Tracing Dada Budhagali’s home was easy, as he is known by many in Budhagali village, Budondo Sub-county, Jinja District. In fact, one motorcyclist said he would take me directly to the home of the 84-year-old Nabamba Budhagali, the 39th caretaker of the once famous Budhagali (Bujagali) Falls. When I finally reach the place, I am welcomed by an elderly woman who also works in the shrine.
At Nabamba’s place, that has five shrines named after spirits from Busoga, business is as usual. Five “patients” are seen in the compound, some on mats under the trees, others seated on the verandah. I had to wait a short while before seeing him because Dada (grandfather), as he is referred to, was attending to a “patient”. My efforts to chat with them were fruitless.
Entering the shrine
As is the tradition, I am requested to remove my shoes as I enter the shrine. I am a bit apprehensive due to the dusty floor, but gladly, I am ushered to an orange tarpaulin, which works as a red carpet of sorts heading to the spiritualist.
My stomach feels strange and my palms are sweaty. Having many negative opinions about witch doctors stamped on my mind, I am terrified. My guide, as if sensing my uneasiness, tries to put me at ease by letting me know that this particular shrine is not dark.
Inside the shrine
Inside the main shrine, said to be the “home” of Budhagali, Nabamba is clad in a blue shirt and army green trouser with his full traditional attire of bark cloth and beads, wrapped around him.
A look at things, it is evident that Nabamba is still in control and has maintained his spiritual status up the present three years after his relocation from the falls.
Smoke and heat swirls around the room as I make my way in. A fire place for lighting Nabamba’s smoke pipe, one of the tools he uses to call on the spirits keeps a glow all the time. As I sit down to start the interview, Nabamba grabs a small black pipe.
He then drops herbs into the pipe, before adding a hot piece of charcoal. He quickly starts blowing it my direction. In addition to the smoke, there are four decaying rats, which smell terribly. The stench is unpleasant but I have to brave the moment.
Coughing, and squinting of teary eyes are to be the highlights of my interview. He tells me that the place has about 30 spirits and while I can see five shrines, there are many more invisible ones. His patients, I learn, visit the visible shrines depending on the spirits they want to consult.
Life after the dam construction
Until 2011, Nabamba was one of the most influential traditionalists in the country. However, when he lost the battle over the construction of Bujagali Dam, many, who believed in his powers, lost faith in the spiritualist. The oracle skipped the spirit re-location rituals.
“As a spiritual leader of Budhagali, it was upon me to advise the government and those that were constructing the dam. Much as everyone thought I was against development, I was not. All we wanted as traditionalists was to preserve our site,” he says in reference to being looked upon as a saboteur of the dam project.
For several years now, Nabamba’s mystical powers have been a tale told in Uganda and yonder. Until about 2005, he was believed to be so powerful that he could sail across the famous Bujagali cascades on a piece of bark cloth.
His father, from whom he is believed to have inherited the powers, is believed to have often ridden a motorcycle over the waters to the western banks of the River Nile, where he is believed to have had a harem of concubines. Not proven, of course.
Such are the tales about Nabamba that he has remained a powerful, if not mysterious figure, around the Budhagali area.
The power of the spirits
Asked the whereabouts of his spirits after the construction of the power dam, he rhetorically responds. “Who said the dam washed away the spirits? Of course not, the Budhagali spirit still reigns on the dam. Our only worry was annoying the spirits, the same way I believe was the case.
That is why you see all the problems affecting Busoga and Uganda are partly a result of failure to obey the spirits. Nevertheless, one should never lie to you that the spirits can ever be washed away.
Our spirits are still there and are still working very hard to save the community. Even as we talk now, our spirits are looking upon us to guide and protect us. So no one should be worried that our fathers are not working.”
Nabamba claims he treats his patients using the powers from the spirits. Trying, however, has been the fact that the vegetation from which he derives his medicines was affected.
“After the construction of the dam, many trees were cut, bringing down the number of herbals we give to clients. In the jungles of Budhagali Forest, one would find every kind of root as would be directed by the spirits, but now I have to look for herbs elsewhere,” says Nabamba.
Opportunists have also taken advantage to lure some of his would be clients. As he goes about his trade, the oracle laments the changed status quo.
About the bujagali falls and its spirits
What it is. Bujagali Falls (also spelled Budhagali) was a waterfall near Jinja in Uganda where the Nile River comes out of Lake Victoria, popularly known as the source of the Nile. Starting November 2011, the falls were submerged by the new Bujagali Dam.
Importance. Bujagali Falls has for long been held as spiritually important by people living in the area of Busoga. It was named after the River spirit called “Budhagali”. This spirit has manifested itself in more than 30 human spiritual leaders.
It is claimed that to be the new spiritual leader, one was given a task of floating across the river on a piece of bark cloth to demonstrate one’s magical powers. If one managed to perform this task successful, then one was acclaimed as the new spiritual leader and given the title “Mandwa Budhagali”, meaning being reincarnated by the Budhagali spirit. The installation ceremony took place in the presence of other spiritual leaders, the local chiefs and the residents.
Nabamba Budhagali. In early 1970, the ceremony saw the installation of the 39th Dada or caretaker of the once famous Budhagali Falls.