The long-dead European missionaries who baptised Ugandan natives with names like Joachim and demonised African spiritual beliefs must be smiling in their graves. Last week, a court in Kampala put a broad grin on the defunct missionaries’ faces wherever they were buried over a century ago.
The learned judge in Mpigi court ruled that an ancient tree with a girl’s name ‘Nabukalu’ standing in the way of development — a place where a road being built with borrowed money is to pass - be cut and the natives of the Pangolin clan who were resisting its removal be compensated Ush4.5 million — equivalent to $1 million in the currency of the missionaries’ continent.
The “gluttonous” (in the court’s description) descendants of the conquered natives had wanted Ush500 million in compensation so as to relocate the holy site where the Pangolin clan are believed to reside. But had in their financial claim to the Uganda National Roads Authority, they budgeted for modern houses, if African spirits live in concrete and glass structures, hence the gluttonous label.
And so in the dark night of Thursday March 11, a few hours after the court ruling, the China Civil Engineering Construction Company managers deployed a bulldozer which felled Nabukalu tree with relative ease. They did not even give the clan priests time to remove the spiritual paraphernalia of godliness at the base of the tree, burying it under tons of marram. In post Ukraine days, lawyers and engineers apparently only respect gods of the blonde-haired and blue-eyed.
All the five parties here — the dead missionaries, the “gluttonous” natives, the learned officers of court, the developmental leaders who borrow to build roads and the foreign lenders who lend to finance their own companies to build the roads where Ugandan engineers are usually only allowed to bid to do ‘earth works’ (digging trenches under supervision of mid-level foreign technicians) — all forgot one thing; to read the Bible that guided those who destroyed African spirituality.
The Bible castigates the tendency to have eyes but not seeing. Many times, the warning signs against cutting trees without replacing them are shoved in our eyes but we don’t see them.
Ugandan scholars must have studied why forests and wetlands were designated as homes of spirits, but there is no evidence that the eyes of Ugandan managers and leaders have seen the scholars’ theses. So the latest reminder — Nabukalu tree — has also been dismissed with contempt without us seeing the message it was giving us, despite our having eyes.
As the judgement on the tree’s fate drew near, Ugandans took to digital graphic art and presented beautiful options on social media — where else — circulating a beautiful option showing a green island preserved for the tree as the road nicely split and rejoined around it.
But courts follow hard evidence adduced before them, not anonymous suggestions on social media however creative. Yet in countries where the missionaries came from, the new movement is to plant trees on top of buildings, and on terraces of floors on tall buildings thus creating vertical forests. But who said roads authorities want to copy what is done in other countries?
Primary school science teaches all Ugandans that plants/trees take in carbon dioxide and give out oxygen. These days when climate change concern is high among informed Ugandans (who include our engineers and leaders), trees are now better known as carbon sinks for absorbing gaseous carbon emissions of ‘dirty’ industries that burn coal and diesel and motor vehicle engines.
That is why Amazon and Congo forests are seen as the earth’s pair of lungs, with many smaller lungs in urgent need of being replenished through replanting.
The least responsible Ugandans can do is to avoid cutting of trees and when they must, they should very visibly and loudly plant other trees to show the people the way.
Instead of felling the now posthumously famous Nabukalu tree, the roads authority people should have created a diversion, preferably and island and left the tree even more visible to inspire generations to preserve and plant trees.
The leaders, engineers and judges don’t have to believe in Nabukalu's spirit narrative, but they should believe in the need to protect and plant trees.
In Japan (it’s just a coincidence that the name Nabukalu sounds Japanese) which makes most cars for the world, they are planting trees wherever they can so their people can walk under them instead of driving.
If one of these days Uganda borrows millions of dollars for tree planting, please don’t decorate me a prophet of doom!
Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:[email protected]