Variations: Lokwata, Luquata; Balukwata (pl.)
Victoria Nyanza is home to the Lukwata. The deeds and misdeeds of this great sea-serpent are told on both sides of the lake, from Uganda to the Kavirondo (Winam) Gulf in Kenya. The lukwata is commonly lumped with the dingonek, but the lukwata’s pedigree is far older. Lukwata is also the name of a Baganda clay charm which, when hidden in the king’s house, presents theft in the village, but this seems unrelated.
The lukwata has been around from time immemorial and makes occasional appearances. It is a huge and terrifying lake demon, a serpent, a cetacean, or perhaps a giant fish. It is associated with whirlpools in the lake. Ja-Luo fishermen have tales of the lukwata attacking their canoes. The Baganda, Kavirondo, and Wasoga of the north shore of lake Nyanza used to sacrifice livestock to it. The lukwata’s disappearance coincided with the sleeping-sickness epidemic, and it was believed that the muzungu (foreigners) caused the disease by killing the lukwata, thus bringing its wrath upon the people.
W. Grant, Provincial Commissioner of Jinja, saw a lukwata swimming down the Napoleon Gulf; its head was out of the water but it was too far to make out its features. Clement Hill of the Foreign Office had a far closer encounter when a lukwata off Homa Mountain tried unsuccessfully to seize a man on the bow of Hill’s ship. He saw a lizard-like head, roundish and dark-colored, on a four-foot-long neck attached to a large, rounded mass that formed the body. Some sort of tail seemed to be trailing behind.
E. G. Wayland, head of the Geological Survey of Uganda, claimed to have heard the lukwata’s distant bellowing. He was shown pieces of lukwata bone, and was told that the lukwata fought epic battles with crocodiles. Pieces of skin lost in those struggles were used for potent amulets.
The most complete account of a lukwata’s appearance is recorded by H. Bell, who shot one on the western border of Uganda near the Semliki River and Lake Albert. The creature, which was identified as a small lukwata by a native boy, was deemed to resemble Hill’s serpent. It had a snakelike head, a neck several inches long, a tail a few inches long, and flippers like a sea turtle’s. Instead of a hard shell, the lukwata had a thick, soft, rubbery carapace. Bell believed that the lukwata – evidently an odd species of turtle – would, at the surface, give the impression of a bulky, long-necked animal.
Balukwata are not particularly smart. A Baganda folktale tells of the friendship between a lukwata and a monkey. It came to pass that the King of the balukwata took ill, and his wizard told him to eat the heart of a monkey as a cure. The King offered great rewards to any of the balukwata who would bring him the heart of a monkey. So the lukwata went to the home of his friend the monkey and hailed him. “How are you? You should come visit me, my wife and sons want to see you”. “But I cannot swim”, said the monkey. “I’ll carry you on my back”, said the lukwata, and they were off. Halfway across the lake, the lukwata, having a crisis of conscience, decided to tell the monkey the truth. “I’m really sorry, but our King is sick and needs your heart”. The monkey thought fast. “You silly thing”, he told the lukwata, “I don’t have my heart with me. I leave it behind so I can jump through the trees. Take me back and I’ll fetch my heart from the branch where I left it”. Of course, the unsuspecting lukwata swam back, and the monkey escaped to safety in the trees – but not before mocking his erstwhile friend’s intelligence.
Bell, H. (1948) Witches & Fishes. Edward Arnold & Co., London.
Bronson, E. B. (1910) In Closed Territory. A. C. McClurg & Co., Chicago.
Cunningham, J. F. (1905) Uganda and its peoples. Hutchinson & Co., London.
Hattersley, C. W. (1900) An English Boy’s Life and Adventures in Uganda. The Religious Tract Society, London.
Heuvelmans, B.; Garnett, R. trans. (1958) On the Track of Unknown Animals. Rupert Hart-Davis, London.
Hobley, C. W. (1913) On Some Unidentified Beasts. The Journal of the East Africa and Uganda Natural History Society, III(6), pp. 48-52.
Johnston, H. (1902) The Uganda Protectorate. Hutchinson & Co., London.
Pilkington, G. L. (1911) A Hand-book of Luganda. Richard Clay & Sons, Limited, London.