If there is anything that Levison Wood’s River Nile expedition has achieved so far, it is reigniting the debate about the true source of the Nile.
Levison, a British adventurer, is attempting to become the first man to walk the length of the Nile river from its source to the Mediterranean Sea. He wants to outdo the “Ascend the Nile” team, which accomplished the feat by using cars and boats in 2005 and 2006.
The team, which included one woman and five men, one of whom was Cam McLeay, the founder of Adrift Adventure Company, were the first to attempt to outdo John Hanning Speke’s work by claiming to have found a “true source of the Nile in Rwanda.”
Led by locals, the team that started their journey in Egypt followed Kagera river to its longest point up in the Nyungwe forest. It is this point they declared to be “the longest source of the river Nile,” setting the stage for debate about the location of the source of the Nile.
With the help of a GPS, they were able to ascertain the distance between the Mediterranean Sea (near Rashid) to the upper reaches of the Rukarara river deep in the Nyungwe forest.
They reported that the Nile is actually 6718km long or 107km longer than it is generally believed to be. No one had attempted to measure the Nile using modern technology like the GPS. Most measurements in the past had consisted of laying a piece of string on a map to find the results.
Now, Levison has stirred the debate further. Accompanied by his friend and guide Boston Bwira Ndoole, who lives in Kampala, Levison, on December 3, 2013, embarked on an ambitious year-long expedition to walk the River Nile from its source to the delta. And his choice of Rwanda as his starting point has once again pitted Uganda against Rwanda as who has the true source of the Nile.
The source of the Nile is an important feature for Uganda’s economy. Not only is it an important tourist spot, fetching the country billions of shillings annually. The location of its source will not change the dynamics of the region, but it will at least lead to bragging rights on who owns some of the most important tourist features in the region.
The source of the Nile has held mysteries for thousands of years. The Egyptians sent whole armies to discover its source. But it was not until 1858 when Scottish explorer, John Hanning Speke, settled this debate after encountering a magnificent lake in the heart of East Africa where Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania meet. Naming it Victoria, he proclaimed it to be the fabled source of the Nile at a point he named Rippon falls in Jinja town.
Speke’s choice of Rippon falls was convincing. This is because all upstream tributaries pour into Lake Victoria, which has only one outlet at Rippon falls. Also, given the River Nile’s volume, only a water source the size of Lake Victoria would qualify as its source. Lake Victoria has a surface area of 68,800 square kilometre and holds 2,700 km3 of water.
However, New Age explorers say Speke was wrong. They claim Rwanda’s River Akagera is the largest feeder river to Lake Victoria. That it literally flows through Lake Victoria as the White Nile, contributing about 40% of the outflow from Lake Victoria. But as George W. Magaba, a cartographer with Makerere University explains, a river can’t be the source of another river.
“A river is never a primary source of water; water just flows through it,” Magaba says.
According to the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) website, the major supplier of river Akagera water is Ruvyironza river in Burundi. It, therefore, becomes intriguing that it is Rwanda, instead of Burundi, that is being considered to have the true source of the Nile. Rwanda, which is about the size of Karamoja sub-region, has aggressively marketed itself as a tourist destination, investing $5m annually into marketing its country compared to Uganda’s $300,000.
Today, the country with just three national parks has sandwiched Uganda, selling itself to the world as the home of mountain gorillas when in fact more than half of them are found in Uganda. Rwanda’s naming of gorillas (Kwita Izina) brings in thousands of tourists, while Uganda’s Friend a Gorilla campaign didn’t live to see its first birthday.
Could Rwanda be seizing another opportunity to upstage Uganda on another front?
“Rwanda is simply seizing a marketing opportunity and Uganda tourism is sleeping,” says renowned journalist Charles Odoobo Bichachi. “Kenyan companies market Kilimanjaro as being in Kenya because true you can see it while across the border in Kenya.”
The source of the Nile in Jinja, which was recently ranked among the seven natural wonders of Africa, remains largely unattended to –with dilapidated structures.
Many Ugandans are suspicious of Levison’s motives.
“I wonder if he [Levison] got clearance from government and if those at the Tourism ministry who are concerned with the image of our country reviewed and understood the objectives of his exploration,” says Abiaz Rwamwiri, the communication officer of the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) Uganda, pointing out that Levison went to Mama Fiina (a traditional healer) to be bathed with milk. “The fact that he had a following of an international media, he should not have been treated as a tourist but due diligence should have been done to avoid any negative portrayal.”
Rwamwiri says the ministry should have been able to crosscheck if Levison had sinister motives by choosing Rwanda as his starting point. Levison’s journey is being filmed for a four-part Channel 4 series to start broadcasting this year, and he has attracted international attention.
Professor Oweyegha-Afunaduula, who once served as the chairman of the Nile Basin Discourse (the umbrella civil society organization for all the NGOs in the 11 countries that form the Nile basin), says the Nile is a product of the entire Nile basin region.
“The Nile gets water from various sources; that is why we are referred to by three names: Nile basin countries, Great lakes region and watershed area,” he explained.
Oweyegha-Afunaduula said the debate about the source of the Nile has neither novelty nor substance. It is a point echoed by Bichachi: “This is a matter of conjecture, not fact. It is largely to nourish the adventure spirit of today’s explorers who want live experience of walking in African jungles.”