Monday July 14 2014

The people of Rwenzori


By Abdulaziizi K. Tumusiime

In the wake of the recent tribal conflicts in Kasese and Bundibugyo, most of the fingers pointed were in the direction of tribe. What is clear is that the Bakonja, Basongora, Bamba and Banyabindi are the ethnic groups in question. However, little is known about these groups of people. Below are the different groups.

Bamba, Vanoma and Babwiisi.
The three ethnic groups have lived together, on the western slopes of Mountain Rwenzori and Semuliki Valley in present day Bundibugyo District, since the time of mass movement of people between the 12th and 16th centuries. They are also concentrated in the district of Butalinga (collectivite de Watalinga) in Democratic Republic of Congo.

The national border, in reality, is simply superficial. According to Dr Swizen Kyomuhendo the spokesperson of Obundingha bwa Bwamba (pictured), relatives and in-laws move about their business, seek medical services, attend markets, burials and other ceremonies at will across the porous border.
Lubwiisi is the commonly used dialect. It is a bantu language closer to Runyoro – Rutooro, Runyankole – Rukiga, Lugungu and Luganda.
Their cultural sites include; Mbuga (Semuliki hot springs) for the Bamaaga clan, Kiroghoji (waterfalls and Ngite stream) for the Basu clan and Bujumila for the Balungu clan.

Circumcision is a cultural practice in the communities. It is an initiation into adulthood. Circumcision has remained the norm and practice for all, save for some families that prefer using medical procedures at health facilities. After one has been circumcised, one is required to undergo a ritual named Kuuya Mbogho. It involves “cleaning the eyes” of a buffalo. The scary buffalo is held by scores of strong men, about ten men and the candidate goes though trials and tribulations of the ritual.

All three ethnic communities also practice Kubhemba. This entails preparing and serving sumptuous meals to ancestors for purposes of appeasing them in times of calamity or celebration.
Until recently, marriage took the form of elopement with a young bride, says the spokesperson. The “offending” family would initially pay seven chicken. Once the girl received positive assessment in her ability to perform conjugal and family roles, possibly with signs of pregnancy, then bride wealth (Ndughi) would be negotiated to a maximum of 12 goats.

All the three groups dance Lhuma for men - accompanied by women in the outer ring - Muledhu strictly for women and Lidgbaya an erotic dance.

The Banyabindi
They are a minority group in Kasese. Like the Basongora, they mostly occupy the lowlands and plains of Mount Rwenzori (which they call Rwezoora Rwenjura). Some of the places are; Muhokya, Kinyamaseke, Mukunyu and Bugoye.

Their dialect, Lunyabindi, is a cocktail of Runyoro and Rutooro. Omukama Elisha Mugisha (pictured), the cultural leader of the Banyabindi, says the group remained in present day Kasese after the disintegration of the Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom (in the day, its borders stretched upto Kasese).
But how did they end up in Kasese? Omukama Mugisha explains that they originally lived at the shores of Lake Albert. They fled the place after an outbreak of sleeping sickness and the search for pasture for their animals led them to the lush lowlands of the Rwenzori.

However Stanley Baluku has a different explanation. He says Banyabindi are a product of the intermarriages between the Bakonjo women and the Banyoro chiefs and soldiers that lived in the Rwenzori region when it was still under the Bunyoro Kingdom.

They practice mixed farming; they graze short horned cattle and grow crops such as millet, bananas, cassava, beans and potatoes.
The Banyabindi’s favourite meal is fish or meat with matooke, cassava and cassava mixed with millet.

They are the second largest ethnic group in Kasese. They are descendants of the Bachwezi, according to their cultural leader Omukama wa Busongora Rwigi Ivan Bwebale Rutakirwa Kabumba Hagutamba IV (pictured).

They largely live in the lowlands of Mountain Rwenzori. They are concentrated in places like Ibuga, Hima, Karusandaara, Muhokya, Hamukungu, Katwe and Nyakatonzi. Most of these, such as Katunguru and Muhokya are close to water bodies. The rationale behind this is that Basongora are pastoralists and thus, they are naturally attracted to areas endowed with water for their cattle. Katwe on the other hand was home to Lake Katwe which was a source of rock salt for their cattle.
“Modernity has seen them also embark on farming but at a subsistence level. They grow maize, matooke and beans,” says Hon. Kafuda Boaz Busongora South MP.

They speak Lusongora; a dialect that is related to Rutooro and Runyakitara.
Engondo is the mark of a male Musongoora’s graduation into adulthood. They are cuttings made on one’s stomach, using a razor blade, to form the shape of letter B. “Families would not give away their daughter to a man without Engondo,” says the Omukama. “But times have changed. Today some men marry and live without the cuttings.”
Marriage was organised by the family of the bride and that of the groom. The two would only meet on the wedding day. This has also eroded with time.

They are the majority ethnic group in Kasese. Previously, the Bakonjo predominantly lived on the slopes of Rwenzori. Inter- tribal clashes pushed them into the mountains as a protective shield from external attacks, says Bamusede Bwambale a former RDC of Kasese District.

However, Stanley Baluku, a freelance researcher says they moved to the mountains to get respite from diseases in the lowland as well as exploit the fertile soils and fresh water.
To date, the Bakonjo still form a ring around the mountain.

But over the years, some have descended to the lowlands. Many came down in the 1940s to cultivate cotton by order of the colonial government. Others were attracted by the desire to access modern education and health services in the lowlands. The biggest wave of migrations from mountains to the lowlands occurred in the 1960s when the Rwenzori Mountains were the centre of insecurity. The government soldiers combed the thick forests of the mountains for Rwenzururu supporters most of whom had hidden there.

The Bakongo and Banande in Democratic Republic of Congo are from the same ethnic group. They speak the same language but with minimal differences in the dialect. The two are only separated by the colonial boundaries but interaction between them still exists to-date.

Some Ugandans identify Bakonjo as short in height. However, Baluku labels this a stereotype. “There is no academic explanation or a biological one to it. There are very many tall Bakonjo. Isn’t former MP Christopher Kibanzaga tall? Isn’t he a Mukonjo?” he points out.

They speak Lukonjo. It is divided into pidgin Lukonjo and Lunyarwenzuru.
Circumcision is a renowned cultural practice among the Bakonjo. It was carried out by a Mwamba man.
Marriage is initiated by the groom-to-be’s father. He spearheads the negotiations with the bride -to-be’s family. The Bakonjo believe in polygamy and widow inheritance.

Kithasamba is their god. He is believed to reside in the snow of Mt Rwenzori. A cultural site of significant importance is Isaya Mukirane’s mausoleum in Ihandiro Sub- county. Mukirane was the father of Omusinga Charles Mumbere.