8 April, 2009
Today we’re going the opposite direction from our previous trip to Buyego and Kungu; it’s south on Entebbe Road to Kitala. We’re going to meet another of Nakayima’s friends. When we get there, the protocol is similar to our previous site visits. We must first ritually bathe before entering the ssabo (shrine). Once inside, we meet Kabona Wamala Mugalula. He’s younger than some of the other mediums we’ve met (maybe 35?) and he’s very interested in current affairs related to traditional healers. For that reason, it takes him some time and questioning before he’s willing to trust me.
We talk at length about the current state of traditional religion and healing in Uganda. We’ve crossed paths before: Kabona attended meetings of traditional healers at the Ministry of Culture meant to deal with the issue of imposters and charlatans sacrificing humans in this region. He has strong opinions, but he’s not one to share them in such public forums. Here in his home shrine, however, he sits comfortably in a kelly green kkanzu (a type of very long shirt for men) smoking his ornately decorated tobacco pipe and speaking freely.
Turning from newspaper headlines to more immediate concerns, he turns to me and asks what I am doing here. With Nakayima’s help, I explain to him in Luganda that I am a researcher, that I’m interested in the music of these massabo shrines and how music functions in mikolo (functions or rituals). He understands, but clearly still does not trust me. He asks if I’m working for the Ugandan government. When he’s satisfied that I’m not, he asks a question I don’t really understand. Nakayima helps explain that he’s concerned about the notion that when bazungu (Europeans/white people) first came to Uganda, they did research with the people in order to improve administrative policy and eradicate cultural practices that they saw as potentially threatening to those policies. After reassuring him again that I do not work for the government, I tell him that I’m interested in learning these songs, teaching them to my students, and learning why they are important for people here. He smiles. “Osobola kukuba eŋoma eŋanda?” (Can you beat Ganda drums?) he asks.
“Yee, ssebo.” He smiles even wider.
“Osobola kuyimba ennyimba eŋanda?” (Can you sing Ganda songs?)
“Nkyayiga okuyimba, mukama wange” (I’m still learning to sing [in Luganda], master).
By this time, Kabona has already motioned to his sons and the other young boys around the compound to organize some drums. He invites me to join them in beating drums, and Nakayima takes this as her cue to begin singing.
Consistent with custom in many massabo shrines, she begins with songs for the balongo (twins). She follows these with a song about a person who walks like an ostrich. Satisfied that my intentions are good, Kabona invites his son to relieve me of my drumming duties (he’s excited to play as well). The songs don’t go on for very long after that, and it’s clear that this little performance has been primarily for my benefit. It also does something for Kabona though: in his estimation, a researcher who wants to actually play the instruments and learn the songs cannot threaten his shrine or his ritual activities.
I have never had anyone question me as rigorously as Kabona has today. Now satisfied that I have only good intentions, he warms up considerably. He decides to show me around the compound. Nakayima and I go outside, following one of his sons past a row of distinctive trees that form a high wall around the shrine. Beyond those trees, there’s another enclosure of trees. I see a large stone circle in front of a big kyoto (fireplace) that looks like this:
This is the shrine for Bemba Omusota, one of the former Kabakas (kings) of Buganda. People make burnt offerings for Bemba in the fireplace, and he has left his mark on the ground inside the large stone ring. We enter the ring, and one of Kabona’s sons gives me permission to photograph what I see inside.
This is the marker of Bemba’s place. Just as spirits have specific songs and demand specific clothing or pipes or spears or walking sticks, they are also connected with specific places in Uganda.
In my next post, I will connect another significant site with the oral traditions that refer to the spirits who, according to Baganda, once lived and now still reside there.