Spirit possession and power play since pre-colonial times

By the mid-19th Century, Ganda communities used spirit possession to imagine political authority beyond Buganda’s monarchy. While initiatives were made throughout the late 19th and early 20th century to impede possession ritual, practices continued throughout colonial Buganda.

Tuesday July 31 2012

Kibuuka Kigaanira (R)  with a priestly assistant. He warned Baganda to stop paying taxes to the colonial government and to stop attending religious services.

Kibuuka Kigaanira (R) with a priestly assistant. He warned Baganda to stop paying taxes to the colonial government and to stop attending religious services. Photo Courtesy of Euginia Bonabana. 

By Jonathon L. Earle

Postcards with Buganda’s current monarch and Muteesa II were sold, capturing a glory that once belonged to Buganda. Labourers clearing ash sang about Buganda’s ancient and recent past, recalling the fate of Uganda’s violent presidents: “Akaalo ka Buganda ka dda, akaalo kaaliko nnanyiniko. Obote n’akaleka; yali wa maanyi. N’abaali abamaanyi baakaleka”.

In the wake of the burning, spirit possession practices accompanied demonstration and lament throughout Buganda, in general, and Kasubi in particular.

Like Kigaanira Kibuuka in the mid-1950s, possessed once again took to their trees. Disheartened, activists looked for insight, relief and justice from balubaale and their priests.

In particular, possession discourse reflected the practice of knowledge production not unlike possession ritual in the 18th and 19th centuries, where priests provided Buganda’s generals with military intelligence. Whoever might have organised the tombs’ burning, priests assured their devotees that the balubaale would not rest until the perpetrator’s identity was publicaly revealed. As one person noted: “The powers can see those who have burned this place”.

Jjembe Kalondoozi
Known for its ability to track down and reveal guilty parties, Jjembe Kalondoozi was one spirit who frequented possession ritual at Kasubi.
In antiphon, choirs enveloped fallen and gyrating women and men possessed by Kalondoozi, singing: “[The spirit] is tracking down; even if the guilty is far away, [they] will be tracked.” Beyond the confines of Kasubi, priests in Masaka launched a self-identified intelligence probe.

Aired on NTV, one spirit declared through his medium: “For some forty years he has spoilt our things and we have already caught him. If I fail, I [the spirit] will never again come on the head and possess another.”
Once un-possessed, this same priest reflected: “This is where we, the believers of culture and custom, are now; we have to show power in catching that enemy”.

Fifty years after Independence, spirit-provided knowledge continues to provide imaginary capital from which the practice of power is contested and authenticated.

From Kibuuka Kigaanira in the mid-19th century to Kalondoozi in the present, possession ritual is “a key element in discourses on power, despite modern processes of change (or perhaps because of them)”.

In modern Buganda, possession practices provide important political space for citizens to negotiate power and authority, a participatory sphere of activism where appointed leaders are held to account and the general public is able to redress grievances associated with the failure of the state.

Continues Tomorrow.


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