Origins of the Batembuzi and the Bachwezi Dynasty (AD 1100 to 1500)

According to oral traditions, it is generally believed that the Batembuzi were the founders of the Bunyoro Kingdom. Their existence is shrouded in a lot of myth, mysticism and legend. They are believed to be gods hailing from heaven. There is very little concurrence, among scholars, regarding the Batembuzi time period in history, even the names and successive order of individual kings. It is believed that their reign dates back to the time of Africa’s Bronze Age and there were 22 kings in total who ruled over Bunyoro- with Isaza being the last of the Batembuzi.

During that time, there were the Heavens and the Underworld (the earth). Ruhanga ruled over the heavens and the Underworld was inhabited by outcasts who had been thrown out of heaven. One day, Ruhanga’s son Isaza, out of curiosity decided to explore the Underworld. He was fascinated with the different lifestyle the people of the Underworld lived and stayed over for a long time. He met a princess of the Underworld and fell in love with her. However, because of his long stay, he could not make his way back to the Heavens and got stuck in the Underworld. He married the princess and they went ahead to have children. His first son was called Isimbwa.

Isimbwa had the wandering spirit of his father and somehow managed to find his way back to the land of his ancestors. Here he found the former gate-keeper – a commoner and tyrant, Bukuku had taken over the throne and was ruling over the kingdom. Bukuku wasn’t a legitimate heir to the kingship and had been told by fortunetellers that one of his descendants would overthrow him and take over power. He had fathered only one daughter called Nyinamwiru who was the most beautiful girl in the kingdom and a princess. Due to his paranoia, he imprisoned Nyinamwiru and cut off her breasts and removed one of her eyes so she would not be desirable to any man.

Stalactites believed to be Nyinamwiru's breasts

Stalactites believed to be Nyinamwiru’s breasts

One day while on his adventures, Isimbwa stumbled upon the dungeon Nyinamwiru was being hidden. He was mesmerized by her beauty and touched by her sorrow. He immediately fell in love with her and rescued her from the prison. They ran away and soon married and had a son whom they called Ndahura. When Bukuku found out what had happened, he was very furious and immediately ordered a wide search for the little boy- his grandson. Remembering the warnings from the past he sought to execute the little boy before he grew into the man who would eventually overthrow him.

Baby Ndahura was captured and Bukuku decided to end his life by throwing him in a river. Nyinamwiru begged and pleaded with her father to spare her only child. She vowed to migrate to the outskirts of the kingdom to the lands unknown and raise the boy away from her father’s kingdom. But Bukuku was adamant because the boy had royal blood flowing through his veins and was a legitimate claim to the kingdom he had grabbed. He went ahead and hurled him into the river and believed his troubles were over. He had killed his adversary. As luck may have it, the gods were watching over their grandson. The baby’s umbilical cord got stuck on a tree branch and was saved from drowning. One of the king’s porters saw what had happened and hurriedly rescued him, hiding him in a cave. However he could not feed the newly born baby. He was just a lowly porter. If he couldn’t find a solution, the boy would surely die.

The gods saw their grandson was in jeopardy. They magically made the walls of the cave grow tens of breasts, dripping with milk enough to feed all the babies in the kingdom. They came to be known as “Amabeere ga Nyinamwiru” translated as Nyinamwiru’s breasts. The baby was saved. He remained hidden for years feeding on the endless supply of milk in the cave. He grew big strong and as handsome as his father. Soon he was able to leave the caves and join other youth his age.

Bukuku still ruled over the kingdom. His wealth was in the massive herd of long-horned cattle he owned, stolen from the previous king Isaza. He was so proud of his wealth and named every single cow depending on the coloration and markings it hard on its skin. The pride of his bounty was an all-brown cow, so perfect it had no mark breaking the earth-brown color on its skin. He named it Bihogo. His pride and joy. The darling of his herd.

Long Horned Cattle introduced by the Bachwezi

Long Horned Cattle introduced by the Bachwezi

Bukuku soon needed more and more young boys to help him look after his every growing herd and lead them to the pastures. Ndahura was hired as a herdsman and joined the other young men in the fields. One day, unfortunately a lion attacked the herd and killed darling Bihogo. Word spread fast through the kingdom. Bukuku was livid! His most precious and expensive cow had died. He ordered everyone to search for the boy who was responsible for the neglect that led to the death of his beloved cow. He was to receive the harshest punishment ever and later beheaded.

Ndahura heard about the search parties hunting for him. He decided to pre-empt the second attempt on his life. He evaded the body guards, slipped into the king’s quarters and waited for him. When Bukuku was relaxing on his favorite stool, Ndahura sprang forth and speared him in the back. Bukuku was shocked that anyone would penetrate he’s heavily guarded palace. He inquired in surprise who the young lad was. Ndahura proudly declared he was his grandson, true heir to the throne and went ahead and stabbed him to death, marking the end to the tyrannical king’s rule.

Ndahura declared himself king and ruler of the Bunyoro kingdom. The people welcomed him because of his unmistaken remembrance to his great grandfather Isaza. He was a great warrior and strong king who went ahead and expanded the kingdom to as far as all of southern Uganda, Western Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, parts of Northern Tanzania, and Eastern Congo. He was credited to introducing the Long-horned cattle in the region, iron smelting and coffee. Bunyoro kingdom grew in strength and was the most influential of all the interlacustrine kingdoms in that era.

Coffee beans

Coffee beans

Ndahura abdicated his throne and disappeared around the crater lakes area in Fort Portal leaving his son Wamala in charge. He left his capital at Mubende hill in charge of his favorite wife Nakayima. Wamala continued his father’s legacy expanding Bunyoro further. He ruled on for a few more years until an outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease affected the kingdom, weakening the economy- many people had to migrate to save their cattle. This made it easy for the Babiito, the next rulers of Bunyoro to take over. Wamala, like his demi-god ancestors, disappeared to a lake named after him in central Uganda. That was the end of the Batembuzi and Bachwezi dynasty and the beginning of Bunyoro-Kitara under the Babiito.

Nakayima tree where the mighty sorceress is believed to reside up to date.

Nakayima tree where the mighty sorceress is believed to reside up to date.

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In The Beginning: Banyoro, Batooro, Banyankole

The story of the beginning is similar in the kingdoms of Bunyoro, Toro and Ankole. This is because they were once united under one kingdom:Bunyoro Kitara and just split later to form smaller denominations of the once mighty and epansive Kitara. Legend might defer a little between each tribe but below is the general myth of the story of creation carried by these tribes.

In the beginning, Ruhanga, the creator lived in space with his brother Nkya. Nkya who was younger and restless complained he was bored with everything being so normal and mundane. Ruhanga created heaven and earth for his brother. He threw a stone in the air and it became the sun. Nkya was happy with this but soon started to complain again about the constant sun and no shade. Ruhanga moved the sun to the West and covered it with a cloud. He then threw another stone in the air and created the moon. He ordered Nkya to sleep and created the cock to crow to wake Nkya up when night had passed. He also created grasses and trees for more shade. He then ordered Nkya to stay on Earth while he returned to attend to matters in Heaven.

In heaven Ruhanga realized his hands were dirty and washed his hands which proceeded to pour down to Earth as rain. Nkya got drenched and complained to Ruhanga. He told Nkya to break off branches cut the grass and make shelter but Nkya had no tools. Ruhanga got a rock and threw it to the ground and it broke to make a knife, an axe and a hammer. Nkya went ahead to make a hut.

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Beloved Cow Ruhanga gave to Nkya to kill his boredom on earth

He soon got bored again and demanded for something to look at. Ruhanga then created flowers, shrubs, goats and sheep. He also created cattle which pleased Nkya immensely. He made a bowl and showed Nkya how to milk the cows. He also created a creeper that provided more food for Nkya. This time Nkya has so many things to occupy him in the new world and he was impressed. He enjoyed his time on earth but tending to everything was a lot of work. Ruhanga gave him a son who Nkya called Kantu.

In time the work was still a bit hectic for Nkya and Kantu, so Ruhanga gave him 3 other sons.  There was confusion because all of them were called Kantu. So Ruhanga devised means to test Nkya’s sons and name them according to how they performed. For the first test, Nkya hid three items at a junction on a path far from home. He put a basket of sweet potatoes, strips of ox hide and the head of the ox. He then sent his sons on the same path.

On reaching the junction, the eldest son saw the basket of potatoes and immediately bullied his brothers and ate the food alone. The second born saw the stripes of hide and thought they would be important for tying the cows when milking. The youngest one didn’t want to be left out so he carried the ox-head back home. When Nkya saw them return he gathered them and asked them what had happened. He was so angry at the first borne for eating all the food and not sharing with his brothers. He made arrangements for the second test.

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The elder brother rushed for the sweet potatoes and refused to share with his brothers

At night, he gave them pots of milk and ordered them to carry them through the night and not to spill any of it. They then retired for the night. The youngest boy fell asleep first and spilled all his milk. He woke up to the horror of the situation and pleaded with his brothers to help him. They each contributed a bit of their milk and the young boy filled his pot again. This time he stayed awake since he had rested enough and was alert.

Towards the morning, the older brother couldn’t hold back the sleep and dozed of and spilled most of his milk. He pleaded with his brothers to help him too but since they had already shared with the younger brother, it was not enough to fill a pot and his brothers refused to give him more milk. Their father awoke and went to check on the boys.

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A girl carrying a traditional milk pot, similar to those the boys were given for their test

He was so pleased with the youngest brother that he had managed to stay awake all night and present to him his pot of milk. The other brothers were filled with jealousy and told their father that he had spilled his milk first and they had shared some of theirs to help him refill his pot. Nkya was impressed how the youngest son had managed to convince his brothers to share the milk despite the repercussions. He recalled the way the young boy had carried back the heavy ox-head from their earlier journey, despite not knowing what he would use it for. He immediately named him Kakama and gave him authority to rule over his brothers and everything on earth.

For the second born, he recalled the love for cattle the boy had. He’s the one who had carried back the ox-hide stripes so he could tie the cow’s legs while he was milking. Nkya named him Kahima, the cattle herder and gave him authority over all the cattle. He was least pleased by the eldest son. First he had shown his greed by eating all the sweet potatoes, then had also spilled all his mikl and had nothing to present to his father in the morning. He called him Kairu and gave him the hardest responsibility of titling the land to provide food for his brothers and their descendants.

Till recent history this is how people of this region lived. The descendants of Kakama (Omukama) were royals who ruled over the people and inherited kingship from their great grandfather the smart and clever younger brother. The Bahima were cattle herders by lifestyle and descendants up-to date still have hundreds of herds of cattle which they pride in and treasure. The Bairu were agriculturalists and peasants who did all the hard labour of providing for the kingdoms. They traded alot of food for little pieces of meat and pots of milk provided by the Bahima.

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A descendant of Kahima proudly plies his trade.

Today this caste system is irrelevant but in some places deep in these regions people still refer to the system to assert their authority over others.