28 March 2009 (later that day): Ndejje, Uganda
Nakayima and I linked up this morning with Nakigozi Nabawanuka at a place called Ndejje. I must admit that until I knew we were on our way to Bakka, I didn’t want to leave this place. The main ssabo or shrine had captured my curiosity with its abundance of ritual paraphernalia.
So naturally I am pleased as we return to this place early in the evening. By now I am accustomed to seeing these things: leopard and other animal skins, spears, and bark-cloth. But I have never seen this much or this wide a variety of ritual power objects in one place. I am also pleased that they allow me to take some pictures of them. I have only ever been in one other ssabo this large, and that was in Busoga (eastern Uganda).
Behind the main pole you see in the picture above, there stands a stone kyoto, a fireplace where people burn wax incense during prayer times.
Behind that, a row of spears cordon off the back section of the shrine, where there are images of various ancestor spirits and baskets where people make offerings and venerate these ancestors. On the far right end of all of this, there’s an image of a leopard, a symbol of kingship and the preferred form for several spirits to take in nature. Next to that there’s a zebra skin, something I have never seen in a ssabo or anywhere else.
On the other side of the leopard tapestry, there’s something else I have never seen anywhere: an image of Kiwanuka, the deity associated with thunder and lightning who eats fire. Nakigozi Nabawanuka tells me that Kiwanuka is white like me. The name Nabawanuka comes from Kiwanuka, and this is one of the spirits who possesses her, so she speaks with a certain authority on the matter. Take a closer look at the image:
What’s interesting to me here is that this image is clearly recent. Nobody else has ever described Kiwanuka as white or muzungu (or even albino for that matter), and the poster is no older than this place (about 15 years). And yet, some of the other things around this place come from much older traditions. For example, one of the objects I notice on the row of spears near the back of the ssabo is called enkinga.
and here’s another…
Nabawanuka tells me that people who are ill can beat these ornate fly whisks over each shoulder to chase away the spirits that cause their afflictions. She does not call herself a healer (omusawo w’ekinansi), but consistent with many of Buganda’s shrines, that does not stop people from coming here to seek healing through spiritual means.
There are other remnants from the past here: below, a pair of traditional sandals rests next to the ancient board game, mweso.
Again, as in many shrines, I see no shortage of tobacco pipes in this place. Each of these in the basket is for a different spirit:
When people get possessed with those spirits, the spirits request their specific pipes, and Nabawanuka must have them available.
As I move outside to check out the rest of the site, I take note of the many drums in this place. Unlike the one hanging on the central pole of the ssabo, these in the corner clearly get used on a regular basis:
Like Bakka, this place is home to several other ebyoto (fireplaces) and amassabo (shrines) apart from the main shrine. There is one for the royal spirits where women are not allowed to tread, one specifically dedicated to Kiwanuka, and one small ssabo next to that where Nabawanuka consults with her visitors. Somewhere in an isolated corner of the compound, there is something else I have never seen: a large cement cage. One of Nabawanuka’s sons, Arafat, shows me inside the small door. At first I see nothing but a large pile of dung on the floor, but then I look up.
The people here call this giant python or ttimba Nnaalongo, which means mother of twins. She is also a twin, and the people here say that her twin is a human. That’s right: they say that a human mother gave birth to this snake and a human, and that the two are twins. I’ve heard of fetus in fetu, but this is a whole new level of weird. By now I’ve learned to accept that it doesn’t matter much if this is factual information or not. The point of interest, from an ethnographic point of view, is that people believe that this stuff happens.
As I mentioned in the previous post, twins are believed to be an aberration from the normal order in which a mother gives birth to a single child who has a spiritual twin. Umbilical cords are often preserved inside ornate rings and treated with special ritual care for this reason. People who give birth to healthy twins and remain healthy are called Ssaalongo (father of twins) and Nnaalongo (mother of twins). These titles acknowledge the spiritual power that these people must have in order to emerge from the potentially dangerous experience of producing twins. Ttimba, like leopards, are animals in which spirits move, so the people in this place believe that a mother who produces balongo (twins), one human and one ttimba, has extraordinary spiritual power.
Just as I am starting at the sheer size of this snake (its head is roughly the size of both of my fists put together), we hear Arafat’s brother Musa beating a call to prayer in the main ssabo.
People go to pray using the same ritual they use every week (beginning with coffee berries and honey-see my next post on this topic). The bodily behavior here is heavily influenced by Islam, as most of the people who come here and reside here are Muslims. After prayer, they sing songs for the balongo (twins). They request me to join them on drums, and I’m pleased to have this opportunity, especially since they initiate it. In a later post, I’ll try to include some audio or video from Ndejje. For this particular visit, I’m too busy playing to make any recordings…it’s a good place to be, especially for a first visit. I normally refrain from taking photos or videos on the first visit to a place, so a bit of participant observation is just the ticket at this point!