Muireann taking photos in Uganda


Mac Cool's Uganda Letter

Photographs and Stories by Muireann Mac Cool


B l o g


13 Dec 2006

How does a place end up being called Pancake? I learn some interesting place names and the stories behind them. For others I am left baffled hoping that some day I will find out.

In my geography classes back in Ireland our teacher coached us through some techniques to help us answer the ominous map interpretation question on the leaving certificate paper. One of these techniques involved knowing what the old Irish place names meant which would give you a big clue as to what the original purpose of the town was. It would give you at least a paragraph to write which for the exam was a bonus. You see Irish place names, as our teacher explained, had a lot of prefixes or suffixes that meant something in Irish (Gaelic). These are the little Atha's and Cill's for example that you see in place names like Baile Atha Cliath and Kilkenny. Usefully these little words stood for bridge, fort, abbey, church and so on and you could recognise them easily in their original or Anglicised form. Usually if a place was named after a monastic or religious settlement you would see a church ruin on the map too but I guess that wasn't the point. The examiners wanted us to write and write we did.

The only thing that struck me was that this naming that stemmed from Irish only occurred in the naming of our ancient settlements and definitely did not apply to the newer housing estates that were springing up over the last few decades. I wonder how property developers come up with the names these days in a age driven and dominated by brands where the name might not mean anything but sound good.

In Uganda relatively new modern settlements have sprung up over the last hundred years. Some people claim that Kampala wasn't even there 150 years ago and that it was just wetlands (I don't believe it and I must do more reading on it). This is usually the argument to say that no one can claim that Kampala is their village. All Ugandans have a village or an ancestral village, the root which defines them. The village is ones origin and lots of people won't accept that anyone originally came from Kampala. This makes it increasingly difficult for second, third and forth generation children born in Kampala but I'm digressing. The suburbs and modern towns have some interesting names.

Jinja, a town east of Kampala, known to most tourists as the place to see the source of the River Nile, supposedly means “stones”. I didn't really notice when I was last there but it's a rocky, stony place hence the name. Nsambya where I live is one of Kampala's many hill settlements and I learned the other day that Nsambya is named after a tree, Obusambya. Unfortunately no one I ask seemed to know which tree this is but I hope to ask an agricultural expert soon just to satisfy my curiosity. Before our 100 year old hospital was built there must have been a lot of trees or perhaps just one remarkable tree that helped travellers identify the place. As a result of being named after a tree there are other Nsambya's in Uganda. There is a small place in the countryside (“deep in the village”) around Masaka called Nsambya too.

My favourite place name is Kabalagala which directly translates into “pancake”. Nowadays Kabalagala is a cluster of bars and takeaways. In the old days (no idea when) in the place now known as Kabalagala a man used to make and sell local pancakes. Eliminate the image of a sweet French crepe from your mine and think of an English small round pancake the size of a coaster. Instead of flour, eggs and milk think local bananas, cassava flour and the occasional red chilli pepper. These babies are deep fat fried and are a popular snack eaten at tea break throughout the country. Mostly these days they are made without the red chilli pepper (except by the haji out of his white van outside the old taxi park blaring one maca two maca three macarana, hey macarana). Anyway the old man fried the best pancakes in the country using the red chilli's. After he died the place became known as pancake as in to say to people “go to the place where your man made great Kabalagala (pancakes)”. I believe the story, why would I not, it makes sense.

Another place name I like, that is also found inside Kampala, is Kisementi. When you've been here awhile you would look at that word or even sound out the word “cement” trapped inside it. Sementi is the lugandafied version of the word cement. Kisementi is named after a large concrete foundation that was not built upon. This grey solid mass would have been an unique talking point and way of describing a place. Again I imagine someone giving directions “I'll meet you at that big block of cement” The prefix “ki” as far as I gather means “it”and “the”. So go past THE cement: Kisementi!

During the war or the hard times... I apologise that I can't be more specific but it can be difficult to get people to chart the exact time for me because they rarely talk about the war, the Tanzanian counter invasion and the march of troops on Kampala. At any moment they could realise that they shouldn't be speaking about it and I'll lose any little morsel of that time. So...during the hard times inflation was at a terrible all time high, people couldn't find soap in the shops or indeed anything for that matter and there were no matatus or boda bodas to transport people. People walked to Kisementi to drink. Don't ask whether this was local brew or bottles of beer because I've no idea but they came to drink beer. Music came from somewhere and large groups sat on the concrete foundation drinking and enjoying themselves. I imagine the festivals of Europe in the summer and beer gardens with loud chatter in the air. The sun still shines and during hard times and wars Uganda is still in the basin of equator sunshine. So much as I want to imagine bad weather and darkness with this repression I can't (isn't it amazing what film can impress on ones mind?)

Kisementi is still a place to find good drinks and nice places to eat and I always wonder if the car park of broken concrete in front of these establishments is the “cement” that people once referred too. No doubt the car park will be covered over by the new development of the area (very welcome) and in the future no one will remember why it was called “The cement”.

As a tourist or stranger to this land there are many places that have no name to me. No proper map to guide me. Luckily in Kampala, larger settlements and along the highways there are small advertisements for beer and mobile phones that have put the name of the place above their signs. Elsewhere in the country I'm not so informed. If I have signal on my mobile I look at the screen which tells me the place where I'm at or it could be the place where the nearest mobile mast is located. Mostly the display shows me new unpronounceable names I don't recognise. Recently, however, when visiting a friends farm near Lake Wamala my phone said I was in a place called “Ndi Bulungi” which directly translates as “I am good”. Unfortunately there was no elder nearby to ask where this place had gotten it's name from, just young girls passing with firewood on their heads. With a fantastic view of the lake and the fertile banana plantations around me I could easily see why someone would call this place “I am good”. We took photos and I stored the name away in my minds collection.

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