Conserving totems in Uganda maybe challenge but worthy all the effort

Ketchikan totem pole and city tour in Ketchikan. (FILE PHOTO)

KAMPALA – Every Ugandan tribe has systems and classification through which they built and established themselves traditionally.

Some of these systems are either territorial, regimental, comradeship or kinship and each of these cultural systems have a fundamental role it plays in the well-being of the community and its very existence.

A clan or clans are people who are related by blood and are symbolised by a totemic animal, an object or a thing, it is a permanent non-political entity that regulated marriage, arbitrated in murder cases, propitiated for curses and payment of blood money.

The number of clans within different tribes vary both in number, description, roles and in type and there are some common clans and totemic symbols across the wider tribe while certain clans are only found in some few sub-communities.

In his book; Clans and Totems of the Banyakigezi, Mr. Ishmaels Kabananukye carefully reveals the age-old connections between the people of Kigezi; the Bafumbira, Batwa, Banyabutumbi, Bakiga, and Bahororo and how these various communities share naming systems that are situational, including those for clan names, totems, stories, myths, proverbs, riddles, values, and beliefs.

Mr Kabananukye believes that because we no longer live with animals, it is important that we live with images which remind us of the totems so that when we are able to interface with these animals, we know them.

“So, I did this to open it to the public as a way of setting the record straight so that future generations could have a basis of improving on research,” said Mr. Kabananukye.

With the fun that permeates the book, the author scours the ten clans, specific sub-clans, totems, taboos and rituals that some middle-aged Banyakigezi might have forgotten.

The history is told through sometimes sad, but interesting anecdotes, about the heroes and heroines of old. The book takes on a human aspect, by identifying some prominent Banyakigezi and their origins, which makes for a gem of information for future history scholars and avid readers.

For instance, young readers will be interested to realise the role of the woman in history. Every clan is said to have started with a woman. The Mugara clan, whose totem is the cattle egret (enyangi) holds oburunga (wreath) as taboo, and was started by a woman, Nyinarusyaba.

Through this, he reveals the legends behind the mythical Banyakigezi figures such as Rutoogoogo rwa Ncuro Omuheesi, Nyakairima ka Muzoora, Kahaya Rutindangyezi and several others, whose stories had been handed down through storytelling.

The book authored by Mr. Kabananukye is a result of five years of research and gives a rich narrative of what has shaped the identity of the people known as the Banyakigezi who have for decades inhabited the geographical spaces situated in the mountains and valleys of the area known as Kigezi in South Western Uganda.

The Inzu Ya Masaba cultural leader Umukukha Bob Mushikori says the clans in Uganda are each identified by an ‘animal’ that helped prevent in breeding since marriage within clan was prohibited.

He added that the clan totemic symbols range from, planets, birds, wild animals, amphibians, reptiles and insects. Although the sun is not an animal, it has a clan and is regarded as a totem in the same sense as a lion.

The genesis of the Bamasaba [Bagisu] totemic system of identity seems obscure but some traced it to the biblical times while most point to African mythology, a subject that is still full of lacunae and unknown territory today.

The Nnabagereka, Sylvia Nagginda (L) and her daughter Katrina Ssangalyambogo at the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre in Entebbe during celebrations to mark Conservation Through Public Health on Wednesday. (FILE PHOTO)

The Permanent secretary Ministry of Gender, labour and social development Mr. Pius Bigirimana says totemism is a belief that there is a special, supernatural relationship between a human being and another thing, usually an animal, sometimes a plant or another natural phenomenon, such as a river or lightening which are also living or spirit beings.

“It is believed that the strength and power of the totem-being flows into the human being protected by it so that the latter’s life is closely tied to his totem, without it he cannot prosper,” said Mr Bigirimana.

The Archbishop Church of Uganda The Most Rev. Stanley Ntagali said those who embrace the biblical view argue that the progenitors of the Nilo-hamites interacted with the Semitic descendants who later produced the Hebrew breed that occupied some parts of ancient Egypt and later most regions of the Middle East.

They further urge that Jacob the father of the Hebrew family before dying described characteristically his 12 sons by the use of totems like water, lion, serpent, and horse among others.

“In fact, it is here that the famous descendants of Judah got a lion as their totem,” said Archbishop Ntagali.

The African mythologists believe that everyone is accompanied by his totem all the time, like a shadow, and when he transgresses against the laws of his totem’s taboo, it will punish him.

“This belief  explains the reason why many people abstain from wrongs whether alone or with others for fear of being punished,” said Mr Kabananukye

Different animal pictures drawn on boards. They may be used as totems by different cultures. (FILE PHOTO)

The minister of Gender, Labour and Social Development Mrs Janat Mukwaya said no one is allowed to eat his totem animal or plant, since a totem belongs to a clan which comprises people who are related to each other through a common ancestor and that it was therefore inherited from ones’ father, and will continue to protect his children.

“Totems can be compared to a national emblem or a logo that whenever you see the same the concerned country comes into your mind,” said Mrs Mukwaya.

Mr Namangala Mwambu, a retired lawyer and the Inzu Ya Masaba deputy Prime Minister says people trust and believe that their totems cannot harm them unless they are wronged and that this strong bond between clan members and their totems is alien to a western thinking because westerners have lost the closeness to nature, the intimacy with the source of life itself.

About Totems

A totem is a being, object, or symbol representing an animal or plant that serves as an emblem of a group of people, such as a family, clan, group, lineage, or tribe, reminding them of their ancestry. In kinship and descent, if the apical ancestor of a clan is nonhuman, it is called a totem. Normally this belief is accompanied by a totemic myth. Totems have been around for years and they are usually in the shape of an animal, and every animal has a certain personality.




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