I have just had an unexpected windfall. Knowing that I first arrived in Uganda over seventy years ago, David Le Breton has sent me this book for review. It will send a
shiver down the spine of anyone who knows and loves Uganda. What s more, as the
reviewer, I get to keep it, while the rest of you will have to pay at least 16.25 pounds for only
90 pages in soft cover. But you would be crazy not to buy this incredible record of times
past. Page after page of postcard pictures, mostly from the first decade of the 20th
century, recall a Uganda that was long gone even when my family first arrived.
I thought I knew about Uganda, but this lovingly produced book has taught me things
about my country that I never knew. Were you aware, for example, that in 1907, when
the Uganda currency was still the rupee and smaller amounts were paid in cowrie shells,
the rate was 1,000 shells to a rupee? How on earth did anyone count out a thousand
shells? And this book has not only exposed my ignorance about the past. Had you ever
heard of the "East Africa Study Circle"? It seems they are a flourishing, mainly philatelic
society, with a regular newsletter and a list of occasional publications, of which this is
one. Did you know that postcard collectors are called Dentologists? Maybe you did
know all this, in which case I am doubly ashamed.
I don't think I have ever met a Dentologist, but the loss is clearly mine. There is an
element of magnificent obsession about their craft. The pictures on the front of their
cards are umivalled, and the author whets our appetite with lists of other cards which he
has not chosen to reproduce. Instead about a third of the pages are occupied by
reproductions of the blank sides, sometimes with writing on them, but more often with
nothing but a printed "POST CARD" (or "Carte Postale" on the White Fathers' cards). It
seems that, to a true Dentologist, the layout of the empty side of a card is as interesting
as the front. Don't misunderstand me. I mock not. I am overcome with admiration.
If the Study Circle ever choose to reproduce the other pictures in their possession,
they will find me an eager buyer. But meanwhile, what pictures! And how many
questions remain unanswered. For example there is one photograph, sometime between
1911 and 1921, of "Four Kings in Uganda Protectorate", with the young Daudi Chwa of
Buganda, looking distinctly cowed by the massive Bakama of Bunyoro, Toro and
Ankole. But why, by that date, were the Swahili forms of "Unyoro", (for Bunyoro) and
"Uganda" (for Buganda) still in use? And why, around 1905, did it take thirteen porters
carrying massive headloads, to deliver the "Christmas mail to the CMS at Namirembe"?
I know that nowadays letters have largely been superseded by e-mails, but this is
ridiculous. And what kind of tree can it have been, even in the days when a Muvule was
really a Muvule, that could be hollowed out to carry fourteen people across the
Mpologoma swamp in the early 1920s?
There are some regrettable omissions. For example the author has deliberately left out
any pictures of the "Uganda Railway" on the ground that in those days it stopped at
Kisumu in Kenya and the rest of the journey had to be done by boat. But the history of
colonial Uganda is so tied up with those huge trains, with their woodbuming engines
spitting out bushfire-causing sparks, that the record is incomplete without them. And he
does anyway sometimes bend the rules. One card, magnificently addressed to "Colonel
Sir Edward Ward KCB, Under Secretary of State" with the throwaway remark "This
morning shot a big elephant" was actually written in Kordofan, Southern Sudan, albeit
posted in Kampala.
But no matter. Buy the book if you can, or if you are too impoverished, borrow it