The Sciences

'River Gulu' Discovery in London Confronts the World's Colonial Past

The humorous approach of a Ugandan 'explorer' shines a light on centuries of colonialists 'discovering' places and 'naming' them despite the existence of local names.

In a comeback that has been in the making for centuries, a Ugandan ‘explorer’ has joined the greats of the exploration game by discovering a river in London: River Gulu.

Gulu, incidentally, happens to be the Thames.

Milton Allimadi made the cheeky discovery on Twitter on April 23 after he got lost. As Nairobi News reported, he “wasted no time in giving it a ‘proper’ name,” mirroring the absurdity of colonial naming practices.

In a post on his Facebook page, he wrote:

Though the original post has received over a thousand reactions, the ‘discovery’ went viral when Kenyan Michael Owuor posted it on Twitter:

Allimadi’s humorous approach shines a small light on centuries of white explorers ‘discovering’ rivers, lakes and other geographical points around the globe, and ‘naming’ them despite the existence of local names. The narrative perpetually offered by such explorers has been that the locals never had a name for whichever so-called discovery they made their own.

Also read: What’s in a (Re)Name?

The ‘discovery’ has caught the imagination of several people, so much so that the Wikipedia page on the Thames was recently edited to acknowledge the river’s “true name”, Gulu, as well as the efforts of “Sir Milton of House Allimadi”.

The Wikipedia page of ‘River Gulu’.

Incidentally, a ‘Gulu Private Resort‘ also happens to exist in East London, South Africa.

Twitter caught on to the joke quickly. Sir Milton’s discovery even prompted the @ThamesDiscovery page to be renamed to River Gulu.

A fair bit of ire was also directed at European adventurers Johannes Rebmann and Johann Ludwig Krapf, who are credited with ‘discovering’ Mt Kenya in 1849.

Allimadi, who lives in New York and is a publisher of The Black Star News, has even put out a call for the “African exploration of the hitherto unknown parts of Europe” to continue in response to others picking up the baton and ‘discovering’ new sites in the UK.

This movement may take off but across the world, governments have been reverting to old names in an attempt to shed the baggage of European colonialism.

There are countless examples. More recently, Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, suggested that the name of the archipelago nation be changed to the “Republic of Maharlika”.

“It’s named the Philippines because it was discovered by Magellan using money from King Philip,” he said. “That’s why, when that stupid explorer came, he named it the Philippines.”

Also read: Mumbai’s Name Changing Spree Has Reached Absurd Levels

In December 2018, during a visit to the Andaman and Nicobar islands, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that three small islands in the South Andamans would be renamed.

Ross Island has been renamed after Subhas Chandra Bose; Neil Island is now Shaheed Dweep; and Havelock Island is officially known as Swaraj Dweep.

The Cook Islands is also looking to revert to a traditional name, and drop the moniker it acquired because Captain James Cook visited the islands in the 12th century. “I’m quite happy to look at a traditional name for our country which more reflects the true Polynesian nature of our island nation,” Cook Islands Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown said in March.

The move was initiated by paramount chief Pa Marie Ariki in January after a debate on Cook being pegged as the ‘discoverer’ of Australia and other Pacific countries and islands blew up, CNN reported.

‘Modern intellectual colonialism’

At the same time, in a recent thread on Twitter, marine ecologist Emily S. Klein also brought to the fore the practice of ‘parachute science’, where scientists from first world countries travel to lower income countries, conduct their experiments and head home to reap the accolades.

Klein, a senior postdoc at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future at Boston University, wrote:

Her thread sparked a discussion on Twitter about the practice, also called ‘parasitic science’.

Such scientists and researchers don’t exactly collaborate or share their data with local researchers. In fact, it has been found that many such scientists fly in on a tourist visa and collect the data/sample while on holiday.

The main criticism against this model is that it offers no sustainability. After all, researchers conducting studies in foreign countries are benefiting from the country’s resources without investing in the country itself or without paying dues.

Again, just as explorers made their ‘discoveries’, scientists end up disregarding local knowledge entirely by ignoring the locals.

As Klein’s thread suggests, in order to decolonise science, collaboration is key.