The Nordic Africa Institute


The source of the White Nile in Uganda

Started • 02 January 2013
Ended • 01 December 2014

Researcher: Terje Oestigaard


Since Antiquity, the Nile quest has been part of the European intellectual history and explorations. While the source of the Blue Nile was discovered in 1618 (or 1613), the source of the White Nile remained unknown. Beke noted in 1847 that ‘the position of the source of that celebrated river remains as unknown as it was in the earliest ages … its head is still enveloped in the clouds of mystery which have in all ages concealed it from our sight.’ Thus, the Nile quest was not over. It was the British explorer John Hanning Speke who discovered the source of the White Nile. On 30 July 1858, he reached a great lake, which he named in honour of Queen Victoria, and he believed this to be the source of the Nile. Back in England, this caused a controversy because he had not seen the outlet. On a second trip, he found the source and the outlet of the mighty river from Lake Victoria. On the 21 July 1862, Speke writes: ‘Here at last I stood on the brink of the Nile. Most beautiful was the scene; nothing could surpass it! It was the very perfection of the kind of effect aimed at in a highly-kept park; with a magnificent stream from 600 to 700 yards wide, dotted with islets and rocks…’. When coming to Ripon Falls on 28 July, Speke concludes: ‘The expedition had now performed its functions. I saw that old Father Nile without any doubt rises in the Victoria N’yanza, and, as I had foretold, that lake is the great source of the holy river which cradled the first expounder of our religious belief’. Nevertheless, the Nile quest was only finally settled in 1876, almost 20 years later, when H.M. Stanley proved that Speke’s claim to have found the source was justified.

Despite the role and the importance of the Nile and in particular the search for the sources have had in intellectual history as well as the utmost and fundamental importance of the Nile today, very little ethnographic research has been conducted with regards to the cultural, ritual and religious aspects of this mighty river. As Speke indicated, there have been numerous beliefs surrounding this river and the ‘lake is the great source of the holy river which cradled the first expounder of our religious belief’; how this relates to indigenous practices and beliefs are more uncertain. Based on previous and ongoing research into similar topics (in Egypt, Ethiopia and Tanzania), this project aims to analyse the water rituals and traditions at the source of the White Nile in Uganda. Moreover, many of the traditional practices and beliefs are currently under pressure, changing or disappearing in the face of modernization and globalization.

Although the source of the White Nile that Speke identified is the outlet of Lake Victoria in Jinja, which will be the main area and focus of the research, the project will not be limited to the very outlet itself. In order to deepen the cultural and religious understanding of water traditions in the past and the present, it is also necessary to include a broader area in the vicinity and other topics, which include rainmaking traditions as well as local perceptions and beliefs among fishermen along the northern shores of Lake Victoria. Moreover, if possible at a later stage in this project, it will also be of interest to include Lake Albert and the beliefs and traditions around this lake.

The main objectives and principle aims of this project are to:

  1. document empirically and ethnographically water rituals, beliefs and traditions at the source of the White Nile. This will mainly be done by interviews and participant observation,
  2. textually analyse the historic and written sources regarding the source and associated beliefs from the early explorers up to today’s anthropological and ethnographical accounts,
  3. document other water rituals and traditions in the region such as rain-making rituals and their historic role and context as well as perceptions and beliefs among fishermen and groups living along the northern shores of Lake Victoria,
  4. investigate how changes in agricultural practices such as increased irrigation and foreign land-acquisitions influence or change the traditional beliefs and practices with regards to both water utilization (river and rain) and the cultural implications,
  5. and finally, analyse how and by which means globalization also is a source for new identifications and practices structured around tradition and history creating other cultural and social institutions and structures.

The relevance of the project may have cultural, social and political implications. Culturally, the source of the White Nile and its importance through history is part of Uganda’s intangible and tangible heritage. It is therefore of utmost importance to empirically and ethnographically document as much as possible of this heritage for the benefit of future generations, also since large parts of the cultural heritage is at risk of disappearing in the face of modernization and globalization. Socially, it is important to analyse and understand how and why water forms and shapes major parts of traditions and belief systems, and how such perceptions and practices change through time. This also includes understanding the relation between water in rivers and as rain for different types of agricultural practices, and how changes in water-worlds also affect or institutionalize agrarian change. Politically, in a globalized age with rapid population increase, the importance of the Nile for the future will become more fundamental. Still, the importance goes beyond mere drops of water and also includes the values and beliefs associated with the Nile. The identifications and relations to water and the traditions through history are also important parts of people’s self-identifications in cultural re-constitutions and hence, changes in these beliefs systems and the water-world as such include political dimensions since they affect the people concerned.