Article by Gareeba Jemark John Mark
The Banyankore are a Bantu group. They inhabit the present districts of Mbarara, Isingiro, Mitooma, Rubirizi, Sheema, Kiruhura Bushenyi, Ibanda, Rukungiri and Ntungamo in western Uganda. Originally, Ankole was known as Kaaro- Karungi and the word Nkore is said to have been adopted during the 17th century following the devastating invasion of Kaaro-Karungi by Chawaali, the then Omukama of Bunyoro-Kitara. The word Ankole was introduced by British colonial administrators to describe the bigger kingdom which was formed by adding to the original Nkore, the former independent kingdoms of Igara, Sheema, Buhweju and parts of Mpororo.
Like other Bantu groups, the origins of the Banyankore could be traced to the Congo region. Legends hold that the first occupant of Ankole was Ruhanga (the creator), who is believed to have come from heaven to rule the earth. Ruhanga is believed to have come with his three sons Kairu, Kakama and Kahima. There is a story about how Ruhanga gave a test to determine which of his sons would become the heir. The test is said to have been that of keeping milk –filled pots on their laps through out the night. At the end of it all, the youngest son, Kakama, is said to have passed the test followed by Kahima and last came the eldest son, Kairu. Judging from the performance in the test, Ruhanga is said to have decreed that Kairu and Kahima would=d serve their brother Kakama. Thereafter he went back to heaven, leaving Kakama or Ruhanga, as he was also called, to rule the land. This legend portrays social stratification in Ankole society. It was concocted so as to make the Bairu accept their sub servant position to the Bahima as being supernatural.
The Banyankole society stratified into Bahima (pastoralists) and the Bairu (agriculturalists). A caste-like system of the Bahima over the Bairu existed. The society was a dual pyramid with pastoral and agricultural legs. Within the two groups or castes ( I call them castes not classes because within the Bahima and Bairu, there were those who had some thing in common), the clans cut across both the Bairu and the Bahima.The two groups recognized a common ancestry. There was a general belief that what made a mwiru (singular Bairu) what he is was a hoe and what made a Muhima (singular Bahima) what he is was a cattle. This kind of belief was not very accurate because merely acquiring cows would not immediately transform one from a Mwiru into a Muhima nor would the loss of cows transform a Muhima into a Mwiru. A Muhima who owned few cattle would be called a Murasi. A Mwiru who owned cattle was called a Mwambari.
The two groups lived together and they depended on each other. The Bairu exchanged cattle products with Bahima and the Bahima equally received agricultural goods fro the Bairu. This was because the Bairu needed milk, meat, hides and other cattle products form the Bahima, while the Bahima would also need agricultural products from the Bairu, equally local beer.
Traditionally, the normal pattern was for both the parents of the boy and the girl to arrange the marriage, sometimes without the knowledge of the girls concerned. The initiative was normally taken by the boy’s parents and upon the payment of an appropriate bride wealth; arrangements would be made to fetch the bride. Customarily, a girl could not be offered for marriage when her elder sister or sisters were still unmarried. If a marriage offer was made for a young sister, it is said that the girl’s parents would manipulate issues in such a way that at the giving- away ceremony, they would conceal and send the elder sister. When the bridegroom would come to know it he was not supposed to raise questions. He could go ahead and pay more bride wealth and then go ahead and marry the young sister if he could afford it. It was the responsibility of the father to pay in full the bride wealth and meet all the other costs of arranging his son’s marriage.
During the wedding ceremony, the girl would be accompanied by among others, her aunt. Some traditions assert that the husband would first have sex with the aunt before proceeding to have it with the bride. Another piece of tradition says that the duty of the aunt was to prove the potency of the bridegroom by just watching or listening to the sexual intercourse between the bridegroom and her niece. It is said that her duty was to advice the girl on how to begin a home more so, since Ankole, girls were supposed t be virgins until marriage. The first tradition is false because in most cases the aunt would be an elderly lady almost the same age as the mother of the bridegroom but the other two traditions are true. If the parents of the girl were aware that their daughter was not virgin, this information was formally communicated to the husband by giving the girl, among the other gifts, a perforated coin or another hollow object.
Okuteera oruhoko was a phrase used to describe the practice whereby a boy whom the girls had deliberately refused to love or whom a particular girl had rejected could force the girl to marry him abruptly without her consent and much preparation.
The practice of okuteera oruhoko was characteristic of the traditional Ankole society but vestiges of it still appear. Society decried this practice but it was common and helpful, nonetheless. However, the offender had to be fined by paying a big bride wealth. There were various ways in which this practice was carried out.
One such ways was by using a cock. A boy who had desired and wished to marry a girl who had rejected him, would get hold of a cock,go to the girl’s homestead, throw the cock in the compound and ran away. The girl had to be whisked to the boy’s home immediately because it was believed and feared that should the cock crow when the girl was still at home, refusing to follow the boy or making unnecessary preparations, she or somebody else in the family would instantly die.
Another type of Oruhoko was done by smearing millet flour on the face of the girl. If the boy chanced to find the girl grinding millet he would pick some flour from the winnowing tray used to collect the flour as it comes off the grinding stone and smear it on the girl’s face. The boy would run away and swift arrangements would be made to send him the girl as any delays and excuses would cause consequences similar to those methods described above.
Among the Bahima especially, there were three other ways in which the okuteera oruhuko would be done. One of them was for the boy to put a tethering rope around the neck of the girl and then pronounce in public that he had done so. The second one was to put a plant known as orwihura on the girl’s head; and the third one was for the boy to sprinkle milk on the girl’s face while milking. It should be pointed out that this practice was only possible if the girl and the boy were from different clans.
Oruhuko was a dangerous and degrading practice. It was usually tried by boys who failed to have alternatives. If the boy was not lucky enough to elude and run faster than the relatives of the girl, it was however usually done so abruptly that before the girl’s relatives could get organized, the boy would have disappeared. The punishment was usually inflicted on the boy through the payment of too much bride wealth. He would pay double or normal charge or even more. The extra cows which were charged were not refunded if the marriage broke up.
The Banyankore did not have peculiar birth customs. Usually when a woman was to give birth for the first time, she would be sent to her mother. Brave women, and majority of them were brave, could give birth by themselves without any need for a midwife. However, if things went wrong, an acting midwife, usually an old woman would be summoned.
If the afterbirth refused to come out freely and quickly after the child, some medicine would be administered to the woman. If the normal herbs failed to induce it out, the husband of the woman was required to climb with a mortar to the top of the house, raise an alarm and slide the mortar down from the top of the house.
The child could be named immediately after birth. The normal practice was after the mother had finished the days if confinement referred to as ekiriri. The woman would confine her self for four days of the child was a boy and three days if the child was a girl. After three or four days, as the case may be the couple would resume their sexual relationship in a practice known as okucwa eizaire. The name given to the child depended on the personal experience of the father and the mother, the time when the child was born, the days of the week, the place of birth, or the name of an ancestor. The name would be given by the father, the grand father, and the mother of the child. However, the father’s choice usually took precedence.
The names given were verbs or nouns that could appear in normal speech. Often the names also portrayed the state of mind of the persons who gave them. For example, the name Kaheeru among the Banyoro portrayed the fact that the husband suspected that the woman got the child outside the family. In traditional Ankole, it was normal for the woman to have sex with her in-laws and even have children by them. Such children were not regarded any differently from the other children in the family.
The Banyankole did not believe that death was a natural phenomenon. According to them, death was attributed to sorcery, misfortune and the spite of the neighbors. They even had a saying: Tihariho mufu atarogyirwe. Meaning; “there is no body that dies without being bewitched”. They found it hard to believe that a man could die if it was not due to witchcraft and malevolence of other persons. Accordingly, after every death, the persons affected would consult a witch doctor to detect whoever was responsible for causing the death.
A dead body would normally stay in the house for as long as it would take all the important relatives to gather. Among the Bairu, a person would be buried either in the compound or in the plantation. Among the Bahima he would be buried in the kraal. Burial was usually done in the afternoon and the bodies were buried facing the east. A woman was made to lie on her left while a man was made to lie on his right. After burial, a woman was accorded three days of mourning while a man was accorded four days. During the days of mourning, all the neighbors and the relatives of the deceased would remain camping and sleeping at the home of the deceased. During this period, the whole neighborhood would not dig or do manual work because it was believed that if anyone dug, or did manual work during the mourning days, he would cause the whole village to be ravaged by hail storms. Such a person could also be regarded as a sorcerer and could easily be suspected of having caused the death of the person who had just been buried. However, the abstinence of the neighbors from digging and doing manual work was meant to console the relatives.
If the dead man was the head of the house hold, his leading bill would be killed and eaten to end the days of mourning. Further ritual ceremonies would be conducted if the dead man was very old and had grand children. If a person died with a grudge against someone in the family, he was buried with some objects to keep the spirit occupied so that it would fail to have time to haunt those with whom the deceased had a grudge.
There were special burials for spinsters and those who committed suicide. It was considered taboo for one t commit suicide. The burial of one who committed suicide was very complicated. The body would be cut from a tree by a woman who had attained menopause (encurazaara). Such a woman was heavily fortified with charms. Indeed it was believed that whoever performed the role of cutting the rope used by the suicide would soon die also.
Tradition has it that at times; the corpses of suicide victims could not be touched. A grave was dug directly under the corpse so that when cutting the rope, the corpse would fall into the grave. The grave was then covered and that was all. There would be neither mourning nor the normal funeral rites. The tree on which the victim has hugged himself would be uprooted and burnt. The relatives of the suicide victim would not use any piece of that tree for firewood.
There were also particular formalities for the burial of a spinster. If such a girl died, it was feared that her spirits would come back to haunt the living simply because he girl had died unsatisfied. In order to placate the spirit and avert its evil retributions, before the body was taken for burial, one of the brothers of the dead girl was required to pretend making love with the corpse. This act was known as okugyeza empango ahamutwe. Then the body was passed by the rear door and buried. It is said that if a man died unmarried, he would be buried with a banana stem to occupy the position of the supposed wife. This was believed to propitiate the dead man’s spirit and its evil retributions on the living. The body was also passed through the rear door.
The Banyankole had the practice of making blood brother hood. A person would make a blood brother in a ceremony known as okikora omukago. The actual ceremony involved the two people sitting on a mat so close together that their legs would overlap. In their right hands, they would hold sprouts of ejubwe type of grass and a sprout of omurinzi tree (erythina tomentosa). The Bairu would hold in addition a sprout of omutosa (fig) tree (ficus eryobotrioides).
The master of ceremonies would make a small cut to the right of the naval of each man.The end of omurinzi tree and ejubwe grass were dipped in the blood on the incision and put into the hands of each person. For the Bahima, only the mutoma sprout was used. Then a little milk or millet flour was poured in the blood in case of the Bairu and each man would hold the other’s hand with the left and they would both swallow the blood and the milk or the blood and the millet flour in each other’s hand at the same time. Blood brother hood could not be made between people of the same clan because naturally, they would be regarded as brothers. Blood brothers would treat each other as real brothers in every respect.
The Banyankole had a centralized system of government. At the top of the political ladder, there was a king called omugabe. Below him there was a prime minister known as Enganzi. Then there were provincial chiefs known as Abakuru b’ebyanga. Below them, there were chiefs who took charge of local affairs at the parish and sub-parish levels.
The position of the king was hereditary. The King had to belong to the Bahinda royal clan who claimed descendant from Ruhanga, son of Njunaki.Whenever a King died, there were often succession disputes to determine who would succeed to the throne. Thereafter, there would be an elaborate ceremony to install the new King. Whenever a king died, some of his wives would commit suicide or they would be forced to do so. Some of the servants in the royal court would also commit suicide. It is said that in the earlier times, some people of the Baingo clan would also be killed in order to accompany the King in the afterworld. The corpse of the king was also known as omuguta to distinguish it from that of an ordinary person which was known as omurambo. It was specially buried by the Bayangwe clan styling themselves for the occasion as the Abahitsi. To communicate the message that the King had died, one would not say the t Omugabe afire which is the appropriate Runyankole term, rather one would say that Omugabe ataahize.
The Kingdom had a standing army. The army was divided into battalions known as emitwe (singular omutwe). Each battalion was under a province known as Mukuru w’ ekyanga some times referred to as Omukungu. Often, the kingdom of Nkore was a war with the neighboring states and sometimes she sent raiding expeditions to Karagwe and Buhweju. The Kingdom of Bunyoro sometimes raided Nkore and took away a lot of cattle. Notable among the Banyoro invasions of Nkore were those of Omukama Olimi I during the reign of Ntare I Nyabugaro and that of Omukama I Walimi in the 17th century during the reign of Ntare IV Kitabanyoro. During the reign of Ntare IV, there occurred another war between the Banyankole and the Nkondami (soldiers) of Kabaundami of Buhweju.
During the reign of King Machwa after the death of Ntare IV, an expedition was sent against Irebe, the King of Bwera. The expedition brought a lot of plunder among which were cattle and Irebe’s sacred circlet, Rutare, which was thereafter used by the Bagabe of Nkore in making rain. Another invasion of Nkore took place during the reign of Kahaya I Nyamwanga. The invasion was by the Banyarawanda under the King Kigyeri III Ndabarasa.
The Royal Regalia.
The royal regalia of Ankole consisted of a spear and drums. The main instrument of power was the royal drum called Bagyendanwa. This drum was believed to have been made by Wamala, the last Muchwezi ruler. This drum was only beaten at the installation of a new King. It had its special hut and it was considered taboo to shut the hut. A fire was always kept burning for Bagyendanwa and this fire could only be extinguished in the event of the death of the King. The drum had its own cows and some other attendant drums namely; kabembura, Nyakashija, eigura, kooma and Njeru ya Buremba which was obtained from the kingdom of Buzimba.
The Banyankole’s idea of Supreme Being was Ruhanga (creator). The abode of Ruhanga was said to be in heaven, just above the clouds. Ruhanga was believed to be the maker and giver of all things. It was, however, believed that the evil persons could use black magic to interfere with the good wishes of Ruhanga and cause ill- health, drought, death or even bareness in the land and among the people.
At a lower level, the idea of Ruhanga was expressed in the cult of Emandwa. These were gods particularly to different families and clans and they were easily approachable in the event of need. Each family had a shrine where the family gods were supposed to dwell. Whenever beer was brewed or a goat slaughtered, a gourd full of beer and some small bits of meat were put in the shrine to the Mandwa. In the event of sickness or misfortune, the family members would perform rituals called okubandwa as a way of supplicating the gods to avert sickness or misfortune.
The Banyankole brewed beer by squeezing ripe bananas and mixing the resulting juice with water and sorghum and then letting the mixture ferment overnight in a wooden trough called obwato. Beer was required at every social communal work or any other function.
Whenever beer was made, the Banyankole had what they called entereko. If someone brewed beer, he had to reserve some for the neighbors as a sign of belonging and good neighborliness. This beer so reserved was known as entereko.
Normally, one or two days after someone had brewed beer, he would call his neighbors and serve then the reserved beer. This practice was so important that anyone who failed to comply with it was considered a bad neighbor. He would not be accorded the services of the neighbors in the event of need.
During the service of the entereko, the men would discuss important matters of substance that affected their area in particular, the kingdom and beyond. There would be a lot of merry making including dancing. The traditional dance among the Banyankore was called ekyitaguriro and men and women would participate in it. The Bahima also sang and made competitive recitals connected with valour in wars of offences and defence and about cattle.
The staple food of the Banyankole was millet. It was supplemented with Bananas, potatoes and cassava. A rich and prosperous family was judged by its ability t maintain food supplies throughout the year. The main sauces were beans,peas,and ground nuts plus a variety if greens such as eshuwiga,enyabutongo,dodo,ekyijamba,omugobe,omuriri an some others as well as meat of both domestic and wild animals.
A family that could not produce or store enough food to sustain itself for most of the year was not respected. In times of shortages, a woman and her daughters would go and work for food by digging in another family’s garden. This practice was called okushaka. It was very degrading and brought shame on the family concerned. Infact it would result in the daughters of the family failing to attract would-be suitors because it would be well known in the area that they belonged to a lazy home.
Millet and meat were prepared for important occasions. Potatoes and cassava were not respectable foods and unless there was a real shortage of food, they could not be presented to a visitor or to be eaten. It was rear for a family to eat and finish the whole meal. However, the family head was not supposed to eat leftovers. Besides men and boys were advised not to eat a burnt potato. The reason was that it was so sweet that whenever a man remembered its sweetness while on a hunt or work, he might be tempted to leave his duties and come back home. Such food was eaten by women and children. The main food of the Bahima was milk ad blood called enjuba. They would, in addition barter potatoes, cassava, and matooke from the agriculturalists in exchange for milk and ghee. In times of real scarcity, the Bahima could just subsist on milk and blood.
Method of counting
The Banyankole had their own method of counting. They could count from one to ten using fingers. One was indicated by showing only the fore finger. Two was indicated by showing their first and second fingers, three was indicated by raising the last and the third fingers one one’s hand, and five was counted by clenching the fist with the thumb enclosed. Six was indicated by showing the first, second and third fingers. Seven was implied by holding down the third finger and showing the first, middle and last fingers. Eight was implied by snapping the first fingers of both hands, nine was indicated by clenching the middle finger with the thumb, and clenching the fist with the thumb outside meant ten.