THE PEOPLE OF THE EQUATOR
The 1906 expedition of the Duke came in contact with different local groups: Baganda, Batoro and Bakonjo. When he reached Entebbe, he first encountered the Baganda and he organised a caravan of porters of over 220 people. The expedition arrived in Kabarole and the Duke entered the palace of the Tooro King Kasagama.
On the slopes of the mountain, at Iba
nda, the Duke met the Bakonjo, whose villages are located up to 2.300 metres of altitude. The Bakonjo porters substituted the Baganda. The food for the porters was provided by the local chiefs. The climbing has been full of difficulties: even two porters died of cold at Kichumu hut. It has to be remembered that for them climbing the peaks was such an action against their divinity: they consider the peaks as the dwelling of god Kitasamba, whose froze sperm (the snow) fertilizes the land and the society melting in rivers and lakes. Therefore the glaciers are the centre of the Bakonjo universe and should be preserved as a sanctuary.
In large part, the people who inhabit the villages and farms immediately along the Uganda Rwenzori front hills are Bakonzo, commonly shortened to Konzo. Most trekkers in the Rwenzori hire the Bakonzo as guides and porters. They are generally slender, of medium height, and astonishingly strong in the mountains, capable of covering enormous distances in a few hours of intense walking.
In Uganda the Bakonzo are an important ethnic group of about 30,000 people and in Congo they number more and are known as Banande. They all belong to the Bayira, a Bantu speaking people. Like Mountain people around the world, they are industrious and self-reliant, able to pull back into the fastness of their hills in times of turmoil in the plains, which has rewarded them with a social stability rare in Uganda and Congo over the last decades. The Bakonzo bear themselves with great dignity, are conscientious about education and that wonderful core spirit of conservative African values and modest manners. They are relaxed and open.
Humour is plentiful and a good joke can last for weeks. The Bakonzo Homestead usually consists of only one or two rectangular houses and a few small store huts, widely scattered and patched on the ridges of the foothills. The houses are made of a double layer of plaited bamboo filled with clay and roofed with grass or banana thatch, although now more frequently with the ubiquitous African corrugated iron roof. Coffee [more recently some people grow cocoa] has been the main cash crop in the foothills. On the plains it is cotton.
With an expanding population, recent economic policies favouring stability have taken hold, and farms are being pushed further and higher into the mountain foothills, with the increasing potential for erosion and environmental damage caused by people pressure on the land. The bakonzo usually marry early, the girls at about 13 or 14. With increased educational and employment opportunities in recent years, and a stiff bride price, some men are now delaying marriage until they have established themselves in jobs or gained a small measure of prosperity.
Polygamy is allowed, but constrained by economic resources or the church, as the financial reality of supporting more than one wife and the children they bear. The climate is healthy, food and pure water are abundant; by comparison to other parts of Africa, survival birth-rates are high and the population is growing.
Agriculture is the principle occupation of the Bakonzo with a few recently having become cattle owners on a small scale. The men break the new ground, but the women manage the crop, climbing up the steep hillsides daily to plant, weed and hoe. The women bring goods to market; the men try to conjure up cash-earning businesses. Other than serving as porters for mountaineering groups going into the Rwenzori, employment opportunities for men are somewhat limited.
A few might be plank-cutters, carpenters, blacksmith or basket-makers, although it is not uncommon in the Rwenzori foothills to find that the skilled workers have actually come from towns further to the south due to restrictive land-tenure traditions in those regions, forcing them to seek work elsewhere. There are limited opportunities in store- keeping, local trading of cash crops and produced goods, butchery and lately tourism, with a further development of hotels in the region.
On the plains there is cotton growing, some fishing in the lakes, the Cement plant at Hima and hope of future cash employment at the Kilembe copper mine above Kasese when it resumes production.
Despite the lack of regular cash employment, there is always portering, carrying loads up and down the steep mountain trails. The arrival, in the back of a pick-up truck, of a group of mountaineers winding their way up the dusty road from Kasese to Ibanda and beyond to Nyakalengija is met with cheers as they pass through the hamlets and banana groves. Jobs! Real money!
The chance to meet some nice tourists who might take a few minutes over the course of the week to understand that the man carrying their rucksack is in fact a trainee accountant who pays his way by carrying loads for trekkers. Or perhaps he is a father of four children, all in school, for whom a small tip might double his real cash income for a month or more and pay the school fees for the next year.
The climate change is affecting the life of the Bakonjo. Over the last century the area covered by glaciers has reduced by 84 per cent. If current trends persist, the glaciers will disappear within the next two decades. Periods of drought have increased, leading to previously unknown famine and drop in crop yields. Locally, the Bakonjo attribute the loss of snow to a turning away from the traditional customs. Therefore there is the belief that the traditional monarch should be restored in order to please Kitasamba, the spirit who controls the natural environment and the lives of the people and lives in the glaciers