It was the 1800s. The Arabs, in their search for trading venues stumbled upon Ocecu Hill in present-day Gulu District.
Patiko is a beauty – mountains and hills grace her extensive vegetation. And she advantageously sits near Nimule, South Sudan and onwards to eastern Egypt, where the Arabs sold their merchandise.
The Arabs could not have found a better slave harbor and trade link. They descended upon Ocecu Hill and built three square-shaped huts to serve as stores for ammunition, ivory and foodstuff as well as hides and skins.
Slaves were a key trading item for the Arabs too and were captured from northern Uganda, Gondokoro in Sudan and other areas. Ocecu Hill became a sorting ground for slaves. Healthy-looking ones were forced to trek from Patiko, through Sudan across the Red Sea and sold in Egypt.
The journey to the slave markets was not easy. “The slaves were forced to carry looted millet, simsim, ammunition and ivory,” explains Constance Oneka who was in 2011 the caretaker of the site. Slaves who were too weak as a result of beatings and long treks were killed by firing squad or beheaded in the designated ‘execution slab/prosecution chamber’ on the hill. Barter trade was the major form of exchange. Traditional chiefs in Patiko supplied ivory to the Arabs in exchange for sukas, beads, guns and gun powder.
The Arabs turned Ocecu Hill into a trading centre and business boomed. However, when village raids intensified, fear, hunger and disease befell Patiko. Something had to be done. The then chief of Patiko – Rwot Kikwiyakare – organised the relocation of children, elders and the sick to a nearby mountain so that his people are not wiped away by slave trade.
Baker and the birth of Fort Patiko
That mountain, located about 2kms from Ocecu Hill, became known as Got Ajulu (Julu is Acholi for ‘nurture’, Got means mountain/hill). According to the Chief of Patiko, Rwot Jeremiah Muttu Bonojane, Rwot Kikwiyakare said to his people: “Let’s nurture (julu) our people so that our clan is not wiped away.” As a result, the mountain has since then been called Got Ajulu.
As Britain spread its colonial wings across Africa, quashing slave trade was one of their missions. Explorer Sir Samuel Baker was commissioned by the Queen of England to oversee that mission. Although Britain would colonise Uganda in 1894, by 1863, Sir Samuel Baker and the chief of Patiko – Rwot Kikwiyakare met and discussed the slave trade menace in the area.
In 1872, Baker returned from Egypt with Nubian soldiers, passed through Bunyoro to quash the Kabalega resistance against the British and headed to Patiko. He over-run the slave harbor, expelled about 250 Arabs and fortified the place. Fort Patiko, also known as Baker’s Fort Patiko, was born.
Located about 32 kilometers north of Gulu Town, the fort is enclosed by a 16 feet wide and 15 feet deep trench dug by slaves on the orders of the Arabs to avoid the escape of captives. The tourism site, located in Patiko Sub-county in Gulu District covers about 9.4 hectares.
It is neighbored by six hills – Ajulu, Ladwong, Akara, Abaka and Labworomor to the north and Kiju hill to the south.
In 2011 when I first visited the Fort, an oval-shaped, roofless hut with half of its wall crumbled down, stood at the entrance with two doors on either side. Small rocks pieced together with mud and cement, formed the wall of the hut which served as a gate.
Two years later, the hut is no more. Inside Fort Patiko lies well-trimmed grass, with a rectangular-shaped structure sitting on the left of the vast compound.
This small house used to be a reception and a registration room. But the roofless structure is now a haven to grass, insects and animal waste, despite its well-trimmed surroundings. On the right side of the compound sits an oval-shaped structure, built only almost two feet up. “It used to be the visitors’ waiting room,” says John Too, who says he was the Fort caretaker from 1976 to early 2000.
Beyond the lush compound dotted with small, scattered, protruding rocks, sit three square-shaped and roofless huts that were used by Arabs to store their loot. Two years ago, one of the store walls had an inscription “Patiko, 1872-88, founded by Sir Samuel Baker, occupied by Gordon and Emin”.
Mr. Too says the name Patiko was misspelled by Baker, while writing the inscription. The metallic plate that bore the inscription is no more and according to Rwot Muttu, it was recently stolen. Next to the three huts stand a giant rock, about 150 high and is known as Baker’s leap/seat. It was on top of this rock, that the Arabs would sit to monitor any infiltration by their enemies to the area. Behind the three square-shaped huts is the execution slab and further left of the slab is a cave where slaves –destined for execution were ‘imprisoned’.
The ‘execution slab’ is dotted with dents which Mr. Too says were caused by axes used to behead slaves. Dark spots, believed to be blood stains of slaves, can also be seen on the rock. Fort Patiko might have witnessed terror from Arab slave trade dealers, but the natural beauty of the place, rose above its dark history.
Management, maintenance woes cloud Fort Patiko
Fort Patiko could have risen above its dark history, but what remains to be seen, is what the government, which gazettes the Fort as a government object in 1972, will do to milk its potential for area residents and the country.
Area residents think fencing off the area and placing its management with them, will ensure the protection and preservation of the Fort.
The chief of Patiko, Rwot Jeremiah Muttu Bonojane, who accuses the government of taking away management of the place from his people, says the area where Fort Patiko sits, was given to the Arabs by Rwot Kikwiyakare, his great grandfather. “I don’t know why I should be wrangling with government over this place. Government said they can’t give it to me because they have a plan for it,” he explains.
He adds: “But I told them the people of Patiko want to manage the place in partnership with development partners.”
Fort Patiko, according to Rwot Muttu is currently managed by the Sub-county but he thinks a lot needs to be made better.
“There are no urinals, no toilets in the place. If I have life, I’ll change that place for the better in just five years,” he says, adding that Fort Patiko has been moving from the ministry of Tourism, Trade and now they understand it’s under Heritage and iniquities.
In a letter dated October 13, 2009, the Department of Museums and Monuments in the Ministry of Tourism and Industry, expressed concern over the decline in maintenance of Fort Patiko. “There are signs of degradation of the walls of key historic monumental structures (the granary, ivory and ammunition stores). The compound is bushy and the trench system is rundown and invisible,” the letter, addressed to the Gulu Chief Administrative Officer, reads in part.
The business community in Gulu has in the past requested the Ministry to be allowed to manage the fort. However, the ministry said after basic conservation work is complete, there could be a private-public partnership. “The immediate need of the site is opening the borders to establish the boundaries of the site, clearance of vegetation and grass cutting in the defensive ditch surrounding the camp…” the 2009 letter reads further.
“Removal of all anthills within the periphery, reconstruction of an attendant’s office, construction of a pit latrine and erection of enamel signposts in Gulu and on the main route to Patiko,” the letter, signed by Mwanje Nkaale Rose Ag Commissioner, Museums and Monuments, adds.
Even as the management hiccups for Fort Patiko get sorted out, local and foreign visitors have continued to troop the area to revel in its beauty and history.