With over 100 tribes, Uganda is a rich mosaic of tribes and cultures. An experience of Uganda’s different cultures is extremely exciting because it a cultural voyage that thrills and enlightens. Uganda is interestingly not only multi- lingual but cultural as well, with tribes having customs and practices that govern all sphere’s of life. Most of these are unique and some similar in the case were tribes share descent.
In traditional society, communities were highly organized in villages headed by village chiefs and at family level by the head of the family who never was a woman. Families were polygamous, extended and large and homesteads sprawling. The village members belonged to age-sets or age groups and clans. These were common to many of the tribal peoples. Regardless of which age-set one belonged to, respect for ones seniors was emphasized. Infancy was the first stages of a person’s life and at birth they immediately belonged to an age-set with those of the same age. Childhood was the next stage boys or girls from about 8-13 years(children) had to respect and obey the youth (unmarrieds) who in turn had to accord the same to adults (marrieds) and these too accorded the same to elders. Junior elders had to observe seniority which comes with the title of ‘senior elder’ which is attained at advanced age and is the last stage of a person’s life. Disrespect was castigated and punished.
Clans were an extensive network of distant and closely related individuals. These were numerous and served an important function of conflict resolution especially of those problems that have escalated beyond the capacity of the family. It’s only after the clan had failed that such a matter was brought to the attention of the chief and his council of advisors. Women never headed clans. Today, age-sets and clans are still a part of community structuring in most of Ugandan societies with the exception of urban areas were people are mostly migrants attracted by work, education and greener pastures pulls.
Before the advent of foreign religions and colonialism in the second half of the 19th and early part of 20th century, Uganda was a totally traditional society.
Traditional religions were practiced by the various tribes and these involved appeasing and petitioning gods, ancestral and animist spirits both benign and malevolent. The benign spirits were offered sacrifices and gifts as inducements to withhold malignant furies while malevolent spirits were offered the same to insure fruitful harvests, blessings of good fortune and health.
These gods and spirits were called different names. In traditional Buganda, the Baganda’s god was “katonda” and under him were several spirits both male and female called balubale responsible for all of life’s circumstances – Musoke(rainbows), Walumbe(death), Musisi(earthquakes), Wamala(Lake Wamala), Kawumpuli(plagues), Ndahura(smallpox), Kitinda(prosperity) and Ddunga(hunting). These though are male spirits. Female spirits were fewer and included Nakayage(fertility) and Nagaddya(harvests). In total there were atleast 30 recognised balubale. Shrines were built to these gods and spirits and choice foods offered daily.
However, with the advent of foreign religions particularly Christianity and Islam which preceeded colonialism, traditional religions were slowly eroded. These foreign religions described the African ideas about God as erroneous and evil. The muslims had little difficulty getting a name for their God. Their God was Allah which is Arabic for God and Allah he would remain. The Christians however needed an interpretation. They searched for local interpretations and ended up using traditional equivalents to describe their omnipotent God. In this endeavour, they encountered lexical difficulties especially among the Acholi, Luo and Lugbara tribes. Their traditional idea of God was Jok but the Europeans associated Jok with evil because in Nilotic tribes, it is a malignant spirit(s); Ateso, ‘ajokit’(singular) ‘ijokin’(plural), so they forced the people to use the ‘Lubanga’ traditional reference for God and yet in the Luo languages Lubanga means an evil spirit. However, the Europeans had their way for God is now referred to as Lubanga.
In African religions, the indigenous people did not particular days of worship or of seeking their gods and spirits. They did so whenever they had trouble and needed help, favour or simply felt the need. However, with the introduction of Christianity and Islam, the way of worship changed greatly with days of becoming the norm with Christians praying on Sunday or in the evenings while for the muslims prayer became regular every Friday. Praying no longer depended on particular instances of want or trouble and shrines were replaced with houses of worship; mosques and churches with seats, church organs and electricity which facilitated amplified praise and worship.
Dressing also changed. Instead of every day dress, muslims dressed in white tunics for prayer while Christians dressed attractively in their ‘Sunday best’ which were their very best clothes set apart from the rest for prayer on Sunday.
Gradually religion became not only a way of belief but also a way of life. Among the Christians, the traditional practice of polygamy was discouraged as unchristian because the Europeans considered barbaric and from a biblical perspective, adultery.
Baptism was mandatory and the sign that symbolized departure from ‘paganism’ to Christianity and involved the taking on of new Christian names taken from the bible. As children of God, Christians were barred from certain cultural practices which the Europeans considered ‘unchristian’. No longer were they to be seen visiting the shrines, drink alcohol or certain rituals surrounding the birth of twins, death of twins, widowhood amongst others. Although there was a departure from traditional religions, they weren’t totally annihilated for today they still exist and in the rural communities, it’s likely to find miniature huts erected a stone’s throw away from homesteads but are suspiciously regarded as witchcraft and spiritism and those who practice it as consorts of the occult.
The cultural practices of Uganda’s numerous tribes are influenced by distinct norms and values that form the fabric stitches Uganda’s numerous societies and sews Uganda as a culturally cohesive country. In most of Uganda’s tribes, marriage was essential for it was and still is a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. Among the Ateso of eastern Uganda, no matter how old a man or woman is, they will still be regarded as a ‘ boy’ or ‘girl’ if unmarried and because of this status cannot speak equally in the presence of men and women of the same ages. Marriage is also gone about differently by the various tribes although most go about it in a very similar manner. Most tribes a suitor expresses his interest in the girl of his choice and the parents of the girl can accept or refuse in consideration of several issues surrounding eligibility. Interest is expressed by the boy who accompanied by male elders in his family pay the girl’s parents a visit whose objective is to introduce himself and family. When the parents accept, then bride price is discussed and paid. Bride price are the gifts given by a prospective husband and his family to the girl’s family.
In most tribes in Uganda, it was in form of cows. Among the Ateso and Karamojong in the good old days when Teso was a land of milk and cattle abound in unprecedented numbers, the number of animals was not agreed upon for that was belittling. Instead, the girl’s paternal uncles were led to a kraal teeming with cows as far as the eye could see and a spear given the one of the uncles-usually the strongest. He would then throw the spear as far out as he could and wherever the spear fell, the cows behind it( in hundreds) were driven away as bride price. Among the Karamojong of north eastern Uganda, all the cows in the kraal were taken as bride price. Girls did not receive a formal intention from an interested suitor, rather when he liked a particular girl and wanted to marry her, he simply waylaid her on her way to fetch water and chased her. If she outran him, then she survived being brutally raped that day but if she failed to outrun him, then he forced her to the ground, raped her and then notified her to her parents and bride price paid. That’s how the Karamojong married and it’s different from other tribes who go about it in a more civilized way. Today this practice is still practiced but an intrusion of education and modernity is causing a steady dispensation of it by the enlightened.
Traditionally, a man could have as many wives as he pleased and could afford. All of his wives lived in the same compound with their children and shared their husband in turns. Such a man would sire as many children as his wives could bear. The trend has changed somehow with more men now marrying one wife but this doesn’t mean that the practice of polygamy is no more, for it is not. Rather it is inhibitions and principles not culturally propagated but rather by religion and the dawn of an era of enlightenment.
Women did not have the same status as men and neither did they enjoy the same privileges. Their position was that of servitude to and subjugation by the males. This started right in the home and continued in marriage. Culturally, a good wife was that who submitted to the will of her husband even when in disagreement. A woman did not own property and neither did she have a voice. In key aspects of decision making, she had to seek the opinion and permission of her husband before she could act. Today, save for educated women who may have escaped from this , the rural woman is still shackled by culture.
Once married, women ceased to belong to their families and instead belonged to her husband’s family. These had the freedom to use her as they pleased. Apart from being the mainstay of domestic life in the home, a woman could also be inherited upon the death of her husband. This is a cultural practice that most tribes in Uganda practiced in traditional society and still do.
For the Bagisu and Sabiny of Mbale and Kapchorwa respectively, circumcision is the rite of passage into manhood and womanhood. The Bagisu circumcise only males while the Sabiny females. The ritual is carried out in a ceremonious way and involves ample preparation. Among the Bagisu, it is called ‘imbalu’ and is preceded by lengthy dancing that stretches for days and whose culmination is the circumcision in which any show of fear is disgraceful and unflinching bravado is a mark of masculinity. In traditional Gisu society, an uncircumcised man could never marry for he was not considered a man. However, such men were frowned upon by society and could be forcefully circumcised Surgeons were usually male.
Female circumcision also known as Female Genital Mutilation(FGM) by women activists is believed by the Sabiny to make girls’ good wives because it checks their sexual excesses which is unfortunately true because the traditional surgeons always female, cut off the labia and clitoris parts of the female genitalia.
Names were very important in traditional society as they are today. Naming was a ceremony that was ritually dispensed with. Among the Ateso, it was believed that a child without a name was at the mercy of roving malignant spirits who could visit them with harm. Therefore it was quickly done. Children were named after dead or old relatives usually of good repute because it was believed their good deeds and character would pass on to the children. Names of disreputable persons were shunned lest the child turn out to be like such people. Also, names were given according to life circumstances that prevailed during pregnancy. A woman who was pregnant during the dry season or gave birth at night would name her child after the season or night.