Spirit possession and power play since pre-colonial times

Kibuuka Kigaanira (R) with a priestly assistant. He warned Baganda to stop paying taxes to the colonial government and to stop attending religious services. Photo Courtesy of Euginia Bonabana.

What you need to know:

Alternative activism. From Kibuuka Kigaanira in the mid-19th century to Kalondoozi in the present, possession practices provide important political space for citizens to negotiate power and authority, while appointed leaders are held to account.

By the mid-19th Century, Ganda communities used spirit possession to imagine political authority beyond Buganda’s monarchy. While initiatives were made throughout the late 19th and early 20th century to impede possession ritual, practices continued throughout colonial Buganda. Following Muteesa II’s deportation, one particular lubaale prophet, Kigaanira Ssewannyana, used possession to overtly contest colonial power.

Kibuuka Kigaanira
Kigaanira was born in Buddu in the mid-1930s. Baptised Matia, Kigaanira was raised in a strict Catholic home. Following his Catholic education, he gained employment with the Trans-Congo/Uganda Company as a freight driver, where he was first publicly possessed by the Ganda god of war, Kibuuka.

While resting in-route at a restaurant in Fort Portal, Kibuuka descended upon Kigaanira’s head, causing the 17-year-old to unexpectedly smash his plate on the floor and retreat into a corner, where Kibuuka then announced his return to Mbaale, Mpigi (Kibuuka’s traditional shrine).

Following his early orations at Mbaale, Kigaanira relocated to Mutundwe. From his tree, Kigaanira informed his growing audience, which included highly-educated people, that should they produce livestock and chicken for sacrifice, he could secure the triumphal return of Muteesa, with whom he could communicate through spiritual power.

Kigaanira admonished Baganda to stop paying taxes to the colonial government and to stop attending religious services in [B]Uganda’s churches and mosques.

Kigaanira’s activism was shrouded in wonder. From his tree, he cured women of barrenness, provided medicine and prophesied with a snake around his neck.

Following his arrest, one correspondent in Kampala noted: “It was widely believed that as they [police] drew near the tree, huge white rats ran down the trunk and a huge snake appeared at the bottom to protect the prophet.” In contrast to Buganda’s constitutional intellectuals (E.M.K Mulira, Abu Mayanja and Benedicto Kiwanuka), Kigaanira provisioned immediate participation in the public sphere, an active space where sacrificial practice and reward was directly attainable.

Kigaanira cured infertility, provided medicine, commanded power over animals and more importantly, guaranteed Muteesa’s return. Through possession and public displays of supranatural authority, Kigaanira advocated for a participatory politics, a kingdom where animals could be sacrificed and monarchs reinstated.

From 1962, Uganda has experienced significant political and economic tumult, leading scholars to suggest that before 1986, “Uganda itself was one of the greatest single sources of political instability, social dislocation and economic disruption in the Great Lakes region of sub-Saharan Africa”.

Central to Uganda’s post-colonial pandemonium has been the recurring collapse of constitutional governance, coupled with what Phares Mutwibwa has called “the Buganda Factor”, the perennial conflict between Uganda’s central government and Buganda Kingdom.

Since the restoration of Buganda’s monarchy in July 1993, the kingdom’s relationship with the central government has been mostly stable, though increasingly capricious. In the past five years, this relationship has become especially strained.

Debate and protest surrounding the deforestation of Mabira, land allocation, monarchical movement in the public sphere, the closure of CBS radio, Federo, the rise of neo-conservative politics and post-election violence; raise important questions concerning the future stability of [B]Uganda.

Kasubi tombs
On the evening of March 16, 2010, amid festering apprehension between Buganda and the central government, Buganda’s Kasubi-based monarchical tombs were destroyed by fire. The tombs, which are recognised as a Unesco world heritage site, housed the bodies of Buganda’s four preceding monarchs, in addition to historical artefacts, including furniture brought by missionaries in the late 19th century and a mounted leopard that belonged to Mutesa I.

The tombs’ burning evoked immediate outcry throughout the kingdom and instigated rumour and accusation. Thousands of Kabaka Muteebi’s loyal subjects poured into Kampala, bringing with them material for reconstruction.

Public mourning accompanied historical reflection, leading writers in the local press to compare the Kasubi inferno to the dissolution of monarchy in 1966.

Postcards with Buganda’s current monarch and Muteesa II were sold, capturing a glory that once belonged to Buganda. Labourers clearing ash sang about Buganda’s ancient and recent past, recalling the fate of Uganda’s violent presidents: “Akaalo ka Buganda ka dda, akaalo kaaliko nnanyiniko. Obote n’akaleka; yali wa maanyi. N’abaali abamaanyi baakaleka”.

In the wake of the burning, spirit possession practices accompanied demonstration and lament throughout Buganda, in general, and Kasubi in particular.

Like Kigaanira Kibuuka in the mid-1950s, possessed once again took to their trees. Disheartened, activists looked for insight, relief and justice from balubaale and their priests.

In particular, possession discourse reflected the practice of knowledge production not unlike possession ritual in the 18th and 19th centuries, where priests provided Buganda’s generals with military intelligence. Whoever might have organised the tombs’ burning, priests assured their devotees that the balubaale would not rest until the perpetrator’s identity was publicaly revealed. As one person noted: “The powers can see those who have burned this place”.

Jjembe Kalondoozi
Known for its ability to track down and reveal guilty parties, Jjembe Kalondoozi was one spirit who frequented possession ritual at Kasubi.
In antiphon, choirs enveloped fallen and gyrating women and men possessed by Kalondoozi, singing: “[The spirit] is tracking down; even if the guilty is far away, [they] will be tracked.” Beyond the confines of Kasubi, priests in Masaka launched a self-identified intelligence probe.

Aired on NTV, one spirit declared through his medium: “For some forty years he has spoilt our things and we have already caught him. If I fail, I [the spirit] will never again come on the head and possess another.”
Once un-possessed, this same priest reflected: “This is where we, the believers of culture and custom, are now; we have to show power in catching that enemy”.

Fifty years after Independence, spirit-provided knowledge continues to provide imaginary capital from which the practice of power is contested and authenticated.

From Kibuuka Kigaanira in the mid-19th century to Kalondoozi in the present, possession ritual is “a key element in discourses on power, despite modern processes of change (or perhaps because of them)”.

In modern Buganda, possession practices provide important political space for citizens to negotiate power and authority, a participatory sphere of activism where appointed leaders are held to account and the general public is able to redress grievances associated with the failure of the state.

Continues Tomorrow.