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A Meeting of Kin and Clan

When I first came to Uganda in 2006, I came to study Luganda intensively. I spent my days going to language lessons in the mornings and embarking on a wide range of adventures in the afternoons that provided me with abundant opportunities for practical application of the language. The teacher who so graciously allowed me to tag along on these outings soon adopted me into his clan and his family, and he has since been a most fantastic host father, trusted mentor, and loyal friend.*

The first time I met the broader Ffumbe clan, they named me Kigozi and welcomed me with some of the warmest hospitality I have ever experienced. Subsequently, I lived with Magoba and his family in Ntinda. During this time and since then, whenever I’m in the country it’s a matter of joyful social obligation to attend family and clan-related events. Parents here use the same terms for their nieces and nephew that they use for their daughters and sons, so there’s no such thing as extended family in the sense that we think of it. People are just brothers and sisters, sons, and daughters. That means every time one of those people introduces her soon-to-be spouse to her parents, gets married, graduates from something, has a child, or dies, I have the privilege of joining the Ffumbe clan for commemorative events and life-cycle rituals.

This past weekend, it was okwanjula, literally meaning “to introduce.” One of our sisters, Zawedde, was introducing her fiancee to her parents. This is a normal ritual for youth preparing for marriage here. The biologically related clanmates and friends of the bride gather at her parents’ home, where they await the arrival of the groom and his family. When they come, they begin an extensive set of complex greeting customs that eventually involve the exchange of dowry and the agreement between families that their children will marry.

Above: the happy couple greeting ssenga, an auntie of influence in the family.

At an earlier kwanjula, I had been asked on the spot to beat the mubala, a kind of slogan that every clan has. These are normally proverbial or riddle-like in nature, and they often identify the totem animal of the clan and/or outline taboos pertinent to that clan. Evidently I performed well, because Magoba asked me to come to Zawedde’s kwanjula to beat an extended version of the mubala for Ffumbe clan.

At the designated time in the proceedings, the muwogezi (lit. clever speaker, a kind of emcee/negotiator that both families must have for this event) called me to beat the following mubala:

Galinnya, galinnya e Bakka

Basengejja, banywa omwenge

Kasolo ki? Ffumbe!

Kakozakoza: tolikoza mu lw’effumbe.

Translation:

They climb, they are climbing at Bakka [hill]

They are straining [local brew], they are drinking beer

Which animal? The civet cat!

The one who dips his food in every kind of sauce: you shall not dip into that of the civet cat!

The last two lines of this mubala identify the ffumbe, or civet cat, as the muziro (totem animal) for this clan. The last line makes explicit the food taboo associated with this animal. Even one who eats all kinds of animals should not eat the bush meat or even taste the sauce of the ffumbe. There’s another connotation here, too: the food taboo parallels a sexual and marriage taboo whereby one member of a clan must not marry a member of the same clan.

Well, the whole thing was an even bigger success than the previous time. It’s all because of Magoba’s careful mentorship. It was he who taught me a deeper version of this mubala, he who invited me to perform it again. His habit has always been to thrust me into public situations to test my skills and encourage me to rise to those occasions.

Wattu musajja mulungi ow’effumbe, kitange kiganda: weebale kunsomesa ssebo!

My dear good man of the Ffumbe clan, my Ganda father: thank you for teaching me!

*Waalabyeki Magoba is a novelist, folklorist, magazine publisher and radio personality whose vernacular writing has had a huge impact on southern Uganda. His radio program, Ekyoto, offered 90 minutes of folklore-fueled fun for all ages on Saturday nights before CBS radio was shut down here late last year.

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A Strange Twist on Kusamira Ritual

A little over a year ago, I started going to this place called Kakooge. It was unlike any other place where I had observed possession rituals called okusamira. Instead of drums made of cowhide and singers using ggono ornamentation, these musicians played with keyboards, guitars in the style of Franco Luambo and Koffi Olomide of Lingala fame, and drumsets with delightfully trashed-out cymbals. This was not the esoteric music of nighttime clandestine gatherings and village ritual; this was more like pop music, and in fact the people at Kakooge assured me that several prominent Ugandan pop musicians had been long time members there.

Surreal? Maybe, but definitely worth a follow-up or ten. Last month, I took a colleague to this place just to see what she made of it. Now, this colleague, a historian, had not been to the many village rituals I had. She came with completely fresh eyes, and I turned out to be very grateful for her perspectives on this whole scene. In the time since I had been there, however, things got more bizarre rather than less, so the whole experience was even more interesting.

Inside one of about twenty small shrines, built for a spirit called Mukasa, there’s this eclectic melange of things on the wall. I look up and notice the particularly ironic portrait of Christ at this otherwise thoroughly polytheistic site of worship.

Inside the bigger shrine, there’s a large structure built in homage of Kiwanuka, the spirit associated with lightning and thunder who eats fire. He’s not unlike Thor in his association with his hammer and lightning:

Directly above this beautifully ornate depiction of Kiwanuka’s hand with his hammer, we find these:

So between people making the sign of the Cross, bowing on bended knee, putting forehead to the ground as they would at a mosque, there are also people dancing around in possessed ecstasy.

To top it all off, there’s this:

So where Muslim and Christian bodily practices play nicely in the same space, symbols of both traditions adorn the walls, and people become possessed by spirits of still unrelated nature over a backdrop of Hindu celebration of the Divine. Is this the music of God in all of her staggering diversity? All I can say is, “Bweeza Merry Krishna As-Salaam Aleykum!”

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Change of Pace: Archival Research in Jinja

Most of the time I’m out in the “field,” somewhere in a village, finding shrines, attending rituals, and playing and singing with field collaborators. My recent work has given me opportunities to transcribe recordings from those outings and interpret their meanings. Even more recently though, I have been digging through an archive in Jinja that holds many materials written by others who have done work similar to mine.

Welcome to the Diocese of Jinja’s Cultural Research Centre.

The lion’s share of the relevant materials I am finding in this archive are undergraduate or masters’ theses by students at various seminaries around Uganda. Because these students were interested in religion, I have found a wealth of materials on traditional religion or comparing traditional religion and Christianity. Over the last couple of weeks, the staff has graciously allowed me to take over 1500 photographs of these documents, which I have subsequently compiled into pdfs for later reading.

The variety of materials is fascinating: they have everything from hand-written final essays for undergraduate courses to sophisticated theses complete with photographs. There’s quite a bit of overlap in the subject matter, but not in the precise locations of study. This gives me all kinds of ways to compare what I’m seeing with what others are seeing now and have seen in the past.

I also secured permission to get inside one of the display cases to take pictures. Most of these are things I’ve seen elsewhere, but they’re nicely labeled and displayed here.

It was some kind of sign that these are the things I saw when I walked into the front lobby of the CRC! Moreover, the staff is wonderful, and I have been so productive in this place. Thanks to the Diocese of Jinja for one of the best-organized library/archive facilities in the country.

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Buganda Moving

Yesterday I witnessed the largest display of public mourning I have ever seen. Thousands gathered at Kasubi, the burial site of four Buganda kings, to mourn the fiery destruction it endured last week. The New Vision printed estimates of the crowd at 100,000, but I’ve been in a crowd that large before and this was much bigger. There had to have been 100,000 in and around the Kasubi quadrangle alone.

Although both the Vision and the Monitor printed stories this week on the kingdom and the government beefing up security for the Friday prayers, the last day of mourning and the most public commemorative event yet at Kasubi, these forces managed to keep the situation just barely within control. Two died and more than 150 were injured, but considering what I saw yesterday, these numbers represent security blessings.

Along with three friends, I weaved through the crowds up toward the front near journalists and ministers of parliament.

There people pushed, shoved, shouted, sweat, fainted, climbed the trees, mourned and sang as security guards from both kingdom and government blew futile whistles and waved threatening batons at the throng. When the Kabaka showed up, it was difficult enough simply to stand up, much less see him and his entourage. The lucky few who caught a glimpse spurred a huge roar from the crowd before succumbing to waves of rowdiness and returning to the task of avoiding a fall.

What I didn’t realize until after the Kabaka left was that the logistical problem with this crowd was singular and fairly simple: this was a parade forced into a space where it could not realize its desire to move. The crowd cleared out of the enclosed stagnation to march through Nakulabye back to Mengo, where it eventually dispursed.

This physical expression of political desire for movement and change has people talking. For now I think we can simply be happy that, for the most part, things didn’t get too out of control.

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Buganda Mourning

No pix on this yet, but mourning has been ongoing in Buganda. People continue to visit Kasubi and tomorrow will bring more functions there. Meanwhile, the whole city seems to be attired in some manner of bark cloth, and the Kabaka cries in unison with his kingdom.

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Buganda Burning

Close on the heels of September violence in Uganda, fresh fears of conflict between Buganda and Uganda’s central government now dominate the evening news on every channel here in Kampala. It’s not clear how the enormous blaze began at a UNESCO World Heritage Site called Kasubi Tombs last night, but the Daily Monitor reported this story on the front page today, quoting officers and other people who suspected arson.

Of course people suspect arson. Of course they want to start rumors about how the central government maliciously burned down their ancestral burial place. These things are not surprising in a country where the president has been in power as long as Museveni has, especially if that country also has politically flaccid monarchies jostling for prominence. But realistically, Kasubi residents kept fires dangerously close to an enormous grass-thatched hut, so accidental fire is also a distinct possibility here.

What concerns me much more than the cause of this fire is the willingness of Museveni’s goons to use whatever violence they want to when someone gets in their way. Mourners at Kasubi apparently crossed the wrong boundaries, resulting in the shooting deaths of two people today when Museveni went to survey the damage. Is this a foreboding image of things to come in 2011 elections?

Or is it simply another symptom of the violence that bubbles just below the surface of any politically charged situation? If the riots at Makerere University are any indication, it’s more likely the latter. A colleague and fellow scholar of Uganda suggested in November that the September rioting was more economically than politically motivated, and she showed convincing evidence to support that theory. Regardless, the availability of violent means and the willingness to use them, particularly on the part of security forces and presidential guard types, remains of grave concern.

For more on these and related stories, see my Delicious links (in the sidebar).

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Obama’s Chapatti

I have recently had great opportunities to learn from a really good drummer in Nakifuma. His group, the Nakifuma Super Dancers (love that name), won a local competition to get on the stage of a larger program run by a Kampala vernacular radio station, Bukedde FM. I was thrilled when group asked me to join them for the big show! The event is called Embuutu y’Embuutikizi, and this time it was held here:

This is Mandela National Stadium, locally glossed as Namboole, as that’s the area where it’s located. I had never been inside before this event, so it was kind of a cool opportunity to see Kampala’s largest stadium.

This isn’t a one-time thing–Bukedde puts them on from time to time. But it is one of the biggest I’ve ever noticed. It starts with a traditional music competition in the morning, and that’s the part we played for. By the time we took the stage, there were about 300-400 people down on the field in front of the stage. Other fun and festivities throughout the day include performances by kadongo kamu players and big pop musicians. I think Bobi Wine was the headliner, but I didn’t stay around for 14 hours after we played to check it out.

As with any big event, the people-watching and the food options are really interesting. I especially enjoyed the Obama Mobile Takeaway.

Brilliant.

In the end, the competition was cut short because it got started late and took too long. So the judges arbitrarily chose some finalists and wrapped it up. I think I was the least disappointed in the group, though. The competition wasn’t the main event of the day, and I got to play with some of my favorite musicians in front of a whole bunch of people. Plus, Obama’s chapatti is delicious.

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To the Village!

Today I’m off to Masaka for a wedding of two spirit mediums. This is a truly rare event, so it’s really exciting from a research perspective. But if you need other reasons to get excited about leaving Kampala…

But for something much more exciting than Kampala congestion, see Sean Cooke’s other gorgeous photos. The wildlife stuff is particularly good. He’s captured some of the most popular reasons for people to visit Uganda. Enjoy!

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On the Laughter of Children and the Value of Play

Recently the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM) quarterly newsletter published a short piece that I submitted based on an interesting experience I had during field research earlier this year.  Only SEM members could see that version, so I thought some folks might like to see it here: the text appears below, followed by some follow-up commentary.  I also dig the colorful Nc20909 as it originally appeared.

Introduction

Childhood and children, as topics of ethnographic research and representation, do not appear at all on graduate reading lists today.  This want of attention to our own passage, this willful looking-away from ethnography’s mirror, must say something about us.  Interbelline anthropologists, such as Malinowski, Fortes, Firth, Richards, and Evans-Pritchard, observed children in the contexts of kinship, ritual, education and socialization (Levine 251).  Mead believed in the potential instructiveness of childhood studies, characterizing “world cultural variation in child rearing as a laboratory in which ‘thousand year’ experiments were being conducted by different peoples.”  Ethnographic fieldwork in distant places could be “brought back to the Western world for the resolution of issues like whether ‘permissive’ rearing was advisable for US middle-class children” (ibid. 250).

The contributor of this edition of nC2 puts children at the center of the ethnographic record, as felicitous music teachers and as agents in his own enculturation process.  His is a willing looting-to that invites reflection on our filed practices.  Is the way we deal with children in the field a meme of “table etiquette,” whereby they “don’t speak unless spoken to”?  Taken at face value, without a reader’s compensation, their invisibility in published studies presents much of the world as eerily barren of children.  -Jesse Samba Wheeler, Co-editor, Nc2

Reference cited

Levine, Robert A.  2007.  “Ethnographic Studies of childhood: A Historical Overview.”  American Anthropologist

109(2):  247-260.

On the Laughter of Children and the Value of Play

by Peter Hoesing, Munamaizi Village, Namutumba District, Eastern Uganda, January 20, 2009

It is possible, if not inevitable, to be so focused on a particular person or event of interest in our fieldwork that we overlook other potentially instructive opportunities.  Children can all too easily be relegated to ethnographic peripheries.  I offer this reflection[1] as an urge (as much to myself as to others) to embrace the playfulness of fieldwork by approaching children as partners and peers in enculturation.

Much of the day has been spent watching the clan elders build small mud brick huts for ancestral spirits.  I haven’t heard much music.  Mwesige knows how interested I am in ritual drumming and song.  He asks me late in the day if I would like to play drums with him.  We play for about an hour, and people respond favorably.  Children watch closely.  They never play until their teenage years, but I can tell that they soak up a lot by watching and listening long before that.  They know the rhythmic idioms well.  When I play something that’s out of character with nswezi idioms, they respond with laughter.  As long as I stay within idiomatic boundaries, they watch me like they watch other drummers: with wide-eyed fascination.

Drumming lessons in Eastern Uganda provide me with learning experiences in the ethnomusicologist’s ideal classroom: the same place where my field consultants and teachers learn.  As people gather to watch possession ceremonies, drummers offer children their first opportunities to get close to the action.  Adults are so spatially focused on gathering around the spirit mediums to sing, shake rattles and promote possession that young people cannot see what happens inside that circle.  Newer to these performances than many of the children, I join them and use drumming to gain access to musical dramaturgy.  The laughter of children as they observe my lessons acts like an idiomatic boundary between what I can and cannot do in terms of rhythmic variations.

There’s one particular rhythm that I’ve been trying to get right for several days now.  Even when I play all of the variations progressively, this one rhythm continues to give me trouble. “You’ll get it,” says Mwesige as he keeps playing.  After several unsuccessful attempts, he walks away for a bit.  The kids laugh.  With each unsuccessful try, they laugh again, especially after I realize this and playfully digress into something completely out of character with the music.  One of the children picks up his sticks and plays his rhythm on the smallest drum (is this kid mocking me?)  His enormous grin reminds me not to take myself so seriously.  I play along with him for a bit.  Something seems to click, but I can’t put my finger on exactly what.  I take a look at my transcription before asking Mwesige to come back one more time.  I’ve corrected something and found a rhythmic hook to hang my hat on in terms of left hand playing.  I’ve been focusing too much on the right hand and not really thinking about this in the left-handed way that Mwesige works with in all of his playing.  When he comes back, I get it right immediately and then stay on it for a bit just to solidify it.  The kids love it, but they don’t laugh—they clap.  So do the ladies.  Those who have rattles shake them vigorously and many women ululate.  I decide to relish my success and quit for the day while I’m ahead.

By paying attention to this mode of reaction among the children, I continue to develop my ability to play idiomatic variations for nswezi possession rituals.  When my teacher leaves me to figure something out on my own, the laughter of children guides my trials and errors until I can get it right.  Their playfulness encourages exploration.  When I forget myself in this kind of play, my hands find new idiomatic possibilities even in places where my conscious mind least expects them.

Ethnomusicologists have spilled a lot of ink about the nature of enculturation, but what can the people in the midst of that complex process teach us practically?  This village classroom reveals many more teachers than the individual who actually demonstrates on the instruments.  The model of neophytes learning from and being initiated by adepts certainly works, and it operates here as well, but it does account for opportunities in which a novice can learn from other novices.  During a day of building and other important non-musical work, musical play offers a welcome diversion for all.  Learning opportunities abound in this ritually sanctioned space for play, but only if I am willing to learn from other learners as I participate in their process of enculturation.


[1]The sections in italics are excerpts from my fieldnotes.

Follow-up

Although Jesse’s introduction provides apt context for this piece, I think there are some notable exceptions to what he’s saying about the absence of children in published studies.  First, what about Ryan Thomas Skinner’s children’s book?  It’s not ethnography, but Skinner is an ethnomusicologist and this book project makes a sophisticated ethnographic commentary on children and enculturation.  What about Kyra Gaunt’s award-winning book?  Moreover, ongoing research on youth cultures might be considered ethnography specifically about children.  The point of this piece, however, is that children ought not be artificially separated from social spaces where we do ethnography.  Their presence and their actions, as the above narrative suggests, are not merely instructive; for the non-native language speaker, they can often be the most accessible point of entry.

I recognize the negative ways this might be read:

Option 1: non-native ethnographer can’t get competence and resorts to hanging out with children and playing off their laughter for lack of something better to do.

Option 2: non-native ethnographer, even if the linguistic competence is there, runs the risk of non-verbal (but nevertheless clear) responses, potentially misunderstanding cues and jumping to hasty conclusions.

These readings miss the whole point of what it means to learn something from a fellow participant in any process.  If the laughter of children and the value of play do not do enough to keep the interest of fun haters shrewd observers, let me appeal to a humanistic cost/benefit analysis: we were playing at the time anyway, learning the parts, and the presence of children and other laughing observers brought immeasurable joy to that self-conscious experience.  I suspect it was that willingness to forget myself for a moment that enabled me to turn my rhythmic thinking around and, in the end, “get it.”

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Ugandan Journalism and the Production of Power

You wouldn’t have to be living under a rock to have missed what was going on in Uganda over the last two weeks.  Major North American news outlets provided lackluster coverage in rather inconspicuous places, and it seems the largest networks now have bigger fish to fry jerks to gawk at.  Admittedly, I’m a bit more closely tuned in to Ugandan news than the average American, but I’m no less interested in a concept we have in common with Uganda: free speech is supposed to be a cornerstone of both constitutional governments.  Permit me this temporary departure from strictly artistic concerns in favor of a concern that many artists share.

Uganda is a tricky setting for examining this issue, because on the surface, major media appear to be reporting the facts.  This seems to be the case even when police make outlandish claims about how many citizens can suddenly get a hold of illegal firearms (note: while it’s true that a small number of firearms were stolen from police stations, that doesn’t seem to add up as the sole cause for the total number of people injured and dead).  Good thing that by Sunday, things appeared to be back to normal.  President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni must have cleverly used that magic “combination of political might and political nuance to handle the situation” as his supporters put it (via Voice of Africa).  It’s the ratio that’s really troubling; Museveni seems to lean more toward might all the time.

French intellectual Michel Foucault famously wrote in several different ways about the relationship between force and authority.  For the purposes of examining the contemporary Ugandan situation, we can boil Foucault’s observation down to this: true and effective authority cannot rest on force, brute strength, or military power (the power over life and death) alone.  Museveni apparently knows this, which is why he also makes every attempt to control something else Foucault wrote extensively about: the regime of truth.

Evidently Museveni thinks he will be able to control the flow of information to bolster his government during turbulent times.  His supporters think along the same lines, making it hard to believe that every journalist held for any charge was held on Museveni’s orders.  He may in some cases be an unwitting accomplice to his loyal followers power hungry police brigades who, while attempting to restore order to the streets of Kampala, have violated journalists’ constitutional rights.  However, if current reports about the growing importance of citizen media or indeed the increasingly sophisticated commentary of the blogren are any indication of things to come,  neither Museveni nor the police will be equipped to quell social unrest by controlling mass media outlets and the journalists who write for them.  Dare I ask what their next steps would be?

Museveni is no fool.  While for various reasons his government has not put a stop to an LRA conflict that remains rather distant from the capital and the state house, he has been in African politics long enough to know that there’s a difference between an extended bush war and an all-out civil war that plays out in urban violence.  For now, an already war weary Uganda seems to be finding ways to keep the peace even at the cost of many of its independent news media.  Museveni has played a role in making this a one-sided conversation during the past week, and perhaps people accept this on the surface as they draw on all too recent memories of the role that radio played in the Rwandan genocide of the mid 1990s.  Citizen media, on the other hand, behave on their own terms.  People can blog or microblog anonymously, and Ushahidi maps crises like this one outside the scope of any single government’s reach.  Then again, I haven’t seen any tweets or blogs on these issues from those I follow on those media since about five days ago.  Have things really calmed down that much, or are we seeing a new caution among the blogren borne out of fear, censorship, or both?

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