By Bruce Murray
Few rivers in the world have been shrouded in as much mystery as the Nile River in Africa. It is generally regarded as being the longest river in the world but where its headwaters were located was unknown for centuries. Julius Caesar is reported to have answered the one thing he most wanted to know about the world — “Where was the source of the Nile?”
The Nile is actually two main rivers that join together at Khartoum in Egypt — the White Nile and the Blue Nile. The Blue Nile, which is much shorter, was known to begin in Ethiopia but it was not until 1859 the mystery of the source of the White Nile was solved when it was viewed by British explorer John Hanning Speke. It was a large lake in Uganda, which he named Lake Victoria. Today, we know there are several rivers feeding into Lake Victoria, which means the source of the Nile is still in question.
A few years ago, I was asked to assist a major Canadian university with a research project in Africa, where they were studying malaria in children. What has this got to do with the Nile River you might ask? Well, it turned out the project was at a hospital in Jinja, Uganda — which is situated at the headwater of the Nile River on Lake Victoria. People that live in Jinja are very proud of their location and often when asked where they live will answer, “Jinja, the headwaters of the Nile.”
Travelling to Jinja was a multi-day adventure. We flew from Vancouver to Amsterdam, where we stayed overnight. We left the next morning and flew to Kigali, Rwanda — where there was a short layover and finally landing at Entebbe airport in Uganda after about 12 hours.
Entebbe is the international airport and is located about 40 kilometres from Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. It is also famous for an aircraft hijacking and rescue that was made into a movie.
We stayed overnight in Kampala and a car and driver from the hospital took us to Jinja the next day. There, we settled into a motel similar to what one would find in a small town in Alberta but it did have a pool.
Work at the children’s hospital was very challenging and the weather hot and humid, so after a week or so we were ready for a break. Five of us got together and hired a car and driver to take us on a sightseeing tour of the area around Jinja.
There are large rapids on the Nile, just south of Jinja that are very picturesque and we decided to visit.
We had been warned not to go in the water, as the odds of getting parasites was very high, so when we arrived we were surprised to see locals in the water.
It turned out these were “Jerry Can Boys.” For a small fee they would hold onto a plastic jerry can and ride and swim through the rapids for our entertainment. We were told by our guide some drowned every year. Tough way to make a living. Today, the rapids are gone as shortly after we left a large hydro-electric dam was finished downstream and the river flow has changed.
We next visited the headwaters of the Nile at Lake Victoria and viewed the monument commemorating the discovery by John Speke.
Our guide explained how the locals believe the Nile got its name. The story is when John Speke first saw the river, where it left the lake, he asked a local tribesman what was the name of the river. The local said de-nile. Speke interpreted that to mean, “The Nile.”
Later, when the local language was better understood, they learned de-nile really meant, “I don’t know.” Well, I don’t know if the story is true or not but it was funny.
We hired a boat and river guide to take us up the river to the lake. Our guide told us one-third of the water feeding the river actually comes from a large underground spring and took us to the spot where you could see the water boiling up into the river. The remainder of the water comes from the lake. The area was spectacular and we saw hundreds of beautiful birds — some of which were fishing for their supper.
He also taught us the lake and river are vital to millions of people as a source of food and water.
Downstream to the north it forms the Nile Delta, which has been home to a great agriculture enterprise for thousands of years.
The locals worry about the commercialization of the waterways and the resulting chemical pollution but look forward to the economic benefits.
All too soon our short day trip ended and it was back to work. I have returned to the area and gone to visit the gorillas in the mountains and other areas of Uganda but that is a story for another day.