I was once made to dump the first lump of earth into an open grave at a function that all had gathered at, seeing off my grandfather. The old man had been suffering from a combination of old-age related illnesses and a bout of malaria, and had breathed his last a couple of days before. It was a cultural obligation for me, being his eldest grandson… I was meant to ‘bury him’.
If you were wondering what cultural setting this is, wonder no more, and welcome to the tribe of Bakiga. Mainly inhabiting the south-western part of Uganda, the Bakiga are one of the numerous Bantu tribes found in eastern and central Africa. They currently occupy the districts of Kabale, Kanungu and some parts of Rukungiri, and are bound by their cultural beliefs and customs by which they live.
Long before colonialism and the advent of Christianity, the Bakiga recognized a supreme deity and paid reverence to spirits of departed ancestors. They enacted the kubandwa ritual, giving homage to certain emandwa-spirits. The Bakiga believed in the powers of these spirits, who were largely seen as fertility gods.
Women suffering from problems of infertility would usually turn to these spirits and make animal sacrifices to them, believing that their intervention could make them pregnant. Men were never deemed barren among the Bakiga culture. Some still do believe in these spirits to date, though the belief has gradually died out due to its oft wrongly perceived association with witchcraft.
The main evidence of this belief in most families was the presence of small huts in family lawns to serve as shrines, usually erected in the backyard of the family head’s main house. My late grandfather owned one such structure, although the practice virtually died out after his demise.
Aside from the infertility issues for the women, appeasement functions were also carried out in the face of prolonged drought periods, and usually involved free-for-all fetes that engrossed lots of eats (beef and mutton, really) and local brew.
As part of their cultural practice and norms, property inheritance among the Bakiga usually followed some sort of undocumented process. This mainly involved passing on of family rituals and property to surviving family members whenever a family head passed away.
A chosen heir, usually the eldest male child, often took the biggest chunk and/or most prime property, and would then on take on the responsibility of redistributing the rest of the property to other siblings. If the deceased had grandchildren, the eldest male grandchild would be chosen to be the ritual head (loosely translated to chief mourner), and was accorded some form of special treatment during the funeral. He would also partake in the property inheritance process, often taking the deceased’s favorite farmland or cattle or anything else that was deemed an important souvenir.
I was never allowed to use shared toilets during this time, often opting for a safely stashed polythene vase whenever I wanted to relieve myself. The rites lasted all of four days, at the end of which I was handed an approximate 1 acre of lea in the hilly countryside that I have not used since.