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Travels With Nakayima, Part 6: Ttanda, Uganda


9 April, 2009: At Death’s Door in Ttanda, Uganda

In the beginning, according to the Baganda, there was a single man named Kintu.  He roamed the earth with his cow, but he was lonely.  When he looked to Ggulu (lit. “the heavens” or Tonda, lit. “Creator”) for help, he noticed that Ggulu had a daughter named Nambi.  Nambi watched Kintu do his work from her comfortable home in the heavens.  She noticed that he was strong and he did his work well.  They eventually fell in love, but this was a forbidden love, as gods cannot marry humans.  Kintu knew this; Nambi did too, but it didn’t keep her from approaching her father about it.

Naturally Ggulu resisted Nambi’s pleas to allow her to marry Kintu, but Nambi persisted.  One day, Ggulu finally agreed that they could try it, but Kintu would have to perform several tasks to his satisfaction first.  Ggulu began assigning these tasks to Kintu with the confidence that Nambi would see him frustrated and give up on her idea.  However, Kintu completed each increasingly difficult task with great strength and skill.  Even Ggulu was impressed, and so he finally acquiesced and Nambi got her wish.
When it came time for Nambi to leave home, she gathered her things and went to greet her family goodbye.  They first went to her father, who warned them to pack lightly and leave quietly so that Nambi’s brother Walumbe would not give them trouble.  Walumbe was a troublemaker, and Nambi had never gotten along with him.  He also warned that they could never come back for any reason, even if they forgot anything.  Kintu, happy to have a wife, agreed to Ggulu’s wishes and thanked him for looking out for them.

Kintu and Nambi set off for earth together, putting Ggulu behind them and Walumbe out of their minds.  Halfway through the journey, Nambi panicked.  She had forgotten the millet for feeding her chicken.  She had to go back and get it.  He didn’t like it, but she insisted.  She hurried back home and got the beans, but just as she was leaving, Walumbe showed up.  “Leaving without saying goodbye to your dear brother?” he asked.
“Walumbe, I’m so glad to see you.  You were gone when we were leaving, but I forgot these beans, so I came back,” she explained.
“You avoided me,” he responded.  “Why did you avoid me?”
“No really—“
“Let me come with you.  I can protect you along the way,” he said.
She could not resist him, and she would now have to bear the look of shame on Kintu’s face when they met him on the road.

Back on earth, life went on though.  Kintu soon forgave Nambi because he was no longer lonely.  They produced children very quickly, and they lived and worked happily together, Kintu with his cow, Nambi with her chickens and the children.  One day, Walumbe came to Kintu to ask his muko (brother-in-law) to send him with one of his sons to help him with the chores around the house.  Remembering Ggulu’s warnings about Walumbe, Kintu refused.  Walumbe was very angry, and he could not understand Kintu’s refusal of a simple favor.  That very night, he went and killed Kintu’s son.

Kintu was outraged.  He reported directly to Ggulu, who had little sympathy for a stubborn son-in-law who had ignored his warnings.  He pleaded with Ggulu, blaming the whole thing on Nambi for returning to get the millet for her chickens.  Reminded of the grief his daughter must have been feeling, Ggulu decided to send one of his other sons, Kayikuuzi, back to earth with Nambi.  He instructed Kayikuuzi to persuade Walumbe to return to heaven.  If he refused, Ggulu told Kayikuuzi that he would have to bring his brother back by force.

When they returned to earth, Walumbe proved to be stubborn.  Kayikuuzi tried and tried to persuade him, but Walumbe turned a deaf ear.  “I like it here on earth, and father cannot force me to return home,” he told his brother.  Kayikuuzi would have to take him by force.  He was the stronger brother, and he nearly overpowered Walumbe.  However, at the last second, Walumbe sucker-punched him and disappeared into the ground.  Kayikuuzi (literally means digger of holes) went after him, digging huge holes to try to find him.  Walumbe kept escaping and hiding in new holes, hoping to tire his brother out.

After several days, Walumbe succeeded; Kayikuuzi was tired of digging.  He went to Kintu and Nambi and told them, “I am going to try once more to get Walumbe.  You and your family must stay inside.  Keep your children well, and don’t let them make any sound if they see Walumbe.”  Kintu and Nambi followed their instructions, but one of the children was lost and he remained outside.  When Walumbe came close to the house, he ran screaming into the house to meet his family.  Kayikuuzi was just behind, but Walumbe had already disappeared into the ground again.  Kayikuuzi rebuked Kintu and Nambi sharply, furious that they had ruined his chances of catching Walumbe.  “He’s your problem now,” he told Kintu.  “I’ve done all I can.”
“You have done more than enough,” he told his loyal muko, embarrassed that his children had fouled things up.  “Go back to Ggulu and we shall deal with Walumbe.  If he continues to kill our children, we shall simply have more.”  And so Kayikuuzi left Kintu and Nambi on earth with Walumbe, the bringer of sickness and death.

There are many versions of this story, but the basic plot is the same.  Walumbe is a kind of angel of death for the Baganda.  He’s not like Satan, though his rebellion from Heaven seems similar to the Christian stories.  He’s more like Death itself, associated with pestilence, disease, and ultimately a trip underground.  The holes that Kayikuuzi dug and Walumbe hid in remain at Ttanda in Ssingo county, Uganda.



Amafumu ga Walumbe: Walumbe’s spears


Effumu lya Kayikuuzi: Kayikuuzi’s spear

These remnants of the great fight between Walumbe and Kayikuuzi remain.  People bring new spears as offerings and remembrances of the battle.  Walumbe’s presence remains, as does Kayikuuzi’s, but the Baganda also remain.  “Abaana ba Kintu tebalifa kuggwaawo,” they say, which means that “the children of Kintu will never be destroyed.”

People often bring cloths to cover the holes, a symbolic barrier between human life and inevitable death.  Ttanda has become somewhat of a tourist site, but it remains too far off the beaten path to be ruined by things like gift shops.  People still come here every Saturday for kusamira, possession rituals.  I have yet to be present for one, but perhaps on the next trip…



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Travels with Nakayima, Part 4: Buyego and Kungu, Uganda

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.

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Travels With Nakayima, part 3: Ndejje

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.
Nnaalongo 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!

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Ritual and Expressive Culture

Public service announcement: those of you familiar with my travel patterns in Uganda know that I post in clusters because that’s what my internet access allows.  Thanks for sticking with me despite the sporadic nature of my posting habits.  Since I know many of my readers are new to the blogosphere, let me just say this: I hope it isn’t terribly disruptive to your blogging experience.  I’m working to update my blogroll so that when there’s nothing new to read on my page, you can check out other writers, particularly in overlapping Ugandan, African, and musical blogospheres.

During the month of January, I have done even more traveling than usual in eastern Uganda.  I’m attending several different kinds of rituals on these trips.  The first was a funeral for a muswezi healer.  Both that one and the next one installed new baswezi (plural of muswezi) within their clans.  In keeping with my field writing pattern, what follows is a kind of photojournal of my experiences this month.  In contrast to earlier posts and at the request of some readers, I’ve dispensed with trying to make it look pretty and just used big versions of the pictures.  Enjoy!

So much of my experience here has been consistent with patterns that I observed in my master’s thesis: ritual expressive culture brings together music with other arts in an aesthetic common to the entire Interlacustrine Region (that’s academic fancyspeak for the place between all those big lakes in East Africa).  That thesis used musical instruments as one form of evidence for these cultural cross-currents.  Well, I’ve discovered some new instruments that appear to be unique to eastern Uganda, but their appearance remains consistent with other ritual art in this region.  These are called bugwala (singular: kagwala) and they work somewhat like a kazoo in terms of sound production.


They’re pictured above and below with the rukinga headbands found among spirit mediums throughout this region.


At an olumbe (funeral) for a muswezi healer, I got the rare opportunity to see the ritual master of ceremonies “dressing” these instruments.  The man named Kyambu below calls the beads “clothing for the bugwala.”  Here’s his infectious grin as he finishes the work:


Some might eschew comparisons to the kazoo (particularly when they want their research to be taken seriously).  I’ve thought about this for a long time, and I think the comparison is apt.  Those who play bugwala are called nabuzaana when they are possessed, because they play out the un-lived dramas and games of children who died as babies.  They beat the ground looking for edible ants, they sing children’s songs, and they go around blowing their bugwala in cacophonous heterophony as people offer ritual contributions for their mini-performances:


Finally, one of the most interesting things to note about the physical culture of ritual here has been how it marks the initiated.  In some cases it’s clear simply by looking at someone’s attire that he can be musically initiated without having been ritually initiated.  The ritually initiated must wear appropriate garb, because otherwise their patron spirits will either refuse to come or rebuke them when they note the absence of proper attire (or music, or sacrificial animals).  Here a young drummer embodies this divide, which is sometimes generational, sometimes merely experiential, and always notable:


I return to the east this week for some follow-up work on the rituals I’ve attended there and hopefully scheduling more trips to observe other rituals.  January has gone fast, and I’m sure February will go even faster.  However, I plan to be in Kampala more in the coming months, so hopefully that can mean more posts.  Until next time, beera bulungi (be well).


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Yep, I’m a church musician

I don’t normally write about religion, but I do specialize in music and ritual in my research. I definitely don’t blog about my personal beliefs either (that’s why they call them personal), so let’s just say it took a couple weeks’ worth of contemplation before I finally decided to put this post out there. Here goes…

I’m a church musician; I’m a staff singer in a local Episcopal church, to be precise. Say what you will about organized religion, but generally Episcopalians are amiable and they make it a priority not to hate anyone. Considering the atrocities that have been carried out in the name of many branches of Christianity, as well as the recent schism between these amiable non-haters and their gay-bashing theological nemeses, I’d say Episcopals are doing okay. But I digress…

I sang at the funeral of a recently retired Army engineer the other day. He was a graduate of West Point and a pillar in his community, where he worked to ensure that state policies kept good standards of environmental stewardship in Florida (boy, could they use him now). More importantly, he was a gentle and vocally well-endowed member of our bass section. One of the lines that touched me in the eulogy was something about how we as a community of faith share common suffering with his family, that we stand in solidarity with them in this difficult time. Although the deceased had planned his funeral, including the money it would take to pay staff singers like me to be there, this was true for me as well.

That same week, I had been working with images and stories of xenophobia and persecution in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Some of the blogren have taken recent opportunities to blog for human rights. I have been shocked by the horror of South African violence and the barbarity of Zimbabwe’s current policies on foreign aid. I stand in solidarity with the bewildered and displaced of Zimbabwe, but I cannot possibly share their suffering. Blogging for human rights, however, is only one way of raising awareness.

Tomorrow night at the Maggie Allessee National Center for Choreography, I’m going to see a developing piece called “Zambezi/Limpopo: Anatomy of a Revolution and the Spirit of Zimbabwean Resistance and Survival.” I have had the privilege of getting to know dancer/choreographer Nora Chipaumire through some research that I’ve done for this piece with several other FSU students. Nora’s powerful performances lend a voice to the thousands of voiceless displaced in and around Zimbabwe. The sketch I saw a few days ago had her dancing the image of a person on fire to the accompaniment of the Muslim call to prayer. I grew up surrounded by rather diverse ecumenical Christian church music, and I have since adopted an even more open stance on world religions and musical ritual. This piece spoke to me from inside a burning person inside a state in crisis. It was truly amazing on both spiritual and aesthetic levels.

Tomorrow’s piece draws from this and other sketches, but Nora will be joined by Zimbabwean revolutionary and world music icon Thomas Mapfumo and his band, Blacks Unlimited. Stay tuned for a full feature of Nora (hopefully with some pix) in a few days. Until then, I’m curious what other folks are doing to reflect upon and raise awareness about this and other conflicts affecting human rights? Give me a holler in the comments if you’ve come across something cool…

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