Tuesday July 30 2013

Abambowa: The men who protect the Kabaka

Abambowa: The men who protect the Kabaka

Christopher Nalima, 2nd left, with some of the king’s guards. Courtesy Photo.  

By Farahani Mukisa

At his age, one would expect him to be retired, or working, but only involved in simple tasks such as tending his compound and little gardens.

But Christopher Nalima is not doing any of that. In his early 70s, the head of Kabaka’s royal guards (Ssabambowa) is actively involved in his job.

The strong urge to ensure the Kabaka’s safety, has made him overlook his age’s demand for him to slow down. And his service to Kabaka dates 15 years back.

“My pride rests in the protection of the Kabaka, princes and princesses, wherever they go although that has since changed with modern times,” says Nalima. “Our main focus nowadays is the king’s security.”

The legacy of the bambowa dates back to the reign of Kabaka Kimera, who felt his aides were not doing their duty well and so he wanted someone to supervise them and take responsibility for his life.

Nalima tells the story: “One day, during a tour of the counties in the Buganda region, an aide carrying Kimera’s water calabash wronged him and the king instructed him to move forward for cautioning.”

“When he returned to regain his position as the Kabaka’s water carrier, after serving a short punishment, he could not get back the water calabash (ekita kyamazzi) since he had wronged the king.

Another carrier, Wakkonyi took over the water calabash and Kimera was pleased with the protection Wakkonyi had shown, thus the king told people within the vicinity that from then onwards, he (Wakkonyi) would be his Ssabambowa (chief guard) and was required to train more royal guards under his guardianship.” That is how the role of bambowa started.

Out of the 53 clans, the Lugave was the first to hold the highly esteemed position of Kabaka guardianship.

Nalima adds that all that glory was lost during the reign of former president Milton Obote.

However, before the turbulent moments Uganda went through, bambowa were culturally rooted in their norms, right from their dressing code and public conduct, to how they were equipped.

Norms (obulombolombo)
Traditionally, the royal guards wear traditional regalia of backcloth called kanzumingi. But to differentiate the commander from the corporals, he wears a white ring of beads around his head.

Nalima says while on duty, a royal guard, must be equipped with a spear (modern-day gun), war-shield, a top-curved panga (zinzimiya), and a rope (used to handcuff).

“As part of our preparations, we neither take tea, drink, nor eat food before duty, for fear of putting Kabaka’s security at risk incase we want to go to the toilet,” he says.

“We do that after duty performance.”

According to Nalima, wherever the Kabaka decides to go, the bambowa have to accompany him. “We keep his way open and spare nobody if we sense any anomalies to his highness’ safety, no matter who stands in our way,” he says.

Although he says the job is a tiresome one, the zeal to serve the kingdom keeps their strength up.

“Ideally, we are supposed to be appreciated, in order to meet our obligations as humans. But that has in actual sense not happened and that is our call to the king,” he said.

Changing and challenging times
With the changes both in political and cultural circles, the role of royal guards has since changed, although, according to Nalima, the change has come with many problems.

Nalima says Obote’s expulsion of King Edward Mutesa II was a big blow to the kingdom. All their cultural norms were disrupted, including the pillar position that royal guards enjoyed at the palace.

Years ago, royal guards did perform several duties which also included waking up the king, keeping his gifts, supplying news to Kabaka and keeping his food.

But since the restoration of the Buganda Kingdom, the roles have since reduced to only protecting the Kabaka.

“Culturally, nobody is supposed to come near the Kabaka, be it the army or ordinary people. It is the royal guards who should be at his sides But today, our role has been militarised and the cultural royal guards have been marginalised to appear as if they do not exist,” Nalima says.

With the Kabaka being the supreme head of the 52 clans (now made 53), Nalima says each clan contributes to the security of the king. And for that matter, the royal guards are 53.

“The idea of restoring the bambowa glory came up during the preparations of the Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi’s magnificent wedding in 1999,” says Nalima.

“I was assigned to make a selection from the clans and we trained 53 of them. But today, I am only left with one, all the others retreated to their personal businesses for survival. But if their duty can be recognised, most are willing to resume it.”