The Mysterious Lake Nkugute of the great Kitara Region

Lake Africa of Kitara Region

Lake Nkugute found in Rubirizi district of Kitara Region is shaped more like an African map, in fact most people prefer calling it Lake Africa.

Lake Nkugute is a crater lake and it’s estimated terrain elevation above seal level is 4645 feet. It’s believed to have been formed after volcanic activity left a crater in the ground, which slowly filled with rainwater over thousands of years.

The Nkugute crater lake whose name apparently means swallow, has been a blessing and curse to the nearby locals who have been coming up with some strange tales about the water body. This lake can be visited enroute Queen Elizabeth National Park via the Mbarara Kasese road.

For several decades, Lake Nkugute which is situated in Bunyarugu County has been a source of odd stories. It is a place of mystery, with a history that goes back to tales shared around campfires by the locals in the villages that surround it.

How it was formed

Nkugute is a crater lake which was formed as a result of volcanic activity in the Bunyaruguru volcanic field. The eruption in this field is more than 12,000 years. This is evidenced by the existence of hot springs within its vicinity such as Kitagata hot spring.

The lake is said to have derived its name from its violent nature and insatiable appetite for humans. According to natives who have lived near the lake for many years, the word, “Nkugute” is a Runyaruguru word that means “swallow”. Tales in this area are that Lake Nkugute used to swallow two children, a boy and a girl, annually.

Mysterious tales about the lake

“Every year, the lake would swallow a male and female child and no one would predict when this was going to happen,” says natives.

“People who came to wash from the lake’s shore would at times forget to pay attention to their children who enjoyed swimming from the lake and before they knew it, one of the children would be seen helplessly screaming while being “swallowed” by the lake. Those who attempted to rescue the drowning child would sometimes also be “swallowed”. So the crater lake came to be known as Nkugute in reference to that behaviour.”

The boundaries of Lake Nkugute seen from a hill that borders the lake look similar to the map of Africa. Locals claim that it is the deepest lake in Africa, but there is no proof to this claim. In the past, the lake used to be surrounded by a very thick forest, but it was destroyed during the construction of the Mbarara-Kasese highway.

A lot of marram was also laid on the shores of the lake, making it more visible from far. Over the years, people began encroaching on the forest in a bid to get more land for cultivation. Presently, the lake is surrounded by banana plantations, tilled land as well as pine and mahogany trees.

Previous residents

Before these changes occurred, the lake was home to the Bachwezi, according to older citizens around the lake who say that a lot of mysterious things happened to justify this. For example, after 10pm, anyone who walked past the lake would be stopped by very tall, dark skinned and strange people who would beat him/her up or take and abandon that person in any of the forests in the area. One native, Mutabaazi whose father was a victim of these people’s wrath claims that they were Bachwezi.

“The locals who encountered these Bachwezi narrated that they would be found grazing long horned cattle. They would accuse the locals whom they punished for stealing their cattle. However, they would only attack those who would be walking alone because it was not possible to see them or be attacked when walking in a group,” states Mutabaazi.

The lake had a caretaker called Omuzumira Komurusozi, who was responsible for performing rituals to appease the gods of the lake. Whenever these rituals delayed, the lake would turn violent.

Reports of people drowning under unclear circumstances would be popular; it is then that people would seek the intervention of the caretaker to perform the rituals. The rituals involved slaughtering a goat and a sheep whose heads were dumped in the lake.

However, natives say that following the prominence of religion in the area, people abandoned engaging in the rituals.

Nkugute is a major source of water for domestic use in Bunyaruguru. A dam was constructed at the boundary of the lake, which looks like the horn of Africa, to supply water around the district.

Local authorities have banned washing clothes and cars from the lake to ensure the water’s cleanliness. A sign post can be seen at the shore of the lake cautioning members of the public against unauthorized access to the lake. Fishing on the lake is not popular which is attributed to lack of fish in the lake.

How it can benefit from tourists

The Lake is a popular destination for tourists though the locals have meagerly benefitted from the industry. Natives explain that the tourists who come around just take pictures of the place and leave. They blame this on the absence of hotels or nice places of accommodation around the lake.

Natives believe that if people could invest in hotels or a beach would be put up within the lake’s proximity, the locals could benefit from the tourism industry.

Who are the Natives:

Lake Nkugute is located in Bunyaruguru County, where the inhabitants are a tribe called Banyaruguru. Banyaruguru are a segment of emigrants from Buganda alongside Batagwenda a tribe settled in Kitagwenda county near Bunyaruguru. Batagwenda and Banyaruguru derive long from Buganda’s history and finds out that this was after two Baganda kings had fought against each other and one died in the field.

According to the way the Bunyaruguru tell the story, it was the year 1797 and Kabaka (King) Junju Sendegeya, the 27th Kabaka of Buganda was reigning, with his capital at Magonga. His younger brother, Prince Semakookiro Wasajja Nabbunga, rose up in arms against him. Ssemakookiro then sent a contingent of soldiers to capture Junju. His final instruction to the regiment was: “Temumulekaayo!” meaning “Do not leave him behind!” Of course Junju dispatched a regiment of his own to repulse the aggressors. He personally participated in the battle, as was common in those days for kings to do. Sadly, he did not survive the fighting.

Ssemakookiro’s men then proceeded to Bamunaanika to report that they had killed Junju. Ssemakookiro was angered. He had instructed them to capture his brother, not to murder him! He was so upset that he ordered those who participated in the battle together with their descendants and extended families, to leave Buganda or he would make them face the same fate as they had subjected to his brother. The outcasts fled west to present day Kitagwenda in Kamwenge District, in the Kingdom of Toro. Those who still had the strength to climb the hills and mountains of Northern Ankole went on into present-day Rubirizi District, in what is commonly known as Bunyaruguru. Other sources give versions which slightly differ in details, but the flight of the Banyaruguru and the Batagwenda is a historical fact, that occurred slightly over 200 years ago.

The Banyaruguru, especially the older folks, speak fluent Luganda in addition to Runyankole and other languages. Their dialect of Runyankole is similar to the dialect of Rutooro called Rutagwenda. They maintain their allegiance to the Baganda clans from which they descended, those who fled came from 12 Baganda clans. The Banyaruguru also kept many of their Baganda customs; for example, the culture of maintaining the family cemeteries called Ebiggya in Luganda. Many of the communities around them did not traditionally maintain family burial sites until recently. But you can see family cemeteries going back several generations in Bunyaruguru.

The Banyaruguru, who number about 200,000 are a very close community. Families tend to have very strong bonds, investing together, and holding land within the family and within the clan. Unlike in Bugandawhere they split land into small individual plots, the Banyaruguru will build a joint residence where each sibling has a bungalow, on maybe two acres of the family land and the remaining acreage (which might be substantial in some cases), is planted with matoke. Between the Matoke they plant cassava, beans, maize, and Arabica coffee; and in the valleys they grow cabbage, tomatoes, sugarcane and eggplants. They are very hard working people, often up and in the gardens by six in the morning. The rich, fertile, volcanic soils have not been extensively utilized until very recently, so yields are impressive, without the help of fertilizer or pesticides.

The Banyaruguru dress mostly like Banyankole and Baganda; their names are a mixture of Kinyankole and Kiganda names. Most of the traditions and customs are Kinyankole with some Kiganda culture practiced.

The Batagwenda men were originally hunters, though nowadays there are no wilder animals to hunt. But let an elephant or lion get to Kitagwenda from Queen Elizabeth National park, be sure it will not go back.

There are two segments of Batagwenda. There are Banyantara up the hills of Ntara above Lake George and those who live around the hills of Kikondo and Kinyamugara commonly known as Abakondo and Abakurungo in Kikurungo.

The staple food of Batagwenda and Banyaruguru is millet though they grow and eat other foods like matoke, cassava, maize and sweet potatoes. Banyaruguru mostly eat millet with fish.