capital City Authority, which runs the city’s operations.
“We believe that the removal of visible vestiges of a colonial hegemony from public spaces is a crucial part of a process of decolonization and ending an era of domination and impunity,” the petition says.
Makubuya seeks new names for streets that harken back to when Britain held Uganda as a protectorate, from 1894 until 1962.
Road names showcase colonial leaders such as Frederick John Dealtry Lugard, Col. Trevor Ternan, Col. Henry Edward Colville and Gen. Francis de Winton.
Makubuya presented the petition to the speaker of Parliament, was invited as a guest on several TV programs and appeared before the city authority. The petition drew more than 5,700 signatures online.
“I sign because black lives matters,” Kiggundu Ahmed commented on the online petition.
Others said the petition didn’t go far enough.
Laban Jemba, another commenter, wrote, “My prayer is that [this] does [not] stop at merely renaming … but we get going on the quest for COMPLETE independence … we need to reclaim our culture.”
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda
Lunyiigo says Uganda’s history curriculum offers a skewed view of the colonial era. Most schoolchildren don’t know that the British smothered protest by fomenting discord among the kingdoms that made up Uganda, he says, and whipped up wars in which many died from fighting and starvation.
The British imposed their religion, clothing and English, which remains one of Uganda’s official languages. They also unraveled social structures such as traditional farms, Lunyiigo says.
“At school, children are punished for speaking their mother tongues, taught lessons that portray African people and African leaders of the colonial era as barbaric, [and are] told African culture and religion were devilish,” he says.
Ayebaale Allen, 37, a Kampala resident, learned of the petition through news reports and social media. She favors a revamped history curriculum but balks at new street names.
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“The only information I learned about [the British] is how they introduced civilization, the knowledge of reading and writing, and introduced Jesus, cotton and silk clothes,” Allen says. “If we rename the roads, it would mean that some people who haven’t gone to school will never get a chance to know who Frederick Lugard or Col. Colville was.”
Communities drive the changing of road names, says Daniel Muhumuza Nuwabine, interim head of public and corporate affairs at the city authority. He says no Kampala neighborhoods have made such requests.
A new history curriculum would be the work of Parliament and the National Curriculum Development Center, an autonomous body under the Ministry of Education and Sports that is responsible for curricula at all grade levels.
Center director Grace K. Baguma, who knows of Makubuya’s petition, says the organization reviews the curriculum in all subjects regularly. But she says those who would revise the history curriculum must make a stronger case.
“We need actual information brought to us,” she says, referring to allegations of atrocities committed by the British during colonial times. “Where is that information before you tell us to change the curriculum?”
Lunyiigo says changing both road names and the curriculum would help Ugandans reclaim their history.
“Having roads named after colonialists who committed terrible crimes is celebrating them,” he says. “We shouldn’t be celebrating them. But their names should be remembered, and their place is the museum.”
Nakisanze Segawa is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda. She specializes in reporting on issues of health and human rights.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Luganda. Click here to learn more about our translation policy.