Culture and Religion
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Culture and Religion in Uganda
Ugandan culture is reflected in the assorted cultural mosaic of legend, beliefs, music, dance, art, food, handicrafts, rituals, and kingdoms that cannot be matched in East Africa. The numerous peoples all add to Ugandan culture in terms of its wealth of traditions and depth of heritage many of which have been handed down from generation to generation through storytelling and songs.
The smallest region in Uganda nestled between Lake Kyoga and Lake Victoria is occupied by mostly human settlements, and dominated by one tribe – the Baganda. The Baganda have a long and colourful history that goes back 700 years, in which time the succession of kings has never been broken. Even in contemporary times, the Baganda continue to practice the traditions that they have followed for centuries, most paramount of which is loyalty to their king. There is no shortage of cultural and historical attractions in this region where the capital Kampala, and the international airport, Entebbe are also located.
The Ankole Kingdom was founded around the 14th century, shortly after Nilotic-Luo invaders from Bahr el Ghazal in South Sudan overthrew the Bachwezi Dynasty in the Empire of Kitara, and founded their own; Bunyoro-Kitara, Ruhinda Rwa Njunaki, the son of Wamala, the last king of the Bachwezi, founded Ankole Kingdom and ascended the throne as Omugabe, which means ‘the giver of freedom’.
At this time, Ankole went by the Kingdom of Kaaro-Karungi (the beautiful land). It would later change to ‘Nkore’ and evolve to Ankole in the colonial era when it became an amalgamation of several smaller kingdoms because the British were having trouble pronouncing ‘Nkore’.
Ruhinda set up his capital at Kagarama hills from where his descendants of the royal clan, the Abahinda, ruled a very small kingdom of no more than half a million people. The kingdom had a centralised system of government, with a Prime Minister called Enganzi assisting the Omugabe alongside provincial chiefs called Abakuru by’ ebyanga.
Tooro region stretches over a high plateau in western Uganda located between Lake Albert and Lake George, bounded on the west by the Rwenzori Mountains, the south by Queen Elizabeth National Park, and to the north by Bunyoro-Kitara.
The Tooro Kingdom is Uganda’s youngest kingdom and it shares the same roots as that of Bunyoro-Kitara up until the 1820s when a renegade prince of Bunyoro established the new Kingdom of Tooro. For this reason, the two kingdoms share almost identical cultures and traditions.
Fort Portal is the cultural centre and official seat of the kingdom and the Tooro Palace that is the official residence of the Omukama is perched atop a hill, commanding a majestic view of the town. Tooro is an amazing cultural destination with a lot to explore the kingdom’s culture, including the traditional royal palace and the tombs. In addition, the Bunyaruguru Crater Lake region on the outskirts of Fort Portal has over 40 crater lakes that are a wonder to explore
Bunyoro encompasses the lands directly east of Lake Albert covering the 5 districts with the kingdom headquarters in Masindi town. Despite the influence of Western cultural imperialism and the assimilation of alien cultural elements, the Banyoro maintain their rich cultural heritage and proudly uphold many of the traditions of their ancestors some of which are over 500 years old.
To the visitor, Bunyoro offers well-preserved attractions that give insight to the history and traditions of the Banyoro, including a diversity of royal regalia, 24 royal tombs, and 2 main royal palaces. There is no shortage either of fascinating cultural experiences from ceremonies to song and dance, and folklore, that have been celebrated in this land since long before Uganda came to be. The icing on the cake? Bunyoro is one of Uganda’s most bio-diverse territories with many wildlife conservation areas located within her boundaries, including most of Murchison Falls National Park, and the Budongo Forest, Karuma, Kabwoya and Bugungu
The Bagisu people inhabit most of the picturesque Bugisu sub-region of Eastern Uganda where enormous caves, fabulous waterfalls, an extinct volcanic mountain ranges including the towering Mount Elgon, dominate the landscape. The Bagisu are also known as the Bamasaba, refer to Mt. Elgon as Masaba, as it is believed that their founding father Masaba emerged from one of the caves on the mountain slopes. Bugisu contains some of the most fertile soils in Uganda and is the centre of Uganda’s Arabica coffee industry, but the people are better known for their cultural ceremonies in which boys are initiated into manhood.
The Batwa are widely accepted as the original inhabitants of the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, and as one of Africa’s oldest surviving tribes. In Uganda, they are well known as the Batwa Pygmies, or the ‘keepers of the forest’, which was their home for thousands of years until only recently. They are Uganda’s oldest tribe whose existence in the forest caves and trees predates the Bantu, Nilotic and Sudanic migrations that brought Uganda’s other contemporary tribes.
The Batwa are a fascinating and unique people who for thousands of years have relied completely on nature and the forest for all their needs, free of all the trappings of the modern world that invaded Uganda in the late 19th century. Their unfortunate eviction from the forests in 1992 has left their culture, identity and language at threat from extinction.
Through the work of kind benefactors the Batwa are receiving some support in making the transition into lives outside the forest, and in preserving their knowledge and culture. It would be remiss for visitors to this part of Uganda to leave without experiencing these charming people and their intimate relationship with the forest, which can be done in Bwindi National Park and Mgahinga National Park
The Acholi are a Nilotic Luo-speaking ethnic group that live in the central region of northern Uganda extending to the border with South Sudan, in an area collectively referred to as Acholiland.
The Acholi have a strong cultural heritage that has been passed on over the years through song, dance, ritual and oral tradition. Acholi today is still largely very rural, so many traditions that existed over a century ago are still very much in practice, and are now an attraction for many visitors.
Of all the tribes that live in the North East area of Uganda of there are a few the Ik tribe is the most marginalised and close to extinction. They live in and around the Mount Morungore area having moved there to avoid a potential dispute with the other tribes who live in that region, the Karamajong, Dodoth, Iteso and Jie. There are only a few companies that provide an authentic and non-invasive trip to experience what to live as a member of the Ik in today's world and if time permits it is well worth it.
The renowned warrior pastoralists of Northeastern Uganda live on a large plateau between the mountains of South Sudan and the Eastern Rift escarpment of Kenya. Karamoja is often referred to as the Wild West of Africa because of the unspoiled and rarely visited the African wilderness that for a long time was a no-go area for all visitors because of insecurity. The Karamojong still display unique and traditional ideas of beauty beauty such as scarification on the body and faces, use of vibrant and colourful beads as well as the iconic red based blankets. The tribes in this region of Uganda share a great linage and history with Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania
Religion in Uganda
Religion is a very important part of daily life in Uganda where less than 1% of the population claims to be atheist or agnostic. 85% of the population is Christian, either Catholic or Protestant, about 12% are Muslim, 1% follow traditional religions and the remaining 2 per cent are shared by the Bahá’í faith and other non-christian religions; Uganda is also home to a small native community of Jews.
Uganda boasts a variety of historic religious landmarks and a robust religious culture across several religions and sects, that make it a great destination for pilgrims looking to renew their faith or visitors keen on exploring the fascinating religious history of the country.
In 1884, Kabaka Mwanga II of Buganda inherited a kingdom that had recently been introduced to Christianity - Protestant Missionaries had arrived at his father’s court in 1875, and their Catholic counterparts had arrived two years later in 1877. Mwanga II who was only 16 years of age when he ascended the throne increasingly viewed the Christian missionaries as a major threat to his rule, especially when it became obvious to him that his subjects at court who had converted to Christianity put loyalty to Jesus over the traditional loyalty to him.
On 29th October 1885, he had the incoming British archbishop James Hannington assassinated on the Eastern border of Buganda, and so began a bloody rampage that would see scores of Baganda Christians killed. Less than a month later, he had his head page, Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe killed for questioning his orders to kill Hannington.
Not satisfied with this, Mwanga summoned all his Christian pages to his court in Munyonyo on 25th May 1886 and gave them an ultimatum – abandon their Christian God or die. The pages, very devout in their new faith, refused to obey the Kabaka who then passed the death penalty on them, ordering his chief executioner, Mukajaanga to take them all to Namugongo, a popular execution site, and burn them alive.
Saint Marys Cathedral - Rubaga
Rubaga Cathedral, the seat of the Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church in Uganda, has a long cultural and political history dating back to the heyday of the Kingdom of Buganda.
In the early eighteenth century, Lubaga Hill was the administrative heart of the Buganda kingdom and its top sat one of the palaces belonging to Kabaka Ndawula Nsobya. Many of Buganda’s military expeditions, including later ones against the colonialists were planned from Lubaga because of its strategic view. The hill derives its name from the Luganda word ‘okubaga’, which means ‘to plan’. Unfortunately in the late nineteenth century, during Kabaka Mutesa I’s reign, the palace was struck by lightening and was burnt to the ground. The Lubaga palace was abandoned and Mutesa I relocated his palace to Mengo, the current seat of the Kingdom.
In 1891, Kabaka Mwanga II who would later slaughter catholic converts donated the abandoned Rubaga hill to Catholic missionaries through Bishop Joseph Hirth. Between 1891 and 1914, seven different rudimentary churches were built on the hill. The first was burnt down in 1892 during the bloody religious wars to be replaced by another, until 1914 when there was need for a more concrete church to cater for the big catholic population around Rubaga. Construction of the cathedral took ten years and on 31st December 1925, it was consecrated.
Saint Pauls Cathedral - Namirembe
The history of Christian endeavour in Uganda originated on Namirembe Hill, which today serves as the provincial seat of the Anglican Church of Uganda. St. Paul’s cathedral is the oldest Anglican church in Uganda located at the top of Namirembe Hill – Namirembe is a Luganda word meaning ‘mother of peace’, but the history of its foundation was not always so.
In 1875, Henry Stanley, the British explorer visited Kabaka Mutesa I’s court and told him about Christianity. Mutesa I, enthralled by the stories that he heard, asked Stanley to write Queen Victoria of England and ask her to send missionaries to Buganda. Two years later in 1877, eight missionaries from the Church Missionary Society arrived in Buganda and began to preach Christianity and make conversions.
When Mutesa I was succeeded by his son Mwanga II in 1884, Christianity came under attack when Mwanga, angry that the Christian converts placed their God above traditional loyalty to him as Kabaka, resolved to wipe out the new religion. Bishop, James Hannington, the first Anglican Bishop of the Eastern Equatorial province was the first victim, killed in 1885 on orders from Mwanga, and in 1886, he put to death 26 of his pages that refused to renounce Christianity. It was only after Mwanga was deposed and exiled in 1899 that development of Namirembe as the main Anglican place of worship began.
The Jewish Faith
In 1903, the British Government offered Uganda as a temporary refuge for the Israeli Jews. Although the Israeli’s turned down the offer, a small community of Jews arose anyway, in one of the least likely locations in Eastern Uganda.
In 1919 Semei Kakungulu proceeded to grow the Jewish community and the fortuitous arrival in 1920 of a European Jew called Yosef was just what the new community needed. Yosef stayed with the community for six months, teaching them the new converts about Jewish customs, festivals and even their calendar.
Kakungulu died in 1928 and was succeeded by Samson Mugombe Israeli as the spiritual leader of the community. The community continued to thrive until Amin’s regime in the 1970’s when Judaism was outlawed, and synagogues destroyed. As a result of this persecution, the community dwindled as many converted to Christianity or Islam to save their lives. A small group of about 300 members kept the community going until the ’90s when they had the freedom once again to practice.
Today the population of Abayudaya is a little over 1,000 people; most of who live near the recently built Stern Synagogue on Nabugoye Hill outside Mbale. A small Jewish Orthodox community in Palliisa District, the Putti Abayudaya, has been recognised by Israel and the Orthodox Jewish world.
The Bahai Temple
The beautiful Bahá’í Temple in Uganda known as the Mother Temple of Africa is the only of its kind on the continent. The Bahá’í faith first came to Uganda in 1951 and in 1958 the foundation stone of the temple was laid on Kikaya Hill in the outskirts of Kampala, to be completed in 1961. When it was first built, the temple was the highest structure in East Africa covering 515Sq.m of floor space, with a seating capacity of over 800.
In 1977, Uganda was one of several African countries where the Bahá’í Faith was banned but the ban was rescinded in 1981 following the overthrow of President Amin. The Bahá’í community has since grown to include over 20,000 believers in Uganda
The temple’s stunning architectural design is something that every visitor to Uganda should see. Like all Bahá’í temples, it is a circular 9-sided dome, supported by nine massive columns. On the inside fixed mosaic tiles from Italy line the arched roof of the dome, with coloured glass in the wall panels that came from Germany, all behind massive Mvule doors. The green, amber and pale blue glass tinted windows filter the light coming into the temple, lending itself to an effect of lightness and airiness that bounces off the floors that are well adorned with Persian carpets.
The temple is set in the middle of lush gardens with fields of brightly coloured flowers where many birds and butterflies flutter. The temple welcomes people of all faiths to pray and meditate in a peaceful environment.
The Muslim Faith
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