Madam, l must tell you that l am fluent in three language,” the gentleman says in a rich voice that belies his 83 years.
“These are Gaelic, Karimojong and English with a smattering of Hebrew.” He is also an accomplished botanist with more than one plant species named after him, like the Caralluma wilsonii and the Aloe wilsonii at his private museum he calls “Treasures of Africa” in Kitale.
This is the story of John Wilson, a Scotsman, who arrived in Uganda in 1949. He was employed by the colonial service as an agricultural officer and was immediately dispatched to Karimojong in the east, which shares a common border with Kenya’s Mount Elgon and Pokot area.
There he met the Karimojong for the first time, a people totally oblivious of the outside world, yet sophisticated in their own.
An intrigued Wilson began a long study of the people and their culture and in the process discovered — through the similarities of language and pottery — that their civilisation was akin to many ancient civilisations older than ancient Egypt.
The Karimojong are Nilotic and closely related to the Turkana and speak the same language.
“The Karimojong are food producers but not cash crop growers. Unlike other Ugandans, they could not grow cash crops like cotton because their land was semi-arid bushland covering an enormous area of several thousand square miles.
"They therefore were not able to acquire money. And because of this, the Karimojong maintained their ancient cultural legacy, maintaining their traditional foods and traditional mode of production.”
So attached had Wilson become to the Karimojong that upon his retirement from service in 1968, he was invited to stay on by the people, and was given a piece of land to build a house for himself, from where, he says, “l started my second career.”
“No other society in Africa had preserved their cultural legacy as the Karimojong. Today, you will find there is no comprehensive collection of Africa’s cultural legacy because it was not preserved during colonial times.
Soon after Independence, most of it disappeared and traditions were abandoned.
“I quickly realised that this was an unique opportunity for me to document the Karimojong before their culture also disappeared.”
Like Joy Adamson, whose rich repository of African tribes predating Independence is a legacy of Kenya’s peoples, Wilson also sketched the Karimojong in their traditional finery.
“All the Karimojong knew me. When l started working in Karimojong as an agricultural officer, l had to study the soil structure and vegetation,” says Wilson. It meant travelling vast distances.
"At this time, Wilson also started to collect plant species that had never been recorded. From 1955 to 1962, Wilson worked as a tropical ecologist and in 1964, he co-authored a book vegetation of Uganda which was printed in England.
“However, after I retired and advertised what I was doing, the Karimojong brought to me large quantities of their objects. Sometimes l had qualms about what I was doing, spending my money on buying all these things,” Wilson says of his collection, on neat display in his one-roomed private museum.
His office in the next room complete with an ancient typewriter that he still uses.But all his doubts were cast aside when he began comparing pottery and linguistics.
“Look at this pot. It has handles. No other society in sub-Saharan Africa made pottery like this save for the ancient Egyptians. When l realised this, l had no further doubt whatsoever that what l was doing was very important.
“In my research, I found that these handles are absolutely unique in modern Africa. They compared with the oldest pottery known in the world going back as far as two million years."
When his discovery of pottery was published in a scientific journal by the Royal Anthropological Society of Great Britain called MAN, he received an avalanche of correspondence from scientists, researchers and anthropologists, one writing, “Have you not realised that this African society has maintained a custom of manufacturing the world’s oldest pottery?”
It was a stunning discovery. “Here were the Karimojong adding asbestos or soapstone dating to prehistoric times in ancient Asia, Europe and America.”
Echoes of the past
“This said a great deal,” continues Wilson. “It was a worldwide connection in manufacturing pottery. If this society had maintained a world echoing custom, it prompted me to look at the Karimojong language and compare it with languages spoken in ancient Egypt and other ancient civilisations.”
At this point Wilson’s eyes light up. “In ancient Egypt the god of agriculture or farming was called Amanu.
The Karimojong word for cultivated land (or farming) is Amana. I looked at my own language, Gaelic. The word for cultivated land is Manas. The Hebrew word for the same is Manaah.
Wilson went on to find a stunning beaded collar like worn by Egyptian nobles in the pharaohs’ days. It is displayed next to a similar shaped girdle worn by Karimojong women.
“The collar is shaped as a double-prowed boat and the Egyptian word for it is Aret. The girdle in Karimojong is Areth.
There are many more similarities — the word for a cow’s teat in Gaelic is deala and to milk a cow in Karimojong is aki-dal. Based on more similarities, Wilson believes that there was a common language spoken at some distant past.
"Currently, Wilson is writing about the Karimojong legacy in a book titled The African Footprint on Atlantis — in reference to the lost civilisation.
The great scholar and philosopher Plato describes Atlantis as a naval power that conquered many parts of Africa and Western Europe about 9,600 BC. But after failing to invade Athens, Atlantis sank into the ocean “in a single day and night of misfortune.”
Today, Atlantis is commonly used for any advanced prehistoric lost civilisation in science fiction writing.
At 83 years of age, many would have been long retired but not Wilson. He’s still an active gardener and after spending more than an hour strolling through his collection of all things Karimojong, we step into his garden of succulent plants — some rare and endemic like the Aloe elgonica that he discovered on Mount Elgon to more common ones.
“l became well known for my collection of Karimojong plants. I was sent to the East African Agricultural and Forestry Research Organisation in Maguga (Kenya) to do a six-month course in tropical ecology — we were only eight selected for this special course.
“Peter Bally [botanist at the Coryndon Museum – the current National Museums of Kenya — and more famous as Joy Adamson’s husband number two] and Dr Peter Greenway, also a well-respected botanist in charge of the East African Herbarium encouraged me to collect more species.
"Even the distinguished Kew Gardens in the United Kingdom came to me. Between 1955 and 1962, I discovered no fewer than 30 species of plants. I have four species of plants named after me.”
With his vast knowledge of Karimojong plants and interaction with theIR herbalists, Wilson has the highest respect for African herbal medicine and acknowledges a skilled profession that unfortunately is not properly regulated, leaving rooms for quacks.
Besides the plant collection, Wilson also has a collection of stones. “In 1968, I was the first to find a ruby of gemstone quality in Uganda and in 1969 I found a diamond and a diamond bearing rock, the kimberlite.”
In 1977, halfway through Idi Amin’s bloody reign, Wilson was tipped that “they” were coming for him “to wrongly accuse me of being a British spy.”
He fled the same night, escaping through the back route from Moroto mountain into Kenya via the virtually unheard villages of Lokitonyala and Katcheliba and finally to Kitale, where he now resides with his wife and teenage son.
He recently visited Uganda for an audience with government officials, which he sadly says was met with indifference. The indifference is the same in Kenya where a huge building has been erected on an access road, blocking his direct link to the main road.
Wilson’s wish is for the government of Kenya to set up a museum in Moroto with his collection for future generations and that scientific interest be taken in this invaluable and well-recorded collection of the Karimojong.
If not, it may end up like many African collections, in a European or American museum.
To visit the museum email John Wilson [email protected] or call 0325-30867