A few months ago, I and other family members embarked on writing our family history. We wanted to know from where we originated, how we settled where we are, the battles our ancestors fought, their contribution to date, etc.
One of the chapters was also to find out the cultural practices of our ancestors. We realised that we are gradually dropping our cultural practices so we undertook to find out the cultural practices of our ancestors.
Through this exercise, I came to realise that we have let go of many of the cultural practices of our ancestors, which helped to maintain social order. We are quickly adopting foreign cultures, especially from the West at the expense of our traditional cultures.
I decided to make a comparison to see whether dropping Western cultures was more helpful to us or not.
Below are some cultural practices that we have dropped in the name of becoming modernised, but in the process, we have lost the social order our ancestors enjoyed.
I will limit my examples to western Uganda because it is these societies I am familiar with although I know that all parts of Uganda had cultural practices that undoubtedly were useful to their societies.
In western Uganda, if a man lost his herd to either disease or raids or some other misfortune, his friends and family would all contribute either a cow or more to enable him regain his herd. This was a show of solidarity. They would not wish him to lose his social standing. The practice was called “okushumbusha”.
Today we are gradually dropping this practice. Instead, perhaps because of this culture of capitalism, neighbours or family members are on the look out for opportunities to buy a friend’s or brother’s property in case he faces some economic hardships.
I have heard of cases where people are approached on their deathbeds with transfer forms to have the patient transfer their property usually for a lower amount because of their state of mind. The spirit of supporting for each other is dying out and now everyone is competing against each other. I hope that the spirit of our forefathers can come back.
Another example where our traditional culture is more useful than the imported Western cultures is in creating and maintaining friendship. In the past, among the Banyankole, especially the pastrolists, people often exchanged cows. This practiced was called “okuhana” and the cow given was called “empaano”. One usually gave a good friend a cow as a way of cementing friendship.
The cow would usually be named after the one who gave. When this cow produced a calf, the cow owner would give back the calf to the friend. In ones herd, they would know which cow came from who and they looked after these cows well.
The Banyankole also had a practice called “kutera obukumbi” . Here members of one clan would have a teasing or joking relationship with another clan. They could tease or “kujerega” and the other clan were not expected to take offence.
This was usually for clans that were in the same area and it was done to avoid conflict. When I compare the friendships today to those in the past, I realise that today’s friendships are loose.
The cultural practices in the past ensured solid relationship, but today there are no cultural practices that ensure solid relationships.
Some people discover friends homes when there is a problem like death. Today, most relationships are based on what one has to offer. A well to do person will usually have more “friends” around him.
I recall the President once saying he didn’t have friends, but rather comrades in the struggle. I can believe him. Friends based on what you offer are not genuine and a change for the worse in fortunes will mean all these friends will usually disappear. Yes, times have changed, but maybe there are lessons we can draw from the past.
Naming was also another important cultural practice. Children in many parts of Uganda were normally named by their grandparents. Names given were usually associated with the times or circumstances or others were given clan names.
I have a clan name and even if I am in the US, a man from my village will roughly know which family I come from or which area. The Baganda also had clan names. Other names were also given depending on the circumstances of the time.
The name Muhoozi means to avenge. Normally, this name was given if the child was produced when the parents felt aggrieved. Names could also tell you about the persons character. Today, these old names have been replaced with names without meaning or story or where they have meaning it is too general to tell you anything about the person. Names like Aturinda are not specific enough to tell you about the person.
Among the Banyankole and Bakiga, it was considered important to plan for your family needs, most especially food needs. The Banyankole (especially the cultivators) always had a granary where they kept food for the dry season.
If families run out of food, they had to go and provide labour to another family in exchange for food. This practice was called “Okushaka”. But it was frowned upon and no one wanted to be in such a position. As such, people worked hard to ensure they had enough food to last throughout the year. Today, many people live for the day.
There are no practices to embarrass or punish those who fail to plan for their families. I have employed people who after getting a month’s salary, will send a little money home and head for the watering joint until they run out of money and look for the next job. Today, young men will as part of greeting, say “mpakusente”. If our ancestors would hear this, they would be horrified. I hope this irresponsible behaviour will die out.
The last cultural practice that ensured more social order in the past was the practice of ostracising women who became pregnant before marriage. In some societies, this was taken to the extreme. The Bakiga threw women who became pregnant before marriage off the Kisiizi falls.
I would not advocate for such extreme punishment, but I would support the measures that were less punitive but still worked to ensure girls measures waited till marriage before becoming sexually active.