The Three Kingdoms of Uganda: Moorehead’s “The Vales of Paradise”

Self is batting three for three in her current travel-book reading phase.  The previous two were Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (perfectly timed for her plane trips to and from New York, last week), and Laurence Bergreen’s Marco Polo:  From Venice to Xanadu (This one took her over a month to finish: she lavished attention on every page)

Several days ago she began reading her third travel book, Alan Moorehead’s The White Nile (He has a companion volume called The Blue Nile, but self is going to confine herself to The White Nile, because she has a whole lot of other travel writers to get to know:  Patrick Leigh Fermor, W. G. Sebald, Rory Stewart and many many others).

At least half a dozen times, self has itched to post something from the book on this blog.  But she always managed to restrain herself.  That is, until she got to this passage, on p. 49, about the “three kingdoms” of Uganda.  It’s in a chapter called “The Vales of Paradise.”

Apparently, Uganda in the 19th century was divided into three separate kingdoms:  Bunyoro in the north, Buganda in the center, and Karagwe to the south.  Karagwe was the weakest of the three, and so the King of Karagwe, who at the time was Rumanika, was the most polite, the most “hospitable to strangers,” the most conciliatory.  If historical accounts are to be believed, “Rumanika had his eccentricities” :


He kept an extraordinary harem of wives who were so fat they could not stand upright, and instead grovelled like seals about the floors of their huts.  Their diet was an uninterrupted flow of milk that was sucked from a gourd through a straw, and if the young girls resisted this treatment they were force-fed like the paté de foie gras ducks of Strasbourg:  a man stood over them with a whip.

A few paragraphs later, we are in another of the Ugandan kingdoms, this one Buganda.  The ruler is “a young king” named Mutesa.  With perfectly straight face, Morehead describes the king “sitting upon a platform of grass covered with a red blanket, and surrounded by his nobles, his pages, and his wives, who numbered a couple of hundred or so.” (Just now it occurs to self that the “couple of hundred” does not refer exclusively to the number of the king’s wives, but anyhoo).  Here is how Moorehead describes the king:  “At this time (1860) he was a slim, well-built young man in his early twenties with beautiful teeth and liquid, but rather striking eyes . . .  At his feet were his symbols of royalty, a spear, a shield and a white dog.”

Tall tales, some readers scoff.  Racist, say others.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

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