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Organization & Mystification
in an African Kingdom


Myth and ritual provide critical supports for social order and political power. This is well exemplified in the traditional Nyoro kingdom of what is today Uganda, as represented in the splendid ethnographic reporting of John Beattie.

For years, all or part of his very brief 1960 book was assigned in UCSD's Making of the Modern World course. But his book was intended to be a general ethnography, covering topics that were not related to the job it needed to do in our course. As the syllabus became more and more crowded with material, it became desirable to create a far more compact description of traditional Nyoro society, focusing much more single-mindedly on the way in which myths and rituals provided political support for the "feudal" Nyoro monarchy. This paper was created to that end.

Deliberately kept extremely simple and very carefully organized, the reading was a huge success with students, far more so than Beattie's original work had been. For many students, the Nyoro became their favorite part of the course.

The text is offered here in the hope that other students and teachers may find it helpful in the study of how one traditional African kingdom made use of myth and ritual is organizing and sustaining social order.


Organization & Mystification
in an African Kingdom

D.K. Jordan


  1. Power Raw and Royal
  2. The Nyoro
  3. Myth and Mystification
    1. Story One. The First Man and His Sons
      Analysis of Story One.
    2. Story Two. Isaza Becomes Wise
      Analysis of Story Two
    3. Story Three. The Ghosts and the First Chwezi.
      Analysis of Story Three
    4. Story Four. The Departure of the Chwezi kings.
      Analysis of Story Four
    5. What Really Happened?
  4. Rituals of Kingship
    1. Acting Like a Mukama
    2. How to Become a Mukama
  5. Nyoro Royalty
  6. Nyoro Chiefs
  7. Delegating Authority: Nyoro “Feudalism”
    1. The Loyal Chiefs
  8. Sources:

A. Power Raw and Royal

Over most of the world, the conversion from foraging for food to producing food led to denser populations with reduced ability to move from place to place. This in turn would have increased the frequency and seriousness of disputes, and therefore also the need to impose dispute resolution. That normally takes place through some system of councils, chiefs, or kings (although the exact meanings of those convenient terms obviously vary from case to case). Although not all settled human communities have exhibited strongly centralized leadership —the so-called “acephalous” societies like the Hopi or the BaMbuti did not— a surprisingly large proportion have. Archaeology and history tell us of countless kingdoms headed by “absolute” rulers, who made binding decisions that could not be appealed, and who had life-and-death power over their subjects.

From their earliest emergence, it was normal for kingdoms to exhibit extreme “class” differentiation between the ruler (and the ruler’s kin) and the subjects (often with slaves at the very bottom). The differentiation was celebrated and justified with elaborate rituals and supporting myths.

No such absolutist kingdoms survive today, but traces of them survived long enough into the twentieth century to allow a few ethnographers to reconstruct much of what they were like. Perhaps nowhere were early kingdoms more clearly differentiated into rulers and subjects than in the states of the upper Nile region in and around what is today Uganda. We will consider one of these states: Bunyoro, “the land of the Nyoro.”

The goal of the present text is to describe three ways in which the Nyoro sustained the central and overwhelming power of the monarch and coordinated political control of a large region and vast population. We will consider how rituals and myths sustained the political organization of the kingdom. Both myth and ceremonial are part of the process of “mystification” discussed in a separate Sourcebook reading.

Myth, as we shall examine it here, provides a widely believed history of the Nyoro people, including the incidents that eternally allocate leadership to the dynasty in power at the time of the study. [Click for Note 1. Click the note to hide it again.]

1 Myths and legends are stories of real or fictitious events in the past, often relevant to the history of a social group or to the origins of the things and customs of the world as we know it. The term myth is usually associated with such stories when they are religious and when they relate in some way to the broader human condition. Tales of the creation of the universe are usually classed as myths. Our particular interest in this case will be “charter myths,” those involved in justifying political order.

Ritual, in this case, will include all those symbolic and ceremonial representations that set the monarch off from ordinary people and represent, or even create, his right to rule over them and his obligation to care for them. [Note 2]

2 Some writers find it useful to distinguish rituals, which are religious, from ceremonies, which are non-religious. In most human societies the distinction is difficult to make with perfect clarity. In the context of the present discussion the distinction is ignored.

Political organization among the Nyoro was arguably an instance of what might, in comparative perspective, be called “feudalism,” and an examination of this case provides an opportunity to explore one of the several ways in which a large, pre-modern state could maintain reasonable order. [Note 3]

3 “Feudalism” is a troubled but often useful term for a system in which “vassals” are granted plots of territory by a “lord” in exchange for political and economic support.

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B. The Nyoro

The Nyoro are one of a large number of peoples living in the region of the Upper Nile and the Great Lakes of eastern Africa. The Nyoro today live along the shores of Lake Albert in western Uganda, but they have legends of once having been the political masters of a region reaching into adjacent areas.

The most complete scholarly studies of the Nyoro were made by an Oxford University ethnographer named John Beattie (1915-1990), who arrived in the area in 1951 during the waning years of the British colonial administration. He lived among the Nyoro in the fishing village of Tonya on the shores of Lake Albert (on the Uganda-Congo border). [Note 4] There is considerable variation in the resources across Bunyoro. Beattie writes:

4 Because this essay is concerned with traditional Nyoro society, it is written in the past tense. However the Nyoro still exist, and many of their customs and understandings continue to influence their life in modern Uganda. At the time of Beattie’s fieldwork in the 1950s, there were estimated to be about 110,000 Nyoro (Beattie 1963: 27). The population by 2005 was about 700,000, about 3% of the Uganda population (http://www.photius.com/wfb2000/countries/uganda/uganda_people.html, consulted July 13, 2007).

The contrast between upland Bunyoro, with its lush growth of bush and elephant grass, its plantain groves, and its scattered fields of millet and sweet potatoes, and the arid Lake Albert littoral, 2,000 feet lower in altitude, is striking. Rainfall in the Western Rift Valley is minimal, and the only crop that can be grown there, apart from a few straggling fields of cotton, is cassava (manioc), which is planted in the sand close to the lake shore. There were no cattle in Tonya, and even goats did not thrive, but there were a few small flocks of scraggy sheep, at first sight hardly distinguishable from goats, and most people kept a few fowls. (Beattie 1975: 32)

Using all available sources, including extensive interviewing with very elderly people, Beattie was gradually able to develop a comprehensive account of the way in which pre-colonial Nyoro society most probably functioned, describing everything from childhood and neighborhood life to the rituals of the royal court. He is not the only author to write about Nyoro life, but his work is the most comprehensive account. The following description is therefore largely derived from Beattie’s research, and especially from his 1960 book, Bunyoro: An African Kingdom (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston).

All Nyoro were associated with clans, of which there were 135. We shall learn more about them, but for now the important fact is that the Nyoro king always had to belong to the Bito clan. Why? What gave the Bito the right to lord it over everybody else? To hear the Bito tell it, history did. Not documented history, but history as handed down by word of mouth, usually believed to be true, but subject to gradual change over time as different speakers stress different aspects of it. Such “remembered history” used to justify present social arrangements might be called pseudo-history or mytho-history. The usual technical term is “charter myths” or “mythical charters,” since the history provides the “charter” for later institutions.

To find out why the Bito clan was regarded as the only group from which a ruler could be selected, Beattie plunged into the “charter myths” that explained where the Nyoro came from, and why the ruling Bito clan was inherently entitled to rule.

But simply having a myth doesn’t do the whole job, either among the Nyoro or among other peoples. The myth is the intellectual background to a body of practice. Just as an American president is inaugurated in an elaborate ceremony that requires particular participants and is performed for no one else, so the Nyoro king undergoes a ceremony that sets him off from the rest of the population. With a mythological charter justifying his position and a coronation ritual installing him in it, the Nyoro king is then in a unique position to govern the Nyoro people whether they like him or not.

The Nyoro speak a Bantu language characterized by a rich system of prefixes attached to roots. Their language called Lunyoro (Lu-Nyoro) or Runyoro (Ru-Nyoro). Their territory is called Bunyoro (Bu-Nyoro). The people speak of themselves as Banyoro (Ba-Nyoro) and of an individual Nyoro person as a Munyoro (Mu-Nyoro). Although some writers carry these Bantu prefixes into English, in this essay, following Beattie, the un-prefixed term Nyoro is used except for the kingdom (Bunyoro) and the language (Lunyoro ). In some names I have taken the liberty of inserting hyphens to increase legibility or to differentiate roots.

In this section we will examine four rather complex Nyoro stories which, taken together, provide a rationale for the existence and functioning of Nyoro absolute monarchy. They are a small subset of Nyoro stories, and the retelling does no justice to the elaboration or the artistry of the tales as recounted by the Nyoro themselves. But they will provide us with at least a hint of the way in which myth is used in politics.

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C. Myth and Mystification

Story One. The First Man and His Sons [Note 5]

5 This is the first of several stories to be analyzed here, all of which circulate in many versions. They are indented to set them off from surrounding text, but they are not direct quotations.

Story One Dramatis Personae
Ki-ntu (“created thing”) = the first man
Ka-iru (“little peasant”) = his eldest son
Ka-huma (“little herder”) = his second son
Ka-kama (“little mukama” = “little ruler”) = his third and youngest son

When the first man was created by God, there were no names, and so he was simply called Ki-ntu, which means “created thing.” He had three sons, and it was confusing for them not to have names, so he asked God if they could be given names. God consented, but to select the names the boys underwent two tests. For the first test, the following items were placed along the path where the boys would find them:

When they found these things on the path, the oldest boy picked up the bundle of food and began to eat. And then, when he was full, he carried away the rest of the food, using the grass head ring. He also took the ax and the knife. That left only the ox head and the leather thong.

The second son took the leather thong, and the youngest took the ox head. but nobody told them what these choices meant.

For the second test, each of the boys had to sit all night on the ground with his legs stretched out in front of him, holding a pot of milk on his lap, and not spilling even a drop. By midnight the youngest of the boys had become very sleepy, and as his head began to bob he spilled a little of his milk, which fell on his leg and woke him up. He begged his brothers for a little of theirs, and each of them gave him a few drops, which were enough to fill his pot back up.

Then as the sky was just growing light, the oldest brother spilled his whole pot of milk. Like the youngest brother, he asked the others for some of theirs, but they refused him, for the amount of milk involved was enough that they would never be able to pass off what was left as a full pot.

When their father Ki-ntu came back in the morning, he found the three boys with their pots. The youngest son had a full pot. The second had a pot that was almost full. But the oldest son had no milk left.

And so, based on these two tests that had been proposed by God, Father Ki-ntu gave his sons names.

The oldest son was named Ka-iru, which means “little peasant” for he had shown that he knew nothing about the value of cattle or milk. He had spilled all his milk, and he had chosen potatoes and millet. He and all his descendants forever would be farmers and servants.

The second son received the name Ka-huma, which means “little herder.” This is because he had chosen the leather thong, used for tying up cattle. And although some of his milk was missing, it was because he had helped his younger brother.

The youngest son of course had all his milk, although it was because his brothers had given him some. This showed that he valued cattle and milk. And he had the head of an ox, although it was because it was all that was left. This showed that he possessed the ability to be head of all the people in the world. And so Father Ki-ntu called him Ka-kama, which means “little mukama.” A mukama is a ruler. Father Ki-ntu declared that Ka-kama was to be his heir, and that Ka-kama and his descendants were to become the kings of the Nyoro forever. He told his sons Ka-iru and Ka-huma to support Ka-kama and serve him, and he instructed Ka-kama to take care of Ka-iru and Ka-huma and to rule them wisely. And this was the beginning of a dynasty of Ka-kama and his descendants, a dynasty called Tembuzi.

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Analysis of Story One.

What this myth teaches is that it is natural for the descendants of the two older sons to be subordinate to the descendants of the “little ruler.” The differentiation of ruler and ruled is represented as originating in the decisions made by the first man, based on his instructions from God. Hierarchy, with the descendants of Ka-kama on top, is, in other words, the God-given natural order of things.

As Beattie discussed this myth with his Nyoro informants, he noticed that it had some deeper messages as well. For example the myth represents the world before the boys had names, and when they were equal, as confusing and unmanageable. Social order depended upon their being differentiated, and differentiation did not just mean names, it meant social hierarchy. Beattie’s informants regarded social hierarchy as necessary to orderly social life. And he observed that “Subordinates may find subordination less irksome, and superordinates may rule more calmly and confidently, when everyone acknowledges the difference between them and the divine origin of that difference” (Beattie 1960: 12).

This was not the only myth that seemed to provide a charter for the power structure of Nyoro society. Here is another one.

organization chart

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Story Two: Isaza Becomes Wise

Story Two Dramatis Personae
Isaza = a young mukama, newly come to the throne, scornful of elderly advisers
His young “friends”, who find other people's misery very funny
Elderly advisers, wiser than Isaza thought

The mukama Isaza, a descendant of Ka-kama, of course, was a proud young man, who had great scorn for the elderly men who had served in his father’s court and who acted as advisers also to the young king. So he drove them all away from his compound and invited in his young friends, who loved fun, and with whom he liked to go hunting for sport. One day he shot a zebra, and he decided to wear its beautiful striped hide as a “kingly costume,” but it was hard to keep it on, and finally his friends sewed it in place for him.

This turned out to be a bad idea. As the day warmed up, the sun dried the skin, and it began to contract and squeeze poor Isaza more and more until he was truly suffering and thought his bones would surely break. He begged his friends to cut it off for him, but they thought he looked so funny in his suffering that they just laughed and laughed, and they did nothing to save him. The skin squeezed him tighter and tighter and he knew he was about to die, but still his “friends” did nothing but laugh, but in fact the skin had become so tight that they could no longer untie it or even get their knives behind it to cut it off. So, cruel as their laughter was, in fact they had no way to save him.

Now as it happened, two of the old men whom he had driven from the compound had not gone very far away, and they saw Isaza in his misery. Seeing Isaza’s suffering and hearing his frightened screams as the skin continued to tighten, they at last agreed to help. They told the young men to throw Isaza into a pond. Naturally when they had done this, the water gradually penetrated the zebra skin, which loosened again. And so Isaza was saved from a hideous death by the wisdom of the old men he had so foolishly driven away earlier.

Having learned his lesson, Isaza called all the old men back to his service, and he scolded the young men, and told them always to respect the wisdom of old people. And that is how Isaza, who had been foolish, became wise.

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Analysis of Story Two

This story is about the need even for a king to respect the old and the wise, of course. But as Beattie examined Nyoro responses to the story, other lessons were also drawn from it: One was that it was quite normal for young people to hold authority. Just as Ka-kama was the youngest son, supported and advised by his older brothers, but reigning over them, so Isaza was a young king with elderly advisers. Nyoro cited this story (and others) in connection even with ordinary inheritance: for the Nyoro an older brother was his younger brother’s guardian, but it was the youngest son who was the heir. And in the case of the mukama or king, the eldest son of the previous mukama was prohibited from succeeding him. So seniority made one an adviser and a source of wisdom, but leadership came with being junior. [Note 6]

6 It is tempting to see a broader African pattern in this. Notice that Turnbull’s analysis of Mbuti society assigned an important disciplinary role to adolescents, who could manipulate the molimo in ways that approved or disapproved of adult behavior.

There are no early written records of Nyoro life because the Nyoro had no writing system. However Nyoro had definite ideas about their history. They told Beattie about a series of three “dynasties.” The first began with Ka-kama, the youngest son of the first man and ended with Isaza, his descendant. The second involved a curious group called the Chwezi (or Cwezi), who seemed to be able to work miracles. The third was a line of kings belonging to the Bito clan. The king in office when Beattie did his studies belonged to this line.

That complicates things. If the modern mukama was the heir of Father Ki-ntu, and was supporting this claim with a charter myth about the subordination of the other lines, then who were the Chwezi and how did they fit in? Were they an inconvenient historical fact that could not be ignored? Or was there a way to integrate them into the justification of the modern king’s authority? Tales of the Chwezi are many, but we can digest them into a quick outline.

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Story Three. The Ghosts and the First Chwezi.

Story Three Dramatis Personae
Isaza = a mukama
Nyami-yonga = the king of the ghosts
Nyamata = Nyami-yonga’s beautiful daughter
Two unnamed cows, also very beautiful
Isimbwa = the son of Isaza and Nyamata, raised in the kingdom of ghosts

Bukuku = Isaza’s chief assistant (of the iru caste)
Nyina-mwiru = Bukuku’s beautiful daughter, kept locked up
Nda-hura = her son by Isimbwa, saved from death to become strong and brash

Rubumbi= a riverside potter
Kyomya = Isimbwa’s other son, destined to become a mighty king in a different story

Once upon a time the king of the ghosts, whose name was Nyami-yonga, sent a messenger to the mukama Isaza proposing that the two enter into a “blood pact of friendship.” [Note 7]

7 Close friendship was much valued by the Nyoro, and still is. However friendships can fade over time, and Nyoro sometimes sought to cement them for eternity by an institution called omukago, which is usually referred to in African English as a “blood pact.” The two parties would be seated on a cattle skin together and a coffee bean was cut in half and divided between them. The Nyoro writer John Nyakatura describes the process: “Then, with a locally made razor, each man in turn made a small incision on his stomach, just below the navel. He then rubbed the coffee bean in the blood, took it in his own right hand and offered it to his friend. The latter took the coffee bean with his lips from his friend’s hand and swallowed it without biting or chewing it. The procedure was reciprocated.” (1970:32) The ceremony continued with pledges of reciprocal loyalty and assistance, with expressions of the desire to be like brothers, and eventually with a feast.

The mukama consulted with his advisers, and they thought it was a bad idea to enter into blood pact with a ghost, but it was also a bad idea to anger him by refusing. In the end Isaza sent his chief assistant, named Bukuku, whom he instructed to pretend to be Nyami-yonga and undertake the pact, which would therefore not be valid. Bukuku was only an iru (a descendant of Ka-iru, and thus a farmer and commoner), and he went without complaint on behalf of his lord Isaza and met with Nyami-yonga and contracted the blood pact of friendship.

Unfortunately it was not long before Nyami-yonga discovered he had been tricked. He was furious and determined to seek vengeance. Now as it happened, Nyami-yonga, although the king of the ghosts, had a very beautiful daughter, named Nyamata, and he sent her to Isaza’s compound where she was to seduce Isaza and bring him to Nyami-yonga’s realm. Because she was extremely beautiful, seducing Isaza was not particularly difficult. Indeed, Isaza was happy to marry her without much of a background check.

Once married Nyamata tried to get Isaza to come with her to visit her parents, but Isaza refused, for traveling would mean leaving his cattle for a time, and like all good men he loved his cattle more than anything else in all the world. Nyamata explained that she needed to go back to the home of her mother to bear Isaza’s child. But Isaza told her to go alone. He would not leave his beloved cows. Nyami-yonga’s daughter reported this back to her father, who therefore decided that if his daughter couldn’t bring Isaza into his power, perhaps cattle could. So he sent two magnificent cattle, which were found wandering near Isaza’s compound. Isaza fell in love with them immediately, and they even became the favorites of all his herd. Then one day Nyami-yonga called them home, and Isaza was unable to bear their absence. So he set out to find them. He left his assistant Bukuku (now Nyami-yonga’s blood-pact brother) in charge of the kingdom of the Nyoro and began wandering the countryside in quest of Nyami-yonga’s two beautiful cows.

At length Isaza came to the kingdom of the ghosts. And there he found the two cattle, as well as his wife Nyamata, and, of course, Nyamata’s father Nyami-yonga, the king of the ghosts. The king had not forgiven Isaza for deceiving him in the blood-pact brotherhood, and he would not let him go home.

In time Isaza and Nyamata’s child was born. He was named Isimbwa, and he was raised in the kingdom of the ghosts, where he was eventually married and had a son, whose name was Kyomya, and who was destined to be a mighty king later in the story.

Isimbwa went out hunting one day and came to Isaza’s old palace compound, where the faithful Bukuku was still ruling while waiting for Isaza to come back from looking for the cows. Bukuku was not having a particularly easy time of it, for people complained that he was an iru (commoner), and therefore had no real right to rule, which of course was quite true.

Bukuku’s daughter was named Nyina-mwiru, and a prophecy predicted that if she bore a child, things would go badly for Bukuku. So Bukuku kept her locked up so no enthusiastic young men would find out about her. Naturally word spread far and wide, together with rumors that she was surely amazingly beautiful. And naturally Isimbwa heard the rumors and resolved to find her. He did, and in the end stayed with her for three months without Bukuku quite noticing.

What Bukuku could not avoid noticing was that Nyina-mwiru eventually bore a son, whom she named Nda-hura. Given the prophecy about Nyina-mwiru’s child being bad luck for Bukuku, Nda-hura’s birth seemed a very bad thing quite apart from Bukuku’s annoyance at Nyina-mwiru somehow getting pregnant despite being locked up. So he ordered that the baby be thrown in a river and drowned. As in many other myths, the baby did not die in the river, but was discovered by a riverside craftsman, a potter named Rubumbi, who secretly rescued the child and told Nyina-mwiru it was safe and sound, although Bukuku believed it dead.

Nda-hura grew up to be a nuisance. He was strong and brash and far more loyal to the potter Rubumbi than to his grandfather, the ruler Bukuku, who, after all, had tried to kill him. In the course of a dispute about whose cattle should be watered first, Nda-hura ended up killing Bukuku and sitting down on the king’s stool himself. When Nyina-mwiru heard about it she was pleased that her son had in effect made himself king, although the death of her father seemed rather sad.

And so the boy named Nda-hura came to be the first king of a new dynasty, which was called Chwezi. Because he was a descendant of ghosts, his skin was very light.

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Analysis of Story Three

Stories about the Chwezi are common in East Africa, but historical evidence of the Chwezi is very difficult to come by. If they existed at all, the distribution of stories would suggest they must have lived sometime between about 1300 and 1500. But there is no archaeological evidence that would help in clarifying this, and without a writing system, local people could leave no clear record. Outsiders with writing did not refer to them until the British arrived in the 1800s and started recording local lore. Most accounts seem to agree that there were only two or three Chwezi kings, but the Nyoro told Beattie wonderful things about them and clearly held them in high regard.

Story Three links them into the genealogy of the previous legendary ruling line, the so-called “Tembuzi” dynasty. Although they come to power through Nda-hura’s impetuous “usurpation” of Bukuku’s position, Bukuku was an iru or commoner, not really entitled to be ruler, and in that position only because the legitimate ruler had been captured by the ghost king. So the myth incorporates the popular Chwezi, an unavoidable bit of popular lore, into a continuous tale that links them as semi-legitimate inheritors of the previous Tembuzi dynasty.

It is clear, however, that any history of Bunyoro intended to justify the claims to rulership by the Bito would have to deal with the pseudo-historical problem of how the Chwezi vanished and why it was all right for the Bito to succeed them. That happens in Story Four. [Note 8]

8 The Chwezi remained important to the Nyoro not merely because of their role in myth or history but even more because their spirits were believed to possess mediums, who played a central role in Nyoro religious beliefs. British administrator and historian A.R. Dunbar writes:

The Banyoro [Nyoro] believe that there are many powers and forces outside themselves of an immaterial or spiritual kind, which may have effects, beneficial or more usually injurious, on living people. Although these spirits are individualized, even personalized, so that human qualities are ascribed to them and they have their own proper names, they are thought of as somehow dispersed through space or perhaps not concerned with space at all. Several categories of these spirits exist but the most important are the ghosts left by dead people … and the individualized powers called embandwa, especially the pantheon of Bachwezi [Chwezi] spirits, the cult of which may be said to have constituted the traditional religion of Bunyoro-Kitara.

The Bachwezi are thought of in three ways; first the wonderful race of fair-skinned people who suddenly arrived in Bunyoro-Kitara and disappeared equally suddenly two generations later; second the small group of rulers believed to be genealogically linked in the male line to the preceding dynasty, Batembuzi [Tembuzi], and the succeeding dynasty, Babito [Bito]; third the pantheon of contemporary effective spirits, each terminologically identified with one of the long dead Bachwezi and each possessing its own individuality and special competence.

They are not thought of as the ghosts of real men who died long ago but are regarded as unchanging, timeless powers. … There are nineteen of these Bachwezi spirits and they are white, or pure, spirits, … as opposed to the black spirits, … of which a great number exist and by which people may also be possessed. The colour white signifies for the Bunyoro purity, auspiciousness, happiness, goodness, and the white spirits are concerned with the people's well-being generally and particularly with fertility. …

A loose association exists between particular Bachwezi spirits and particular clans, especially the extended family group or household. One member of the group was the accredited medium … .The black spirits, unlike the Bachwezi, are believed to be of foreign and relatively recent origin [like the Bito] and many of the older ones are said to have come from … Buganda. Some could be used for divination and others for sorcery. (Dunbar 1965: 241)

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Story Four. The Departure of the Chwezi kings.

Story Four Dramatis Personae
Warama = the last Chwezi king
Kyomya = Isimbwa’s son, half ghost, half human, mentioned in Story Three; the father of four sons, who called themselves Bito.
Son number one = adviser to the others
Rukidi = son number two, king of the land of the Nyoro
Son number three = king of the land of the Ganda
Son number four = king of the land of the Soga

During the reign of the last Chwezi king, Wamara, things were taking a bad turn and Wamara decided to conduct divination by examining the intestines of an ox. The story is complicated (and gory), but in the end it was decided that the divination revealed that the days of the Chwezi dynasty among the living were ending, and that in the future the influence of the Chwezi would be wielded by Chwezi spirits through spirit mediums. [Note 9] In the land of the Nyoro, the Chwezi would be succeeded by new rulers, with darker skins, who would arrive from the north, the region from which, by coincidence, the diviner himself also came.

9 Much of Beattie’s field work focused on spirit mediums and the closely related practices of sorcery, which the British administration outlawed, or more often drove underground. Something of the challenge of this study under that situation can be glimpsed when Beattie writes: “Sometimes I traveled far afield to see people whom I had been told might be specially well informed. Prisoners in the local gaol [jail] for such crimes as sorcery or the practice of spirit mediumship were sometimes willing to talk about such dangerous topics. Indeed, often they were much franker than other people, presumably because they no longer had anything to lose by confession. One middle-aged and unrepentant convict said to me in reply to my question whether he would continue the practice of mbandwa possession cult after he was released: “Of course I will. Mbandwa bore me … and I’m not going to give it up at my time of life, whether they me imprison or not!’” (1965: 29)

As he headed north to the place from which he had come, the diviner encountered sons of Kyomya, the son whom Isimbwa had fathered before going hunting and having the affair with Bukuku’s daughter. Thus Kyomya was the part-ghost grandson of the ghost girl Nya-mata and Isaza, the last of the pre-Chwezi kings. Kyoma, now an old man (or old man-ghost), and his four sons were peacefully settled in the savanna lands north of the Nile, where they practiced farming. The diviner reported to them that, based on his prophecy, the Chwezi were closing out, and that it was the perfect opportunity to head south and take over the land of the Nyoro, to which they had at least a plausible claim based on their descent from Isimbwa, the son of King Isaza. So they decided to move south and “reclaim” their dynastic position.

The four were the first members of a clan they called Bito, and the eldest of them became the adviser to the others, who all became mukamas (kings): Brother Number Two, who was named Rukidi, became king of the land of the Nyoro or Bunyoro (Bu-Nyoro). Number Three ruled over the land of the Ganda or Buganda (Bu-Ganda), and Brother Number Four became king of the land of the Soga or Busoga (Bu-Soga).

Rukidi and his brothers were descended from the old, pre-Chwezi royal line, but they hardly seemed like mukama material. They didn’t know anything about keeping cattle, or about the etiquette of drinking milk properly. It was even said that Rukidi didn’t even look like a mukama because his body was half black like a person and half white like a ghost because of the brothers’ mixed ancestry. But they worked hard, and the elders tried to teach them everything they needed to know. Nobody knew where the Chwezi had gone, but the Chwezi had left behind every kind of magical object to help them. And so the first Bito dynasty was established. This was the dynasty that held the mukama-ship at the time Beattie visited Bunyoro in the 1950s.

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Analysis of Story Four

Obviously Story Four links the Bito dynasty to the “Tembuzi” dynasty that preceded the Chwezi and that dated from the first man and the naming of his sons. The royal family during Beattie’s research could claim to have a right to rule dating to the creation of humanity. But Story Four also uses the story of the divination that told the Chwezi to leave to justify a claim that the Bito received their symbols of power directly from the wonderful Chwezi. (Some of these objects may be viewed on the internet at http://www.uconnect.org/bunyoro/virtmuseum.html.)

Beattie noted that a myth of this kind uses the idea of status based on heredity to justify royal authority. But in using genealogy this way, the myth also constitutes an approval of using heredity to justify privilege in general. In effect, it not only says that the Bito have good ancestors, but that ancestors are what matter to a person’s social position.

As implied in the myths, farmers/commoners (iru) are locally regarded as inferior to herders, and Beattie found that the symbolism of cattle and milk was powerful in asserting one’s social status in this region, not just among the Nyoro, but among other peoples as well, and we shall see cattle-related symbols used in Bito assertions of royal authority. Ka-huma, the second, herder, son of Father Ki-Ntu, because he kept cattle, would naturally have been superior to his older brother, Ka-iru the peasant, and even to his younger brother Ka-kama whose very name includes the element kama (ruler). Beattie found that Nyoro herders well into the twentieth century had disdain for non-herders including Bito outside the royal family itself. In view of this widespread prejudice, somehow the non-herding origin of the Bito needed to be justified. Story Four tells us that Rukidi and his brothers, the first mukamas of the Bito line, were taught about cattle, and already in Story One the stage is set for this when Ka-kama was the son who received the ox head along the road, symbolizing leadership, but associated with pastoralism and cattle. Thus the myths help to paper over the tension between the “superior” herders and the descendants of Ka-kama ruling over them.

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What Really Happened?

As far as Beattie was able to reconstruct it, the Bito rulers really were an immigrant group, biologically slightly different from other Nyoro. They apparently really did come from further north, and they moved in upon a society already composed of pastoralists (huma) and agriculturalists (iru), with both groups considering the pastoralists as the aristocracy of the system. [Note 10]

10 Many historians of Africa argue that pre-Chwezi Nyoro society had originally consisted of Bantu farmers (iru) who were invaded, probably sometime in the 1400s, by non-Bantu-speaking pastoralists (huma) from further north along the Nile. They would argue that the terms iru and huma may originally have been ethnic terms, even though today they are used mostly to mean farmer and herder. (If one considers the term Huma to be the name of an ethnic group, then some prefer to use the alternative form Hima, since Huma is also the name of a lower Mississippi Indian tribe.) However there are few traces of independent “Huma culture” to suggest an actual movement of people. There are, for example, no non-Bantu, Nilotic language borrowings in common use in the Lunyoro language, even for matters related to cattle. That makes the probability of an “invasion” unlikely, although one can imagine a small herding group perhaps staging a kind of “coup” by which they managed to gain control over the iru.

Just who the Chwezi actually were is still unknown. One of Beattie’s Nyoro colleagues speculated that they might in fact have been Portuguese, since tradition held that they had been light skinned and possessed exotic technology (Beattie 1969: 159). But what mattered to the Bito myths was linking the mukama to a universal understanding that he was descended in a designated ruling line to the dawn of everything. The mukama, in other words, was God’s choice as lord of the Nyoro.

Did anybody besides the Bito believe that these self-serving stories about their right to rule were true? Beattie tells us that the nearby Ganda to the south, traditional enemies of the Nyoro, certainly did not believe that they had been ruled by Brother Number Three. And one can imagine that some Huma had doubts about their subordination from the dawn of humanity to the offspring of Ka-kama. But as long as the Bito remained in charge of the kingdom, they were in a good position to propagate their self-serving versions of these stories.

The stories, like all myths, had a life of their own. They weren’t just lectures given by Bito. Beattie noticed that all Nyoro seemed to enjoy telling him these stories, and that,

… all Nyoro, share in the glory of their ruling line and the wonderful feats of its progenitors. The exploits and conquests of Isaza and the Chwezi rulers are known to every Nyoro. When people think of themselves, as Nyoro sometimes do …, as being in decline, there may be compensation in the thought of past in default of present greatness. (Beattie 1960: 16)

If the Chwezi left by 1500 and there was still a Bito mukama on the throne in the 1950s, what happened in between? In other words, what happened during the reigns of the kings of the Bito line?

It is estimated that between the time of Rukidi and the arrival of the first European visitors in the nineteenth century, the land of the Nyoro passed through roughly eighteen generations and the reigns of 26 mukamas (Dunbar 1965: 34-37). The myths about the beginning of this long period evolve into the documented history of the last part of it. Beattie, like other authors, divides the process into two parts:

During the first period, up to the time of the seventeenth Bito king, the great empire believed to have been inherited from the Chwezi was maintained in much of its former greatness. The fourth Bito Mukama fought with the Ganda, who had by now asserted their independence, and killed their king. Other Bito kings are said to have fought successful wars as far away as the borders of Zande country in the Congo, and in Ruanda and Ankole, the latter of which is said to have been a part of the Nyoro empire until about the end of this period. There were constant wars against the small but aggressive Ganda kingdom. At all periods there were numerous revolts, but these were usually successfully quelled. (Beattie 1960: 16-17)

The second, more recent period, roughly from the reign of the seventeenth mukama until the dominance of the Europeans, brought gradual decline in Nyoro fortunes and the rise about 1800 of the formerly subordinate Ganda people, who, enriched and emboldened by their success in exchanging slaves and elephant tusks for cloth and firearms, began to dominate more and more of the lands formerly under Nyoro sway. Although Nyoro fortunes waxed and waned (and warfare was constant), the general trend was toward Nyoro political contraction.

This decline was finalized with the arrival of the Europeans in the 1800s. The famous explorers James Grant and John Speke, seeking the source of the Nile River, unfortunately arrived in the reduced Nyoro territory directly from the court of the king of the Ganda, the traditional enemies of the Nyoro. This made the Nyoro suspicious of them, and the Ganda had filled Grant and Speke with suspicions about the Nyoro. They reported that the Nyoro were far less cooperative than the Ganda had been.

In the end, the Ganda found it in their interest to cooperate with the British, who therefore viewed them positively. Britain established the Protectorate of Uganda across the region in 1894, and unwittingly ended up making many Nyoro regions subordinate to the cooperative Ganda king, who in fact had little or no interest in looking after the welfare of his traditional Nyoro enemies.

The land of the Ganda, and with it the land of the Nyoro and other kingdoms in the region, did not thrive under European administration. War and disease took their toll. Colonial administrators and missionaries, seeking to suppress witchcraft, created resentment by forbidding fertility rituals. And generally the kingdom of Buganda was laid low by about 1900, becoming part, like Bunyoro, of Britain’s Protectorate of Uganda (“place of the Ganda”).

From 1900 to the time of Beattie’s visit in the 1950s, things improved, despite Britain’s involvement in the two World Wars and the stresses that war brought to colonial administration. By the time of Beattie’s work, the colonial government was both better informed and better provisioned than previously, and more authority had been returned to the Nyoro mukama and his chiefs and to popularly elected “chiefs’ councils,” established in an effort to democratize the formerly autocratic system. [Note 11]

11 Beattie had the good fortune to study the Nyoro while the king and his court were still, to a limited extent, functioning. Uganda became an independent nation in 1962, with the king of the Ganda taking over as the first president. Countless warlords immediately arose to challenge central authority, and between 1966 and 1986 over half a million Ugandans were killed in the many attempted coups and general civil war. The royal houses of Uganda were abolished in 1967 and their personnel eventually sent into exile or exterminated. The regime of Idi Amin, 1971-1979, one of the most vicious dictators of the twentieth century, tortured and killed large numbers of Ugandans as the world looked on in horror but did nothing in particular because of Uganda’s status as an independent state. (After Amin was overthrown in 1979, he successfully found comfortable sanctuary in Saudi Arabia and died in 2003 at the age of 80 without standing trial.) A successful coup in 1986 ended most of the bloodshed, and elections were established in 1994. Interestingly, the monarchies of Uganda have been “restored” to a limited extent, although the similarity to the earlier, let alone the pre-colonial, Ugandan monarchies is debatable.

Very little of this late history is enshrined in myth. As history, it explains the subordination of the modern Nyoro to their Ganda enemies, but it hardly glorifies or “justifies” it. The myths that Nyoro love to tell are set in the earlier periods, when Bunyoro was glorious, and when the Bito rule was coming into being as the normal state of things.

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D. Rituals of Kingship

The Nyoro mukama was an absolute ruler. Although any absolute ruler ultimately has some limits on his power —he cannot command the sky to turn green or the stars to stop in their orbits, although some rulers have tried. The mukama’s word was law within the world of Nyoro social relations, and he had the power of life and death over his subjects.

We noted that Nyoro society was organized into over a hundred patrilineal clans. The clans were exogamous, so no one was allowed to marry a member of the same clan. Villages and even households therefore necessarily included people from several clans. The Bito were one of these clans.

In some respects, being a Bito was just like belonging to any other clan. Although it was true that the mukama could be selected only from the Bito clan, most Bito were ordinary farmers (although not called iru), and lived their lives like anybody else, even though they also believed themselves to be somewhat different because of their being in the “clan of kings.” But for the difference to make a difference, for a Bito to be an actual aristocrat, required not just clan membership, but a close kinship to a mukama, a point we shall return to below.

Because all Bito clan members had mothers from other clans, it would have been possible for the mukama to minimize the difference between Bito and others and simply to claim to be a “father” of all his people, as many traditional African rulers did. Nyoro instead stressed the difference between natural rulers and natural subjects. A mukama was as different from a subject as possible. He was not his subjects’ “father,” but their sovereign. And other Bito were eager, Beattie observed, to bask in as much of the mukama’s reflected glory as possible.

We have seen how popular stories about Nyoro history provided a justification for the position of the Bito as rulers. But when an old mukama died and a new one needed to be selected, the myths gave no guidance about how to select the particular “descendant of Ka-kama” to rule, except to provide that an eldest brother did not qualify, and women did not qualify. As Beattie turned his attention to this matter, he learned about a world of rituals that were observed. It was the rituals, correctly performed, that made a normal Bito into a mukama. Modern heads of state are also crowned or inaugurated or installed, although most people do not think of these ceremonies as legally necessary. In the traditional Nyoro kingdom, in contrast, the rituals were absolutely central.

Furthermore, as Beattie studied them, it was clear that they were not entirely arbitrary. They incorporated symbols of what was expected from the mukama. In a sense, they probably impressed the mukama with the qualities he was to have as leader as much as they impressed others with his right to rule.

For analytical purposes, Beattie divided Nyoro kingly ritual into three categories. One kind of ritual involved the behavior of a functioning mukama and how people acted toward him. A second kind involved the selection of a new mukama and the transfer of ultimate power from the dead mukama to his successor. A third kind had to do with the ways in which the mukama’s authority could be spread through others, who could then rule portions of the realm on his behalf. We will follow the same division here.

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Acting Like a Mukama

The traditional kingdoms of East Africa exhibited something that analysts refer to as “divine kingship.” It is almost certainly related to the ancient Egyptian belief (or polite fiction) that the pharaoh was an actual god, but the term is also applied to peoples whose king ruled with divine approval and assistance, but who was by no means a god. Between these extremes the Nyoro mukama was not quite a god, but he was also not quite a person. [Note 12] Most importantly, he was considered to be the humanized form of the land of the Nyoro itself. What happened to him would happen to the whole land. What happened to Bunyoro would happen to him.

12 For more about divine kingship, click here . More about divine kinship can also be found in a footnote in the essay on Egyptian Origins, chapter 14 (link).

Beattie writes:

This means that the king must keep physically healthy; if he does not, the country and people as a whole will suffer. Formerly, a person, or even an ox, who was sick had to be removed at once from the royal enclosure, in case the king’s health should be affected. The king had to avoid all contact with death; when I asked why the present Mukama did not attend his mother’s funeral in 1953, I was told that it was because of this rule. In pre-European times, if the Mukama himself fell sick the matter was kept strictly secret. It is said that if his illness were serious, if he suffered any physical incapacity or mutilation, or if he grew too old and feeble to carry out his duties properly, he would either kill himself by taking poison or be killed by one of his wives. This was, of course, because any imperfection or weakness in the king was thought to involve a corresponding danger to the kingdom. We do not know for sure whether any kings ever were killed in this way, but the important thing is that it is thought that they were. (Beattie 1960: 26)

Nyoro author John Nyakatura describes the situation slightly differently, focusing on a chief called Mugema:

Whenever a king became seriously ill, the chiefs who by tradition were in charge of the king’s health used to hide him and keep his illness a secret for fear that his sons might begin fighting for the accession to the throne. It was therefore the duty of Mugema at such a time to go early every morning to the Royal enclosure and perform certain rites which the king normally did. This made the general public think that the king was not very ill, for he was still able to carry out some of his duties. What they did not know was that it was Mugema who had been there. (Nyakatura 1970: 91)

The need to remain both physically healthy and magically powerful forced upon the mukama a wide range of food taboos or other abstinences, as well as time-consuming activities intended to symbolize his nurturance of the land of the Nyoro and its people. He could not eat specified low-status foods.

Ritual restrictions were not placed only upon the mukama. Those who had contact with him were also subjected to various regulations. His cooks were allowed to serve only a few days at a time and had to abstain from sexual intercourse in the days before they served him. His dairy maids had to be virgins and were smeared with white clay to symbolize their purity. Everyone without exception knelt in the presence of the mukama, and he was addressed only in the third person and was referred to, like most monarchs, by enormously inflated terms referring to his greatness and to the many ways in which he surpassed all other people. Like “her majesty” or “your honor” or “his holiness,” such conventionalized expressions soon ceased to be striking, but failure to use them would have brought immediate punishment. Indeed a whole special vocabulary was applied to the activities of the mukama or the objects he used, acknowledging that they were different from the actions or objects associated with any other person.

The mukama had his own herd of cattle, which were regarded as the cattle of the country. He did not tend them most of the time, of course, but he was constantly involved with them, drinking some of their milk when they were milked, and being constantly kept informed of their activities.

And finally, as we noted earlier in discussing Story Four, the mukama had access to a number of royal treasures, objects said to have been handed down from the Chwezi and incorporating the powers associated with the welfare of the mukama himself and through him also with the country as a whole.

It was clear, then, that the mukama spent a great deal of his time involved with magical and religious activities. At first Beattie wondered if it made sense to think of him as a kind of priest. But the term didn’t quite fit. The mukama did not pray to a god or gods on behalf of his people, for example, as a Chinese emperor would.

Such intercession is the work of the spirit mediums, initiates into the possession cult which is Bunyoro’s traditional religion. The Mukama is not a priest, though he has his priests, just as he is not a rain maker, though he has his rain makers—magical experts who are subject to his discipline and control. In some African countries the real importance of chiefs lies in their magical or religious powers, and if they are secular rulers they are so only in a secondary capacity. In Bunyoro it is otherwise. (Beattie 1960:26)

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How to Become a Mukama

Since the physical person of the mukama was mystically related to the welfare of the realm, obviously the death of a mukama was traditionally seen as very dangerous. The mukama’s courtiers reacted by hushing it up until a new mukama had been selected and the installation ceremonies for him were ready to begin.

The court of a mukama had a great many retainers from a number of non-Bito clans. Not being Bito, they themselves were not candidates for the position of mukama, and they were therefore considered safe protectors of the mukama’s interests. When he died, it was the retainers who supervised everything, secretly managing the kingdom in his name, while preparing his body and trying as well as they could to manage the succession.

The preparation of the old mukama’s body required about four months. The corpse was cleaned and gutted —decay is most immediate and severe in the gut— and the jaw was removed and concealed until after the succession was settled, when it would be enshrined by the new mukama. Then the body was very slowly desiccated and smoked, with drippings from the decaying corpse (known as “putrescine”) being carefully preserved to be consumed by the new mukama in the course of his installation, thus physically transmitting something of the royal line to each new ruler in a way experienced by no one else.

When all was ready, the death was finally announced. A classificatory sister’s son of the dead mukama climbed to the roof of the royal hut and threw down a pitcher of milk, crying “The milk is spilled! The king has been taken away!” Although he was required to speak these words, doing so was still blasphemy, and for saying such a thing, he was immediately killed, Beattie was told.

Who were possible candidates to replace the dead mukama? In European royal houses the heir to the throne was known from birth. Typically, a European king’s eldest son was to succeed him. In the absence of a son, in some countries a daughter could succeed. In others the selection of a male candidate in a collateral royal line would be preferred. When the heir is known in advance, he or she can be educated to the role of monarch. Further, outside claimants are unlikely to be successful, for the legitimate successor inspires immediate loyalty, even if the individual in question is a person with little intellectual or emotional appeal.

There is of course a disadvantage to knowing in advance who a king’s successor will be: an ambitious successor-designate may secretly seek the death of the king. Or a scheming second-in-line may seek the death of the first-in-line.

The Nyoro solution to this was that a category of person was to succeed the old mukama (a son of the previous mukama), but not a particular person. The mukama, with a large number of wives, had usually fathered many sons, all of whom were possible candidates. When the succession went smoothly, the dying mukama designated one of them and his wishes were followed. Beattie was told, however, that the succession rarely went smoothly, and that in earlier times the eligible princes fought each other until one had killed all his brothers.

Others told him that not all eligible princes were killed in such conflicts, and that indeed sometimes the succession did go smoothly. Even then, to avoid possible later problems, all of the mukama’s remaining brothers were killed nine years after his installation by being thrown into a “fiery furnace” (Beattie 1971: 113). Unfortunately, no historical information could be found describing actual instances of such succession-related deaths.

Whichever candidate was selected (perhaps by killing all his rivals), the transformation from royal prince to new mukama involved impressive ceremonies. The prince completely abandoned his previous identity, as he was converted into the new living, anthropomorphic icon of the Nyoro polity. Beattie writes:

The accession ceremonies include washing, shaving, and nail-paring rites, anointment with a special oil and smearing with white chalk, ceremonial milk drinking, and animal sacrifice. In pre-European times, it is said, they included the placing on the throne and the subsequent killing of a “mock king,” who would, it was believed, attract to himself the magical dangers which attended the transition to kingship, so protecting the real king. The king’s accession to political office is equally stressed. He is handed various objects symbolizing political and military power, such as spears, a bow and arrows, a dagger, and a stick, and he is formally admonished and instructed to rule wisely, to kill his enemies, and to protect his people. His territorial authority is also symbolized in a ceremony in which a man who represents neighboring regions formerly subject to Bunyoro presents him with ivory and some copper bracelets as “tribute.” Another rite is the ceremonial acting-out of the settlement of a lawsuit in which one man sues another for debt. This is not really a judicial hearing; it is a symbolic way of impressing on both king and people the important part he is to play as lawgiver and judge. Finally, there is a ceremony in which the king shoots arrows with the bow he has been given toward the four points of the compass, saying as he does so: “Thus I shoot the countries to overcome them.” (Beattie 1960: 28)

Many of these symbolic acts were to be repeated by the mukama annually or even more often throughout his reign, for they served as constant signposts of his status as protector and symbol of his nation.

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E. Nyoro Royalty

We noted earlier that most Bito, despite being Bito, lived like anybody else. Anyone genealogically close to a mukama —especially one whose father, grandfather, or great grandfather was a mukama— was actually considered aristocracy. Because mukamas had many wives —somewhere between 70 and 90 in earlier times, Beattie was told— all of whom he sought to keep pregnant, this aristocracy was actually quite large. Such people bore the title “prince” or “princess.” Those who were children of the present or previous mukama had the slightly higher title “prince of the drum” and “princess of the drum.” Usually they received estates, with the people and revenues attached to them.

There were some limitations. For one thing, the custom of a mukama killing his brothers, if it was really carried out, would have meant that most of the male children of any mukama would eventually have been killed when his successor was selected, although of course some of them would already have left some children.

The female children, the “princesses of the drum” were considered to be extremely elegant people, far too worthy to be subordinated to husbands of any clan but the Bito. However since clan exogamy prohibited marriage to fellow-Bito (or even to members of a Bito’s mother’s clan), the princesses of the drum were essentially too important to marry anybody at all. And so traditionally they were explicitly prohibited from marrying. In 1933, under the British administration, that prohibition was lifted. Beattie writes of the interesting result:

Today, however, the king’s daughters, like other Bito women, may marry and have children, but they usually marry men of high social standing who can afford to keep servants, for Bito princesses do not dig or carry water like ordinary women. Bridewealth [the money normally given by a man’s family to his wife’s family] is not paid in such marriages, for that would imply some degree of social equality. “How,” an informant asked, “could a Bito and a commoner haggle about bridewealth? A Bito’s word should be an order.” (Beattie 1960: 30f.)

Thus there were few children born to the princes of the drum because they did not long survive. And none —or no acknowledged ones— were born to princesses of the drum because they did not marry. The numbers of princes and princesses of the drum were great only because each mukama’s wives continued to bear large numbers of children. The estates which supported them were therefore continually reallocated to new nobility as the older generations died. And naturally there were far more princesses of the drum than princes of the drum.

One brother who was not killed in succession struggles was the dead mukama’s oldest son. Like Rukidi’s oldest brother in Story Four, the oldest son of a mukama was an adviser, ineligible to be the new mukama. He bore the title of okwiri, and his job was to rule over the Bito clan itself while the mukama ruled over everybody else. (This required a certain amount of intelligence, not to say diplomacy, of course, and to ensure that a competent and cooperative person got the post, Nyoro always insisted that the mukama had the right to select a different one of his brothers as okwiri if he chose to do so.)

This custom interestingly separated the Bito king from the interests of his home clan, forcing him to consider the interests of all his people by making Bito interests someone else’s responsibility. Given the often lordly views of many ordinary Bito that they ought to get special treatment because of their clan membership, having an excuse to ignore their claims probably made life easier for many a mukama.

Another of the mukama’s relatives also had a special role to play. One of the mukama’s many half-sisters was appointed as his “official sister” or kalyota and was in charge of the princesses of the drum, with their many estates. The kalyota had her own estates as well, of course. Like any other “feudal” vassal the kalyota settled disputes and made decisions about everything from inheritance to protocol. And like others she periodically drank milk with the mukama. [Note 13]

13 In some African societies the king’s mother is a powerful figure, both honored and feared, and allocated huge resources. This is said to have been true among the Nyoro in earlier times, but by the twentieth century she was honored, but not indulged. Perhaps her probable resentment at the killing of her other sons made it inadvisable to accord her too much real power.

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F. Nyoro Chiefs

Ruling Bunyoro involved more than marching around drinking milk ceremonially. One person cannot settle disputes or distribute goods or manage defense or do anything else for an entire kingdom, still less when ritual obligations compete for time. Thus the actual functioning of Bunyoro required the efforts of a huge number of other people.

The Nyoro mukama dwelled in a “palace” complex of large huts (a muchwa) in a large compound with huge numbers of retainers or courtiers.

These officials include the custodian of the royal graves, men responsible for the more important of the royal drums, caretakers, and “putters-on” of the royal crowns, custodians of spears, stools, and other regalia, cooks, bath attendants, herdsmen, potters, barkcloth makers, musicians, and many others. The more important of them have several assistants, … (Beattie 1960: 31)

For the most part, their tasks were very light, and their numbers were so many that it is hard to imagine any economic need for this bloated and generally inefficient establishment. However as Beattie examined the situation, he found that many of the offices were hereditary in particular clans, sometimes rotating among different clan members, who considered it a great honor to be associated with the palace. Thus large numbers of people had an emotional investment in the welfare of the court, and to the extent that they rotated through positions dominated by their clans, even larger numbers of Nyoro found the mukama and his court an important part of their lives. In some cases long periods of service were rewarded by the mukama with estates, which of course added to the desirability of serving at court. But many positions, including most of the mukama’s many advisers and diviners, were essentially unpaid, and people served just for the glory of it.

Among the most important people in Bunyoro were “chiefs,” who were placed in charge of tracts of land which they administered largely on their own. Nevertheless they were expected to offer unconditional loyalty and support to the mukama and to present him with substantial gifts from the revenues of the estates.

The Mukama Standing Before One of His Palace Buildings
(Department of Information, Uganda Protectorate,
reprinted from Beattie 1960, frontispiece)

The most important of the chiefs, the heads of the greatest estates, were referred to as “crown wearers” because they were awarded elaborate headdresses decorated with beads and the skins of colobus monkeys. This great honor came in response to their having offered some extraordinary service to the mukama, such as winning a great battle. Unlike many other honors, crowns remained hereditary in a male line forever, so the inheriting son of a crown wearer was also a crown wearer. Like other vassals, crown wearers swore oaths of loyalty to the mukama and drank milk ceremonially with the him. Unlike the others, they agreed to observe the mukama’s same food taboos.

The mukama granted considerable independence to many “great chiefs” who had personal bonds to him.

There is a Nyoro word, Mahano, denoting a special kind of spiritual power, which is applied to many objects and situations which are strange and awe inspiring. This mysterious potency may be dangerous, calling for the performance of special ritual to preserve or restore normality. It is especially associated with the Mukama; therefore, when he delegates political authority upon his chiefs, he also imparts to them something of his own ritual power. Thus the delegation of political authority is not just an administrative act, it is also a ritual act. The ritual involves, in particular, a ceremony known as “drinking milk” with the Mukama, and it is said that (in the case of important chiefs, at least) the milk formerly was taken from the cows of his special herd. (Beattie 1960: 29)

Drinking milk was not done only once. On the contrary, the leaders of Nyoro society had continuing obligations to appear before the mukama and drink milk with him. One effect of this was of course to make it difficult for a retainer to develop an alternative power base in a distant region when he had to keep traveling back to the mukama’s compound to make a show of his loyalty. Indeed, most of the great lords seem to have found it easiest simply to remain at the mukama’s compound nearly full-time.

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G. Delegating Authority: Nyoro “Feudalism”

As he learned more and more about pre-colonial Nyoro society, Beattie was intrigued by its similarity to feudalism in Europe during the Middle Ages. European feudalism (from Latin feodum, “fief”) involved the delegation of authority over a specific region (the fief) from a lord (a “suzerain”) to a chosen subordinate (a “vassal”), who held the land “in fee” (or “in feud” or “in fief”), that is, on indefinite loan. The feudatory vassal owed legal and military support, as well as honor, to the lord, but governed the fief pretty much as he pleased and enjoyed its revenues. A vassal could divide the fief among sub-vassals, who might divide it yet further. In the course of time, many of these designations were inherited by the sons of the original vassals and came to be experienced as permanent rights, which a weak lord could be hard-pressed to withdraw even when support from a vassal diminished.

The term “feudalism” is a modern one, initially applied specifically to Europe (which exhibited variation) and then extended to similar systems. Today many scholars object to the application of the term outside Europe because it tends to obscure differences, and some object to using it at all, considering it to be too vague to be useful even in Europe. Still, the comparisons can be instructive. The problem being solved in both Bunyoro and medieval Europe is how a monarch can govern a large territory by “farming it out” to subordinates without losing control. In the Nyoro case we have seen the important use of charter myths and of rituals of mystification. In both of these areas the Nyoro certainly exceeded the Europeans. But in terms only of social structure, the two societies had surprisingly similar approaches.

In a way remarkably parallel to European feudalism, a critical feature of Nyoro society was that essentially all political authority derived from the mukama himself. The local chiefs held their lands as fiefs from the mukama, with whom they had a personal relationship, sealed by an oath of loyalty and a certain amount of ceremonialism. As in Europe, when the mukama granted (or renewed a grant of) an estate to a vassal, he was granting rights to govern the land and its inhabitants, including the right to tax them in various ways. And as in European feudalism, such grants tended to become hereditary, even though the mukama could in theory withdraw them. (Indeed Beattie found cases in which the mukama did just that.) And as in medieval Europe, the grandest chiefs governed vast tracts of land, essentially what are today counties. The most minor chiefs might govern a single hamlet. The petty chiefs, who were vassals of other chiefs rather than directly of the mukama, still had to have their position approved by the mukama. In theory their loyalty was primarily to the level just above them, but in practice, loyalty to the mukama was still an absolute prerequisite for even the most minor “lord” in this system. [Note 14]

14 Seeing the Nyoro struggling to accommodate their institutions to a twentieth-century civil service, Beattie was struck by the extent to which Nyoro values rewarded loyalty and interpersonal relations above all else in the allocation of resources and in appointment to office. A merit-based civil service was simply unintelligible in such a value system, and by no means desirable.

One of the functions of a chief at any level was to adjudicate disputes among their subordinates. The subordinate who had a complaint against his superior or lord was best advised to keep quiet and put up with things, for the system had no place for such “rebellion.” Beattie writes than even at the end of the British period the Nyoro attitude was still very hierarchical, and he provides the following twentieth-century example:

In one court case a mission teacher accused a local village headman of accepting a bribe. The headman was acquitted, but the complainant was charged with slandering the village headman and was himself convicted. The judgment was not based on the truth or falsehood of the allegation of bribery; it was concerned with teaching the defendant that it was none of his business to criticize the village headman. Such criticism is only tolerable from an official superior. (Beattie 1960: 45)

The understanding that all power flowed from the mukama had other implications. In Nyoro tradition, the mukama was seen as entitled to all goods and services, but also as the source of good things. As in other feudal systems, goods and services were provided to a person’s lord (the person next up the hierarchy). All vassals passed upward a proportion of whatever their own vassals provided to them. As a result the great chiefs all received considerable tribute from those below them, and the mukama received often spectacular quantities of goods, ranging from agricultural products to cattle and even sometimes slaves. Unlike other lords, the mukama was lord of all, and he received tribute not just from the lords below him, but from virtually all Nyoro. [Note 15]

15 Beattie was impressed that an enormous flow of gifts continued even in the 1950s, although the mukama at that time was having difficulty finding the resources to be as generous as tradition required in handing out to people below him the goods which flowed to him as gifts.

When the gifts he received were perishable foodstuffs, there was little use for them except to use them to feed his huge entourage, and so the mukama’s world was one of continual feasts, with all the attendant logistic challenges of receiving the right kinds and amount of food and then preparing and serving it before it deteriorated. The mukama was expected to be the very personification of generosity.

The tradition of a mukama’s generosity was still very much alive during Beattie’s time in Africa, and perhaps the comparative impoverishment of the mukama of his era was made worse by memories, probably exaggerated, of enormous general feasts and spectacular gifts made available by his predecessors. Meanwhile a decrease in cattle production and the development of a cash economy in which people tended to sell their produce and keep their money seriously reduced his income. When the mukama received gifts of cash, he tended to keep them rather than redistribute them, for cash can be stored and need not be used immediately as food must. In that context, feasts seemed less feasible.

In general, then, the mukama’s role, while supremely political and supported by an elaborate system of both charter myths and rituals of authority, was also economic, involving a flow of goods and the integration of a system of rights and responsibilities that in the end integrated the energies of virtually every Nyoro.

In a “feudal” system it is always tempting for the “vassal” to imagine that he has an inherent right to the territory that the “lord” grants to him only conditionally. European history is full of rebellions by vassals against their putative lords, just as it is full of lords rallying other vassals to put down rebellions. (The same tended to be true in pre-Imperial China and other feudal systems.) In the Nyoro case too, a chiefship over a grant of territory tended to be inherited by a chief’s heir. As we have seen, Nyoro chiefs were required to be physically present at the mukama’s court much of the time, a requirement that was ritually necessitated because of the need to participate in ceremonial milk drinking. This provided a constant reminder of who their benefactor was. Beattie writes of the arrangement:

This served as a check (though not always a very effective one) on rebellion. It also strengthened the group of advisers upon whom the king could rely; in political systems of this “feudal” type there was no need for a central secretariat, for the same people could serve both as royal councillors and as territorial administrators. (Beattie 1960: 36)

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The Loyal Chiefs

Because a chief was frequently, or even usually, away from home to be in attendance at the mukama’s court, he would leave behind a delegate, and therefore the same concern about loyalty from a subordinate needed to be accommodated at home.

Since chiefships were granted based on service or gifts to the mukama, they were not limited to members of the Bito clan. Indeed, the majority of chiefs were, like the majority of the Nyoro, huma cattle-owners or iru farmers. Since chiefships tended to be passed down to male descendants, Nyoro society had occasional non-Bito “great families” of considerable wealth and influence. Among them were non-Bito relatives of the mukama (his maternal and affinal relatives), who received gifts from him in order to avoid the awkward situation of the mukama having “poor relations.”

One could not simply walk into the mukama’s court and expect to be appointed to an office, let alone to become a chief. Chiefs in particular, even the most petty of them, had to be personally known to the mukama, often by being introduced by existing chiefs (or by being their sons), but important too was the idea that any candidate needed to have rendered significant service to the mukama (or to have provided significant gifts). It was a critical rule of Nyoro royal etiquette never to come into the presence of the mukama empty-handed!

Since personal service to the mukama was potentially well rewarded, those lucky enough to land positions in the mukama’s court (most of them non-Bito) were in a position to be rewarded for personal loyalty (and, of course, flattery).

In the language of modern sociology, the relationship between a political superior and his subordinate was “diffuse” rather than “specific”; that is, the chief’s dealings with his subordinates were not restricted to a narrow official sphere, but extended over the whole of the subordinate’s personal life. Even today many Nyoro feel that chiefs should be interested in them as persons, and not simply in their tax-paying or working capacity … (Beattie 1960: 37)

Besides the mukama, no one in Bunyoro owned land. The great estates were granted by the mukama, and even when inherited they were held as though on loan from the mukama, who could in theory reallocate them. However, as under European feudalism, being the holder of an estate entitled one to govern the people on it and to enjoy a portion of their produce, as well as their labor and their loyalty. This was very different from our own world, as became very clear when British administrators sought (under the Uganda Agreement of 1900) to introduce a legal system involving land ownership or (under the Bunyoro Agreement of 1933) to create a civil service based on merit and involving employment contracts. It is arguable that much of the “corruption” in eastern Africa today derives ultimately from misunderstandings about the differing nature of human relations in traditional African kingdoms and modern bureaucratic states.

Beattie’s striking (and controversial) findings of close similarity between the organization of the Nyoro state and the feudalism of his native England after its invasion and conquest by William the Conqueror and his band of French Normans gives us some insight into the structural problems being solved by “feudalism” in both societies. We conclude with the following chart, showing some of the similarities Beattie noted.

Comparison of Nyoro and English Feudalism
Bunyoro England
Bito invasion (probably gradual immigration of small number of adventurers who became successful conquerors of the Chwezi court) Norman invasion (an aristocratic leader who took over the Saxon court and awarded estates to his followers)
The mukama claimed to be the only owner of all land, which he granted to loyal followers in feud. The king claimed to be the only owner of all land, which he granted to loyal followers in feud.
Personal loyalty to the mukama was a prerequisite for administering land. Failure to serve him was considered rebellion. Personal loyalty to the king was a prerequisite for administering land. Failure to serve him was considered rebellion.
Nyoro lords had to maintain permanent houses at the mukama’s court and attend him constantly. English lords had to be prepared at any time to be summoned to the king’s court.
The mukama’s court moved frequently in order to be certain of the obedience of all parts of the country. He and his followers would set up a temporary court wherever they went. King William traveled around the country continually and was, with his entourage, the “guest” of his various vassals. His successors traveled frequently.
The mukama held a yearly feast that all chiefs (and many other people) were required to attend, in full regalia, to symbolize his authority and his generosity. William the Conqueror held three feasts a year, in full dress, which large numbers of courtiers attended to show their loyalty.
The mukama’s household had large numbers of officials, who were much honored and often received rewards in the form of estates. William the Conqueror often provided his household dependents with estates as a reward for loyal service.
Private war was prohibited, and blood revenge, while practiced, could be undertaken only with the mukama’s approval. Private wars among people under William’s authority were prohibited.
The mukama’s court was not limited to Bito, but included people of any clan if they were competent to serve him. This generated a class of very wealthy and distinguished non-Bito. The English king included commoners in his court if they had rendered or were able to render especially useful service. He sometimes granted them noble status if they served him especially well.
Elite young men (including the mukama’s sons) were often educated in the households of eminent lords rather than at home. The practice linked elite families and passed information between them. Promising young men were sent to households of eminent people for education. The practice linked elite families and passed information between them.

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H. Sources:

1960 Bunyoro: an African kingdom. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
1963 Sorcery in Bunyoro. IN John Middleton and E.H. Winter (eds.) Witchcraft and sorcery in east Africa. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Pp. 27-55.
1965 Understanding an African kingdom: Bunyoro. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
1969 Spirit mediumship in Bunyoro. IN John Beattie and John Middleton (eds.) Spirit mediumship and society in Africa. New York: Africana publishing. Pp. 159-170
1971 The Nyoro state. London: Oxford University Press.
1975 Tonya: a lakeside settlement in Bunyoro. IN J.H.M. Beattie and R.G. Lienhardt (eds.) Studies in social anthropology: essays in memory of E.E. Evans-Pritchard by his former Oxford colleagues. London: Oxford U. Press. Pp. 30-40.
1965 A history of Bunyoro-Kitara. Nairobi: Oxford University Press.
1970 Aspects of Bunyoro customs and tradition. Nairobi: East African Literature Bureau.

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