Category Archives: uganda

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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Back Together in Nakifuma

Seasoned ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl famously titled a chapter in his concept/method book, “Come Back Tomorrow.” Days like the one I had yesterday in Nakifuma remind me why, despite distractions, frustrations, and roadblocks, I keep doing exactly that.

Having already reunited with my dear friend Ssematimba, yesterday was to be a work day for us wherein we could talk through some of the issues and opportunities presented by the possibility of archiving some of his recordings. Given his generous nature and our good relationship in the past, I fully anticipated that he would be cooperative. The response I got yesterday went well beyond cooperation, though. Not only did he gather most of the people involved in those recordings at his office in Nakifuma, he also set up my explanation of this work in ideal fashion. Once I explained to people how much I wanted them to have access–here in Uganda–to their own recordings, they practically threw a party! Not only did they respond favorably to archiving old materials, they also insisted that I record new songs. We began yesterday, but they want me to come for an event this coming weekend and videotape it.

This rather business-like matter out of the way, it was very important to this group that I hang around and socialize with them. I spent a good deal of time with many of these folks in 2010, and we were all happy to be back together for a relaxing afternoon. From Ssema’s place, we went to Jjajja Bbali’s compound, a place that has many shrines for different Kiganda spirits. Between these two locations, some in the group introduced me to new spouses, others to new children, and all to new friends.

I have spent more time than I care to admit trying to capture the essence of convivial interactions that make ritual events so inviting for spirits in my writing. What struck me about yesterday was that this jovial atmosphere is not part of some rarefied break from everyday banalities. It is a cornerstone of daily living, something people actively pursue and often achieve in the company of family and close friends.

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One can never capture these moments, of course: they are as fleeting as this blurry image. Oh, who am I kidding? I’ll be glad when my nicer camera is fixed. That’s John Kyobinga on the left, Mwalimu Ssenogga in the middle, and his wife Nakayima on the right.

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Muchomo

The first time Jenn visited me in Uganda, I posted about some of the good things we ate. In fact, many of my ethnographic adventures have been shaped by the gastronomic adventures that have come as an essential part of those experiences. My dear sister in law asked me to write down some of the recipes, and although I did, so many of them cannot be made without locally sourced ingredients, or at least things I can’t get in Tallahassee. This is not the case for muchomo.

Muchomo refers to roasted meat of various kinds: beef, pork, goat’s meat, even chicken. My favorites among these in Uganda were definitely goat and pork, and many a weekend night found me taking a brief break from research to enjoy some of the local delicacy with a cold one. I’ve been working on this recipe for a little over a year now, and I think I’ve got it tweaked to where it tastes enough like East Africa that it’s worth a try on the Blog-b-cue.

This is the basic marinade recipe that could be used with 1.5-2 lbs. of any of the above-named meats, boneless and cubed like stew meat:

1 lemon or 2 T. juice

1/2 c. vegetable oil

1/8 t. cardamom

1/8 t. cayenne

1/8 t. coriander

1/4 t. cumin

2 cloves garlic

1/2 t. onion powder

1/2 t. pepper

1/2 t. salt

Combine everything and stir it up well before pouring it over the meat in a Ziploc bag. Marinate for at least 1 hour (I did 4-5 hours, but overnight would be ideal). Roast the meat on skewers over low flame for as long as possible without overcooking (read: low and slow for that outside crunch with the juicy center). Serve with salt and piri-piri (liquid or powdered hot stuff) on the side, avocado, tomato, and roasted matooke if possible. Otherwise find an appropriate potato to pair it with and put it on the table next to your favorite beverage.

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In Kampala, people who do this nightly make a living at it, and people who own the operations—often called “pork joints” (not what they sound like)—turn a handsome profit. In that context, the flame comes from wood charcoal. If you’re into that, use it. If not, use store-bought charcoal or a gas grill (I’m using regular old Kingsford this evening). That brings us to the defining characteristic of muchomo: beauty lies in the taste bud of the be(er)holder. Actually, my favorite place in Kampala ended up being this joint where my friend Freddie supervised and instructed the cooks to roast the meat halfway and then fry it up with onions and spices to finish it off. Yum.

This has gone over well with Ugandan palettes. I’m trying it for the first time tonight with a group of Tanzanian musicians. Like the recipe? Try it without the wet ingredients as a rub or send me your variations and improvisations in the comments! I’d love to take a few of these ideas back, as the home muchomo provides as much leisurely fun in Uganda as the backyard barbecue does here.

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Boston, Baby!

I’m not a Daddy Blogger, if there is such a thing. Maybe that’s why I don’t write too much these days: it’s challenging enough to balance Daddy time, research time and other work time, so reflecting and writing about all three often seems overwhelming. These experiences so rarely coalesce or even overlap in smooth ways; like many people, I find it easier to compartmentalize. Less messy in so many ways, but we pay a price for that. The last weekend of September, I had the pleasure of traveling with my family to a quasi-working environment in a potential new field site where we celebrated life with extended members of my adoptive Kiganda family. And yes, it sort of felt like that much of a mouthful, but in a good way. My spouse was here in the U.S. during my extended field research in Uganda, so this was a new combination for all of us.

Several things amazed me:

1) I have the world’s coolest family. Yes, I’m biased. Deal with it.

2) The terms Daddy, husband, and researcher do not represent mutually exclusive categories of people. Hopefully my family will confirm this observation. Compartmentalization might be convenient at times, but it’s not near as much fun as coalescence.

3) Ugandans in the Diaspora are as warm, polite and welcoming as their counterparts Over Home. This didn’t surprise me in the least, but the kindness of relative strangers (or is it strange relatives?) never ceases to humble and amaze me.

So, let me start at the beginning: several months ago, I got a call from my Ssenga (literally, paternal aunt), the sister of my Muganda host father. She invited my family for a betrothal ceremony called okwanjula, meaning “introduction,” which would take place in the city where she works, Waltham, Massachussets. My initial response was wholly and irresponsibly American: I was too busy, had too little money for travel and did not know either of the bagole (bride and groom). Ssenga Babirye persisted, calling a month later and adding calls from her sisters two weeks after that. It is rude to refuse someone’s hospitality. Even just dropping by a proper Kiganda home requires the consumption of tea, or at the very least a glass of water. An old proverb that my dear brother Ssetimba taught me states this unequivocally:

mu nju, temuli kkubo

in the house, there is no road

The bassenga demanded satisfaction in their own way, and we acquiesced, making plans to attend this family event as a family. Moreover, they insisted that we stay with one of them, just as we would if we went to visit our own biological families.

So to my first point: coolest. family. ever.

Our son got through the TLH-ATL-BOS leg of the trip like a seasoned traveler. This was his first air travel, and we couldn’t have been happier with that. Meanwhile, my spouse demonstrated the same patient resourcefulness that has become her hallmark in our home. The trip back was no different. Okay, realistically, we all get tired/hungry/annoyed/irritated and just plain want a minute to ourselves – we’re real people. This family of mine is great for their efforts to keep cool heads despite all of that. Moreover, the folks who invited us to Boston have given us the privilege of calling them family as well.

When I first started studying Luganda, I had two teachers. One was a fantastic young linguist named Deo Kawalya, the other a tutor for practical application. The latter, named Waalabyeki Magoba, became my dear friend and host father. He used to take me around to markets, taxi parks, and other public places to practice what I had learned in the classes. After a few weeks, he took me to his family home, where his aged parents gave me a Kiganda name.

Over the next two trips in 2008-2009 and 2009-2010, Mwami Magoba took me to several kwanjula celebrations. These were family affairs: Kiganda kinship makes no distinction between daughters and nieces, so anyone who shares our kika or “type” also shares our totem animal, Ffumbe (a civet cat). Those in my age group are therefore my sisters (bannyinaze) and daughters of Magoba and his generation. One of the things I learned from a host brother very early on in this process was the clan slogan (omubala):

Galinnya, galinnya e Bakka,

They are climbing, they are climbing [the hill] at Bakka,

Basengejja, banywa omwenge!

They are brewing, they are drinking [banana] beer!

Kasolo ki? FFUMBE!

Which small animal? FFUMBE!

Kakozaakoza – Tolikoza mu lw’Effumbe!

Let food be dipped [in sauce] – you shall not dip in the sauce of the Ffumbe!

This slogan outlines both the geographic history of ekika ky’Effumbe, those who share the Ffumbe as their totem animal, and the principle of kin avoidance in marriage as it applies to this kika. In other words, anyone who shares the Ffumbe totem animal, whose ancestors were born and lived at Bakka, shall not marry another person from that group. Reinforcing this notion of avoidance at kwanjula – the first public, official event recognizing a couple’s intent to marry – perpetuates strongly held beliefs about eligible partners for any given Muganda.

Americans define family in terms of various shared substances: blood/biology, residence, extended time in armed combat together or even pet ownership. Baganda use some of these same markers for kinship, but sharing blood or other biological symbols proves secondary to other elements of and symbols for shared substance. Avoidance of a totem animal provides the basis for an enormous number of extended kin relationships and for adoption of outsiders into the cultural fold. Sacrificing time and resources in the name of sharing food and other resources builds community fellowship in both contexts.

When I consider what my family has sacrificed in order to facilitate my research, and in turn what my host Ugandan host family has given in order to create lasting bonds with us, I am truly humbled and amazed. I left Boston feeling like I would miss it even though we had never been there before. We left Waltham, which my wife dubbed “Little Buganda,” knowing it was only a matter of time before we would return. We carried our son back through airports and trams to our home with gratitude for the enormous privilege we enjoy in knowing and loving our African family and our new relatives in the Diaspora. Overwhelmed? Maybe, but joyfully so.

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Villages in Action

@ethnicsupplies, @projectdiaspora and others who make and sell art for social change in East Africa are today attending Villages in Action! Project Diaspora’s collaborative effort with Business Fights Poverty and Orange Uganda just opened in Kikuube Village, Masindi District, Uganda. Join ’em wherever you are and see what villagers have to say about the UN’s Millenium Development Goals and other issues. Follow the stream on Twitter under the hashtag #VIA2010.

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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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