Uganda: The Ganda Tradition

The Baganda or Ganda are the largest single ethnic group in Uganda representing approximately 20% of Uganda’s total 34.7 million population. They occupy the central part of the country, which was formerly called the Buganda province. They are a Bantu-speaking people and their language is called ‘Luganda’. We look at some traditional aspects of this ethnic group.

The Baganda believed in superhuman spirits in the form of ‘Balubaale, mizimu and misambwa’. The ‘Balubaale’ were believed to have been men whose exceptional attributes in life were carried over into death. The ‘mizimu’, instead, were believed to be ghosts of dead people for it was believed that only the body could die and rot but the soul would still exist as ‘omuzimu’, which is the singular of mizimu. Such ghosts were believed to operate at the family level, to haunt whoever the dead person had grudges with. If the ‘mizimu’ entered natural objects, they were believed to become ‘misambwa’. At another level, the ‘mizimu’ could become tribal figures and also be known as ‘Balulaale’.

The Supreme Being among the Baganda was the creator ‘Katonda’.
Katonda was believed to have had neither children nor parents. He was said to have created heavens and the earth with all that they contain. Katonda was, however, not believed to be very different from the other Balubaale. In fact he was believed to be one of the seventy-three Balubaale in Buganda. There were three temples for Katonda in Buganda and all of them were situated in Kyaggwe under the care of priests from the Njovu clan.

The other Balubaale had specific functions. The most important among them were Katonda-Ggulu, god of the sky and the father of Kiwanuka, god of lightning. Then there was Kawumpuli, god of plague, Ndaula, god of small pox, Musisi, god of earthquakes, Wamala, god of Lake Wamala and Mukasa, god of Lake Victoria. Musoke was the god of the rainbow and Kitaka was the god of the earth.

Social Stratification.
Unlike the neighbouring societies of Ankole, Bunyoro and Toro, the Baganda seem to have been a coherent group. The society provides a striking example of being one with no fixed social divisions. The society was so fluid that any person of talent and ability could rise to a position of social importance. But this did not mean that the Baganda society had no classes as such because at any time, the distinction between one class and another could be made.

At the bottom of the social stratum, there was a class of people known as the Bakopi (serfs). Mukopi were described as ‘simply a person who did not matter’. The Bakopi obtained their livelihood from the goodwill of the Baami (chiefs) and the Balangira (princes), the other two social groups in Buganda. They depended on land, but they had no rights to it. Therefore, a mukopi was almost a serf to the mwami or the Kabaka.

In ascending order, the next class in the Baganda society were the chiefs or the Baami as they were called. The Baami were not born Baami as a class but they could become such through distinguished services and ability or just by royal appointment. The Baami were a middle class in Buganda society. In fact, the fluidity of the Kiganda system is evidenced by the class of the Baami. Initially, the status of the Baami was enjoyed by the Bataka (clan heads). However, after 1750, the men of the Bakopi class began to be promoted to become Baami.

The Baami could be distinguished into three patterns namely the Bakunga, the Bataka, and the Batongole. The highest class in Buganda society was the Balangira. This was the aristocracy who based their right to rule on royal blood. At any one time, society would recognise the Kabaka, the queen mother variously referred to as Namasole, Nabijano, or kanyabibambwa, then Nalinya popularly known as Lubuga (royal sister), then the Katikiiro and the Kimbugwe. The group formed a class of its own in Buganda.

Political set-up.
The Baganda had a centralised system of government, which by 1750 was most well organised in the inter-lacustrine region. The head of state was the King known as Kabaka. Previously, the Bataka had a lot of political influence. They enjoyed a position almost similar to that of Kabaka although they were subject to him in his capacity as Ssabataka. However, after 1750, the Kabaka assumed a position of political importance far superior to the ranks of the Bataka.

The Kabaka’s position was hereditary, but was not confined to any one clan because the king used to marry from as many clans as possible and this encouraged loyalty to the throne in the sense that each of the fifty-two clans hoped that it would one day produce the King.

The other persons who occupied positions of political and social importance were the Prime Minister known as the katikiro, the Mugema, the royal sister known as Namasole and the naval and army commanders, referred to as Gabunga and Mujasi respectively.

The Kingdom was divided into administrative units known as Amasaza (counties) which were further subdivided into Amagombolola (sub-counties), and these were subdivided into parishes called Emiluka which were subdivided into sub-parishes.

Formerly, there would be succession disputes after the death of the Kabaka. With time, however, structural modifications were made to avoid such disputes. The most ancient of such modifications was that the king would kill all his sons and leave only one of them who would inherit the throne after his death. This system was too crude to last. As time went on, the reigning king would nominate the one who would succeed him before he died. It is said that such a nomination would be adhered to as far as it was humanly possible. But the final decision in such a case lay in the hands of the Katikiro, the Kimbugwe (traditional saza chief of Buruli) and Kasujja-Lubinga (a chief traditionally appointed from the Lugave clan to look after the Balangira Bengoma, the heirs apparent).

The death of the Kabaka.
Whenever the Kabaka died, his drums known as Majaguzo were taken away to a place of safety until a new Kabaka was appointed. These drums were under the guardianship of the members of the Lugave clan. The sacred fire referred to as Gombololawhich was kept incessantly burning at the entrance of the palace during the lifetime of the Kabaka would now be extinguished. It would be re-lit on the installation of the new kabaka. Indeed the customary phrase to announce the death of a Kabaka was, ‘Omuliro gwe Buganda Guzikide’, meaning that Buganda’s fire has been extinguished.

The tradition of equating the King’s lifetime with the burning of the fire was believed to have started during the reign of Kintu and to have continued until the flight of Mutesa II from Lubiri palace in 1966. The traditional keepers of this fire were styled as Senklole and Musoloza. It was also customary to announce the death of the Kabaka with the phrase ‘Agye omukono mu ngabo’, meaning, ‘he has let loose the shield’.

The burial of the Kabaka.
When the Kabaka died, his body would be carefully wrapped in appropriate attire and placed in a room called ‘Twekobe’, inside the Kabaka’s house. The two chiefs Kangawo (title for the county chief of Bulemezi) and Mugerere (county chief of Bugerere) would be put in immediate charge of the body. Before burial, the body would be embalmed for almost six months. The Baganda believed that the spirit of a man would always remain where his jawbone was. For this reason, the jawbone of the Kabaka was removed from his body before burial and a special shrine was built to house it.

After the independence in 1962, the Kingdom was abolished by Uganda’s first Prime Minister Milton Obote in 1966. Following years of disturbance under Obote and dictator Idi Amin, as well as several years of internal divisions among Uganda’s ruling National Resistance Movement under Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda since 1986, the kingdom was finally restored in 1993. Buganda is now a kingdom monarchy with a large degree of autonomy from the Ugandan state, although tensions between the kingdom and the Ugandan government continue to be a defining feature of Ugandan politics. Since the restoration of the kingdom in 1993, the king of Buganda, has been Muwenda Mutebi II. He is recognised as the thirty-sixth Kabaka of Buganda. The current queen, known as the Nnabagereka, is Queen Sylvia Nagginda.

– David Musoke

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