Mystery religion: Tondeism, the worship of rocks

They give the impression that someone perhaps walked over the rock when it was still soft, thousands of years ago and left the footprints there

Prayers going on at the altar of Salongo Kagolokakyomya at Wajjinja recently. Photo by Michael J Ssali 

BY MICHAEL J SSALI

IN SUMMARY

  • TOAST TO THE SPIRITS. The young, elderly storm the dancefloor and wiggle to Ganda tunes which are mostly about invoking spirits. They believe that God’s creation began at Walusi and that it is where all God’s powers in form of misambwa and mayembe are based. These are Tondeism believers who burn incense before offertory as MICHAEL J SSALI explores.

Every year, on September 9, members of Tondeism (a recently registered traditional religion) in Southern Uganda gather at Wajjinja Cultural Worship Centre in Nabigasa Sub-county, Kyotera District to pray together in almost the same way the Christians do when they go to Namugongo Martyrs’ shrines. Wajjinja is a rock hill with several puzzling features, which Tondeism believers associate to divine power.
Two huge seat-like stones stand at the cultural site and Tondeism believers claim that the first Kabaka of Buganda, Kintu and the queen, Nambi, sat on those same seats when they went there to pray. A story is told of how Kintu used to sit on the larger one while Nambi sat on the smaller one. Among the other mysterious features at Wajjinja are distinct footmarks on one of the rocks on the path leading to the huge stone seats. They give the impression that someone perhaps walked over the rock when it was still soft, thousands of years ago and left the footprints there.
When one looks closely, they will not miss out an upright standing rock which is shaped like a huge cupboard with what looks like a locked door. According to myth, a man and a woman were locked inside that rock hundreds of years ago as a punishment for making love at the hill. Sex and all forms of amorous activity are forbidden at the place. Also, nobody is allowed to wear shoes since Wajjinja is a holy place. Crowds pace the site carefully, barefoot.

Points of worship
Another rock looks like a bed and it is said that it is the bed where Mugula wa Kyomya, head of Mamba clan would recline whenever he went to pray. Several Buganda clans have their own points of worship. There is a set of rocks arranged together like the keys of a piano and when anybody taps at them they give different sounds.
Two huge rocks stand together giving the resemblance of human buttocks. It is under the two rocks where the fireplace and altar of Salongo Kagolokakyomya, the high priest of Wajjinja Hill, regularly prays. Most worshippers with dusty feet who range from the elderly to children at the place make offerings of money, dry coffee beans, and traditional beer.
Before they take their offertory to the front on the traditional brown baskets, a section of the believers steps forward with a miniature charcoal stove-like instrument with incense and hot coal. In the front row, a group of men in bark cloth garb and head gear adorned with cowrie shells look on as some of the worshippers kneel while others remain standing around the burning incense and chant inaudible prayers in Luganda. You cannot miss out on those in the congregation who crane their necks in a bid to catch a glimpse of what is taking place. In this era of smart mobile phones, there are those who attentively capture the session. This prayer lasts about five minutes then the congregation makes their offering. A variety of offertory is acceptable because there are people who offer livestock such as goats, sheep, and chickens. The reverence with which they carry these items to the altar could be significant of how important the powers they believe are. Pipe smoking is quite common among believers as prayers go on. Traditional Kiganda music and dancing constantly go on, almost without end, throughout after day break.

Hierarchy of priests
In Luganda, the title ‘Kabona’ stands for ‘reverend’ or a person of God, someone that preaches religion according to Kato Ssenkandwa who is a Kabona and the equivalent of a Christian bishop in the Southern Buganda region. He is one of some 560 people across Uganda serving in the position of kabona in the Tondeism faith - a traditional way of worship that was officially registered under Traditional Culture and Religious Foundation, according to Kabona Kato Ssenkandwa. “Our head in Uganda is referred to as Ssabakabona and right now the person we have in that position is Jjumba Lubowa Aligawesa who lives at Kirowooza in Mukono District,” Kato said in a recent interview.
“He is the equivalent of what you people would refer to as archbishop or Mufti. He was installed as our national religious leader on May 24, at Walusi in Luweero District. We have a right and a licence to celebrate marriage according to our faith which is why you could have heard about the recent cases of couples that were married according to our faith.”
Kato went on to disclose that God’s creation began at Walusi and that it is where all God’s powers in form of misambwa and mayembe are based.
“Foreigners came to Africa in the past few centuries and committed a number of crimes including forcefully taking Africans overseas to work as slaves in plantations where most of them were cruelly killed when they became too old or sick to work. Other foreigners forcefully became our rulers and took over large chunks of our land on which they set up plantations where they employed Africans for almost no pay. The same foreigners deceived us that our God and our ways of traditional worship were satanic and evil. They claimed it was their religions that were only known to God the creator of the world. They claimed that God does not speak our language and we had to worship him in only a foreign language. Some of them did not even believe that we too were human beings.” Kato explains of their beginning.
In Tondeism, they believe that foreigners [missionaries] were wrong.
“We also believe that our traditional way of worshipping and relating to our God and creator are holy and the only ones we should practice. God created Africans and God loves us too. We don’t have to address God in Latin, Arabic, or English and French or any other foreign language. So we reject European, Arab, Asian, and any other foreign ways of worship and we stick to our own different African faiths as taught and practised by our forefathers,” Kato elaborates on what sets them apart.
Adding, “God created different people in every part of the world and gave them their own cultures for them to follow. We follow our culture.”

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Conversion
During the annual pilgrimage at Wajjinja on September 9, about 400 people declared that they had dropped all the names they had acquired from foreign religions in a ceremony dubbed kuzzaayo amannya. By openly declaring that an individual was dropping a Muslim or Christian name such an individual was understood to have joined Tondeism, according to Kabona Kato. He said that in Uganda, Tondeism includes and respects all traditional worshippers in the different ethnic communities of the country.
“That is why we hold the Bujagali, Wangola Ndawula in very high esteem,”
Kato went on to say. “He joins Busoga to Buganda. And we have similar traditional worship leaders in other cultures across the country. We invite them when we have big prayer functions and they invite us.”
Salongo Kagolokakyomya, who was dressed in a red garb with green highlights and a cream head gear (could be likened to the one of the Kabaka or Omukama) with an inscription of the shield and lion, told the mammoth gathering at Wajjinja that the number of Tondeism believers who pray at the hill everyday had grown beyond his expectations. He announced that he had obtained the title deed of the hill and that it was registered as a cultural worship site which was also a tourist attraction.
Construction of perimeter wall around the site and toilet facilities had taken off thanks to the regular contributions from the Tondeism believers who go there to seek blessings in their businesses, marriage, and other favours.”
Kato disassociated Tondeism from traditional healers and herbalists.
“We don’t believe in witchcraft and human sacrifice. We preach love, peace, and good will towards everyone. If anybody comes to us with a problem we merely pray for him or her in our traditional way, just as it was done by our grandparents.”

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