Secretarial staff continue the cataloging process
The Ugandan Society Article and images by: Jerry Burley
The Uganda Society – a little-known resource that’s right on your doorstep
Of course, some readers of this piece will have heard of the Uganda Society (UgS) but I’ll have a small, hypothetical wager here that most of you have not or know where it is located, for that matter, even if you have heard of it. As if protecting its modesty from prying eyes, the Uganda Society is found hiding, shyly, behind an anonymous-looking door that is shared with a small canteen and craft shop, just to the left of the main entrance to the Uganda Museum as you look at it from the outside, off Kiira Road in Kamwokya, Kampala.
Although technically separate from the museum, there are sufficient areas of commonality that the obvious place to house it finally, following its relocation from Entebbe some 80 years ago (via a couple of other intermediate “homes” in the meantime), was the museum complex. A small wooden plaque outside its single, large room is all that gives its location away, so you do actually have to look for it, rather than stumble across it serendipitously. It is open weekdays, 9am to 5pm and can be opened at other times by pre-arrangement with Secretariat staff.
So, what is the Uganda Society all about then?
Its broad objectives are to promote literary, cultural and scientific knowledge via lectures, conferences and seminars, and to preserve cultural heritage and natural diversity. Clearly, it has a specific focus on Uganda, though not necessarily exclusively so. The comprehensive library contained at the Secretariat is an obvious extension of these objectives, preserving records of said lectures and conferences, as well as acting as a depository for collected and donated books, maps, photos and periodicals, largely relating to the history of Uganda, both distant and more recent. The periodical magazine of the society, the Uganda Journal, records much of the history of the society, its members and its activities. Although currently dormant, the Journal was a globally-revered, academically-accurate document that was subsequently copied by many other countries around the world, and a full set of the Journal can be found at the UgS. It was published several times a year for several decades and these amazing archives contain incredible amounts of historical information about Uganda over the last century and a half. Interestingly, whilst the colonial era at times precluded indigenous Ugandans from occupying some senior posts, the UgS had several highly intellectual, indigenous Ugandan Chairmen running the society at different times, well before independence. These men, and their European counterparts, can be seen staring back at you from the many framed, official photos hung around the society’s walls detailing their tenures, an evocative reminder of a different Uganda at a very different time.
I have lived in Uganda for quite a while now and I am ashamed to admit that just a few weeks back saw my first actual visit to the Uganda Society, although I have visited the museum many times. Having been advised as to its existence by a colleague, I was looking for a historical map and some additional information regarding an interesting project I hope to initiate fairly soon now. Having looked all around the world for one particular map, of specific date that has unique names for a landmark I was looking for, that subsequently “fell off the mapping radar” during geographical updates of its series, guess what? I found it. Plus some literature to back it up too, so a double reward for my time spent looking.
I cannot tell you exactly what the Uganda Society has in the way of archive, as there was far too much to see for my first visit and the catalogue is still incomplete. The knowledgeable secretariat staff are working hard to catalogue everything and they then intend to digitize the library contents but are operating with a solitary laptop and no current means of scanning or effecting other digitization. A website with downloadable resource is in the plans but funds are, as ever, hugely constrained. It is a weird conundrum that many UK and US universities have far more digitized information about Uganda available “free to air” than Uganda does, with it seems increasing numbers of wealthy individuals and companies paying for making information available free through the digital “super-highway”. Google have put massive resources into bringing, in particular, the historical written word to all through the internet. It would be a magnanimous gesture if a Ugandan entity helped the UgS digitize their not-inconsiderable archives, to the benefit of all, would it not?
But why bother – to some people it is a load of old, time-barred history, academic hot air that is probably now superseded by modern interventions and stories of how great Uganda used to be, largely penned by long-dead, sunburned colonials who had a furtive eye on the gin bottle. Some may take that view and it is true that many people, in Uganda and elsewhere, do not want to hear about past successes, how life used to be, or the reasons why the world we live in today is how it is. However, although this part of Africa has history going back thousands of years, it is really only over the last two hundred or so years that anything to do with Uganda (in particular) was actually written down and recorded. Much of how non-coastal East Africa is today was influenced by actions and decisions made nearly two centuries back and, rightly or wrongly, that history cannot be changed or erased but it is truly fascinating and revealing to unravel. Much of it can be found in the books, publications and maps contained in the Uganda Society
No two people will have the same reason for visiting the Uganda Society. There will be something there for everyone though, I assure you. A load of “new” books has just been – unceremoniously – deposited on the floor there recently; it is no-one’s fault, there is just not enough shelf space. The maps need some care and attention to get them back into a safe-storage state and, above all, the digitization and cataloguing needs to be done and everything put up “on the cloud” for both preservation and public access reasons.
If you want to help the Society in person or to contribute in any other way, your input will be very well received.
Above all, find an hour to go in and have a look for yourself and then you can make up your own mind, not forgetting that there is the national museum thrown in for free, right there on site, too! Happy historical hunting.