Tag Archives: ritual

Those ends

One of the common turns of phrase that seems to come up again and again in Luganda–or in Luganda-speakers’ English–is to ask not only about one’s family, but about one’s place. How is Ntinda? How is America? How is South Carolina? And my personal favorite, how are those ends? (Alternatively, when will you come back to this side/these ends?) Well, until September 2011, I had never considered that any of “these ends” could so closely resemble “those ends,” either socio-linguistically or culturally. Then I attended kwanjula in Boston.

Well, the same bride who introduced her groom to her adoring family that weekend made him a very happy man this past weekend in Chicago. They have since relocated, and their wedding was no less a thoroughly Ugandan affair than was their introduction ceremony. The Boston contingent made the trek in large vans, by plane, and however else they could. I met others who traveled from Minnesota, Michigan, New York, and Ohio. But most–safely over 95%–were first or second generation Ugandan immigrants from Buganda. These are doctors and lawyers, nurses and fashion designers, students and teachers; they are a well-educated, high-achieving bunch, to be sure. It is easy to see how so many of the present generation of Africans in the Diaspora hold so much hope and promise for the future. As I look toward a new phase of research revolving around these Ugandan communities in the U.S., it is very exciting to see the great variety of things its members are doing in the world.

I had not intended my presence at this event to meet with the same conspicuous attention as my performance of the Ffumbe clan slogan at the kwanjula did in 2011. I had simply stayed in touch with the bride and groom, and I wanted to celebrate with them on their big day. As aunties have a tendency to do, however, the bassenga from Boston informed me that I would be reciting the bride’s paternal and maternal genealogies at the reception. As this had been become a major opportunity for networking and thinking about new research directions the last time I did it, I of course readily agreed. In any case, how could I say no to this bride, much less her aunties?

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When I initially started writing about the 2011 event, the connections between kinship, music and tradition fascinated me. Between then and now, however, I had the opportunity to travel back to Boston and experience some of the rest of the music scene in one of the largest Ugandan communities in the U.S. Traveling to Chicago then came with the promise of new possibilities for discovering how things might be different there…and how different they were.

The nightclub that played almost exclusively Ugandan pop in Waltham, Massachusetts was interesting, and it’s a place I hope to return. But the aptly named Club Enigma in Chicago provided a fascinating contrast. Far from the local pub experience that tends to attract Waltham’s slightly older crowd, Enigma was like walking into a Kampala nightclub. The ten-dollar cover charge, the security at the door, the lighting, the overpriced drinks, and especially the DJ’s mix of contemporary Ugandan and American pop made it seem like the whole place had been transplanted directly out of suburban Uganda’s upwardly mobile communities.

I might have come to expect this from a younger crowd closer to the Chicago city limits than Waltham is to Boston, even if both places are fairly typical of immigrant communities in American suburbia. What I didn’t expect was the utter disorienting experience that this club offered two completely different cultural experiences in the same building. At the bottom of the main staircase, a right turn means Ugandan Urban Underground, but a left turn translates to Bulgarian Boom Boom Room. The latter was nearly three times as large, and attracted a crowd befitting the space. Managing sound bleed seemed only a matter of cranking the volume in each space loud enough to mask anything coming from the other. For the most part, people came with a culturally specific experience in mind, but they frequently walked over to “the other side” to check out what was going on, do some people watching, hear the music, scope out a fleeting physical interest, or even dance to a bit different beat. Let me just say that the kasiki (a Ugandan version of a bachelor party) and the wedding after-party the next night did not offer nearly enough time to try to parse this one out. Enigma indeed.

Two things remained consistent between Waltham and Arlington Heights/Chicago: these events are still all about networks of kin, and both communities still revolve around Roman Catholic church life.

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Above: the groom, Godfrey, with the maid of honor, Vivian and yours truly

One of my favorite images came from the DJ booth:

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I call it “Ain’t No Party Like a Messiah Party”

(glossy facsimile on turntable)

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Back to Buwaali

There’s one field site where I go quite regularly because I believe the community there is among the most innovative religious communities in the world. Buwaali is named for the disease Kawaali because it is associated with a 19th century smallpox outbreak. Likewise the patron spirit of this place, Jjajja Ndawula, is associated with afflictions of the skin. His drinking gourd has raised bumps, as does his tobacco pipe. I wrote about the overall look and feel of this place in another post. Here I’d like to return to Kakooge village, to the place called Buwaali, and see what has changed.

When I entered the estate where Jjajja Ndawula Community have built there main shrine, I noticed immediately how many cosmetic changes had been made. Inside the newly installed main gate, the grass and landscaping had been totally redone.

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The compound interior had not changed significantly, but there was one new spot in the midst of all of the various small shrines dedicated to different spirits: a group of mats lay beneath thick vines held up by a wooden pole frame.

Now the person I came with is a Muslim, and Ramadan was to begin that evening. A man soon came to this new place with his head covered, carrying a Qu’ran, a small ceramic portable fireplace full of burning coals, and waxy incense called kabanni. He sat down along with six or seven other people and began to recite suras as he placed some of the incense on the coals. For the next half hour, he alternated between sura recitation and Luganda prayers to ancestors and other patron spirits. The group grew, and by the end of the half hour prayer session, there were about twenty people seated there and responding to the prayers. Now it’s one thing for a Muslim to pray in a shrine, but quite another for a group to bring Qu’ranic recitation into the shrine space and to build a dedicated space for Islamic prayer.

At the conclusion of these prayers, the group disbursed to their various tasks. No Ramadan feasts tonight; just tea and dinner before the proceedings were to begin. We went into the main shrine, which had also changed significantly since my trip here in 2010. All of the windows had been installed, and the detailed painting around the trim had nearly been finished.

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Curtains had been hung on the windows closer to the front of the space, and the group now had some chairs for people on the risers flanking the main nave. The shrine for Kiwanuka now had colorful trim, and the area at the front of the space had matching trim.

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The woman prostrate in front of the shrine there is praising Kiwanuka as others look on, attending to the main medium of the place, Jjajja Ndawula.

As on other occasions, dancing and singing went on well into the night. I’m pleased to report that during the meeting that followed, the community agreed to let me deposit video recordings from this shrine in an archive at Makerere University pending their receipt of DVD copies for community viewing.

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Singing at Ssezibwa

I had been in Uganda less than 48 hours when one of my dear friends, Ssematimba, called and invited me to a ritual at Ssezibwa Falls. We went there last year together to meet the main medium who lives there. Not intending to collect much new material on this trip, I took the opportunity to re-connect with Ssematimba and friends sans electronic devices. I didn’t even bring so much as a camera. I had forgotten how rewarding that experience can be.

It seems every time I go somewhere with Ssematimba, his wife and their friends, the rain washes out the roads or even the entire event. When I commented to him about this, he answered with a single word: “emikisa” (blessings). I then began to consider what kind of heart it takes to consider total inconvenience and a considerable amount of danger in passing over muddy bridges to be blessings. As we worked to get our truck unstuck and up a big muddy mess of a hill, it occurred to me that these are the kinds of blessings that we only reap through cooperation in a shared struggle. The danger factor always makes me nervous, but once up the hill, the challenge felt small compared to our camaraderie. 

Our arrival at Ssezibwa had the perfect soundtrack of two indistinguishable and equally powerful beating sounds: one of waterfalls beating down on rocks, and the other of hands beating drums. We drew nearer to the drums and the waterfall faded into the background as the playing and singing got stronger and stronger. The effect of this crossfade was intense, and it signaled the beginning of a truly powerful experience.

Playing music fosters a similar feeling of camaraderie described above, even if the circumstances are totally different. I was pleased to realize that all of the time I spent with Ssematimba and others on trips past has paid enormous dividends in terms of my ability to participate. Having transcribed and translated so many of those songs, I’ve become proficient enough at simultaneous playing and singing that I can focus my attention on lyrics or other elements of these events even while we’re playing. How Ssematimba knew I was ready for this, I’m not sure, but he didn’t hesitate to invite me into that experience. What a beautiful gift on top of a mountain of other blessings that he has shared with me! I can think of no more perfect way to have begun this journey.

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Uganda Epilogue: the Boda-Boda Diaries

An unfortunate incident involving an upset taxi driver, his cheapskate conductor, their violently drunken barker colleague at the boarding stage, and some typically corrupt police prompted me on last year’s research trip to reconsider my primary means of transport in Uganda. Up until then, it had been the matatu, a 14-passenger van that rarely carries fewer than 16 people and more like 24 or 25 up-country. On my first trip and a subsequent journey, the otherwise uncomfortable matatu rides had afforded me opportunities to chat with locals, flip Luganda flash cards, and generally learn something about the everyday lives of Ugandans. During the rest of that last trip and all throughout this one I have relied instead on a more efficient, quicker, and decidedly more fun mode of ambulating through town and country in Uganda: the boda-boda.

Meet Mark Kyaligamba, a.k.a. Marco: safest motorcyclist this side of Sub-Saharan Africa, loyal companion, and all-around boda concierge:

I met Mark last year on the recommendation of a colleague who had hired him on numerous occasions to do everything from running errands to transporting her safely wherever she needed to go, all without the unwanted romantic attentions commonly associated with many boda drivers. This is how Mark gets all of his business: he delivers people and goods safely and quickly to their locations, he charges a reasonable (read: not muzungu) price, and his happy customers recommend him to other clients. It doesn’t seem like this kind of work would be very lucrative, and indeed he’s not living in the State House, but at the end of the day he puts his two children in good schools and provides well for his family.

After six months plus of strict customer loyalty on my end and unfailing punctuality, safety, and general reliability on his, Mark and I have become very close friends. My host mother comes from his clan, making him my kojja (lit.: brother to my mother). As such, he calls me “son,” and he takes very good care of me. He carries an extra helmet all the time. He shows up five minutes early. He knows where to find good food, hard-to-find items, out of the way places, and quite a diverse collection of people. You never know how valuable this is until you need one or more of these things and Mark makes it happen.

Riding on the back of a motorcycle every day for this long makes for a particular kind of experience of Uganda. Matatus are great for talking to people, practicing Luganda, learning the polite manner of so many Kampalans even when we are all forced to sit on top of one another for the sake of functionality, and experiencing life as so many working people do. On a boda, however, the wise traveler gets to know one driver and maybe a few of his colleagues for the safety’s sake, and he sees so many things through the eyes of that small group of people. I have my own agenda in going places here, but going with that other person means learning a lot about the places we go together and the road along the way. For me, that person is nearly always Mark.

Hours away from the city though, things are different. Mark has other clients even when I’m there, and there’s no stealing him for a day to go up-country. By borrowing his bike a time or two for a price, I have found a really fun way to see some beautiful countryside. Similarly, my friend and teacher Ssematimba would commonly borrow a bike near his home and drive the two of us to other villages.

Uncle Ssema introduced me to his home and family over the span of several different trips. Andrew Mwesige, another friend in Busoga, did the same. I met their families and friends in Kyaggwe County and Namutumba District, from Nakifuma in the heart of Buganda to Nawandyo deep in Basiki land, where they taught me so much about drumming and song, ritual practice, and the basic way of being-in-the-world for rural Ugandans.

When I was a child, my father used to put me in front of him on a motorcycle. As I grasped the handlebars inside his own strong grip, he would take me all around Cedar County, Nebraska, where he grew up. There we met family members previously unknown to me, old friends of our family, and comerades in farming and life. On these more recent journeys, the nature of our interactions is so strikingly similar. One does not simply pass by a place without stopping to say hello. When people tell us that they are happy to see us—tusanyuse okubalaba!—we return the joy of that meeting, apologizing if we cannot linger to chat over a warm cup. The Baganda say, “mu nju, temuli kkubo,” meaning that, “in the house, there is no road.” A visitor is a blessing, and a host blesses him in return with warm hospitality. This is a familiar pattern to me; it parallels the grace of the people who live near my own ancestral home.

When companions of convenience or professional necessity care enough to show me the place where they live, to introduce me to family and friends, to open their homes and their minds and teach me about who they are, the journey becomes so much more than the destination. This road has been rich with such experiences. A boda-boda is not merely a faster or more efficient mode of transport, though it certainly can be; it is a means of getting to places where cars cannot go, on paths that always end in compounds filled with the warmth of sincere welcome. These paths are useless if they fail to map the human landscape of a place. Now that these fine friends have led me there on bodas, I truly know where Uganda is.

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Not What It Sounds Like: A (Ffumbe) Clan Meeting

When I first came to Uganda in 2006, I came to study Luganda intensively. I spent my days going to language lessons in the mornings and embarking on a wide range of adventures in the afternoons that provided me with abundant opportunities for practical application of the language. The teacher who so graciously allowed me to tag along on these outings soon adopted me into his clan and his family, and he has since been a most fantastic host father, trusted mentor, and loyal friend.*

The first time I met the broader Ffumbe clan, they named me Kigozi and welcomed me with some of the warmest hospitality I have ever experienced. Subsequently, I lived with Magoba and his family in Ntinda. During this time and since then, whenever I’m in the country it’s a matter of joyful social obligation to attend family and clan-related events. Parents here use the same terms for their nieces and nephew that they use for their daughters and sons, so there’s no such thing as extended family in the sense that we think of it. People are just brothers and sisters, sons, and daughters. That means every time one of those people introduces her soon-to-be spouse to her parents, gets married, graduates from something, has a child, or dies, I have the privilege of joining the Ffumbe clan for commemorative events and life-cycle rituals.

This past weekend, it was okwanjula, literally meaning “to introduce.” One of our sisters, Zawedde, was introducing her fiancee to her parents. This is a normal ritual for youth preparing for marriage here. The biologically related clanmates and friends of the bride gather at her parents’ home, where they await the arrival of the groom and his family. When they come, they begin an extensive set of complex greeting customs that eventually involve the exchange of dowry and the agreement between families that their children will marry.

Above: the happy couple greeting ssenga, an auntie of influence in the family.

At an earlier kwanjula, I had been asked on the spot to beat the mubala, a kind of slogan that every clan has. These are normally proverbial or riddle-like in nature, and they often identify the totem animal of the clan and/or outline taboos pertinent to that clan. Evidently I performed well, because Magoba asked me to come to Zawedde’s kwanjula to beat an extended version of the mubala for Ffumbe clan.

At the designated time in the proceedings, the muwogezi (lit. clever speaker, a kind of emcee/negotiator that both families must have for this event) called me to beat the following mubala:

Galinnya, galinnya e Bakka

Basengejja, banywa omwenge

Kasolo ki? Ffumbe!

Kakozakoza: tolikoza mu lw’effumbe.

Translation:

They climb, they are climbing at Bakka [hill]

They are straining [local brew], they are drinking beer

Which animal? The civet cat!

The one who dips his food in every kind of sauce: you shall not dip into that of the civet cat!

The last two lines of this mubala identify the ffumbe, or civet cat, as the muziro (totem animal) for this clan. The last line makes explicit the food taboo associated with this animal. Even one who eats all kinds of animals should not eat the bush meat or even taste the sauce of the ffumbe. There’s another connotation here, too: the food taboo parallels a sexual and marriage taboo whereby one member of a clan must not marry a member of the same clan.

Well, the whole thing was an even bigger success than the previous time. It’s all because of Magoba’s careful mentorship. It was he who taught me a deeper version of this mubala, he who invited me to perform it again. His habit has always been to thrust me into public situations to test my skills and encourage me to rise to those occasions.

Wattu musajja mulungi ow’effumbe, kitange kiganda: weebale kunsomesa ssebo!

My dear good man of the Ffumbe clan, my Ganda father: thank you for teaching me!

*Edward Waalabyeki Magoba is a novelist, folklorist, magazine publisher and radio personality whose vernacular writing has had a huge impact on southern Uganda. His radio program, Ekyoto, offered 90 minutes of folklore-fueled fun for all ages on Saturday nights before CBS radio was shut down here late last year.

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The Work of Fieldwork

My recent silence has been a symptom of the nature of the work I’ve been doing here. But just because I’m not collecting recordings of ritual music or intriguing pictures to post here doesn’t mean that this part of the work isn’t important. In fact, it might be the most crucial part. Over the last several weeks, I have been spending time with a few key colleagues–experts on the music of kusamira spirit possession–who are helping me to transcribe and interpret ritual song. It’s not as exciting in quite the same way as all the travel and activity of going up-country to attend all-night rituals, but it’s facilitating a deeper understanding of this music.

What is very exciting about it is unpacking the multiple meanings of song texts, putting myself back in the spaces of events I only understood on a superficial level the first time, and trying to re-interpret those events based on local understandings of symbols and songs. This, for me, is the true work of ethnomusicological fieldwork; it’s the most challenging part, which also makes it one of the most rewarding parts.

Above: My good friend and teacher Ssematimba, or “Uncle Ssema,” listens to a field recording with me.

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A Wedding of Spiritualists

This weekend, I had the privilege of witnessing a wedding of two spirit mediums, embaga y’abasamize. I have spent over a year now working with spirit mediums, observing their rituals, and trying to learn about how and why they perform those rituals. This is the first opportunity I’ve had to see this particular function.

With about two dozen other spirit mediums in two vans, I headed down to Rakai District in the southwest part of Uganda. We didn’t arrive until very late in the night, but we were greeted with warmest hospitality upon arrival. Matooke and binyeebwa, the traditional food of the Baganda, greeted us with a nutty scent over warm banana mash. I can’t say I’ve ever been anywhere else in the world where people show up that late in the day and receive the same amazing hospitality that they would had they arrived at lunch time.

The next day, everyone put on their fanciest barkcloth garments, along with some of the accoutrement that they would normally use in the ssabo or shrine where they work as basawo baganda, local healers. Jjajja Jjumba presided over the whole function:

If cowrie shells used to be used as money and as a symbol of wealth, then that symbol is still very much alive in Uganda today. Jjumba is an extraordinarily successful healer who normally sees upwards of forty clients in a day.

The procession of Bakabona, those chosen by their ancestors to be healers in their communities, was led by this muserikale, a soldier/guardian who also works to move the logistical elements of the function along during the day:

Once inside the huge circle of tents where this function would be held, I was shocked to find something I’ve never seen in Uganda before: a cross-dressing clown with a partner who rode a unicycle!

What a fascinating irony in light of Uganda’s recent discomfort with diversity in sexuality!

Once all of the Bakabona were seated, it really was a beautiful site to see. All that barkcloth, all those cowries, all the time people have spent making these things look so sharp…what a spectacle!

Some of the music was in the vein of a relatively recent trend at all kinds of Ugandan weddings that resembles karaoke. This gentleman, one of five or six performers of this type throughout the evening, is singing live over a recording…though some sing more than others, he was actually singing the whole time.

Many up-and-coming singers do this as they are working to become popular musicians. This guy, on the other hand, just happened to be a friend to some of the people who helped make this function happen, and he’s a good singer.

Other music was more like what I’d expect to see at a pair of traditionalists’ wedding: mbaga dance. It was provided by none other than Nakayima and her group, Tebifaanana Abifuna.

And, of course, the lovely couple was looking very smart in their barkcloth gear.

If they don’t look pleased here, trust me, they did after those baskets were filled with monetary contributions to their newlywed life!

I’ve never seen a wedding this large, even in Uganda, where weddings routinely involve 400 guests. This was more like a thousand people before the whole day was said and done. The cast of artists who performed was itself very large: about a dozen musicians in Nakayima’s group, and another five or six doing other things throughout the day. What can I say? What’s good for ritual is good for working musicians!

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