Is there a particular charm to pictures made on reversal film, a.k.a slides? And if so, what is that charm? Is it in the particular way in which, for instance, the famous kodachrome translates the colours our eyes and brain see into a picture? Is it simply seeing the past rendered in colour, rather than in black and white? Is it the attraction of the projected image?
The fifth book in the Ebifananyi series is based on Engineer M.W. Wambwa’s slide collection. The book is reviewed below by Joel Nevender Ntwatwa. He had to base his reading on the printed slides.
In the heart of the ongoing Ebifananyi exhibition visitors can find a dark space surrounded by bright colourful walls with framed photographs. We were afraid people would not take notice or enter the space, and miss the carousel projector presenting a selection of 80 of Eng. Wambwa’s slides. But, actually, the benches in the space are used well. Those who enter stay for a long time. These pictures, made in the Uganda of the 1960s give the Belgian and Dutch members of the audience we spoke with a lot of points of recognition and even interpretation.
Hurray for Engineer Wambwa and his slides!
Now onward to Joel B. Ntwatwa‘s reading of the way he and his photographs are presented in the book titled ‘UHURU – Minor Accidents’.
“With a camera on my shoulder I noticed that the country was making strides in every field.”
At first glance, when opening UHURU, minor accidents, one cannot miss the story in the photos. A new Uganda morphing from an old one. A modern Uganda versus a traditional one. The new is more present. Photos of new buildings, plane arrivals, a road closed with one side made of murram and the other tarmac, ceremonies… it’s the telling of the beginning of a new story for a people. Change.
On the pages of this book are photos and a story of and by Engineer Martin Wangutusi Wambwa. The story starts all the way back, before the first world war. Wambwa takes the reader through a time of changing culture not just in his homeland, Eastern Uganda, but Uganda, Africa and the world as a whole. Through Uhuru, and what was known as Uhuru na Kazi to Uhuru na Vita. In telling his story, Wambwa tells Uganda’s story. If not all of it, at least his view of Uganda’s Uhuru story – of change, work, learning and discovery.
As a project in HIPUganda’s Andrea‘s hands that involves the photographic work of Canon Griffin, Elsadig Mohamed and Luuk van den Berg as well as her own, the book brings into existence the idea that there are a lot of perspectives to one story and images prove that well. That is, in the way they are taken, the colours used, the focus etc. Wambwa’s photos represent a changing age, new things at the time. His photos are distributed between family and work. Between Uganda and outside Uganda. However in the book, we see his photos alongside/juxtaposed with pictures made by other photographers to prod us think deeper of how we see things.
Many of his photos are in colour, in contrast to Luuk’s photos of present scenes using film and taken in black and white. The scenes of the same road that appear differently because of a different capture. Or a building or a landscape. Luuk’s black and white may deceive you that the photos are older than Wambwa’s, which is obviously not the case. There are thoughts about what colours mean in photography vis a vis the times.
In his times, Wambwa’s times, black and white was still the more ubiquitous mode of pictures printed, even though colour photography was gaining presence and popularity. Today, black and white does exist not for lack of colour. Why? Perhaps it is easier to relate with simpler interpretations of things? Perhaps the two colours are an escape from the overload of everything else in the world today?
Mohamed’s photos capture scenes in what could be termed as out of focus. Many of the scenes are recognisable even though they are not clear. For example, you can identify the jam at Clock Tower, cars and buildings along Kampala road or people at the back of a car. Some are juxtaposed with clearer photos that Wambwa himself took like several shots along Kampala road, the post office and more. What comes to me here is that some things in life, deserve a little less detail to understand. The bigger picture gives more than the detail we are struggling to look. Of course these are always two sides of a coin. While Wambwa gives the detail, Mohammed dares to see whether we can see the difference. Change perspective. In a way though, there was some sort of hiding in this concept – vis a vis the dreams of a developed Uganda that Wambwa was working for perhaps Mohamed shifts focus to take our minds off how wrong things could have gone?
Andrea’s photos were of people holding older photos of the same scene or just a photo of an older photo in the same scene that Wambwa took. E.g the old taxi park, Amber House etc. It’s almost like time travel. Call it some form of time travel -being in two places at the same time. And don’t photos like Wambwa’s give us that? A look into the past as we look at our now?
Rumanzi recreates a circular view of scenes. Some go all the way round, some are semi circular, some have a black spot at the centre. Rumanzi calls these “holes in the world,” the ones with a black spot at the centre. It doesn’t help but give you a momentary dizziness when looking at these photos. And sometimes it feels as though you’re looking at a scene that’s about to tip over. Maybe it says to us there is no picture that tells the whole story? Again, these are scenes already captured by Wambwa but a new look always feels like there is a newness to what is being captured.
In all collections of History in Progress perhaps this has more story than others. It is picked from an autobiography that has a lot to say not just with photos but with a lot of words as well. Minor accidents, because what are the odds that a man like Wangutusi Boyi, could become the father of what would be one of Uganda’s top Engineers – one of Uganda’s non-political national builders in a time of Uhuru?
The stories we usually hear of our journey to independence carry a concentrated nucleus of the political. It is a lot of political parties, intrigues and the sort. However, that is far from how the Engineer sees his history or our history as a matter of fact. He shares bits of his culture like what the roots of the Imbalu are and other fragments focus on his student life, his engineering, his interaction with the outside world and where they came to be located in the time he lived in.
A man obsessed with family – a bigger part of his photos are family photos and these are all mostly colour photos. Whether it’s of a visit to the Parliament, or to the village or a shot of Mbale town, they are all in colour. The black and white ones are mainly photos to do with engineering, his work e.g captures of city models, captures of piers, of construction of structures like the transformation of Bugolobi from a forest area to an industrial park, of Independence/Uhuru arches construction. The blacks and whites communicate some sort of timelessness in this case – engineering and construction.
Wambwa is part of the changing times when he joins Engineering School, and he was aware of what that change might mean. He notes “The society was growing more restless than ever before and uncertain of where it stood especially after the events that led to the deposing and deporting of the Kabaka in 1953. Thereafter, the generation was pulled in two ways, either to revert to the old values of our fathers, although these were not properly understood, or to launch forward into a tide of left-wing ideas and movements that were being born.”
Interestingly enough, I think this is an experience each generation endures themselves “ … revert to the old values of our fathers although these were not properly understood or launch forward….”
Even in the captures, this question remains – in photography over the ages, do we stick to the blacks and whites, the clear takes or is there room for the circular shots, the blurry shots to communicate a message? To communicate an identity or a culture?
Wambwa never dwells too much on the political, this memoir feels like a memoir to posterity in form of lineage as well as engineering. It’s a book with a lot of images but also a lot of text.
He reveals little known facts like that there was an attempt to put a bridge across Murchison falls, an attempt he and his friends almost die trying to accomplish. How electricity and piped water were available in only 2 towns – Kampala and Jinja. The Owen Dam project that led to the start of Uganda Electricity Board to plan how to distribute power to the whole country.
The social life aspect hasn’t seemed to change. After he speaks of how he acquires “transport” he tells that he “set out to find a woman acceptable to the elders…”
The Engineer reveals more and more about the history of the times. I found it interesting when he speaks of the time the Kabaka visited Mbale “tracing his roots” as there was legend that Kintu moved from Bugisu to found Buganda.
Or how when the Lancaster document was signed, “Karamoja district was omitted […] because it would have been the 13th ethnic republic, and according to some, 13 was an odd number.” How Buganda still had special privilege even at independence – “The Archbishops of Rubaga, Uganda, Rwanda and Boga-Zaire…”
There is one piece of wisdom I found telling of Uganda’s history
“Unlike Tanzania for example, Uganda lacked strong traditional culture for a secure national sovereignty. While each tribe adhered to its traditions and cultures, these were supposed to fit into an organized state that conformed to certain rules of conduct under the framework of civilization.”
It is no wonder that shortly after Uhuru, national calls for Uhuru na Kazi – Freedom and Work quickly morphed into Uhuru na Vita – Freedom and War, reflecting a country that was perhaps never quite ready for independence. Maybe minor accidents led to the early birth of the nation.
While usually accounts of Obote’s storming of the Mengo palace [also see this, this, this, and this one] are impassioned and built up to logically, the Engineer’s account clearly shows someone whose focus was more on the non-political side of nation building. He was recently back from a research trip to the US and was going for a dance when he found himself in the panic that gripped everyone at that time unawares where it came from. That was the beginning of Uhuru na Vita, according to him.
Engineer Wambwa’s photography collection is a series of photos that range from engineering work to family life to urban development during his time and some highlights of what happened at before, during and after independence. There are different things that have changed, one thing remains though. Gregory Maloba’s Independence Monument still stands. And Eng. M.W Wambwa’s account of Uhuru is one of the few that exist in ink and come from the citizens of Uganda itself outside the annals of the political. The different eyes in the book give us different ways of seeing the things he saw, different perspectives.