Culture & Language

Uganda’s Culture and Language

Uganda is well known as the country with most welcoming and hospitable people on the continent. Its population is widely diverse in terms of culture and ethnic belonging. Its current population of about 34million people stems from four broad ethnic groups of the Bantu, Nilotics, Hamites and Nile Hamites. These four groups are said to have entered the country from different regions around the 13th century.
The former four ethnic groups have since then multiplied into several different societies with different norms and beliefs. There are now over 66 different languages and cultures all amazing and awesome in a unique way.

The highlight of these cultures is the Baganda culture of Buganda kingdom in central Uganda, commonly associated with the respect and care they give to their departed kings. The Kasubi tombs where the bodies of the 4 former Buganda kings were laid to rest was gazetted as a world heritage site by UNESCO and is an interesting site to visit. The site is regarded sacred by the Baganda people and is believed to shelter the spirits of the departed kings including Mwanga, remembered for ordering the murder of the martyrs and Bishop Livingstone. The King occasionally pays a visit to perform certain rituals as to appease and consult his grand fathers’ spirits.

The Nakayima tree is another respected cultural site in Buganda kingdom. The tree is believed to be the shrine for the goddess Nakayima that is believed to give blessings including fortunes and children. Some traditional royalists visit the tree for sacred rituals and to pray to their goddess for their different needs. The tree is believed to be over 400 years old and is a highly respected ground where the visitors are warned not to approach with shoes while ladies are not allowed to reach at the tree dressed in trousers. The site is believed to be holy and sacred and sacred rituals are often carried out there.

The question of whether this mysterious goddess works or not is a point of controversy and only left for you to find out. Important ceremonies like the coronation of the new king, marriage / introduction ceremonies, the King’s birth day and when the king visits the tombs of his grand fathers in Kasubi are cerebrated with great respect and excitement and improve the social bond of the people. At such ceremonies, Buganda’s culture is imparted on to the young ones and the youth. Their different norms, values and taboos of different clans are re echoed and the code of conduct of a morally upright Muganda is emphasized.

Traditional dances are performed like the Bakisimba dance, Nankasa dance, Muwogola dance and Amagunju dance all of which clearly define the Baganda culture. These dances involve a flawless `circular’ movement of the waist and a tip toeing movement of the feet plus hands spread out from the shoulder joint but bent forward or up words at the elbow joint depending on the type of dance. The dance moves or patterns are dictated by the lyrics or song meaning but mostly by the cadence of the song. For example the Amagunju dance was introduced by the Kabaka’s uncle called Gunju from the mushroom clan who also designed the King’s seat that placed him (king) above every other person. The dance was intended to entertain the newly crowned king and prevent him from crying while addressing the kingdom’s parliament.
During this dance, Male dancers dance authoritatively, throwing side by side kicks as they jump high while the ladies remain graceful only changing the movement according to the rhythm of the song. In the `Nalintema’ song for example, dancers imitate swinging a sickle to clear the garden for planting well while in another song, they bend over double to pick mushrooms. Now days, this dance takes place at the royal courts, danced by all people unlike before when it was danced by only those of the Mushroom clan at different celebrations

The Bakisimba dance is the oldest and the most common dance in Buganda intended for entertainment. The song’s origins are traced several centuries back when the king of Buganda enjoyed a local beer called ‘tonto’ that was derived from ‘tontomera’ meaning do not knock me. This beer is made out of fermented banana juice. When the king was drunk, he said ‘abaakisimba be bakiwoomya’ meaning those who planted it are the ones that made it sweet’ referring to the bananas that this beer was got from. As the king staggered, the men around him started imitating him and reciting his statement as others started drumming and the king highly excited, picke dancing strokes. Very soon the men drummed to the rhythm of the words as the ladies joined in to dance and entertain the king who was highly excited; hence the dance came into existence and was named Bakisimba.

The choreography of this dance is divided in to two parts; the first being slow and graceful, while the second part, referred to as Muwogola, being fast and building to a climax. Nankasa is the cousin to Bakisimba and is purely used for entertainment as well. The attire and musical instruments are the same as Bakisimba. The only difference is the speed and form, Nankasa is done at a very fast speed from beginning to end and is either played before Bakisimba or after Muwogola.
The Musical instruments for Bakisimba includes the nseege (gourd rattles), engombe (trumpets made of cow horns), and four drums: Mbuutu, Nankasa, Mpuunyi and the Ngalabi. The Bakisimba dance emphasizes waist movements and complex footwork.

Like in any other African society, Music in Buganda plays a very important role in worshiping God / gods, entertainment, and communicating an important message to the people like discouraging cheating, violence, selfishness and laziness as well as teaching people to respect elders, love one another, cooperate, work hard, be patient, disciplined and honest. The music of this rich culture and their traditional stories that come along with explanation of different totems is a big highlight on your cultural safari.

As you traverse the eastern side of the country, the land where the sun rises from, a rich and robust culture thrives. The culture that is very unique and very popular for its rustic behavior of ‘row’ circumcision where mature boys are circumcised without sterilizing them. We are talking about the Bamasaba people who trace their origins from a man named Masaba that lived centuries ago in the land around Mt. Elgon. The Bamasaba people are Bantu speaking people and cut across the border with Kenya.
Their Imbalu dance that is always performed at the initiation ritual when mature boys are initiated into manhood by succumbing to the pain of the knife as they are circumcised in the presence of the community as they witness and welcome the boys into the men’s class. On such an occasion the main celebrants (boys to be circumcised) are smeared with fermented millet flour and made to run around villages as they dance and sing expressing their bravery.

This kind of circumcision is not only meant to make the boys ‘clean’ but also to make them bear the pain that will enable them become strong men ready to face any challenge in life. During the ceremony, boys ready for the ritual from all the bamasaba clans are gathered at the Mutoto ritual grounds in Mbale. The young ladies entertain the visitors and the celebrants with their unique dances that involve vigorous shaking of the bums and twisting of the waist. The imbalu ritual is cerebrated every even year at Mutoto grounds in Mbale and the bamasaba both from Kenya and those in Uganda converge here to witness.

You won’t stop wondering about the rich culture of this country when you visit the far north eastern tribes of Karamoja sub region. The Ike people who pay their dowry in form of bee hives will not only leave you in awe but also entertain you with their traditional dances. If you have never known the value of bees, you have now met the people who have found the real worth of them.
Respect and honor in this community is given depending on the number of bee hives one owns. To them the bee hives is the measure of wealth. For example somebody is considered well off if he has between 40 to 50 bee hives and bride price is always between 5 to 10 bee hives depending on the family one is marrying from.

The Manyata homesteads of the Karamajong people and their strong value attachment to their large herds of cows is a great cultural wonder in this region. The people walk almost half necked with scanty clothing which is partly attributed to their semi-arid climatic conditions and their rigidity to change with modernity. It is one of the tribes that have for centuries maintained and preserved their culture. The elders often organize wrestling competitions for their mature boys where the community gathers to witness some of the brave warriors that are often accorded respect in the society.
Before the current government improved security in the area, the Karamajong boys would be initiated into manhood after one had successfully raided and brought back cows from another kraal.

In this wonderful culture, the man has to first wrestle down a girl of his choice if he is to take her for marriage. If the boy fails to win the contest, he is denied the chance to take the girl since it is believed that he is not man enough to defend the family. Dowry is paid to the girl’s family in form of cows and traditionally, the cows would be gathered as they graze, and then the family of the girl would get someone to throw the spear across the grazing animals. The number of animals to which the spear is overthrown, is the one the girl’s family takes as dowry.
Attending their giveaway ceremonies and enjoying their traditional dishes that include blood mixed with milk as you rest under their cool artistically designed manyatas (huts), is one of the unforgettable experiences on a cultural safari.
Travel wide and far to explore the south western tribes with their varying cultural norms and identities.

The Banyankole are popularly known for their strong bond with their Ankole long horned cattle which are believed to have come with the Bachwezi who were the first rulers of the Bunyoro-Kitara Empire that gave birth to the southern kingdoms including Bugnda, Bunyoro, Tooro, Nkore and Rwanda. The Banyankole’s traditional dance known as ‘ekitaguriro’ where the dancers dance with a lot of vigor and the ladies are graceful while spreading the arms in all directions forming shapes of their cows’ horns is a great symbol of their love and bond with these cows.
The cows are also a source of pride and a sign of wealth. Those with large herds of cows are regarded as rich and always instrumental in the decision making of the community. You need to sit down in their traditional huts as you cool your throat with a milk pot full of milk or taste their traditional dish of millet bread and ghee source known as ‘eshabwe’ while listening meticulously to their riddles and recitations as they praise their cattle or recite the historic happenings of war, climatic hazards or good seasons.
Attending their traditional feasts and ceremonies like marriage and naming ceremonies among others will give you a deep insight of this magnificent culture.

The Batwa people, one of the most rustic and ancient tribes arguably one of the original inhabitants of Uganda are a hunter-gatherer society whose traditional life style of living in the forest and in caves has been a great touristic attraction.
The people themselves are amazingly short with some mature men as short as 30cm tall and their traditional dress code of tree leaves and animal skins reminds us of Adam and Eve story after their expulsion from the garden of Eden. You will be enthralled when you rest in their territory as you listen to their stories of how they used to hunt, fight battles, marry and how they conducted several rituals in this forest that is shared with the Gorillas. Their traditional dances are amazing and their dishes are enthralling and scrumptious.

All these are only but a glimpse of what Uganda has to offer in terms of culture. A lot more interesting especially in the field of dance and drama will leave you with atypical African cultural experience. Discover the northern tribes of Langi and Acholi with their lalakalaka dance where men put on head dresses, wrap their waists and put on anklets and look rather fierce signaling fighting posture with their spears as they run and jump around exhibiting their skill and art in war and portraying an image of a rather fighter society that cannot be defeated by its enemies. Their Malakwang traditional dish is an amazing one that every visitor would not leave untested.

The Bakiga in the south western corner of the country are recognized as the most energetic society in the country with their traditional dance that involves high jumps as they hit the ground very hard with their feet exhibiting their energy and strength that can’t be matched by any other society. Their traditional beer brewed from bananas and sorghum, is one of the amazing things you may not leave before tasting.

You will not wonder at the diversity of cultures in this country because its history dictates this extreme diversity. Being a hub for tribes across the continent, Uganda is Africa summarized. The migratory tribe of the Bantu-speaking people from the west and central Africa, The Nilotic Luo from north Africa, and the Hamitic tribes from north east Africa, all converged in this lush country and later mingled with the original inhabitants to form the present day people of Uganda with divergent cultures and values so amazing and wonderful to explore. Do you seek to discover the African culture in a short period and with a humble budget?, look no further, Uganda is your best destination where almost every African culture is represented.

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