by on October 6, 2018

The Mugabe of Ankole with the Queen and the Duke’

The Banyankore are a Bantu group. They inhabit the present districts of Mbarara, Bushenyi, and Ntungamo in western Uganda. People from the present countries of Rujumbura and Rubando in Rukungiri District share the same culture. Originally, Ankole was known as Kaaro- Karungi and the word Nkore is said to have been adopted during the 17th century following the devastating invasion of Kaaro-Karungi by Chawaali, the then Omukama of Bunyoro-Kitara. The word Ankole was introduced by British colonial administrators to describe the bigger kingdom which was formed by adding to the original Nkore, the former independent kingdoms of Igara, Sheema, Buhweju and parts of Mpororo.


Like other Bantu groups, the origins of the Banyankore could be traced to the Congo region. Legends hold that the first occupant of Ankole was Ruhanga (the creator), who is believed to have come from heaven to rule the earth. Ruhanga is believed to have come with his three sons Kairu, Kakama and Kahima. There is a story about how Ruhanga gave a test to determine which of his sons would become the heir. The test is said to have been that of keeping milk –filled pots on their laps through out the night. At the end of it all, the youngest son, Kakama, is said to have passed the test followed by Kahima and last came the eldest son, Kairu. Judging from the performance in the test, Ruhanga is said to have decreed that Kairu and Kahima would=d serve their brother Kakama. Thereafter he went back to heaven, leaving Kakama or Ruhanga, as he was also called, to rule the land. This legend portrays social stratification in Ankole society. It was concocted so as to make the Bairu accept their sub servant position to the Bahima as being supernatural.

Social stratification.

The Banyankole society stratified into Bahima (pastoralists) and the Bairu (agriculturalists). A caste-like system of the Bahima over the Bairu existed. The society was a dual pyramid with pastoral and agricultural legs. Within the two groups or castes ( I call them castes not classes because within the Bahima and Bairu, there were those who had some thing in common), the clans cut across both the Bairu and the Bahima.The two groups recognized a common ancestry. There was a general belief that what made a mwiru (singular Bairu) what he is was a hoe and what made a Muhima (singular Bahima) what he is  was a cattle. This kind of belief was not very accurate because merely acquiring cows would not immediately transform one from a Mwiru into a Muhima nor would the loss of cows transform a Muhima into a Mwiru. A Muhima who owned few cattle would be called a Murasi. A Mwiru who owned cattle was called a Mwambari.

The two groups lived together and they depended on each other. The Bairu exchanged cattle products with Bahima and the Bahima equally received agricultural goods fro the Bairu.  This was because the Bairu needed milk, meat, hides and other cattle products form the Bahima, while the Bahima would also need agricultural products from the Bairu, equally local beer.


Traditionally, the normal pattern was for both the parents of the boy and the girl to arrange the marriage, sometimes without the knowledge of the girls concerned. The initiative was normally taken by the boy’s parents and upon the payment of an appropriate bride wealth; arrangements would be made to fetch the bride. Customarily, a girl could not be offered for marriage when her elder sister or sisters were still unmarried. If a marriage offer was made for a young sister, it is said that the girl’s parents would manipulate issues in such a way that at the giving- away ceremony, they would conceal and send the elder sister. When the bridegroom would come to know it he was not supposed to raise questions. He could go ahead and pay more bride wealth and then go ahead and marry the young sister if he could afford it. It was the responsibility of the father to pay in full the bride wealth and meet all the other costs of arranging his son’s marriage.

During the wedding ceremony, the girl would be accompanied by among others, her aunt. Some traditions assert that the husband would first have sex with the aunt before proceeding to have it with the bride. Another piece of tradition says that the duty of the aunt was to prove the potency of the bridegroom by just watching or listening to the sexual intercourse between the bridegroom and her niece. It is said that her duty was to advice the girl on how to begin a home more so, since Ankole, girls were supposed t be virgins until marriage. The first tradition is false because in most cases the aunt would be an elderly lady almost the same age as the mother of the bridegroom but the other two traditions are true. If the parents of the girl were aware that their daughter was not virgin, this information was formally communicated to the husband by giving the girl, among the other gifts, a perforated coin or another hollow object.


Okuteera oruhoko was a phrase used to describe the practice whereby a boy whom the girls had deliberately refused to love or whom a particular girl had rejected could force the girl to marry him abruptly without her consent and much preparation.

The practice of okuteera oruhoko was characteristic of the traditional Ankole society but vestiges of it still appear. Society decried this practice but it was common and helpful, nonetheless. However, the offender had to be fined by paying a big bride wealth. There were various ways in which this practice was carried out.

One such ways was by using a cock. A boy who had desired and wished to marry a girl who had rejected him, would get hold of a cock,go to the girl’s homestead, throw the cock in the compound and ran away. The girl had to be whisked to the boy’s home immediately because it was believed and feared that should the cock crow when the girl was still at home, refusing to follow the boy or making unnecessary preparations, she or somebody else in the family would instantly die.

Another type of Oruhoko was done by smearing millet flour on the face of the girl. If the boy chanced to find the girl grinding millet he would pick some flour from the winnowing tray used to collect the flour as it comes off the grinding stone and smear it on the  girl’s face. The boy would run away and swift arrangements would be made to send him the girl as any delays and excuses would cause consequences similar to those methods described above.

Among the Bahima especially, there were three other ways in which the okuteera oruhuko would be done. One of them was for the boy to put a tethering rope around the neck of the girl and then pronounce in public that he had done so. The second one was to put a plant known as orwihura on the girl’s head; and the third one was for the boy to sprinkle milk on the girl’s face while milking. It should be pointed out that this practice was only possible if the girl and the boy were from different clans.

Oruhuko was a dangerous and degrading practice. It was usually tried by boys who failed to have alternatives. If the boy was not lucky enough to elude and run faster than the relatives of the girl, it was however usually done so abruptly that before the girl’s relatives could get organized, the boy would have disappeared. The punishment was usually inflicted on the boy through the payment of too much bride wealth. He would pay double or normal charge or even more. The extra cows which were charged were not refunded if the marriage broke up.


The Banyankore did not have peculiar birth customs. Usually when a woman was to give birth for the first time, she would be sent to her mother. Brave women, and majority of them were brave, could give birth by themselves without any need for a midwife. However, if things went wrong, an acting midwife, usually an old woman would be summoned.

If the afterbirth refused to come out freely and quickly after the child, some medicine would be administered to the woman. If the normal herbs failed to induce it out, the husband of the woman was required to climb with a mortar to the top of the house, raise an alarm and slide the mortar down from the top of the house.


The child could be named immediately after birth. The normal practice was after the mother had finished the days if confinement referred to as ekiriri. The woman would confine her self for four days of the child was a boy and three days if the child was a girl. After three or four days, as the case may be the couple would resume their sexual relationship in a practice known as okucwa eizaire. The name given to the child depended on the personal experience of the father and the mother, the time when the child was born, the days of the week, the place of birth, or the name of an ancestor. The name would be given by the father, the grand father, and the mother of the child. However, the father’s choice usually took precedence.

The names given were verbs or nouns that could appear in normal speech. Often the names also portrayed the state of mind of the persons who gave them. For example, the name Kaheeru among the Banyoro portrayed the fact that the husband suspected that the woman got the child outside the family. In traditional Ankole, it was normal for the woman to have sex with her in-laws and even have children by them. Such children were not regarded any differently from the other children in the family.


The Banyankole did not believe that death was a natural phenomenon. According to them, death was attributed to sorcery, misfortune and the spite of the neighbors. They even had a saying: Tihariho mufu atarogyirwe. Meaning; “there is no body that dies without being bewitched”. They found it hard to believe that a man could die if it was not due to witchcraft and malevolence of other persons. Accordingly, after every death, the persons affected would consult a witch doctor to detect whoever was responsible for causing the death.

A dead body would normally stay in the house for as long as it would take all the important relatives to gather. Among the Bairu, a person would be buried either in the compound or in the plantation. Among the Bahima he would be buried in the kraal. Burial was usually done in the afternoon and the bodies were buried facing the east. A woman was made to lie on her left while a man was made to lie on his right. After burial, a woman was accorded three days of mourning while a man was accorded four days. During the days of mourning, all the neighbors and the relatives of the deceased would remain camping and sleeping at the home of the deceased. During this period, the whole neighborhood would not dig or do manual work because it was believed that if anyone dug, or did manual work during the mourning days, he would cause the whole village to be ravaged by hail storms. Such a person could also be regarded as a sorcerer and could easily be suspected of having caused the death of the person who had just been buried. However, the abstinence of the neighbors from digging and doing manual work was meant to console the relatives.

If the dead man was the head of the house hold, his leading bill would be killed and eaten to end the days of mourning. Further ritual ceremonies would be conducted if the dead man was very old and had grand children. If a person died with a grudge against someone in the family, he was buried with some objects to keep the spirit occupied so that it would fail to have time to haunt those with whom the deceased had a grudge.

There were special burials for spinsters and those who committed suicide. It was considered taboo for one t commit suicide. The burial of one who committed suicide was very complicated. The body would be cut from a tree by a woman who had attained menopause (encurazaara). Such a woman was heavily fortified with charms. Indeed it was believed that whoever performed the role of cutting the rope used by the suicide would soon die also.

Tradition has it that at times; the corpses of suicide victims could not be touched. A grave was dug directly under the corpse so that when cutting the rope, the corpse would fall into the grave. The grave was then covered and that was all. There would be neither mourning nor the normal funeral rites. The tree on which the victim has hugged himself would be uprooted and burnt. The relatives of the suicide victim would not use any piece of that tree for firewood.

There were also particular formalities for the burial of a spinster. If such a girl died, it was feared that her spirits would come back to haunt the living simply because he girl had died unsatisfied. In order to placate the spirit and avert its evil retributions, before the body was taken for burial, one of the brothers of the dead girl was required to pretend making love with the corpse. This act was known as okugyeza empango ahamutwe. Then the body was passed by the rear door and buried. It is said that if a man died unmarried, he would be buried with a banana stem to occupy the position of the supposed wife. This was believed to propitiate the dead man’s spirit and its evil retributions on the living. The body was also passed through the rear door.

Blood brotherhood

The Banyankole had the practice of making blood brother hood. A person would make a blood brother in a ceremony known as okikora omukago. The actual ceremony involved the two people sitting on a mat so close together that their legs would overlap. In their right hands, they would hold sprouts of ejubwe type of grass and a sprout of omurinzi tree (erythina tomentosa). The Bairu would hold in addition a sprout of omutosa (fig) tree (ficus eryobotrioides).

The master of ceremonies would make a small cut to the right of the naval of each man.The end of omurinzi tree and ejubwe grass were dipped in the blood on the incision and put into the hands of each person. For the Bahima, only the mutoma sprout was used. Then a little milk or millet flour was poured in the blood in case of the Bairu and each man would hold the other’s hand with the left and they would both swallow the blood and the milk or the blood and the millet flour in each other’s hand at the same time. Blood brother hood could not be made between people of the same clan because naturally, they would be regarded as brothers. Blood brothers would treat each other as real brothers in every respect.

Political set-up

The Banyankole had a centralized system of government. At the top of the political ladder, there was a king called omugabe. Below him there was a prime minister known as Enganzi. Then there were provincial chiefs known as Abakuru b’ebyanga. Below them, there were chiefs who took charge of local affairs at the parish and sub-parish levels.

The position of the king was hereditary. The King had to belong to the Bahinda royal clan who claimed descendant from Ruhanga, son of Njunaki.Whenever a King died, there were often succession disputes to determine who would succeed to the throne. Thereafter, there would be an elaborate ceremony to install the new King. Whenever a king died, some of his wives would commit suicide or they would be forced to do so. Some of the servants in the royal court would also commit suicide. It is said that in the earlier times, some people of the Baingo clan would also be killed in order to accompany the King in the afterworld. The corpse of the king was also known as omuguta to distinguish it from that of an ordinary person which was known as omurambo. It was specially buried by the Bayangwe clan styling themselves for the occasion as the Abahitsi. To communicate the message that the King had died, one would not say the t Omugabe afire which is the appropriate Runyankole term, rather one would say that Omugabe ataahize.


The Kingdom had a standing army. The army was divided into battalions known as emitwe (singular omutwe). Each battalion was under a province known as Mukuru w’ ekyanga some times referred to as Omukungu. Often, the kingdom of Nkore was a war with the neighboring states and sometimes she sent raiding expeditions to Karagwe and Buhweju. The Kingdom of Bunyoro sometimes raided Nkore and took away a lot of cattle. Notable among the Banyoro invasions of Nkore were those of Omukama Olimi I during the reign of Ntare I Nyabugaro and that of Omukama I Walimi in the 17th century during the reign of Ntare IV Kitabanyoro. During the reign of Ntare IV, there occurred another war between the Banyankole and the Nkondami (soldiers) of Kabaundami of Buhweju.

During the reign of King Machwa after the death of Ntare IV, an expedition was sent against Irebe, the King of Bwera. The expedition brought a lot of plunder among which were cattle and Irebe’s sacred circlet, Rutare, which was thereafter used by the Bagabe of Nkore in making rain. Another invasion of Nkore took place during the reign of Kahaya I Nyamwanga. The invasion was by the Banyarawanda under the King Kigyeri III Ndabarasa. 

The Royal Regalia.

The royal regalia of Ankole consisted of a spear and drums. The main instrument of power was the royal drum called Bagyendanwa. This drum was believed to have been made by Wamala, the last Muchwezi ruler. This drum was only beaten at the installation of a new King. It had its special hut and it was considered taboo to shut the hut. A fire was always kept burning for Bagyendanwa and this fire could only be extinguished in the event of the death of the King. The drum had its own cows and some other attendant drums namely; kabembura, Nyakashija, eigura, kooma and Njeru ya Buremba which was obtained from the kingdom of Buzimba.


The Banyankole’s idea of Supreme Being was Ruhanga (creator). The abode of Ruhanga was said to be in heaven, just above the clouds. Ruhanga was believed to be the maker and giver of all things. It was, however, believed that the evil persons could use black magic to interfere with the good wishes of Ruhanga and cause ill- health, drought, death or even bareness in the land and among the people.

At a lower level, the idea of Ruhanga was expressed in the cult of Emandwa. These were gods particularly to different families and clans and they were easily approachable in the event of need. Each family had a shrine where the family gods were supposed to dwell. Whenever beer was brewed or a goat slaughtered, a gourd full of beer and some small bits of meat were put in the shrine to the Mandwa. In the event of sickness or misfortune, the family members would perform rituals called okubandwa as a way of supplicating the gods to avert sickness or misfortune.


The Banyankole brewed beer by squeezing ripe bananas and mixing the resulting juice with water and sorghum and then letting the mixture ferment overnight in a wooden trough called obwato. Beer was required at every social communal work or any other function.

Whenever beer was made, the Banyankole had what they called entereko. If someone brewed beer, he had to reserve some for the neighbors as a sign of belonging and good neighborliness. This beer so reserved was known as entereko.

Normally, one or two days after someone had brewed beer, he would call his neighbors and serve then the reserved beer. This practice was so important that anyone who failed to comply with it was considered a bad neighbor. He would not be accorded the services of the neighbors in the event of need.

During the service of the entereko, the men would discuss important matters of substance that affected their area in particular, the kingdom and beyond. There would be a lot of merry making including dancing. The traditional dance among the Banyankore was called ekyitaguriro and men and women would participate in it. The Bahima also sang and made competitive recitals connected with valour in wars of offences and defence and about cattle.

The staple food of the Banyankole was millet. It was supplemented with Bananas, potatoes and cassava. A rich and prosperous family was judged by its ability t maintain food supplies throughout the year. The main sauces were beans,peas,and ground nuts plus a variety if greens such as eshuwiga,enyabutongo,dodo,ekyijamba,omugobe,omuriri an some others as well as meat of both domestic and wild animals.

A family that could not produce or store enough food to sustain itself for most of the year was not respected. In times of shortages, a woman and her daughters would go and work for food by digging in another family’s garden. This practice was called okushaka. It was very degrading and brought shame on the family concerned. Infact it would result in the daughters of the family failing to attract would-be suitors because it would be well known in the area that they belonged to  a lazy home.

Millet and meat were prepared for important occasions. Potatoes and cassava were not respectable foods and unless there was a real shortage of food, they could not be presented to a visitor or to be eaten. It was rear for a family to eat and finish the whole meal. However, the family head was not supposed to eat leftovers. Besides men and boys were advised not to eat a burnt potato. The reason was that it was so sweet that whenever a man remembered its sweetness while on a hunt or work, he might be tempted to leave his duties and come back home. Such food was eaten by women and children. The main food of the Bahima was milk ad blood called enjuba. They would, in addition barter potatoes, cassava, and matooke from the agriculturalists in exchange for milk and ghee. In times of real scarcity, the Bahima could just subsist on milk and blood.

Method of counting

The Banyankole had their own method of counting. They could count from one to ten using fingers. One was indicated by showing only the fore finger. Two was indicated by showing their first and second fingers, three was indicated by raising the last and the third fingers one one’s hand, and five was counted by clenching the fist with the thumb enclosed. Six was indicated by showing the first, second and third fingers. Seven was implied by holding down the third finger and showing the first, middle and last fingers. Eight was implied by snapping the first fingers of both hands, nine was indicated by clenching the middle finger with the thumb, and clenching the fist with the thumb outside meant ten.


Another Account


Identification and Location. 

The Banyankole are among the half dozen major ethnic groups in Uganda. They live in southwestern Uganda, where there is a common border with Rwanda and Tanzania. To the east of Ankole District is Lake Victoria, and to the west are Mount Rwenzori and a number of lakes, including Lake Albert and Lake Tanganyika. The land, over 4,000 feet (1,220 meters) above sea level, is hilly with rolling plains covered with fine grass. The Banyankole consist of two major ethnic groups: the Bahima, who are pastoralists, and the Bairu, who are agriculturists. The Bairu are numerically larger, and the Bahima are politically and socially dominant.

Demography. One of the most important of the lake kingdoms in prestige and population was Ankole. While the date when it was first established remains unknown, it is speculated that it may have started as early as during the fourteenth or fifteenth century. Ankole became a focus of study only in the 1920s and 1930s as reported by anthropologist K. Oberg and historian F. Morris.

The Ankole District is 6,131 square miles (15,879 square kilometers). There was a time when the population of Bahima was reported to have been close to 50 percent of the entire population. This, however, for various reasons declined to a mere 10 percent of the whole population. 

In 1919 there were 149,469 Banyankole; this rose to 224,000 Bairu and 25,000 Bahima by 1931. By 1959 the population rose to over half a million thus making the Banyankole the second largest Bantu-speaking ethnic group in Uganda. In the twentieth century the Banyankole registered over a million.

Linguistic Affiliation. Both the Bahima and the Bairu speak a language called Runyankole, which is one of the Bantu languages spoken in Uganda. Bantu languages are part of the large Niger-Congo language family. It is widely believed that at one time the Bahima had their own language, which they abandoned in favor of the Runyankole, spoken by the majority of the Banyankole.

History and Cultural Relations

Some scholars believe that Ankole originally was occupied by Bantu-speaking agricultural Bairu. Later, Ankole provided a passage for Hamitic peoples, possibly the Bahima, migrating from Ethiopiasouthward. These pastoralists conquered the Bairu and proclaimed themselves the rulers of the land. According to some scholars, the more numerous Bairu were serfs and the Bahima were the dominant ruling class. For the most part the two ethnic groups coexisted peacefully.

When the British created Uganda as a protectorate in 1888, Ankole was a relatively small kingdom ruled by a king (Mugabe) with supreme power. In 1901 the British enlarged the kingdom by merging it with the similarly small kingdoms of Mpororo, Igara, Buhweju, and Busongora. The power of the Omugabe was curtailed considerably once his kingdom was legally and constitutionally controlled. However, as the Omugabe of Ankole, the king was entitled to all the titles, dignities, and preeminence that were attached to his office under the laws and customs of Ankole. A political relationship based on serfdom, slavery, and clientship ceased to exist under British rule, and the Bairu became less marginalized and despised.

Four years after the independence of Uganda in 1962 serious conflicts arose between the Ugandan central government and the Buganda kingdom that led to the suspension of the constitution of Uganda; this effectively abolished the kingdoms in that country, including the Ankole kingdom. In 1993, by popular and persistent demand, monarchism was restored in Buganda, Bunyoro, and Toro. However, the Banyankole were not united in their quest for the restoration of the Ankole kingdom, and the matter remains unresolved into the twenty-first century.


In the early history of Ankole most of the nomadic pastoralists had no settled dwellings. Even the king had only a small dwelling with a stockade forming an enclosure for his cows at night. There was no courthouse, and his council met outdoors. In later years that changed considerably. Today settlements are scattered all over the hills, slopes, and valleys of Ankole, consisting of both traditional grass-thatched and Western-style (brick and corrugated iron-roofed) homesteads. Each family owns a fairly large plot of land around its homestead, but usually the homesteads are close to one another. From the top of one of the more than a thousand hills of Ankole, the view of the banana groves appears to be leveled at the top and the surface is entirely green.


Subsistence. The land available to each homestead is used for livestock or subsistence farming. The animals kept are predominantly cattle, along with a few goats, sheep, dogs, and chickens. The Banyankole possess large herds of a native long-horned breed of cattle that are valued for their milk and meat and are of great importance as indicators of power, wealth, and prestige. The crops grown are millet, the staple and favored food, sorghum, potatoes, bananas, coffee, tea, beans, and vegetables.

Commercial Activities. The Banyankole who engage in agriculture sell some produce and beer to get cash to buy clothes, utensils, and furniture and pay for the education of their children. Similarly, those who raise livestock sell some of their animals or animal products in the form of meat, milk, butter, skins, hides, and eggs to raise cash. Craftspeople also sell or exchange what they produce. After the British arrived, commercial activities expanded immensely as there was a flood of manufactured goods (sweets, utensils, clothes, fertilizers, electronic goods, lamps, bicycles) that were in high demand.

Industrial Arts. The king employed expert craftsmen such as blacksmiths who made spears, knives, axes, and ankle bands and armbands out of iron; carvers who made milk pots, drums, wooden spoons, and carved decorations out of wood, ivory, and bone; skinner-dressers; bark cloth makers; sandal makers; and beer brewers. Chiefs engaged the services of the Bairu to supply them with spears, watering pails, axes, and milk pots. The Bairu also engaged in weaving, making mats and baskets, and carving.

Trade. Trade took place between the Bahima and the Bairu in the goods that each group produced. There also was considerable trade between the Banyankole and people from kingdoms such as Buganda, Bunyoro, and Toro as well as people in neighboring countries such as Tanzania, Rwanda, and the Congo. Those who traded with the Banyankole traveled to Ankole to purchase whatever they considered of commercial value, and the Banyankole also traveled to sell and buy goods. This form of trade has continued to the present day.

Division of Labor. From about age eight a boy is expected to be useful in and around the house as well as go to school. He goes out with the men who take the cattle to the pasture and learns to herd cows, milk them, treat their ailments, and protect them from wild animals, especially lions. Both girls and boys learn agricultural activities such as cultivating, sowing, harvesting, and guarding crops against birds and animals. Girls are taught the household chores they will perform when they are married. The mother plays a significant role in rearing children; she disciplines and sends them on errands and supervises their grazing calves. Her duties include cleaning the house, cooking, and looking after children. Children are taught to show respect for their elders and relatives. Mothers teach girls to wash milk pots, churn milk, and prepare food. Girls also engage in making bead ornaments, weaving, making mats, fetching water and firewood, sweeping, babysitting, and going on errands.

Among the Bahima herding cattle was the principal occupation for men. In addition they were expected to build homes for their families and pens for cattle. Among the Bairu both men and women were principally engaged in agricultural activities. In the main men were responsible for clearing the land, while women engaged in household chores. Both men and women did harvesting, but women did winnowing, grinding, and thrashing of millet. Comparatively, Bairu women engage in much physical work; Bahima women spend more time caring for their beauty and personal appearance.

Land Tenure. According to the customary law of Ankole, all land was vested in the Omugabe, who controlled it on behalf of every Munyankole who could use it and benefit from it. Similarly, all animals, particularly cattle, belonged to the Omugabe, although people could do what they wished with their livestock as long as they did not sell the animals to people from outside Ankole without express permission from the Omugabe. This has remained the practice, with the limitation that there is no longer free land available for anyone to claim. People now receive land from their parents or relatives or obtain it commercially.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Banyankole are divided into three major patrilineal clans: Abahinda (royal people), Abasambo, and Abagahe. Each clan traditionally had one or more totems. The Abahinda had two totems: Nkima —a small black-faced monkey—and bulo —millet that is unhusked and uncooked. The Abahinda were not allowed to engage in magic or medicine or eat unhusked and uncooked millet. Clan exogamy was widely practiced. The three clans are broken down into numerous subdivisions, each of which has a function. Among the Abahinda there were warriors, herdsmen, guards, princes, those who purified and painted the king with white clay, royal shoemakers, carriers of the royal spear, milkers, and those who bathed the king during coronation ceremonies. However, marriage within the clan was acceptable if the couple had second or third totems that were different from each other. Those who belonged to the same totem contributed to the well-being of one another by helping those who were sick, burying the dead, bailing out those in debt, and hunting down those who murdered a clan member.

Marriage. By the time girls turned eight or nine, particularly among the Bahima, preparation for marriage began. They were no longer free to run and play without some form of control. Girls were mostly kept indoors, where they ate beef and millet porridge and were forced to drink milk in large quantity so that they would become fat. Being fat is associated with beauty, and the drinking of milk is said to contribute to one's beauty. As soon as a girl's breasts emerge, she is warned by her parents to abstain from sexual activities, which may lead to pregnancy and disgrace the family. In the past pregnancy outside marriage was punished by death or expulsion from the home.

A Munyankole father, occasionally assisted by his relatives, is obliged to get a wife for his son by paying the required bride-wealth. This consists of two cows, three goats, and some pots of beer among the Bairu; among the Bahima it may range from two to twenty cows, depending on how wealthy a person is.

A marriage may be arranged by the couple's parents, or the boy may propose to the girl during adolescence. Once the bride-price has been paid, preparations for the wedding begin. On the wedding day the bride's father slaughters a bull for food. Other forms of food and a considerable amount of beer are prepared for feasting at the bride's home. This is followed by another feast at the bridegroom's home, where the marriage is consummated. At the wedding ceremony the girl's aunt confirms that the groom is potent and that the bride defended her virginity before the marriage was consummated.

A social distinction between the Bahima and the Bairu was established by prohibiting intermarriage between them. The Bahima would find it repugnant to marry a Mwiru. Moreover, it was illegal for a Muhima to give cattle to a Mwiru. A Mwiru would have no cattle for bridewealth for a Muhima wife since all he had was unproductive cows and bull calves. Cattle were essential not only for the legitimacy of marriage but also for the legitimacy of the children born out of a marital relationship.

A woman with no children has no status among the Banyankole, and most women wish to marry and raise many children. If a woman is unable to bear children, her husband is likely to contemplate taking a second wife. Monogamy was the standard practice, though polygyny was not prohibited. Both the Mugabe and wealthy Banyankole practiced polygyny. Today monogamy remains the predominant form of marriage, influenced by Westernization, Christianity, education, and the traditional Banyankole model.

Domestic Unit. A household consists of a nuclear family or an extended family if some family members, such as aged parents or brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, and others, decide to live with the nuclear family on a temporary or permanent basis. In some cases, immediately after marriage the married couple may live with the husband's family, sharing the same compound, or not far from their parents and continue sharing a number of activities, including cooking and eating together.

Inheritance. The Banyankole consider a son to be of special significance because he is an heir to his father's name and wealth and will be responsible for the well-being of his mother when his father dies. If a person is unlikely to recover from illness, he is asked to identify one of his sons as an heir. In general, the oldest son is named, though in some cases this may not apply and the father may identify any of his sons to assume that office. If clan members feel that the father has not made the right choice, they may advise him accordingly or override his choice in favor of the son they think is more suitable. In the past failure to name an heir resulted in the king claiming a person's possessions and assigning them to anyone else he wished.

Succession and the nomination of the heir to the throne were based on two rules. First, the heir had to be a member of the royal line. Second, he had to be the strongest of the king's sons. To determine who was the strongest, the sons had to fight among themselves. The fighting resulted in death or exile until one son emerged as the victor, entitling him to claim the drum (Bagyendanwa) and the right to ascend to the throne.

Socialization. Generally, children are welcomed and warmly treated by all their relatives. The naming of a child is carried out immediately after birth or after the seclusion period. A number of factors influence the type of name that is given to a child: the experience of the mother and father, the time of day when the child is born, the day of the week, the place of birth, and the name of the ancestors (this applies only to the Bahima since the Bairu do not use ancestors' names). The father plays the predominant role in naming the child. At the end of about four months, if the child is a son, the father holds the child, dedicates two cows to the boy's use, makes him sit for the first time, and gives him the name of one of his ancestors. A baby girl is made to sit by her mother and is given the name of an ancestor. She is carried outside the house, directed to look over the plains to other kraals, and told that her fortune and wealth will come from there. This declaration was made in reference to the husband who would marry her when she reached the appropriate age.

A specific rate of development is considered normal, and if a child appears to be a slow developer, small bells are tied to the child's ankles and wrists to encourage him or her to walk according to their rhythm. The child remains close to the mother day and night. During the day the mother plays with and feeds the child. She may put the child to sleep in his or her crib or carry the child with her as she does her daily household or garden chores. At night the baby sleeps with the mother until the arrival of the next baby (usually after two or three years). Then the child may share a bed with his or her brothers or sisters or with other relatives staying with the family. If the mother is too busy to do so, relatives may take care of the child. The relatives who may help in this way are the child's grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins.

For the first seven years of life boys and girls play together, guard calves, and engage in games and activities related to warfare; marriage; herding; building; wrestling; shooting at a target with arrows and making toys out of clay, wires, and other materials; boxing; swimming; playing hide and seek; dancing; and throwing objects. Milk is part of the children's diet, and they are expected to drink it in large quantities; failure to do so leads to some form of reprimand or punishment.

When a girl experiences menarche, she tells her mother, who may decide to inform her husband and others immediately or to conceal it for a while. A mother will conceal the event only if she does not wish her daughter to marry right away or to be persuaded to have sex and run the risk of pregnancy. Although the Banyankole have no special ceremony to mark the attainment of puberty by a boy, he is expected to be able to support himself, marry, and be able to support both his family and his parents in their old age.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Perhaps because of their military advantages, the Bahima maintained domination over the Bairu. They imposed an inferior legal and social status and insisted that they pay tribute to the Bahima through the king, who was invariably a Muhima. The Bairu were not permitted to possess productive cows. If a Mwiru worked for a Muhima, he was given barren cows and bull calves as remuneration. If a Mwiru owned productive cows, a Muhima could dispossess him of that livestock. While the Bahima participated in military activities, the Bairu were not allowed to do this. Similarly, Bairu could not hold high office. They were restricted in the exercise of blood revenge against the Bahima. In terms of blood revenge, they were prohibited from killing a Muhima, whereas a Muhima could kill a Mwiru as a matter of course.

The Mugabe, together with the chiefs and wealthy Bahima, owned slaves, mainly Bairu captured during raids on neighboring kingdoms. It was a common practice for slave owners to give slaves to friends as presents. Slaves had no legal status, and a slave owner could deal with them as he wished. Slaves were not entrusted with herding cattle since they were considered untrustworthy; supervision of slaves was done by a Mwiru headman.

Political Organization. The kingdom of Ankole was controlled by the Mugabe, whose rule was absolute and whose decisions were final. In him were vested physical, magical, and religious powers. The king made decisions regarding peace and war and was responsible for all major political appointments in the kingdom. Appointees could be dismissed for incompetence or personal incompatibility or because they brought bad luck to the king. However, it was impossible for the Mugabe to run the government by himself, and there were some elements of democracy in the running of the government. The king was assisted by his mother, sister, the enganzi, chiefs, office holders, military bands, and a host of servants and specialists.

Next to the king in importance were the kings's mother and sister, who could veto his decisions. Nobody could be ordered to be executed without the consent of the mother and the sister. After the mother and sister came the enganzi, who was the king's chief of chiefs, carrying titles such as prime minister, head chief, beloved one, favorite chief, executive chief, and chief adviser. The enganzi was selected for office with input from the king's mother and sister. It was a policy that the enganzi not be a member of the king's Abahinda clan. For this reason, it was not possible for the enganzi to ascend to the throne. The enganzi was the king's confidant and the only person aside from the pages who could enter the palace at any time. He had his kraal in front of that of the king so that he was available any time the king needed to consult him on state matters.

While an enganzi had to be chosen among the Bahima, over fifty years after the arrival of the British this changed so that a number of Bairu were elected to the eminent office of the enganzi a number of times. Initially the Bahima resisted, but there was not much they could do to change the course of events as political changes swept across the Kingdom.

The kingdom of Ankole had sixteen districts, each of which was under a chief (Mukungu ) appointed by the Mugabe. The sixteen chiefs were invariably cattle keepers who had agricultural people as serfs. The authority of a chief was limited. A chief did not control the movement of subordinate chiefs and other people who might decide to move into his district and graze their animals there. All the land was free to cattle owners, who could settle where they wished and could move elsewhere at their convenience.

Under the chief in the district, there were junior chiefs who reported to the district chief particularly when there were matters that needed his attention. Otherwise they operated more or less independently. Among these junior chiefs were Bairu who assisted with the collection of tax. Despite Bairu junior chiefs playing this role, the Bahima had problems recognizing them as such.

Social Control. Judicial authority was vested in the king, with certain judicial powers exercised by Bahima and Bairu extended families. The king could administer punishment to his subjects in the form of death, exile, beating, torturing, and cursing. He had the right to confiscate the cattle of his subjects, could override the judicial decisions of chiefs and kinship groups, and was the only one who could grant the right of blood revenge. However, no one could be executed without the consent of the mother or the sister of the king.

Whenever one of the subjects appealed to the Mugabe regarding a decision made by one of the chiefs, the matter was referred to the enganzi or one of the favorite pages to try the case. However, disputes of a serious nature, such as those involving more than fifty cattle or women deserting husbands, were brought directly to the attention of the Mugabe for resolution. The Mugabe's court was not in session all the time, but when there were cases, the enganzi brought them to the attention of the Mugabe. The court session took place in the open, where the Mugabe sat in the shade of a tree as he listened to the case. Those in attendance were the enganzi, the Mugabe's pages, private guards, chiefs, and common people.

Benevolently the king would see that a subject whose livestock was raided got the necessary assistance in regard to defense. If a client lost his livestock or property, the king would help him acquire new property or livestock. If one of his relatives was murdered, the king would grant the right of blood revenge.

Conflict. As in any other society, Ankole experienced a range of conflicts at an individual, family, regional, and national level. There were ethnic group as well as political and religious conflicts. Starting at the end of World War II, the Bairu challenged the premises of hierarchy and subordination inherent in the Ankole structural setup. This led to formation of movements such as Kunyamana, which means "to know each other," whose principal purpose was to protest against inequality that the Bahima had imposed on Bairu. As a result, there were changes introduced to cater to the concerns raised by Kunyamana. It is important to note that despite the levels of animosity between the Bairu and Bahima, ethnic conflict in Ankole did not lead to open violence.

The majority of Bairu are Protestants. Most positions of power were held by Protestants with very few Roman Catholics and Muslims holding such positions. This was a source of conflict which had be to be addressed for peaceful coexistence.

There were also conflicts between the king and the colonial government, the former feeling that he was being bullied and marginalized, while the latter felt that the king was not doing what was expected of him as king. Meetings were held and written communication was exchanged with the colonial officers threatening to remove the king from office if his behavior did not change for better. However, there is no record to show that such threats were ever implemented.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Banyankole believed that there was a powerful creator whom they referred to as Ruhanga (God) with permanent residence in heaven. Though there were no prayers directed to him, prayerlike expressions were used. At the birth of a child, people would express their joy by clapping the hands and saying tata Ruhanga ("Father God"). In the event of sickness they would say Ruhanga akutambire ("may God heal you").

According to Banyankole, Ruhanga created the first man—Rugabe—and first woman—Nyamate—who were to fill the earth with their offspring. From these first human beings were born kings who, after their death, were deified and assumed the role of gods of fertility, earthquakes, thunder, and other such occurrences, to whom they presented their requests.

Apart from kings, who became gods after death, the Banyankole attached special importance to ghosts. Some of the functions of the ghosts were hovering around the living, helping them, or displaying their displeasure if they were not properly treated by surviving relatives and friends, as well as punishing those who failed to adhere to clan law and customs. It was believed that while ghosts were invisible, their presence was unmistakably felt in the wind that blew in the trees and grassy areas for the cattle keepers. For peasants, the presence of ghosts was felt as audible rustling in the grain and the plantain trees. People turned to ghosts more than to the gods for help and made offerings and supplications. Every family in Ankole had a shrine for ghosts, and cows were dedicated to them. Milk was provided for ghosts on a regular basis, and in some instances meat was made available.

Since the arrival of the British and other people from Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, many of the Banyankole have embraced Christianity and Islam as a way of expressing their spirituality and belief in God as their creator. It is reported that there was a time when the king of Ankole, Kahaya, became a Christian. This meant he had to divorce six of the seven wives he had and retain only one in keeping with the church requirement. There are times when conflicts arise between the new form of religion and Banyankole cultural values and traditional forms of worship.

Religious Practitioners. The Banyankole did not have a formal religion and clergy. Traditionally, sacrifices were carried out by mediums and medicine men.

Ceremonies. Various ceremonies are carried out among Banyankole some of which involve joyous occasions, while others may be sad occasions. The joyous ceremonies involve weddings, birth of children, dedication of children, commemoration of important events, rites of passage, coronation of the king and receipt of visitors bringing bridewealth. Sad ceremonies would involve death in the family or the death of the king, sickness, and displeasure of the ancestors. For most of these ceremonies, there is eating, drinking, speech making, singing, and dancing.

Arts. The Banyankole engage in numerous artistic activities involving music, literature, sports, weaving, and dancing. Historian Morris is reported to have collected and translated Ankole's epic poetry. Many missionaries and Banyankole have written books in Runyankole which are widely read at home and at school. Many events taking place in society are expressed in the form of poetry. In the evenings and other times children and parents share stories depicting events and episodes in society.

Epic poetry was composed to celebrate raids of various kingdoms. Songs would be composed to praise the warriors, their valor, and the invincibility of their weapons. There were also songs for praising cattle to the effect that they were objects of beauty and joy forever. In doing this they would use various parts of the body as well as instruments such as flutes, lyres, and drums.

Banyankole are also known for engaging in activities such as making agricultural implements including hoes, sickles, axes, and knives; weapons such as spears, bows and arrows, and clubs of hardwood; making pottery, weaving mats and baskets, using iron, copper, and brass to make jewelry including necklaces, bracelets, headrings, and anklets.

Medicine. The Banyankole generally believe that illness is caused by God, ghosts, or magic. God is said to cause illness and ultimately death because his desires and rights have not been fulfilled and adhered to. A ghost causes illness if cows dedicated to the family are sold or bartered without the consent of the ghost, if offerings due to him are not made, and if clan laws are violated. A hostile ghost from another clan can cause illness. If a person has a grudge against another person, a magic rite may be performed over beer, which is then offered to that person to drink. Once a person discovers that he has drunk such beer, he or she dies of fear.

If an illness is not serious, a man is taken care of by his wife, and a woman by her mother, with traditional (often herbal) medicine. If the illness is serious, a medicine man is called in to discover the cause. Then an appropriate traditional doctor provides treatment. For a fee, female traditional doctors treat women patients; male traditional doctors treat both women and men patients.

With the availability of health facilities in the form of hospitals and clinics, many Banyankole have availed themselves of Western treatments without necessarily forsaking the traditional model of healing.

Death and Afterlife. Among the Banyankole illness is not considered a natural cause of death; therefore, such deaths require an investigation to find the responsible party. By contrast, old age is accepted as a sufficient cause for death. It is held that God allows old people to die after the completion of their time on earth. The Banyankole view death as a passage to another world.

When a man dies, every relative, along with friends and neighbors, is informed. A person who fails to attend the funeral without a good reason may be suspected of being associated with the death. Before burial, the body is washed and the eyes are closed. As the deceased is placed in the grave, the right hand is placed under the head while the left hand rests on the chest. The body lies on the right side. One or more cows are slaughtered to feed everyone present. Beer is provided as part of the mourning. The mourning goes on for four days. A deceased woman is treated in a similar manner except that in the grave she is made to lie on the left side as if she were facing her husband. Her left hand is placed under her head, while her right hand rests on her chest.

For other cultures in Uganda, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 9, Africa and the Middle East.


Doornbos, M. R. (1978) Not all the Kings's Men: Inequality as a Political Instrument in Ankole, Uganda. New York: Mouton Publishers.

Marshall, H. S. and C. D. Martin (1976). Political Identity: A Case Study from Uganda. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Mwamwenda, T. S. (1995). Educational Psychology: An African Perspective. Johannesburg: Heinemann.

Ntozi, J. P. (1995). High Fertility in Rural Uganda: The Role of Socioeconomic and Biological Factors. Kampala: Fountain Publishers.

Nzita, R., and Mbaga-Niwapa (1995). People and Cultures of Uganda. Kampala: Fountain Publishers.

Oberg, K. (1940). "The Kingdom of Ankole in Uganda." In African Political Systems, edited by M. Fortes and E. E. Evans-Pritchard. London: Institute of African Languages and Cultures.

Roscoe, J. (1923, 1968). The Banyankole. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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