A Geologist in Uganda

Courtesy of OSPA

by Bob Macdonald
(Geologist, Uganda 1952-68)
A Geologist in Uganda
Turkana Plain
A significant early development in British Colonial Africa was the establishment of geological survey departments in each of the territories. The role of these organizations was seen mainly at that time as providing support and control of mineral exploration and the development of groundwater resources.

In the summer of 1952 I graduated as a geologist, and was then appointed to the Colonial Service with a note that I was assigned to Uganda. My first posting in Uganda was to Karamoja district lying on the northeast side of the country. So, equipped with my as yet untested degree in geology, I was to be the first to conduct systematic geological mapping of the Precambrian terrain in the northern region of Uganda. Three weeks after arriving in the country, I was on my way with Richard McConnell, the department's Assistant Director, to the small administrative centre of Moroto to start the project. Moroto township lies at the foot of a volcanic mountain of the same name, and was at that time staffed by about a dozen or more British and other officials and professionals, some with wives and young families. And it had a small swimming pool fed by the cool mountain waters.

After introductions with Sandy Field, the District Commissioner, I familiarized myself with the administrative and other facilities, and recruited a local Karamojong "headman" to accompany me on traverses and look after my porters. After making some traverses around the foot of the mountain to familiarize myself with the terrain I set up a campsite dominated by a huge shady fig tree some twenty miles from Moroto from where I conducted my geological traverses.

During the Karamoja project I would spend as much as eight or nine months in the year geologically surveying the terrain. For this I would set up itinerant camps in various places as the mapping proceeded. I recruited porters locally to carry loads and act as guides. At first we traversed where there was easy access from motorable roads. In places devoid of such roads, we travelled "missionary style", with loads carried on the porters' heads, or on the backs of donkeys. Periodic spells back from the field in the Entebbe office would be spent on laboratory work and writing reports.

The country I first mapped in Karamoja was of fairly low relief, and I soon discovered that one of the best places to find rock outcrops was in the meandering river valleys. One day we almost walked into a leopard as we rounded one of these stream meanders. Another day I was bitten by a scorpion which fell down inside my shirt, and I was languishing on my bed recovering when my Director turned up for a visit. I also soon learned about termites when they ate the leg off my pants which were touching the ground over a chair.

An outstanding early trip was when I accompanied cattle buyer Wreford Smith from a farm in the neighbouring Kenya highlands who would periodically visit Karamoja to purchase cattle from the local tribesmen. Most evenings there were excursions hunting guinea fowl and small antelope which would be added continuously to the curry pot for our evening meals. In return for his hospitality, and the opportunity to absorb his bush wisdom, I examined and reported on a number of small mining properties which he held in the district.

My daily accoutrement on these traverses included a geological hammer with which to break off samples, carrying bags, my lunch and drink, a notebook, a base map mounted on a board, and aerial photographs used to aid in pinpointing location. Geological observations made at rock outcrops were pencilled in on the base map, or in some cases on tracings laid over the aerial photos. In the evenings or on rainy days I would transfer the data to base topographic maps, which we were fortunate to have available at that time.

I soon developed a one-on-one relationship with the Karamojong men - typically friendly and curious about what we were doing, some perhaps grudgingly accepting of me, some if only peripherally engaging and who deferred to me up to a point. The Karamojong were pastoralists and some of the men were willing to work with us as porters and guides in the bush, as essentially it seemed, for the experience as much as for the meagre pay and a daily allocation of white cornmeal ("posho") and perhaps some tea. In communicating with the local people I soon began to grasp the lingua franca Swahili, and even the Karamojong language.

A Geologist in Uganda
Amudat Camp
A vital consideration in choosing a campsite was the availability of water, which we often found during the dry season in the riverbeds. In response to the need for access to clean water sources in the rural areas the department provided geological expertise in the choosing of drill sites for the construction of water wells. The water from the drillings is obtained from fissures in bedrock at relatively shallow depths. The wells were, and probably still are, fitted with hand pumps for use by the local population. The drilling programme was supported by a fleet of borehole maintenance units servicing the wells throughout the country.

After working in Karamoja I was transferred to West Nile district in northwest Uganda where I spent five years geologically mapping Precambrian rocks and younger sedimentary infill along the Albertine Rift Valley marking the western border of Uganda and up to the then Belgian Congo and Sudan borders. Together with my colleague John Hepworth who was mapping alongside me in the same district we brought to light some of the oldest Precambrian rocks then known to geological science. I was fortunate in being able to use data from this work towards the award of a Ph.D. degree at the University of London.

I was then moved to work on a mapping project along the beautiful coastline and islands of Lake Victoria in southeastern Uganda. This project was terminated abruptly when I was called a month before Uganda's independence to take care of the department's geological mapping and water drilling programmes as Principal Geologist. After being engaged in this for about six years I was appointed founding professor to a new Department of Geology at Makerere University in Kampala. Although no longer a colonial employee, my stipend was augmented in both positions with a British salary supplement.

map of British Empire
1963 Map of Uganda
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 113 (April, 2017)