A mixture of a school tropical breeze and intense piercing heat as is characteristically brandished by the afternoon African summer skies, take centre stage and reign over the lake shores. The air smells of different forms of decay, swaying from deserted ships, to the right, abandoned tables used for cutting fish, to the left are greenish seaweed filtrate floating on the lake ahead.
On the land, a multitude of piled pieces of firewood and charcoal make a strong presence, awaiting their voyage across the sea to any of the many islands on the lake or a lucky buyer.
A newly erected market stands a few metres away. There are a few passersby, some seen sitting by the shores, silent and looking at the waters. If you had missed the large East Africa Breweries billboard on your way in, there is nothing that will tell you are in Port Bell, let alone that you are standing on the grounds of Uganda’s oldest port.
Named after then British governor of Uganda, Sir Hesketh Bell, Port Bell was opened in 1908 to handle Ugandan imports by sea.
So strong was its importance that when the Uganda Railway opened in 1931, it was connected to the port to ease transportation of goods that had arrived by sea to Kampala.
But today Port Bell seems forgotten, lying on the lee ward side of Kampala, devoid of attention. The mere fact that it’s Uganda’s oldest port is enough to warrant it a spot among the country’s top tourism centres, but although all people interviewed agree, little if anything has been done to ensure it enjoys its deserved spot up there. And as a result, the would-have-been resultant economic benefits are also a mystery.
Both Malindi and Mombasa, Kenya’s oldest ports, have since become some of the country’s leading tourist centres. Same thing can be said of Dar-es-Salaam and Zanzibar, Tanzania’s oldest ports. All now key symbols of their countries’ heritage, a status that Port Bell has been terribly denied.
An Internet search for tourism at Port Bell reveals sites advertising tourist information about voyages, hotels and vacations at Port Bell. But on clicking those links, nothing surfaces; a sign that many tourist agencies value the place as a potential tourism centre but hardly anything on the ground can justify the assertion.
Mr Richard Oyamo, the General Secretary of Railway Zone, says the port’s value can only be found in theory, and not practice. “It (Port Bell) lacks potential value, in a sense that whatever should be in the port as other ports is not there and yet it’s the major port here. When you compare it to Kisumu and Mwanza ports, we are lagging behind,” Mr Oyamo says.
He says nothing has been put in place to manage potential tourists. “The only thing that attracts tourists is the water; nothing else. Tourists come here leaving without knowing they have arrived at Port Bell,” Mr Oyamo adds.
Mr John Baptist Kayaga, shadow minister for Tourism Trade and Industry, says the port’s tourism potential has been hampered by complacency from both potential investors and the government.
“Its historical perspective and scenery is good enough but no one has thought of it that way. We have all been thinking of developing it along the lines of a commercial centre,” Mr Kayaga says.
He says other ports like Kisumu have many commercial centres where tourists make purchases but that is not at Port Bell.
Mr Oyamo says the government has not planned for the port but simply neglected it. The state minister for tourism, Mr Serapiyo Rukundo, however says they have the port in their plans. “We are trying to have cruises on Lake Victoria. People are coming up with ideas on how to promote tourism there.”
The Public Relations officer for the Ministry of Works and Transport, Ms Susan Kataike, underlined Port Bell’s importance to the country’s transport industry, but said that it’s still performing at optimum capacity, especially because the passenger ships are down.
She says the ministry is embarking on the building a dry dock at the port plus making repairs on the MV Kahwa and Pamba lines.
The mere fact that people will spend time and money to not only come and marvel at the scenic beauty at Port Bell, but also take canoe rides, shows that the port’s possible tourism clout is felt by many but has just not been tapped.
A canoe-man said three months ago that the port has become a destination for people seeking to commit suicide. “Someone came, looking business-like and asked to be ferried around the islands. On reaching halfway, he jumps into the water and you then have to face the consequences if you come back to shore alone,” he says.
This tale is a simple representation of what Uganda’s oldest port has been reduced to. The views held by the stake holders above are your typical politicians’ talk, telling of how ‘plans are in the pipeline’ to develop the site. For it not to have a single tourism mark tells a lot about Uganda’s ability to guard its heritage, and leaves little wonder on why many land marks left behind by the imperialists, are now in ruins.