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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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A Strange Twist on Kusamira Ritual

A little over a year ago, I started going to this place called Kakooge. It was unlike any other place where I had observed possession rituals called okusamira. Instead of drums made of cowhide and singers using ggono ornamentation, these musicians played with keyboards, guitars in the style of Franco Luambo and Koffi Olomide of Lingala fame, and drumsets with delightfully trashed-out cymbals. This was not the esoteric music of nighttime clandestine gatherings and village ritual; this was more like pop music, and in fact the people at Kakooge assured me that several prominent Ugandan pop musicians had been long time members there.

Surreal? Maybe, but definitely worth a follow-up or ten. Last month, I took a colleague to this place just to see what she made of it. Now, this colleague, a historian, had not been to the many village rituals I had. She came with completely fresh eyes, and I turned out to be very grateful for her perspectives on this whole scene. In the time since I had been there, however, things got more bizarre rather than less, so the whole experience was even more interesting.

Inside one of about twenty small shrines, built for a spirit called Mukasa, there’s this eclectic melange of things on the wall. I look up and notice the particularly ironic portrait of Christ at this otherwise thoroughly polytheistic site of worship.

Inside the bigger shrine, there’s a large structure built in homage of Kiwanuka, the spirit associated with lightning and thunder who eats fire. He’s not unlike Thor in his association with his hammer and lightning:

Directly above this beautifully ornate depiction of Kiwanuka’s hand with his hammer, we find these:

So between people making the sign of the Cross, bowing on bended knee, putting forehead to the ground as they would at a mosque, there are also people dancing around in possessed ecstasy.

To top it all off, there’s this:

So where Muslim and Christian bodily practices play nicely in the same space, symbols of both traditions adorn the walls, and people become possessed by spirits of still unrelated nature over a backdrop of Hindu celebration of the Divine. Is this the music of God in all of her staggering diversity? All I can say is, “Bweeza Merry Krishna As-Salaam Aleykum!”

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Change of Pace: Archival Research in Jinja

Most of the time I’m out in the “field,” somewhere in a village, finding shrines, attending rituals, and playing and singing with field collaborators. My recent work has given me opportunities to transcribe recordings from those outings and interpret their meanings. Even more recently though, I have been digging through an archive in Jinja that holds many materials written by others who have done work similar to mine.

Welcome to the Diocese of Jinja’s Cultural Research Centre.

The lion’s share of the relevant materials I am finding in this archive are undergraduate or masters’ theses by students at various seminaries around Uganda. Because these students were interested in religion, I have found a wealth of materials on traditional religion or comparing traditional religion and Christianity. Over the last couple of weeks, the staff has graciously allowed me to take over 1500 photographs of these documents, which I have subsequently compiled into pdfs for later reading.

The variety of materials is fascinating: they have everything from hand-written final essays for undergraduate courses to sophisticated theses complete with photographs. There’s quite a bit of overlap in the subject matter, but not in the precise locations of study. This gives me all kinds of ways to compare what I’m seeing with what others are seeing now and have seen in the past.

I also secured permission to get inside one of the display cases to take pictures. Most of these are things I’ve seen elsewhere, but they’re nicely labeled and displayed here.

It was some kind of sign that these are the things I saw when I walked into the front lobby of the CRC! Moreover, the staff is wonderful, and I have been so productive in this place. Thanks to the Diocese of Jinja for one of the best-organized library/archive facilities in the country.

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Buganda Moving

Yesterday I witnessed the largest display of public mourning I have ever seen. Thousands gathered at Kasubi, the burial site of four Buganda kings, to mourn the fiery destruction it endured last week. The New Vision printed estimates of the crowd at 100,000, but I’ve been in a crowd that large before and this was much bigger. There had to have been 100,000 in and around the Kasubi quadrangle alone.

Although both the Vision and the Monitor printed stories this week on the kingdom and the government beefing up security for the Friday prayers, the last day of mourning and the most public commemorative event yet at Kasubi, these forces managed to keep the situation just barely within control. Two died and more than 150 were injured, but considering what I saw yesterday, these numbers represent security blessings.

Along with three friends, I weaved through the crowds up toward the front near journalists and ministers of parliament.

There people pushed, shoved, shouted, sweat, fainted, climbed the trees, mourned and sang as security guards from both kingdom and government blew futile whistles and waved threatening batons at the throng. When the Kabaka showed up, it was difficult enough simply to stand up, much less see him and his entourage. The lucky few who caught a glimpse spurred a huge roar from the crowd before succumbing to waves of rowdiness and returning to the task of avoiding a fall.

What I didn’t realize until after the Kabaka left was that the logistical problem with this crowd was singular and fairly simple: this was a parade forced into a space where it could not realize its desire to move. The crowd cleared out of the enclosed stagnation to march through Nakulabye back to Mengo, where it eventually dispursed.

This physical expression of political desire for movement and change has people talking. For now I think we can simply be happy that, for the most part, things didn’t get too out of control.

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Buganda Mourning

No pix on this yet, but mourning has been ongoing in Buganda. People continue to visit Kasubi and tomorrow will bring more functions there. Meanwhile, the whole city seems to be attired in some manner of bark cloth, and the Kabaka cries in unison with his kingdom.

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Buganda Burning

Close on the heels of September violence in Uganda, fresh fears of conflict between Buganda and Uganda’s central government now dominate the evening news on every channel here in Kampala. It’s not clear how the enormous blaze began at a UNESCO World Heritage Site called Kasubi Tombs last night, but the Daily Monitor reported this story on the front page today, quoting officers and other people who suspected arson.

Of course people suspect arson. Of course they want to start rumors about how the central government maliciously burned down their ancestral burial place. These things are not surprising in a country where the president has been in power as long as Museveni has, especially if that country also has politically flaccid monarchies jostling for prominence. But realistically, Kasubi residents kept fires dangerously close to an enormous grass-thatched hut, so accidental fire is also a distinct possibility here.

What concerns me much more than the cause of this fire is the willingness of Museveni’s goons to use whatever violence they want to when someone gets in their way. Mourners at Kasubi apparently crossed the wrong boundaries, resulting in the shooting deaths of two people today when Museveni went to survey the damage. Is this a foreboding image of things to come in 2011 elections?

Or is it simply another symptom of the violence that bubbles just below the surface of any politically charged situation? If the riots at Makerere University are any indication, it’s more likely the latter. A colleague and fellow scholar of Uganda suggested in November that the September rioting was more economically than politically motivated, and she showed convincing evidence to support that theory. Regardless, the availability of violent means and the willingness to use them, particularly on the part of security forces and presidential guard types, remains of grave concern.

For more on these and related stories, see my Delicious links (in the sidebar).

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Obama’s Chapatti

I have recently had great opportunities to learn from a really good drummer in Nakifuma. His group, the Nakifuma Super Dancers (love that name), won a local competition to get on the stage of a larger program run by a Kampala vernacular radio station, Bukedde FM. I was thrilled when group asked me to join them for the big show! The event is called Embuutu y’Embuutikizi, and this time it was held here:

This is Mandela National Stadium, locally glossed as Namboole, as that’s the area where it’s located. I had never been inside before this event, so it was kind of a cool opportunity to see Kampala’s largest stadium.

This isn’t a one-time thing–Bukedde puts them on from time to time. But it is one of the biggest I’ve ever noticed. It starts with a traditional music competition in the morning, and that’s the part we played for. By the time we took the stage, there were about 300-400 people down on the field in front of the stage. Other fun and festivities throughout the day include performances by kadongo kamu players and big pop musicians. I think Bobi Wine was the headliner, but I didn’t stay around for 14 hours after we played to check it out.

As with any big event, the people-watching and the food options are really interesting. I especially enjoyed the Obama Mobile Takeaway.

Brilliant.

In the end, the competition was cut short because it got started late and took too long. So the judges arbitrarily chose some finalists and wrapped it up. I think I was the least disappointed in the group, though. The competition wasn’t the main event of the day, and I got to play with some of my favorite musicians in front of a whole bunch of people. Plus, Obama’s chapatti is delicious.

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