In an era of glass towers and brick and mortar structures devoid of meaningful architectural expression, buildings over 100 years old are rare gems in sub-Saharan cities.
It is especially because of this rarity that in April 2015, the Cross-Cultural Foundation of Uganda (CCFU) initiated a project to preserve historical buildings in the country and produced a Historical Buildings Map of Kampala. CCFU is a local not-for-profit non-governmental organisation committed to preserving various aspects of Uganda’s tangible and intangible heritage.
This year CCFU identified Mengo Hospital’s Catherine and Luke Wards and the Ham Mukasa Ancestral Home — both in the Kampala suburb of Mengo — for special recognition as buildings of historic significance.
The administration of Mengo Hospital and the Mukasa family were feted for their preservation efforts in celebrations at the respective properties on May 18. The celebrations were also used to raise the visibility of the two historical properties. The Irish ambassador to Uganda, Donal Cronin, was the guest of honour as a show of recognition of CCFU’s preservation efforts.
Mengo Hospital’s Catherine and Luke Wards were the first modern medical wards in Uganda built in 1904 under the direction of Sir Albert Cook, who introduced modern medical practice in Uganda and East Africa.
“The building housing the Catherine and Luke Wards at Mengo Hospital is one of a few historical structures of its age in Uganda. It has not only been preserved but is still in use. That is the importance of preservation as against creating a museum,” noted John De Connick, a technical advisor at CCFU.
The hospital — located on Namirembe Hill in Lubaga division about two kilometres northwest of Kampala city centre — initially had only 12 wooden beds and straw mattresses. Dr Cook named it Mengo after the traditional kings’ royal enclosure nearby.
Based on the Nightingale style of architecture, the building has metre-thick walls, with gauge 24 iron sheets imported from Britain that required special nails. The roof has never been replaced. Its interior has been slightly modified to cater for the two wards, the orthopaedics theatre and a few offices.
The ward has 60 beds — 30 apiece for women and men. Between the female and male wings was the original operating theatre. Above the theatre was Dr Cook’s office and library where his chair and that of his wife are still preserved, among other antiques. This was at one time the only modern building in the Uganda British Protectorate.
Later honoured with an Order of the British Empire and a knighthood, Dr Cook and his wife Lady Katherine Cook lived in Uganda until their deaths in 1951 and 1938 respectively.
The Ham Mukasa ancestral home is believed to have been completed in 1902. Ham Mukasa (1868-1956) was a leading politician, intellectual and ethnographer of Buganda. He was also secretary to one of the longest serving prime ministers of the Buganda kingdom and Saza Chief (Sekiboobbo) of Kyaggwe.
The home is among few the houses built over 100 years ago and still standing in their original state. Owned by the direct descendants of Ham Mukasa, it is a priceless piece of heritage in the middle of a fast-growing city.
The building, with metre thick walls of brick and clay mortar, and thick-corrugated iron sheets, is still in pristine condition. The original furniture and utensils give an insight into how privileged Baganda lived at the turn of the 20th century.
The living room has family possessions from over a century ago: Books, manuscripts, photographs and other personal effects, all carefully preserved. The library still holds Ham Mukasa’s books.
“The government of Uganda contributes very little to the preservation of historical buildings in the country and generally we are poor at documenting our history and historical buildings,” said Emily Drani, the executive director of CCFU.
The Ham Mukasa house is open to the public on appointment, mainly in the morning hours.