Tuesday, March 30, 2010

About Kabakas and Kingdoms

TWO DIE AT KASUBI was the headline on the front page of the Daily Monitor on Saturday. The story began with the heading “Hundreds injured as thousands join Kabaka Mutebi in mourning burnt tombs”.

Kabaka Mutebi is the reigning King of the Buganda Kingdom in Uganda. The biggest domestic news on front pages of newspapers last ten days has been the fire at Kasubi, an area in Kampala, which destroyed tombs of four of his ancestors.

It may be hard to believe, but Kingdoms and Kings and Queens and Princes and Princesses and their palaces still exist and thrive in Uganda. As was the case in India, Uganda was comprised of many small independent territories before colonization. However, unlike in India where the power and priviledges of former stately Rajas and Nawabs were abolished within fifteen years of independence, in Uganda, Kabakas continue to occupy a special status and wield considerable influence.

Kingdoms in Uganda were ruled by tribal chiefs or wealthy landlords or rebellious leaders who established themselves as kings after seizing the territory. They levied taxes on the citizens in order to maintain their palaces, automobiles, armies and lavish life style. After colonizing Uganda, the British were quite happy to support these rulers albeit with only nominal power as long as they paid their dues to the Crown. In fact, the existence of many kingdoms perfectly suited the British divide and rule policy. The Empire was more secure that way.

When the British left Uganda in 1962, Buganda, the home of the Buganda tribe, was the largest and most powerful kingdom. It consisted of a large chunk of territory centrally located and included Kampala, the capital. The then ruler of Buganda, the father of the current Kabaka, was most reluctant to have his kingdom become part of Uganda, and, afraid of losing his territory, demanded to be under the British foreign office instead of an independent country. After intensive negotiations, an agreement was reached that the kingdom would enjoy self determination over its territory and affairs. In return, Buganda became part of Uganda. Today, Buganda has its own Parliament, a Prime Minster and a Cabinet and it retains all its authority and power. But, tensions between the Kingdom and Uganda’s government remain.

The tombs of four predecessors of the current Kabaka were erected over 125 year ago. Because of its unique architecture and beauty, Kasubi had become a national monument, a favourite tourist attraction and a sacred place for the Buganda people. The United Nations had even pronounced it as a World Heritage site. So, when the unexplained fire demolished the tombs on March 16, it immediately became a major national setback.

I learned about the existence of kingdoms in Uganda in very early days of my stay here because next door to our office is the office of the Rwenzururu Kingdom. The place is always busy with a whole bunch of people coming and going. They seem occupied everyday in meetings and high-level consultations. When asked about this, I was told that these were members of the cabinet and staff of the King. This kingdom formerly belonged to the Toro, a much larger and more powerful kingdom dominated by the Toro tribe. But, soon after independence from Britain in 1962, there was a falling out between the Toro Kabaka and Isaya Mukirinia, the leader of the Bakonzo tribe. He led a rebellion and seized part of the Toro territory in the Rwenzori mountains. The Toro Kabaka sent his soldiers to capture him, but he hid in the mountain range and was never caught. He established the seat of his kingdom in a palace high up in the hills. It was due to his campaign that Kasese received its status as a separate district in which the Bankonzo people live. He sent his young son, the current Rwenzururu king, to the U.S. out of fear for his life. Upon Isaya Mukirinia’s his death, his son was crowned as King.

With the existence of these kingdoms, I have been wondering about whether these are parallel governments, because, like Uganda’s national government, these kingdoms also have ministers with portfolios like health, transport, the environment, finance, etc. I was told that they are not duplicating or conflicting with the national government programs. Instead, they are now known as “Cultural Leaders” whose main function is to promote local culture and tradition and to ensure that their values and customs are not undermined by government policies and programs. What does this mean in practice? I have no idea. Regardless, these Kabakas enjoy a very special place in their communities and are influential opinion leaders. They are highly revered and recognized at public events. For example, today, the current King of Rwenzururu, His Royal Highness Omusinga Charles Wisely Iremangoma, was the Chief Guest at the launch of Oxfam-Uganda’s “We Can” campaign which is aimed at stopping domestic violence against women. Lots of people were looking forward to his presence with excitement and anticipation. And, a couple of weekends ago, we were to visit a village to meet a group of people with disabilities. But, two days before our trip, we were informed that the King had decided to visit that village the same day. So, of course, our trip had to be postponed. Kings take priority over us mortals.

To pay for their opulent life style, retinue of staff and maintenance of palaces, these royal families receive funds from the national government. The King of Rwenzururu receives 5 mill Shillings per month, an exorbitant amount by local standards. Other kingdoms also thrive on contributions from the government. This seems to have been a part of the deal that brought them in an independent Uganda in 1962.

A couple of weeks ago, Shaan sent me a CNN story, “African teen king lives dual life”. Incidentally, this young man is the king of the Toro Kingdom from which the father of the current Rwenzururu king broke away fifty years ago. For greater insights about the Kabakas, their Kingdoms and their unique status in Uganda, browse through the following link: African teen king lives dual life

Tricycles and White Canes

Our tricycle campaign has been very popular and now people come to this office urging me to get one for them or for someone they know. Fortunately, I have entrusted Peter the responsibility to decide who deserves a tricycle more than someone else. The first batch of ten tricycles has been completed. Three individuals picked up their vehicles today and five others will come in the next few days. Mobility is such a huge problem with some of them that they have to arrange with a family member or friend to bring them here. The woman you see in one of the pictures came with friends from a distance of about 60 kilometers. And, they had hard time arranging a transport with a rooftop rack to so she can take the tricycle back to her village.

Further offers of gifts have come from these friends in Canada:

Susan and George Nielson
Beth and Jean Noble
Cynthia and Gord Walker

At first, I wasn’t sure if the workshop would be able to make them before I leave in two weeks. But, I have been assured that additional vehicles will be ready in time. This is good news as it will allow us to contribute to the lives of three more individuals.

Along with tricycles, we have used the gift from one of my friends to buy collapsible white canes for persons with vision-impairment. These canes are as much in demand as tricycles. Many people currently use dried-up tree branches or wooden sticks to get around and find themselves in trouble while crossing the streets.

Three more recipients of tricycles

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