A public swimming pool, Post office, commercial bank, Uganda Airlines offices, Tennis courts, recreational clubs once defined Kilembe town at the foothills of Rwenzori Mountain in Kasese district in the western part of this country.
It is located about 368km south of the capital Kampala and covers an area of about 8.5 kilometers long on the banks of River Nyamwamba and Nyalusegi stream.
Well manicured tarmac roads welcomed any visitor to the valley and mineral rich town that boasted of not only free electricity but waters as well.
This town was/is the home of famous Kilembe Mines Limited Company, now Kilembe Investment Limited; a town complete with most public amenities like free water, electricity not forgetting the cool Mt Rwenzori baked weather that accompanied its occupants hence the term ‘European town.’
Kilembe’s impressive infrastructure and services at the time rivaled infrastructure of most of the country.
However, today Kilembe is a shadow of its former self; rugged roads, rust and now annual floods define modern day Kilembe leading to the tag “Ghost town” following years of steady deterioration.
WHAT MADE KILEMBE TICK
The town was and is still lucky to have been blessed with minerals such as copper, cobalt and there is talk of deposits of gold in the area.
Colonialism brought the white for the Extraction of copper as was the case all over Africa at the time and because the mineral was precious on the world market, production hit its peak in the 20th century.
The white man who mined copper came along with their families and in the process had to duplicate their lifestyle in Kilembe like it was overseas.
Exploration by Kilembe Mining Ltd from 1956 to 1961 identified several copper-cobalt occurrences on which several confirmatory holes were drilled. While the mine was in operation from 1956 to 1972, a total of 16.2 million tones grading 1.98% copper and .17% cobalt were mined and approximately 270,000 tons of blister copper were produced. Over this span, mining was centered on the eastern deposits and the southwestern deposits were regarded as future developments.
As a result, merits that accompany an economic activity, economies of scale followed.
To begin with, a rail system that stretches westward to the DR Congo border connected this valley town to the rest of the world and because whites could do all the mining work, indigenous Ugandans from all over the country were employed.
A hospital, post office, a commercial bank were all installed in the town. What was interesting about Kilembe’s dial phone lines is the fact that they were free and one would only make a 3 digit phone call within the town.
One would call a neighbor next door and simply talk anything. It was so connected a community that one would be able to tell who lived in Kilembe.
A class system soon developed depending on where one worked in the mines.
Kilembe’s beautiful wooden houses (Only found in Kilembe) in Kanyaruboga adjacent to the mines, Katiri and Kyanjuki were mainly occupied by Africans.
McGowan, ‘Kizungu’ and Chan Jojo (pronounced Kyenjonjo), south of the mines were inhabited by the crème-de-la crème of Kilembe. These included; the General Manager, personnel manager, officials in the mines, physicians who worked in Kilembe Mines Hospital and other individuals who rendered services in the town like Bank and post office workers.
The mines company maintained this private hospital and a 5MW mini-hydropower plant generated at the Mubuku I Power Station. The hospital served as a referral in the region due to its state of the art facilities.
Rails were built around the mining areas with wagons aiding in the activity. There existed a transport system for the employees of the company who by the way had lunch in their homes, thanks to the system.
Due to the fact Kilembe was built in a ‘white setting’, the life lived was literally ‘white’. The recreation club in McGowan had the hallmarks of a modern ‘opera hall’. Kilembe children who studied within the town’s best schools always found time to relax at the tennis courts, swimming pool. The daring ones who wanted to bypass the ‘bureaucracy’ at the pool found their way in River Nyamwamba in its innocent days and swam. Forget what the river is doing today; then it was calm, innocent, a source of life and did not forcefully evict ‘Kilembians’.
Religions of all denominations were present in the area.
This community did not have to worry about the supply of food; the Rwenzori hills mainly inhabited by Bakonzo provided a constant supply. There were ‘modern’ markets and supermarkets.
Kilembe’s natural beauty meant it was home to some of the world’s best scenery. It is a valley surrounded by the famous snow capped Rwenzori Mountain whose hills formed a protective shield against the rest of ‘local’Uganda, as if to protect the community from being intoxicated by the rest of poorly developed Uganda.
Sand bands locally called ‘Kachanga’, the mining tunnels all formed part of Kilembe’s attraction not forgetting the papyrus built All Saints Church that stood at the road side, just next to the Hospital and opposite, Kisementi.
This Church amazed most visitors to Kilembe and had it not been for some ‘illogical’ reasoning, it could have been standing at least as a monument.
The schools included; Namhunga, Katiri, Bulembia and Kyanjuki Primary schools. It is worth noting that Kyanjuki area was home to one of the region’s best primary boarding schools, Kilembe Junior Boarding School.
KILEMBE’S FAMOUS SONS AND DAUGHTERS
For a town as beautiful and great to come and go without producing the best of the best would be an embarrassment of unimaginable magnitudes.
The town has produced some of the best brains in the country who continue to influence most sectors of our society.
You have heard of the legendary Ugandan boxer Leo Rwabwogo who passed away in January 2009 yes he was a son of that great town and helped Kilembe Boxing Club have a name.
Born on June 3, 1949, he won a total number of two Olympic medals during his career as an amateur in the flyweight division (– 51 kg). He did so in 1968 and 1972. As of 2008, he was the only Ugandan who has won more than one Olympic medal.
Mulago Hospital’s Dr. Sabrina Kitaka of the famous Bakera family, arguably Uganda’s best brain in the field of Pediatrics. The Bakera family is a household name when it comes to producing medical personnel. Oscar Kambona needs no introduction when one is asked to name some of the country’s finest legal minds.
Hussein Kashillingi, a former presidential aide is a also a son. Alex Kwatampora, one of Uganda’s few geologists was also baked in Kilembe. Joy Doreen Biira of Kenya Television Network, The New Times (Rwanda) Jacobs Odongo Seaman are also a daughter of the ‘soil.’
The town has also produced household names in the entertainment industry; one of these is Kenneth Kimuli a.k.a Pablo, a man credited for infecting Ugandans with laughter, Shanks VV D and Junior Pliers, Peter Miles’ singing partner Menshan are all products of the marvelous town.
Baluku Conrad, a senior police superintendent in charge of government security at the Ministry of Internal Affairs is also proud to have been part of the Kilembe family.
Some are well embedded in different sectors of our society.
KILEMBE WASTE BEGINS
After decades of operating the mine at unsustainable levels, the price of copper crashed and the Canadian firms pulled out in 1986.
This forced the white settlers to go back home and it became an everyday challenge to try and maintain what was already in place.
“Even after stopping production, in 1990 the mines employed 1200 people. By 2000 we had 600 employees,” Amos George Mfitebasaze was quoted in the media in May this year. He had been General Manager for almost 12 years.
The lucrative copper business had made it stand and it’s crashing prices on the world market, coupled with political uncertainty in the country in the late 70s and early 80s meant the town faced an uphill task to survive.
By the mid 90s, wear and tear had set in; silence became the order in a town that had been a hive of activity. Soon, the Bank and post office lost relevance forcing the former to completely close shop in the area.
This also meant that people who had lost their jobs had to either find alternatives or leave the area.
In 1996, the Allied Democratic Forces rebels attacked Kasese district at the border town of Bwera and since the mountains served as their bases, Kilembe was not spared.
The market, hospital and boarding school in the area soon became targets for the rebels to either recruit, loot. Fear became the best friend of most Kilembe occupants as the rebels terrorized the region.
Kilembe’s once modern market was reduced to ashes after an attack by the rebels in 1998. On the same night, there was an attempt to attack the hospital but it was repulsed by the UPDF.
Due to the resulting fear, most of the town’s inhabitants felt it was a matter of death and life and deserted the area to either their ancestral homes or found new places of abode.
The ADF insurgency evaporated after the UPDF took the rebels on and while the people in Kilembe were still trying to wake up from the nightmare of the former, River Nyamwamba that had been kind exploded in May last year bursting its banks and causing untold havoc in the area.
The nurse quarters of Kilembe Hospital were leveled in the wake of the floods in 2013 that also cause damage to the once pothole free roads.
A repeat of the floods this year washed away hat had been rebuilt and the remnants of the glorious Kilembe are hoping the new owners will return it to it’s former self.
THE NEW KILEMBE
Today, it would be hard for one who grew up in the comfort of Kilembe to tell that he/she actually did so. The town has literally been reduced to the ‘Ugandan level’. Although some houses still stand, most of the iconic wooden houses have been washed away.
However, some of its old boys and girls have not forgotten their history; A Facebook page “Happened To Have Grown Up In Beautiful Kilembe’ exists through which members update themselves on events and an annual gathering is organized at the end of the year to find ways of giving back to the soil that groomed them.
The China-Africa news wire reported in May this year that Tibet Hima Industry Company Limited, a consortium of Chinese companies, is reviving copper mining in Kilembe after signing a concession agreement with the government of Uganda in 2013.
The firm is to invest US$175 million in the mines in the first three years, which will go to resuscitating smelting, refining, and product factory development. It also plans to increase power production at the Maluku power plant, one of Kilembe’s assets, to 12MW from 5MW.
According to the Uganda government, Kilembe had 4.17 million tons of copper reserves when it ceased production in 1982. In addition to the unexploited copper ore, there is 5.5 million tons of cobalt in tailings (dumped material from previous mining). The government also says there are additional copper reserves in the vicinity of the mine.
With all said and done, for those like this writer who had the wonderful privilege of spending time in Kilembe, it was an honor!