When exploring the history of Kabale it should be noted that modern day nation states such as Uganda, Rwanda, DRC and Tanzania did not exist and areas were defined by their people and clans rather than the imposed and often arbitrary boundaries forced on the area by white Europeans during and after the 1884-1885 Conference of Berlin. Even today many of the people from this area see themselves as part of a wider east African community than citizens of post colonial states. Kabale itself means "a small stone" and was so named after a piece of local iron that was so heavy that people visited from far and wide to see and handle it. The town is located within an area inhabited mainly by the Bakiga (people of the highlands) of Rukiga (highlands), the Bahororo of Rujumbura and the Banyarwanda people of Bufumbria, home to the volcanic Muhavura Mountains and Bwindi National Forest.
Modern day Kabale was formerly part of Empire of Kitara that straddled the great lakes area of Africa until it was broken up and superseded by smaller kingdoms during the 16th century. By 1650 the Mpororo Kingdom had been established in the area encompassing present-day northern Rwanda and Western Uganda ~ mostly the present-day Kabale and Ntungamo Districts. However, within a hundred years, this kingdom had fractured and whilst parts were absorbed into the more northern Nkore kingdom, what was to become the Kabale area was then nominally ruled by the Batutsi of Rwanda although, in reality, the fiercely independent nature of the locals made them subject to no-one, and, as such, they operated largely autonomously and untroubled by the encroaching outside world. (Research from the 1930s concluded that the people were "united only in their disunity" whilst a contemporaneous Anglican missionary wrote in May 1921 "They have no King and everyone seems to do just as he pleases" whilst the British Western Province Annual Report of 1913-14 concluded "discipline and obedience among themselves are to them unknown quantities.")
By the time the Europeans arrived in the region in the late nineteenth century, the area was little more than a chiefdom ruled over by a Omukama as part of the former Mporora Kingdom. The British, Germans and Belgians all attempted to establish hegemony over the area but each was unable to establish a viable boundary not least because of the topography of the area ~ making it known as the Switzerland of East Africa given its mountainous terrain ~ rising from 3,000ft above sea level at Lake Edward to 13,500 feet above sea level in the far south-west. Indeed when the first British political officer toured the area in 1910 he reported that the country was "a mass of broken hills" making the workload for his porters "very arduous." In fact it took him five days to walk from one end of the highlands to the other. Eventually the British were to gain the upper hand over their colonial rivals, albeit it largely ignored by the locals although occasionally insurrections erupted when the colonials attempted to impose their unwanted administrative will over the independent local population.
Around the turn of the nineteenth century the British began to subsume the Kingdoms of Buganda, Nkore and others into a protectorate rather than colony, and, as such, the six chiefdoms that had emerged from the broken Mporora kingdom including the Rukiga were considered too small to deal with separately so an instruction went out that they were to subjugate themselves to the rulers of the Nkore Kingdom which later became subject to the Ankole Agreement of 1901. With that present day Kabale became a town within the new country of Uganda, albeit a country that was little more than an area defined by not being one of its neighbours. Despite this, the British and other Europeans had very little actual physical presence in the area. Indeed by 1931, a full thirty years after the Ankole Agreement was signed and implemented, in the Kabale area there were just thirty-three resident white Europeans, eighty-six Indians and six Arabs compared with a local indigenous population of just under a quarter of a million people.
Through-out this period there was ongoing resistance to colonial rule, even if that rule was largely administered by local chiefs and kings rather than directly such as in neighbouring Kenya. At the heart of this movement known as the Nyabingi Resistance (1910 ~ 1930), two figures stand out; Ntokibiri, a former Belgian colonial army deserter who left with other Africans with many weapons, and Ndungutse, a prince of Rwanda’s Banyiginya dynasty who had fled to the area after plotting a coup attempt in Rwanda that proved unsuccessful. Ntokibiri carried out guerrilla attacks against the Belgians and British; his tactics described by local British military leader Maj. Lawrence as “a master of the situation, there were no roads, very hilly country, look out huts and signal fires on every hill and every native as far as lay in his power apparently under [Ntokibiri]’s control-none of whom we could touch”. However Ntokibiri was shot dead on 21st June 1919 and two of his men executed by public hanging in Kabale six months later to act as a warning to other insurgents. The fate of the other resistance leader, Ndungutse, remains unclear, though he was certainly dead by 1930 when the last of the resistance against colonial rule had largely dissipated.
As an aside, the Nyabingi Resistance was named after the Nyabingi cult which is first recorded in 1891 named after the mythical Queen Nyavingi who was so mysterious she had apparently never been seen by anyone, even her own subjects only communicating through a screen of "bark cloth." Her legend was so beguiling and of use to those who sought to control their fellow men that supernatural powers were attributed to her, although these powers didn't prevent her from being captured by the British in 1913. However her legend continued (and indeed continues) that her spirit periodically possesses the bodies of other woman from the area. Also called Queen Muhmusa or Tahtahme, it is also said that she later inspired the Nyabinghi underpinnings of Rastafarianism having abandoned Uganda for good preferring Jamaica!
This legend is important in terms of the history of the area as a British officer in Kigezi had concluded in a letter to the Chief Secretary for Uganda on 6th September 1911 that the Nyabingi cult was "entirely subversive to all authority, whether local or European". As such, meaningful attempts to impose colonial rule proved fruitless. To provide some semblance of authority the British decided to appoint agents from the Buganda Kingdom to govern the area on their behalf and named their first Kiga chief in Kigezi in 1922. To say this was an inept appointment is perhaps an understatement given that the new chief's only qualification was that he wasn't British but a black local with no experience of running anything. In fact, his highest position to date had been as an office boy in the District Commissioner's headquarters. By the 1930 missionaries were abundant in the area having first been visited by the Catholic missionary, Yowana Kitagana in 1911, spreading Christianity. However there were ongoing superstitions that some of those who were converted to Christianity were later possessed by the spirit of Nyabingi, fermenting a low level but none-the-less very real simmering of discontent with the British. In 1932 Kabale became a township with an administration invested in a township authority overseen by the Protectorate Governor.
In 1958 the Town Authority became a town board and then a town council with ten councillors in 1962, the year of Ugandan independence. Within two years, the "Rutakirwa Engabo ya Kigezi" (the shield of Kigezi ~ left) was elected as the constitutional head of the District however this position was later vacated under President Obote's constitutional changes of 1966 due to Article 118(1) of the new law, which stated: “The institution of King or Ruler of a Kingdom or Constitutional Head of a District, by whatever name called, existing immediately before the commencement of this Constitution under the law then in force, is hereby abolished.” In 1985 Kabale was granted the status of a municipal council and later district in addition to its town status forming one District of the Kigezi sub-region of Western Uganda a which also comprises Kanungu, Kisoro and Rukungiri Districts. Today the town has a population of some 46,000 people and is seen as a gateway to tourism in the area as well as a staging post to Rwanda, DRC and beyond.
The spectacular Kisiizi waterfall in western Uganda near Kabale hides a terrible secret from the past.
Step back in time to see how the Batwa lived in the Bwindi, one of the planet's most beautiful jungles.
Punishment Island on Lake Bunyonyi is where unmarried pregnant girls were abandoned to their fate.
Kabale is often seen as a gateway to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mahinga Gorilla National Park.
As yet largely uncommercialised, Western Uganda has many tourist attractions for the explorer to visit.
As well as the main tourist attractions there are many other activities to enjoy in Western Uganda.
A guide to the main towns in Western Uganda, where to stay, eat and things to see and do.