The Culture of the Basongora People : The Basongora people are called The Songora or Shongora also known as “Bacwezi”, “Chwezi” are a traditionally a pastoralist people of the Great Lakes region of Central Africa located in Western Uganda and Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. They have distinctive customs and speak Rusongora, a Bantu language that is similar to Runyankole  anRunyoro. The Basongora population has reported as numbering 25,000 in 2015 in Uganda. Some Basongora also live in Eastern Congo. The colonial and neo-colonial governments in Central Africa instituted programs to encourage the Basongora to abandon their traditional lifestyle, and most of the territory traditionally owned by the Songora community has been appropriated for use as national parks or has been settled and occupied by other communities, notably the Batoro and Bakonzo. Also Songora territory has been partitioned into several districts and is distributed across Uganda and Congo. The traditional lifestyle of the Basongora is notable for its adaptation to dry savannah and scrublands as well as mountainous terrain.

The Basongora are a mixed Nilotic/Bantu group in East and Central Africa. Traditionally residing in the foothills and plains at the floor of the western arm of the Great Rift Valley and the hills around the base of the Rwenzori Mountains. The Songora traditional economy was largely based on cattle-rearing, as well as salt-manufacture and trade in iron. The political organization of the Songora was a form confederacy of several states united by a parliament called Muhabuzi and a constitutional monarchy led by a triumvirate that consisted of an empress dowager (Omu’Gabe’kati), a female ruler (Omu’Go), and a male ruler (Omu’Kama). The confederacy emerged from a single Songora state that dates back to the 12th century consisted of several provinces including Kisaka-Makara, Kitagwenda, Bugaya, Bunyaruguru and Kiyanja.

According to their own oral history, the Basongora emerged from the ancient empires of Shenzi/Chwezi. The traditional homeland of the Basongora is the region centred in the foothills and plains that surround the Rutshuru and Rwenzori mountain ranges.

Some of the most notable Songora monarchs include Kyomya Bwachali who died around 1850, and was the maternal grandfather of King Ntare V of Nkore kingdom. The last precolonial King of Busongora was King Kasigano. He was deposed in 1906 by the British, extensively for his having sought to ally himself with the Belgians in the Congo. Busongora was then partitioned and divided between the Congo  and Uganda Protectorate , and the portions that fell within Uganda were further sub-divided into several districts, all of which were then annexed to the kingdoms of Toro and Nkore. The Kingdom ofRwezururu formed in the later part of the 20th century on the territory of Busongora.

In 1931 there was an outbreak of rinderpest that decimated the cattle populations of the Nyakatonzi Basongora, forcing them to disperse to other areas of Uganda for Uganda safaris Tours and the eastern Congo. Basongora believe the outbreak began as a result of a virulent drugs vaccination program started by the colonial government. The biggest group that fled to the Congo did not return to the area until 1964 due to the strife caused by the Mulehe rebellion there thus he Culture of the Basongora People.

The Culture of the Basongora People
The Culture of the Basongora People

In 1925, Parc Nationale des Virunga was created by the Belgian colonial authorities encompassing areas of the chiefdom of Kiyanja (of the Bamooli clan), Kakunda (now called Kyavinyonge), Rwemango, Makara, Kashansha and Bugaya among others and pressure to protect the adjoining ecosystem in Uganda led to the establishment of game reserves around Lake George (Known as Rweishamba by Basongora) and Lake Edward (locally known as Rweru) between 1906 and 1950. Several name changes followed and Kazinga National Park was gazetted in 1952 and in 1954 it was renamed Queen Elizabeth National Park by the colonial administration. This left only limited land for the pastoral Basongora. In 1940s the colonial government introduced cotton growing in Busongora. By coincidence, the best soil and suitable climate for cotton growing was in the Bwengo area and other plains of the Busongora County in Kasese. Although some remained in the park – albeit illegally, thousands of others moved across the border with their herds into the Virunga National Park in the Congo.

Between the 1940s and 1950s, the cotton growing enterprise lured particularly the Bakonjo from the highlands to the lowlands. By 1962, the Rwenzurur Freedom movement had also displaced some Bakonjo from the mountains, forcing them to settle in parts of Busongora that had not been gazetted as protected areas. In 1962 Basongora started returning to their original areas only to find that the Toro Development Company (TDC) that wound up in 1970, had leased some of their land, and was running projects such as the Mubuku Irrigation Scheme.

When the cotton industry plummeted in the 1970s, the general Ugandan public lost interest in cotton, thus giving the Basongora pastoralists a chance to resettle in vast plains of Nyakatonzi. When the NRM government introduced the decentralization policy, it was hijacked by the extremist fringe of the Bakonjo and was seen as an opportunity to displace and subjugate the Basongora. This coincided with peak cotton production between 1987 and 1989 and it is in the same period that Basongora were displaced from their ancestral lands of Bukangara and Rweihinga.

On 12 May 2012 Basongora revived their ancient kingdom that had been dismembered and abolished during the colonial occupation one hundred years prior. On 1 July 2012, the Songora installed Bwebale Ivan Rutakirwa Rwigi IV as the king of “BuSongora Kingdom”, and claimed twenty sub-counties of Uganda as their territory. The sub-counties include: Muhokya, Bugoye, Nyakatonzi, Katwe, Karusandara, Mubuku, Ibuga, Hamukungu, Kasenyi, Busunga, and Katunguru, among others.The kingdom also claimed their ancestral areas of Shema, Bunyaruguru and Kitagwenda in Uganda, as well as Virunga National Park in the Congo, as part of the kingdo. King Rwigi IV died on 28 April 2015.

Today a great deal of information about the culture of Busongora became accessible in 2015, thanks to a UNESCO-sponsored documentation project. UNESCO’s project partners were Busongora Kingdom and the Uganda Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Services. The project lasted two years, and involved a UNESCO-trained team of 12 Basongora, who tasked to do field research, inventorying, analysis and translation of the various elements that constitute the endangered culture of the Basongora.  The UNESCO team of Basongora field-researchers included: Mulindwa David, Zachariah Kababa Kyibiro, Lydia Karungi, Anna Bumbulika, Daphne Mugyema, Annette Kiboneka, Steven Mbera, Ntonde Monica, Njura Edward, Josam Nyamutale, Prince Kennedy Bwebale, Elfazi Rutahaba, and King Ndahura II Imara Kashagama.

Hundreds of helpful Basongora informants and culture bearers were consulted during the course of the UNESCO project and included: Yombo Kasonsoleko Yowasi, Gladys Ikurato [Prophetess], Hon. Samuel Ntungwa, King Rwigi IV Bwebale Rutakirwa, Grace Sangara, Beatrice Monday Kazini, James Icunga Bwebale, Beatrice Nzomba, Beatice Mukwengye, Joyce Myogo, Eric Kafuda, Christopher Monday Kazini, Edward Kyabazinga, Glady Ikurata, Gladys Duha, Isiimbwa Yona Kaheru, Kitaka Rutaizibwa.

The Basongora ICH research team and culture bearers were facilitated and trained by officials of Uganda’s Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, and by UNESCO. Ms. Jane Sanyu Mpagi was responsible for overall Policy Guidance. The National Coordinator for the Project Management Committee was led by Ms. Naumo Juliana, Commissioner for Culture and Family Affairs. The Project management Committee included Ms. Eunice Tumwebaze [Assistant Commissioner for Gender and Culture] and Ms. Ruth Muguta of the Ministry of Gender.

Other project leaders were Mr. Daniel Kaweesi, head of the Uganda National Commission for UNESCO and Focal Point Officer of the project; Mr. Saidi Twine of National Curriculum Development Centre; Mr. Abiti Nelson and Mr. Asiimwe Richard of the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities; and Mr. Eliot Arinaitwe of Ministry of Education and Sports. The district authorities were also represented, and included the vice chair of the LCV [Local Council 5], the District Cultural Officer for Bushenyi District, and Ms. Queengonda Asiimwe [District Cultural Officer for Kasese District]. The government team members providing technical guidance and reviewed the final drafts of the inventories thus the Culture of the Basongora People.

The resources associated with many of the traditional practices of the Busongora are available but are hard to access, on account of restrictions against using the national parks, and also because of the disorder caused by land conflict. Moreover, invasive species such as lantana camara have replaced many other species of plants. Its’ hard to locate wild herbs and grasses used in enacting “kuhunda” and “kutona” because they are becoming extinct in many locations.

Increasingly Basongora have to resort to using plastic beads and pendants, as well as plastic string and other industrial products such as paints, instead of the traditional organic pigments and materials such as sisal and elephant-nails [these fall off the elephant on their own accord and are picked up by Basongora – the elephants are not harmed].

Yet there is still hope for the survival of the traditions of the Basongora. Many marriage ceremonies now require the presentation of traditional gifts such as emigamba [carrying yokes] that are highly decorated using traditional methods. A well decorated mugamba loaded with milk-pots and other custom items, may cost more than a million Uganda shillings [about US $ 300].

The process of inventorying Basongora culture is still in its infancy. There is still more work to be done. Among the elements of Basongora culture that still need to be researched and added to the UNESCO List of elements in Urgent Need of Safeguarding are:

Kuhandiika Kw’enzarrwana [hieroglyphs] – ancient Songora writing system

Omukago [Kunywana] – deals with the rite of making blood-brotherhood

Kuhembera – deals with the sacred and profane uses of fire-mounds in kraals

Kusiigirra Ente – deals with the management of calves and milch-cattle

Kuchunda – deals with the treatment and processing of yogurt and sour milk

Kujumika – deals with traditional cooking methods and dietary habits

Kuruka Amabara -which includes “Kwambika” – deals with the rites and procedures used in the naming of children, as well as the ritual of “Honour Names” – known as “eNgundu” and “eNyana” among Basongora, but conventionally referred to a “empaako” among communities neighbouring the Basongora.  It is interesting that these Basongora “Honour Names” are also the names of ancient Kushite, Egyptian and Canaanite gods and constellations.

Rusaka and other Basongora games – rusaka is a string game, but Basongora also play Olwango [a variant of chess/mancala]. Many games may have originated from rites used in ancient times and still have significance as a means of transmitting social values.

Kwetonda – deals with the recounting of elaborate genealogical records during public performances and also in the formal greetings between people.

Although the list is not exhaustive, it is certain that the field researchers who were trained to investigate and document Basongora culture in 2014 will continue to do even though the pilot program has ended. Moreover, the history or Busongora, as well as the decorative and ideographic systems used by the ancient Basongora, have drawn attention and interests of linguists and researchers and cultural organizations, thanks to UNESCO, and the efforts of cultural institution of Busongora Kingdom thus the Culture of the Basongora People.

Basongora have also benefited from the creation of the Igongo Museum in Mbarara. Although it is outside Busongora, the Igongo museum displays the artefacts of the cultural groups found in the region of western Uganda that share some similarities with Basongora.

As well, the Basongora are benefiting from publications done by one of Africa’s leading publishers – Fountain Press – and from publications by the Cross Cultural Foundation of Uganda. At least one booklet showcasing the decorative designs of the Bahuma/bachwezi, which originated in Busongora, are on display at Igongo and is available for sale.

Note: On 14 May 2016, HM the King Ndahura II assented to the resolution of the Council of Ministers of Busongora Kingdom to launch a new program for the documentation of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Busongora. The new ICH project will complement the UNESCO ICH project that was completed in 2015.

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