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Tribute: Joshua Muvumba - A Literary Giant Falls Silent

posted onJanuary 29, 2023

By Dennis Katungi

The news filtered through on Thursday 26th January 2023 that Joshua Muvumba, one of the few distinct and well-grounded curators of Ankole’s history had passed on.

Muvumba, the 5th of 10 children was born on February 9th 1944 in Kyagaju, Sheema, Bushenyi District. His father, Lazaro Kamugungunu was Engaanzi (Prime Minister) of Ankore Kingdom.

Despite his privileged background, he curved out his own path in life. From a Primary School in Kabwohe, he went to Mbarara Junior School and later to Ntare School. He had a one year stint on the exchange programme in the US when he was in senior two and returned to continue with studies at Ntare.

In the early seventies, as General Manager of Associated Paper Industries in Jinja, Joshua Muvumba, employed my cousin (Moses Kashamure) as a Purchasing Officer in the same Organisation. He liked my cousin a lot because of his high sense of humour and ability to turn around assignments in record time. They nicknamed this cousin of mine (Kyoma-Kyakare), meaning ‘the hardened ancient metal’. This was the group of Muvumba/Bukohore/Rukirituka who were young high powered technocrats in the Jinja Industrial circle. James Bukohore was General Manager of Pamba Textiles and James Rukirituka was Personnel Manager in the same company. 

They were soon to be joined by Geoffrey Bikwatsizehi as Manager of Uganda Commercial Bank, Jinja branch as well as Commissioner of Police Ephraim Rwakanengyere to complete the elite circle. Hardly had they bonded than the erstwhile academic turned bureaucrat (Muvumba) - run away from Idi Amin.   

In the mid-eighties when I went to study in Jinja, I found a rich trail of their days in the Jinja Industrial hub.  Muvumba remained in exile in the United States until he returned in 1986 when he was appointed by President Museveni to run Karamoja Development Agency. 

In retirement, he spent most of his time at his father’s ancestral farm - Kyagaaju, Sheema, from where he penned articles on history, politics anthropology, and traditional folklore.  He once said that multi-partyism could not work in Uganda because Uganda was pre-industrial. 

“The US would not have waited until the Industrial Revolution – to introduce multi parties, it is a fallacy” Muvumba averred.

The son of former Ankore Prime Minister, Lazaro Kamugungunu, Muvumba married the late Princess Victoria, daughter of the last King of Ankore, Sir Charles Gasyonga and they were blessed with three daughters. Muvumba was a living encyclopaedia of the history of the great lakes region. A well-travelled man who retired to a quiet life in Kyagaaju, Sheema District on a hill overlooking Kabwohe in Itendero.He gained Masters and PhD at Harvard University in the USA later on becoming a respected Historian specialising in political and Sub Saharan history with add ons in military strategy and international relations. 

He curated the history of Ankole and other interlucustrine kingdoms within the Great Lakes as well as teaching at Makerere University.  When interviewed by a New Vision Reporter in 2018, he said that his interest in history started at the age of eight years.  Growing up in the heyday of the Kingdom of Ankore, where his father was Engaanzi, he observed the goings on at the Royal Court from a young age and picked a keen interest in studying the history of the Kingdom and later on, the wider Great Lakes region. 

In his seminal work, he dismissed falsehoods such as the repeatedly told claim that Ankole kings used to spit in the mouths of their subjects. He explained the concept of “secrecy and utmost confidentiality” of running errands for the Kings of Ankole in an era where there was no written documents. 

The King would give his verbal message to be relayed by word of mouth. On that journey, the messenger would not speak or even greet any one. If he met anyone who wanted to engage in conversation, he would use the term “the king spat in my mouth” meaning that he/she was carrying an important message from His Majesty. This was later to be distorted by those against the Kingdom to mean that the King was abusive to his subjects - and spat in the mouth as a matter of routine – which was false. 

Joshua Muvumba curated the story of ‘Obwira-kabiri’ (Eclipse of the moon) which happened at the peak of the fights between the King of Bunyoro, Omukama Rwitamahanga Olimi 1, while fighting the king of Buganda, Ssekabaka Nakibinge and Nkore’s King Nyabugaro Ntare 1. This culminated in  battle where Olimi was the victor. 

King Olimi, having ransacked the two neighbouring kingdoms, raided all their cattle, wives and high value chattels known as (okunyaga). As his troops were retreating with the loot at the famous Biharwe Hill, a total eclipse occurred.

When King olimi witnessed ‘darkness at noon’ – he reckoned that the demons of the people he had attacked were following to destroy him and his men. He ordered his men to abandon the loot, and they cut and run for dear life.  The local Banyankore kept the spoils of the war including the cattle which they named: ‘Empenda ya Munoni’ (cattle from heaven).

Joshua Muvumba is said to have had almost prophetic abilities. Anthony Mugeere wrote that ‘Muvumba can tell you what is going to happen and it does, he commands a lot of oral tradition which makes him unique as a Harvard graduate”. 

Talking of the Museveni – Kategaya – Kagame trio, he once said: “I do not think Ntare School produced some of the greatest warriors in East and Central Africa by accident. They admired the former King’s character (Ntare) and wanted to emulate him. He was a military genius and a shrewd strategist.”

The classical music lover, piano maestro and avid Harvard School debater batted for Uganda’s basketball team that beat Kenya in 1963. He wound up in simple retirement, leading an average life, sometimes using public transport.

He remained upbeat and mentally switched on in all these years leading to his final demise this week. He will be laid to rest at Kamushoko, Kashari on Sunday January 29th 2023.

Rest in peace Professor Joshua Muvumba. You have left a marked trail, an indelible mark on Uganda’s Historical and anthropological archives. 

Dennis Katungi – Head of Communications & Media Relations at Uganda Media Centre.  @Dennis_Katungi

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