Uganda's Kasubi Tombs destroyed

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JEB SHARP: An important piece of history has been lost in Uganda. Fire destroyed a 150-year-old royal tomb in Kampala last night. It's not clear who or what caused the blaze. What is clear is that the thatched mausoleum, called the Kasubi Tombs, was an object of deep reverence by Uganda's largest tribe, the Buganda. In fact, it was a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The BBC's Joshua Mali is in Kampala. Joshua, what made this site so special?

JOSHUA MALI: Well this site has been special in the sense that this is their traditional burial site for all the kings of Buganda. The Buganda attach a lot of significance to this place because it's the one thing that stands to remind them of their cultural heritage. It's an important tourist attraction for the government. It does bring in a lot of revenue. Some people say it's even more important that the national museum because it receives more visitors than the national museum.

SHARP: What is the Buganda Kingdom? Who are the Buganda people?

MALI: The Buganda people occupy the central part of Uganda. They are the largest tribe in the country and also traditionally they are the most powerful cultural grouping. The most powerful in the sense that politicians rely on the Buganda to rise to power. So any politician convincing the Buganda to vote for them as a block definitely will be assured of political office. So they are quite a significant ethnic group.

SHARP: Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni tried to visit the site today, but I gather protestors prevented him. What happened and how are people reacting?

MALI: They're linking this event to what happened last year when there were riots spread by the government blocking the King of Buganda visiting a place he believes to be a part of his kingdom. So that link made these people to think well the government could have had a hand in burning down the royal tombs.

SHARP: Just to be clear, there's no evidence yet of who or what caused the blaze?

MALI: There is not evidence yet of the cause of the blaze. All that we have around is speculation.

SHARP: Now this site, the Kasubi Tombs, is actually one large building. It was made of plant materials, what we might call thatched. Describe it for us.

MALI: It was made of grass and reeds and then of course the walls are made of bricks and concrete cement. If you looked at the inside of the tombs, or the mausoleum you will see that there were rings. And these rings that rose up into the roof were symbolic. In a certain corner there is a compartment where the remains of the fallen kings are kept.

SHARP: And I gather that this particular structure was the last extant example of its kind.

MALI: Exactly. In the 1960's the then Milton Arbota regime did abolish all the traditional kingdoms, later exiled the King of Buganda. Even the palace, the palace where the King used to live was destroyed, it was invaded and destroyed, but this particular place was not touched by the government. It was later declared to be a historical site that had to be protected. Of course, the Buganda have all this treasure. That's the only think epitomizes their cultural heritage. So it's the last thing that really meant a lot to them. They say, well they've lost a lot along the way, but this is the only thing that stood to remind them of their past glory.

SHARP: Joshua Mali, what did the site mean to you in particular?

MALI: Well the last time I visited that place to do a story; I mean I was really, deeply touched by the cultural heritage, by the importance the Buganda attached to this particular place. Just walking through the mausoleum with the guide as he explained to me everything, I found it quite a treasure. And to go back and find the whole place razed to the ground was a bit emotionally devastating for me.

SHARP: And you're not from the Buganda Kingdom?

MALI: I'm not from the Buganda Kingdom, but any person, any Ugandan who has been to that place will greatly appreciate that particular historical and cultural treasure.

SHARP: The BBC's Joshua Mali is based in Kampala. Joshua thanks for speaking with us.

MALI: You're welcome.

SHARP: To see photos of the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Uganda before it was destroyed by fire, go to the world dot org.