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Darkness at Biharwe, Nkore and the mystery of COVID-19

Darkness at Biharwe, Nkore  and the mystery of COVID-19

 I had planned to be in Uganda this week, to celebrate and learn more about an event that had a major impact on the history of the kingdoms of Bunyoro-Kitara and Nkore 500 years ago. 


The story is told that in the very early years of the sixteenth century, Omukama Olimi I Rukidi Rwitamahanga Omwitabyaro wa Kalimbi of Bunyoro-Kitara declared war against his neighbours. True to his name, Olimi “The Scourge of Nations” led his forces against Buganda in an effort to reclaim Bwiru (Buddu) and Bulemezi and restore Buganda itself to Bunyoro-Kitara. Olimi defeated the Baganda, killing the great Kabaka Nakibinge Kagali during the battle of Mulago. 


The exact date of Nakibinge’s death is a bit fuzzy, with some Buganda historians reporting that he died in 1554. Banyoro historians have him killed before the spectacular event of 1520. I prefer the Bunyoro version, only because it fits in perfectly with the oral history of Nkore. And whether Nakibinge even ever existed is a very lively debate by academic historians that I will not allow to ruin this beautiful story. 


With the defeat of Nakibinge, the king of Bunyoro-Kitara prepared to annex Buganda to his empire. However, according to the late Bunyoro historian John William Nyakatura, Olimi’s ministers successfully advised the king to leave Buganda alone. First, it would be dangerous for one throne “to swallow another,” especially one whose founder was a relative of the king of Bunyoro. Second, the people might rise up against Olimi or a disastrous curse might befall him. 


The king listened and returned to his capital. Not for long though, for he soon invaded Nkore, routed the forces of Omugabe Ntare I Nyabugaro Bwera, captured the royal capital at Kakukuuru and set up shop. He then invited himself to Umwami Ruganzu II Ndori’s kingdom of Rwanda, robbed him of cattle, women, children and other valuables, before repairing to Biharwe, Nkore.


Biharwe is located 12 kilometers east of Muti, this being the original name of the settlement that was later misnamed Mbarara. (The correct name is Mburara.) The traveller along the Masaka-Mburara highway appreciates a hill on the south side at Biharwe, on which stands a monument that commemorates the event that finally dislodged the Banyoro from Nkore. 


One imagines Biharwe 500 years ago, perhaps a beehive of activity, with the Banyoro warriors and their human captives settling down to enjoy the conquered land, and the king contemplating a little excursion south, to add Karagwe to his list of conquests.


Intoxicated with power, the “Scourge of Nations” overlooks the Banyankore’s capacity for a counterattack. When they strike, they do so, not just with spears and arrows but with space warfare that induces dramatic shock and awe.


“As soon as the push back against the Banyoro began,” Nkore historians Alozio G. Kataate and Lazaaro Kamugungunu wrote in 1955, “the Sun fell from the sky, threw itself into Lake Mutukura and caused total darkness to engulf the whole world.”


The spectacle was so terrifying that Omukama Olimi I Rwitamahanga, together with his men, fled from the apocalypse, leaving behind all the loot, including women and cattle. One imagines the King of Bunyoro and his men in full flight, the regal gait giving way to a most unroyal sprint, convinced that Nkore or Rwanda had mobilized their best magicians to turn off the heavenly lights. Or was this Kabaka Nakibinge’s revenge? 


To restore celestial order and terrestrial peace, Omugabe Ntare Nyabugaro presented sacrifices of a cow and a sheep to God. Then “the Sun lifted itself and returned to its position in the sky,” Kataate and Kamugungunu recorded with evident confidence.


And so Nkore survived, as did Olimi, a little more humbled perhaps. He is said to have reigned for a long time after the great battle of Biharwe, dying of natural causes followed by royal burial in Ssingo, which was still part of Bunyoro.


Four hundred years passed before the terrifying darkness at Biharwe was explained to our people. It turns out that the great magicians of Nkore, or perhaps Rwanda, had not pulled a heavenly body from the sky, but had simply induced a total eclipse of the Sun. Space scientists at the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have determined that it occurred in the afternoon of Tuesday April 17, 1520. 


It started at 3:52 p.m. local time, peaked at 5:01 p.m. and ended at 6:02 p.m., by which time King Olimi and his fighters were safely out of harm’s way.  The maximum eclipse lasted 5 minutes and 15 seconds. The scientists have determined the exact path of that day’s darkness, which included the tip of Argentina, the mid-Atlantic, Equatorial Africa and the Indian Ocean. Such calculations are feats of science that the powerful rulers of the Roman Catholic Church at the time of the eclipse would have considered pure heresy, punishable by death or long imprisonment.


The celestial event saved Nkore and probably consolidated the Bahinda dynasty’s hold on the throne. Superstition, myth, legend, speculation and other manifestations of “anti-science” were  powerful forces in the power politics of that time. They remain formidable forces today. Witness the traffic of speculation, conspiracy theories, untested therapies and claims about the supposedly mysterious Coronavirus pandemic. 


This new virus, like the eclipse, is neither surprising nor unexplainable by science. It is not part of some grand plan to control population growth. It is a zoonotic phenomenon, just like several predecessors, where disease-causing agents cross from animals to humans, often helped by humanity’s propensity for meddling with nature. It was predicted by scientists years ago and was expected by the literate world. It should not have surprised anyone who follows the news and the course of the human story. 


Happily, scientists are working hard to find an effective response to this latest assault. Though effective treatment may be hard to produce, we are certain that a vaccine will come. Until then, we must continue to fight back the best way we can, applying real science to find effective and verifiable solutions. We must continue to use our education to predict, explain and resolve what appear to be complex phenomena.


April 17 will find me in Toronto, but with my thoughts in Biharwe, imagining this lost opportunity to celebrate the great feat by the magicians of Nkore and enjoy some friendly banter with my Banyoro in-laws and descendants of The Scourge of Nations. 


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