Mystery On The Nile: Just Whose River Is It? After much toil and hardship, 19th century explorers solved the mystery of where the Nile begins. But who has rights to the water remains a hot debate among countries in the mighty river's basin.
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Mystery On The Nile: Just Whose River Is It?

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Mystery On The Nile: Just Whose River Is It?

Mystery On The Nile: Just Whose River Is It?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Great mysteries often begin at the end and end at the beginning. And for thousands of years, the Nile River was perhaps the world's greatest mystery. Anyone can see where it ends, pouring northward from Egypt into the Mediterranean Sea. But Western explorers didnt locate the origins of the river until the Victorian Age.

In the first of three stories about the Nile, NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports that discovery led to a new question: Just whose river is it?

GWEN THOMPKINS: Most of the explorers whose names are linked to the headwaters of the Nile weren't exactly the nicest bunch. They were the best of the Victorian Age, doing the work of Britain's Royal Geographic Society, of sultans and Egyptians, and of a queen bent on expanding her empire.

But let's face it. Most of these guys didn't like black people. And hello, who else are you going to find in the interior of Africa? So the hunt for the source of the Nile was a solitary business and scary.

Here, in what is now Uganda, anything can pop out of the lively darkness of the night.

(Soundbite of insects and animals)

THOMPKINS: The creepy crawlies you're listening to now are probably descendants of the ones that bit the Shinola out of John Hanning Speke and the other explorers who came looking for the source of the Nile.

Tsetse flies, mosquitoes, ants, bed bugs - they proved just as awful as the crocodiles along the shore or the pythons hanging from the trees, not to mention the hippos.

(Soundbite of a hippopotamus)

THOMPKINS: Or the bats.

(Soundbite of bats)

THOMPKINS: In the mid-19th century, the Nile Basin was an unknown thicket to the Victorians. And every soggy, itchy step took them through various African kingdoms, most of them hostile. The explorer Richard Burton famously preferred the company of Arab slave catchers to black Africans. But he would have gone anywhere to find the headwaters of the Nile.

Matthew Davies is an archaeologist with the British Institute of East Africa.

Dr. MATTHEW DAVIES (Archaeologist, British Institute in East Africa): Particularly during the Victorian period, it was seen that much of the basis of European civilization came from Egypt and had some kind of influence from Egypt. And so, I think it was bizarre to people in the Victorian period that their whole ancestry was based upon the Nile and yet, the source of it was unknown.

(Soundbite of insects)

THOMPKINS: Then, in August of 1858, Speke had an Aha-moment to end all Aha-moments. He happened upon the biggest stretch of water he'd ever seen on the continent. And just then, he knew he'd found the source.

Edith Matega(ph) teaches high school history in Kampala.

Ms. EDITH MATEGA (History Teacher) Yeah, John Hanning Speke was the first European to see the source of the Nile. We don't say discovered because we know the Africans had already seen it before him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

THOMPKINS: And so it was here?

Ms. MATEGA: Yeah, it was there.

(Soundbite of music)

THOMPKINS: Matega is attending an afternoon party at the Speke Memorial, high above the point where Lake Victoria becomes the Nile River.

(Soundbite of music)

THOMPKINS: But none of Speke's rivals ever threw a party for him. Speke didn't have another white to corroborate his story about the big lake and a big river emanating from it. What's more, his travel log was kind of naughty. Speke mentioned the body measurements of the fattest wives of a tribal king. Mind you, those women were unusually corpulent.

But Davies says the Victorians preferred the adventures of Henry Morton Stanley, who succeeded Speke and circumnavigated the lake. Stanley wrote bestsellers, but he left trails of dead Africans and other fellow travelers to rot.

Dr. DAVIES: Stanley certainly wasn't the nicest chap on the planet. I'm happy to say that he was an American. He was actually a Welshman. And I'm a Welshman, as well, which makes me particularly sad about that. But I think we should just say he was an American and leave it there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. DAVIES: Hmm.

THOMPKINS: Before he died he changed his citizenship back. He went back to Britain.

Dr. DAVIES: Did he?


Dr. DAVIES: I didn't even know that.

THOMPKINS: So he died on your side.

Dr. DAVIES: On our side. Oh, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. DAVIES: Shame.

THOMPKINS: Speke was right. But what he saw was the beginning of the White Nile, only one branch of the river that makes its way northward to Sudan and then onto Egypt. So the memorial says: Speke found this source of the Nile, and not the source of the Nile.

Edith Matega says maybe Speke should have asked an African.

Ms. MATEGA: For us locally, this is Nalubaale Lake. They gave it Victoria. Yeah? So this river is the locally Jheera(ph). They gave it, the Nile.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MATEGA: So it was just a renaming.

(Soundbite of laughter)

THOMPKINS: But Davies says there was more to the story than just renaming sites. Egypt and Britain wanted to get their hands on the entire Nile basin. Egypt depended fully on the river and needed to control its headwaters. And Britain depended on the Suez in Egypt to be its major trade route to India.

Dr. DAVIES: And if you control the Nile, then you control Egypt, then you control Suez. So there are a whole range of motivating factors at series of different levels.

THOMPKINS: Britain's anti-slavery movement was also trying to get into Africa and stop the slave trade. The missionary explorer David Livingstone died on his knees, while praying to find the Nile. And Samuel Baker and his wife Florence hacked their way into history, as the couple whose prayers were answered.

They came from Sudan, sailing where they couldn't walk, walking where they couldn't sail and moving forward where there was no going back.

Matthew Davies knows that terrain.

Mr. DAVIES: The problems of the mosquitoes and the heat and the vegetation, which is so dense, yeah. You can't work there for more than a few weeks at a time. It's just too draining.

THOMPKINS: The Bakers searched for years. Then, in 1864, Baker saw a big lake and named it Albert, after the Queen's consort. Then he saw a big river that emptied from the lake - it was the Nile. But Baker needed to be sure that the Nile he saw was the same Nile that emerged from Lake Victoria. So, he paddled up the river, then he paddled some more. And suddenly he stopped because there's no way on this green earth that he could have paddled any farther. Up ahead was the most magnificent waterfall.

We're not talking water cascading like some champagne fountain. No, we're talking a rip-roaring, howling spin cycle. In short, who let the dogs out?

(Soundbite of waterfall)

THOMPKINS: Baker had found a major piece in the puzzle of the Nile. The river drops in elevation as it flows north, and it really gets its giddy-up as it plunges over the falls. Baker named the falls Murchison and claimed the entire area for Britain. And decades later, Britain promised most of the Nile's water to Egypt. Today, Egypt and Sudan claim nearly 90 percent of the Nile's flow.

John Bosco Suuza is a lawyer for the Ugandan government.

Mr. JOHN BOSCO SUUZA (Lawyer, Ugandan Government): Actually, when you talk to Egyptians, they jokingly, but (unintelligible) they tell you that, no, no, no. That's not your water. It's our water stored in your country.

THOMPKINS: Try selling that idea to Edith Matega.

Ms. MATEGA: No, no, no. That is imperialism. It is our water. It begins from here. Their river is the delta, you know? Yeah, that is theirs. That is their part and we're not complaining about that. But the source is ours. Yeah.

THOMPKINS: Now, Uganda and four of its neighbors want a whole new deal. They've signed an agreement calling for a more equitable share in the river. But Egypt and Sudan are refusing to sign. And in the meantime, everyone is keeping tabs.

Engineers from each country monitor the entire length of the river daily and know where every drop of water goes. And what an engineer can't tell you about the Nile, everyone else along the river can. They know where to fish, where to swim, where to wash clothes. But for most, the river is still a mystery. That's because people know the Nile only where they see it pass.

Patrick Mmayi is a Nile expert from neighboring Kenya. Even he hasn't seen the river beyond Uganda.

Mr. PATRICK MMAYI: I wish to see actually where the water ends up after it has gone all the long journey.


Mr. MMAYI: Yeah.

THOMPKINS: Who says the age of exploration is over?

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You can see hippos, waterfalls and more on our website, and a gallery of photos of the Nile's headwaters in Uganda. You'll find them at

Next week, Gwen Thompkins travels to Ethiopia, home to the headwaters of the Blue Nile.

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