Thursday March 21 2013

The Samia: A tribe straddling two countries but keeping their bond intact

Samia: Straddling two countries but keeping their bond intact

Kenyan politicians engage in a tug of war with Ugandan politicians. Photo by John K. Abimanyi. 

By John K. Abimanyi

The date is January 1. Residents of a town called Sio Port, on Lake Victoria’s north eastern shores, across the Uganda borders, await the day’s events eagerly. It is here that the 2013 leg of the Samia Bananda Cultural celebration is taking place.

On this day, travel restrictions, which require one to have a visa into the other country, are waived for a team of elders and young people travelling across the border for the event. By midday, traditional chiefs, clad in their traditional cream shirt and trousers, plus a maroon cap (an outfit that makes them, look like law enforcers), are already circulating around the sunnily lit town and at Bujwang’a Primary School, the venue for the day’s event.

The visiting team of Uganda’s Samia community arrives towards 3.pm, heading straight to Hon Paul Otuoma’s home for a luncheon. Hon Otuoma is Kenya’s Minister for Local Government. Samia Bugwe South MP, Julius Maganda, leads the Uganda delegation, consisting of no less than four over-capacity mini-bus taxis, among other vehicles.

Here, the visitors and Samia elders are treated to a heavy meal, in which matooke and ugali, plus beer are not in short supply. They then return to Sio Port town for the actual celebration.

When the special guests arrive at Bujwang’a Primary School, just in the centre of the town, they are ushered into a procession of dance, song and drama that sees elderly women leading the way, waving tree branches as they chant traditional folk songs. They swamp and cloud the guests, forcing the dignitaries to step out of their high-end SUVs and proceed to chant and dance and sing along with the women, in the midst of biting heat and choking dust, as they head to the primary school’s sports field.

It is probably the norm that young people, especially today, are not exactly excited about cultural events. But not in Sio Port; not in Samia-land. Here they came out in full force, crowding the dignitaries and singing and dancing along with the older women. They flood the small sports field, some climbing and staying up in the trees to behold below. Carnival does not quite do the atmosphere justice.

Soon it is time for sport. The sports in which teams take part are netball, ajua (a mweso-like game) for elders, football and tug-of-war, where the arrangement is simply that a team from the Busia community of Uganda competes against a team from the Kenyan Busia community.

The highlight is the youth’s football game, where one of the event’s Master of Ceremony decides to commentate the game in Luganda, Samia and Kiswahili, in such comical fashion – he names some players after Lionel Messi.

The Kenyan team beats Uganda’s team 1-0. And in the tug-of-war, which pits Kenyan politicians against Ugandan politicians, the Kenyan team also carry the day.

The events, last only a day. But they are a form of symbolism for the connection that the two communities have maintained regardless of the division brought about by the borders.

Each year, the Samia communities from Uganda and Kenya join hands to hold this day of cultural celebration at the beginning of the year. The festival takes the form of cultural expression in art, music, sport and dance. It brings out the young and old charging in an atmosphere of utmost gaiety.

The two countries take turns at hosting the event, and next year’s will be held in Busia, Uganda.

The desired end for all this activity is to maintain the cultural ties between two communities with a shared ancestry.

Jacklyne Vihenda Makokha, treasurer of the organising committee, wbeen part of the Samia tradition for many years. Therefore, by doing it today, it is a continuation of a tradition that their fore fathers had started.

In another world, there would be no Uganda. There would be no Kenya either. Maybe then, the Samia people would not stand on one side of the fence, unable to cross over and say hello to a brother, sister or in-law on the other side, without a government hand rising to grant permission.

But alas, in this world, they do. The 1926 colonial borders, and their foreign master-minders, bare the blame. They tore the Samia community right down the middle, straight through Busia on Uganda’s Eastern border with Kenya, cutting through it like a pair of scissors running through weak fabric. The Samia people were no longer just Samias anymore, but two separate people given no choice but to pick up new identities.

Their loyalty to ethnicity now had competition, from Republics that demanded they pay homage to national identity over and above their tribal ties. It is a deed that in consideration, went as far as pitting sections of the same community into rivalries of such things as sport, economics or even worse.

Defiance
It is the tragic order of life that colonial borders, imaginary European creations that shattered cultural ties, have levied on the social fabric in traditional Africa.

But in true testament to that enduring strength of the human spirit of communion, the two Samia communities have grown to defy the demarcations that colonial borders assert. The border exists, yes, but it is only an imaginary line patrolled by passport-stamping and cargo-searching immigration officials on either side. It has not permanently detached the communities from each other.

“The two sides have stayed in constant contact, contributing to each other’s livelihood,” Makokha says, citing moments when the Kenyan Samia community has been faced by drought and has got help from the community on the other side.

On a leadership level, there are attempts to gather the communities around symbols of unity like a cultural centre, and, the enthronement of a king.

Hon Otuoma, the Kenyan minister, said his government had put aside KShs40m (Shs1.2b) for the construction of a cultural centre, which would also promote tourism in the area. Hon Maganda also said that the community was in talks with the Ugandan government for the reinstalling of a kingdom. Many a Samia took the day seriously, and consider it a part of their identity. One of these was Douglas Wafula, a dramatist and comedian in his 20s.

He spoke of how important the event is for the communities to keep together and for the strength of their cultural unity, before coming around to himself. A Kenyan, he said, “I feel like a Ugandan. I visited Uganda last year, now the Ugandans also came here. I enjoyed the Ugandan experience, it makes me feel part of them.”

Divided loyalty?
In all this, there lies the question of divided loyalty, and whether, they feel more Ugandan than Kenyan. For instance, in reply to the question of whether to support the Uganda Cranes or the Harambee Stars in a football match, Morris Were, a man in his 20s also, said, “I am Kenyan. I will support Kenya but also support Uganda to win other games if we don’t go through.”

Wafula then took it further, when asked about whether he would easily swap citizenship. “Each country is different,” he says. “We have our own constitution and Uganda has its own constitution. Life is also somehow different. I would remain Kenyan,” he said.

Even then, the cultural roots still hold strong, and seen in the young people at Sio Port, are going to hold longer, defying the colonial boundaries that do not exist.

jabimanyi@ug.nationmedia.com

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