6 April 2009: Buyego and Kungu, Uganda
Today we’re on our way to Buyego, a town in Luweero district north of Kampala. There’s a shrine for Mulangira (prince) Kawumpuli there, a Ganda prince who was born with no arms or legs. As with many of the other shrines we’ve visited in Buganda, the boda-boda drivers in the area know the place well. That doesn’t stop them from throwing Nakayima off the bike on our way up the large hill. It always makes me nervous when women ride “side saddle” on these motorcycle taxis to guard their feminine image. I have never actually witnessed a boda accident, though a friend of mine required reconstructive dental surgery after one…needless to say I am shocked and frightened for my dear traveling companion. Luckily she comes out with only a few scratches. A spray of hand sanitizer later, she is back on the boda, still riding side saddle. By the time we reach the top of the hill, she has forgotten all about it.
The photo above shows the main gate in front of a large ssabo (shrine), a regular thatched-roof hut full of all manner of ritual paraphernalia and thick with the smell of pipe tobacco. Nearby there’s an outdoor shrine dedicated to Kiwanuka (the Ganda diety for fire, thunder, and lightning) under a tree with a red cloth wrapped around it. A caretaker asks us to bathe using the water from a small nsuwa (clay pot) containing water infused with herbs that the main musawo (healer) here has prepared. At Ndejje, they do this the old way: the caretaker drinks from a small bowl of this medicinal water and spits it on people as a blessing. Here we just bathe by dipping a branch into the water and splashing it on our faces and shoulders. When it comes to required ritual bathing, I prefer the latter method.
We then sit outside the main ssabo for an introductory mukago ritual. Mukago is a cultural reference to an old tradition of making a blood pact. Two people open the skin on their bellies near the navel with a knife, dip coffee berries in the blood, exchange berries, and mingle each other’s blood with those berries. The way people do it now, they still call it mukago, but there’s no cutting involved. We simply takes berries from the basket with both hands, throw some on the ground for the ancestors, and eat some. People commonly offer coffee berries to guests in Buganda, but I have only ever heard this referred to as mukago in the context of massabo shrines.
A short time later, we move into the ssabo, where we meet Mumbejja (princess) Buyego. the main spirit medium in this place. She sits, smoking her pipe, near the central load-bearing pole of the large hut. Nearby there are large pots containing honey, and bees swarm around them. she ignores them for the post part, but tells us that these bees come to visit her every morning. We take tea and talk for a while, which is always a good opportunity to ask questions.
When we go outside to sit in front of the outdoor Kiwanuka shrine, Nakayima offers ekigali in the baskets there. Ekigali is an offering of coffee berries and money for a spirit, usually offered when someone first approaches a shrine. She also stokes the nearby fire in the kyoto, praying as she does both of these things. Once she sits down, it’s apparently time for a post-tea smoke. She has left her pipe home, so she asks Mumbejja Buyego to borrow one. They bring an ornately decorated pipe that doesn’t look like any of the pipes I have seen elsewhere. Those are usually used for specific spirits when they possess people, but this one appears to be focused on the pleasure principle.
That said, it doesn’t escape me that this pipe has been decorated in using a beading style consistent with some of the royal paraphernalia, including the Kabaka’s scepter. This place, like many of the other shrines we’ve visited, displays all kinds of references to royalty. This is primarily an association of their patron spirits with royalty of the past.
We don’t stay at Buyego very long; Nakayima has an agenda today, and it includes at least one more site visit. We end up at a place that I am at this point unaware will be the first of many significant shrines in this region that revolve around large rocks. We remove our shoes at the top of a large hill where the rock begins to dominate the topography, and we climb up to a place where Nakayima can make another kigali offering to Kungu, the main spirit in this place.
I’ve been trying my hardest not to crack jokes about this picture (oops), because it is a rather remarkable place. You can see several endeku (gourds for local beer) near where the baskets are. These are all for offerings to the spirit of this place.
Nearby there are several other small areas dedicated to other spirits: Kiwanuka (fire, thunder, and lightning); large similar rocks for Ssaalongo and Nnaalongo (parents of twins); Nakayima (a mucwezi herder) and Ddungu (the hunter); among others. The caretaker, a very helpful man named Kiwalabye, tells us that while there is nothing happening today, people come quite often to beat drums and sing here. I resolve to come back for that, and we bid Kiwalabye farewell.
What I don’t yet know as we leave is that this will be one of many places that I will probably not be able to visit again on this trip. Nakayima is giving me a really good idea of the places and contexts for this music, even if we don’t experience mikolo (ritual functions involving music) at all of them. The music itself does not change very much from place to place, meaning that it might not be all that important to return to each and every place. In a couple of short weeks, she’ll be completing the picture by connecting the repertory I have heard at so many shrines with its specific spirits, objects, and purposes. For now, I am left with a rather nervous resolution to return as soon as possible, even though I know I am running out of time to do so. I think the feeling of running out of time is something every fieldworker experiences, but as anthropologist Paul Stoller has stressed, that’s what makes it interesting to return to the same field sites year after year. He’s studied ritual in the same places in West Africa for several decades, and his work speaks for itself. If I am able to return to some of these places more in the coming years, I will be interested in seeing how my impressions of this repertory (and even the genre itself) change over time.