15-16 April, 2009
If Mubende was an exercise in long-distance futility and frustration of purpose, what I am about to share will reveal the consolation I feel from two much more useful days following that trip. We set off to the east on a trip much like the other trips I’ve taken with Nakayima. The taxi speeding along at breakneck speed on a narrow dirt road, I go through a now normal routine of just praying we get there and back alive.
Today we’re on our way to Kookola, a village in Buikwe county on the edge of Lake Victoria. When we arrive, a man named Jjajja Kookola leads us through his compound. It’s filled with ebyoto, each a fireplace dedicated to a different spirit. We move out of the compound into a large grassy field overlooking Lake Victoria. It’s gorgeous. Once past the field, we move down a small rocky hill to a huge cave. There’s a nice view of the lake, and the breeze from the lake into the huge rock is absolutely glorious.
We sit on the soft grass in the cave briefly, but the hosts won’t have it: someone hurries to bring mikeeka (woven palm mats) for us to sit on. There are a few ladies sitting nearby in gomesi and gentlemen sitting nearby in kkanzu, i.e. they are dressed up for something. As we sit and chat, we discover that the village, parish, sub-county, and county chiefs have come together for a meeting today. They have invited the Minister of Culture for Buganda Kingdom, who will be coming shortly. These leaders are so busy asking me questions that I hardly have a chance to ask them about this meeting before it begins. Eventually though, the questions taper off. Because nobody ever starts anything on time, I’m afforded a moment to gather some information.
To make a very long story of this day and its antecedents shorter, this place has been desecrated. “Savedies,” as Baganda like to call them, or Born-again Christians, came to this place a few weeks ago without permission to enter the cave. They took all of the ritual accoutrement from this large cave, including spears, baskets, cowries, matembe seeds, offerings to spirits, and bark cloths, and threw it all into the lake. It was an act of vandalism that these “Savedies” justified by enlisting Christ on their side of an ongoing social battle in Uganda that they see as a battle for souls. I sit appalled, listening to this story from the locals, wondering how anyone can justify such symbolic violence by reference to the most tolerant and patient person in human history. I have heard other mediums refer to “Savedies” as trouble-makers before. I have even heard that they burn down massabo shrines, but I have never seen the aftermath of such behavior. The people here are devastated. It would be like members of another religious community going into a Christian church and throwing out all of the crosses and bibles.
The Minister of Culture arrives. There’s a whole lot of pomp and circumstance, and we have to change places in the cave to accommodate a central place of importance for him. As guests, however, we get a seat up front where we can hear his speech well. He knows Nakayima, and he asks her to start off the meeting properly. She sings:
Ssewasswa akazaala abaana,
Ssewasswa akazaala abalongo!
This common song for the twins starts off many official functions. It’s part of a repertory that must be sung in multiples of two to start rituals. She follows with three other songs, also for the twins, and I quickly write down the titles. I’ve been following her habits on this for some time now, and it seems the combination of songs is never quite the same. She just chooses from a body of songs and sings them in even numbers.
When the Minister of Culture begins his speech, he’s outraged. He promises to take this problem to the Prime Minister of Buganda and send a memo to the President’s office. He speaks for nearly an hour and then fields questions from a crowd of over one hundred people, most of whom live here in the area. People applaud him long and loud, after which it is time to complete the part of the function that makes any occasion official: the eating of food (this could explain the large crowd).
Back in Jjajja Kookola’s compound, the men and women of the village serve everyone food. The Minister of Culture has brought beverages for all, a major contribution considering that he probably had to pay more for that simple luxury than all of the food cost for this whole crowd. We enjoy a hearty meal, after which people disappear quickly. This is how functions work in Uganda. “Food and drink,” a Ugandan friend once said to me; “those are the only reasons people really attend weddings and other functions. If there is no food, there is no function.”
When most of the people have left, Nakayima asks me if we can sleep in this village tonight. Considering the magnitude of this meeting, I decide right away that she’s got a good idea: stick around for a while and see what more we can learn. The next day, we agree with Jjajja Kookola to see the rest of the site.
In the morning, I wake up to see Jjajja Kookola nursing a bottle of gin at 8:30 in the morning. ‘Only in Uganda,’ I think to myself, and he soon leaves the hut in order to see some clients who have come for his help. He’s not exactly a healer, but like other spirit mediums, he divines the causes of many problems and offers people his counsel. It begins raining as he leaves, which is just as well; we have outside activities planned. When he returns, it’s time to begin.
We move out of the hut and down to the lake, where we must each bathe privately. (Evidently this particular journey starts off with skinny-dipping. I haven’t had a real shower, so I’m down with that.) In all seriousness, the point of this exercise is to have a quiet moment with the spirits of the Lake, namely Mukasa w’enyanja. We then move into the cave where we were yesterday. He shows us several baskets in the places where larger shrines with more ritual power objects used to be. Then we move to a series of smaller caves on top of this one.
Once there, Jjajja Kookola shows us the places where people make offerings for Ssaalongo, Nnaalongo, and balongo (Father of twins, Mother of twins, and the Twins). Since we’ve climbed up this far, we take a bit of a rest and Jjajja Kookola smokes his pipe.
The view from up here is really beautiful, and we can see how large and complex this rock is with its system of caves.
After Jjajja has finished with his pipe, we move up another level, which takes us to a large hill. Beyond that, there’s a huge field of rocks.
At some point in our walk through this field, Jjajja tells me not to take any more photographs. We travel about a kilometer further, and we stop. Nakayima has brought two bottles of beer and several eggs. These she leaves at the rock dedicated to Nnaalongo, the archetypical Mother of Twins, as an offering.
On the way back, Jjajja Kookola tells us not to do any more site visits for a few days after leaving here. The place has a kind of meditative calm to it. I don’t know if it’s the lake or all of the ritual sites in one place or what, but that’s the feel of this place, and maybe it has something to do with the custom he refers to. He doesn’t really have a satisfying answer when I ask him about it. Like so many other things, it’s just how people do it here. More importantly than any of that, Nakayima has given me a window into how an official function NOT dedicated to kusamira performance works in a ritual location.
These two days have also given me an opportunity to see how some of the contemporary conflicts among religious groups affect communities. In Uganda today, traditional healers become scapegoats for many people, including rival religious groups and journalists. Among other things, they get blamed for so-called “ritual” murders, child sacrifices, and bodily mutilation. While there is a small cadre of FGM practitioners in Eastern Uganda, these are not medicine men or mediums even closely associated with the kinds of musical and ritual practices that occupy the focus of my study. Moreover, many of the stories that the newspapers run end up as follow-ups that identify healers as the first responders for many of these crimes, not the perpetrators. Furthermore, avid readers of this blog might remember my post about the Uganda n’eddagala lyayo annual meeting, where healers uncovered a police plot to frame healers for a brutal crime. All this is to say that the level of animosity “Savedies” feel toward traditional healers and spirit mediums may well be biased by this kind of scapegoating. One thing is for sure: people cannot solve social problems by creating more social problems. The continuing meetings in this place and the sounds of these songs testify to the tenacity of these rituals and their practitioners. If colonization and the first wave of missionization through Uganda could not eliminate them, a new Born-again movement will be ill equipped to stamp them out now.