A Monarchy of Seven Lives
Mzee Ezau Makumbu speaks at the entrance of Kasubi Tombs' main hut.

A Monarchy of Seven Lives

Reliving a History of a Kingdom and Nation.

By Ibrahim Semujju and Pius Mwinganisa
more from author >>
First published: March 1, 2005


One oldest belief in Africa is reincarnation.


At the heart of Africa's Great Lakes region lies one of its oldest monarchs. The Buganda Kingdom, believed to be several centuries old, stretches from the upper shores of Lake Victoria to the central districts of Uganda, setting its residence on a landscape adorned by the natural beauty of lush, green, wild vegetation and gentle rolling hills. Atop one of these hills, Buganda's history can be traced at the Kasubi Tombs, a former palace and now a royal burial site for the kings of Buganda. Four of the 36 recorded kings are buried here in one big dome shaped, grass thatched hut.

Mzee (Mister/ Sir) Ezau Makumbu, a caretaker and elder at the tombs, is a living archive of Buganda in a community where historical facts are passed down to generations by word of mouth. Well past the age of seventy, Mzee Ezau does not know when exactly he was born but has lived at Kasubi Tombs for over thirty years now.

"Buganda derives its name from the house of kings at Naggalabi � Buddo, where the first kabaka (king), said to be Bemba, lived until he was overthrown by an invading army led by Kintu," Ezau latched into his favorite subject. "Bemba's house was called Buganda and when Kintu defeated Bemba, he took over the Obuganda (household) to seal his victory, and ever since the territory a reigning king rules is also called Buganda. ", he explained.

According to several researchers and elders, this is one version of how Buganda came into existence. However there are variations depending on the oral history passed from generation to generation.

It is of no little surprise that the country Uganda derives her name from Buganda. Here was one of the most developed kingdoms at the onset of British colonization where Buganda played a great role in the penetration of the British, the origins of a monarch giving birth to Uganda as a nation.

"When the 32nd King, Kabaka Mutesa I ruled from the 1800s to 1884, he invited an explorer Henry Morton Stanley as an attempt to stop the Arab slave trade." Mzee Ezau, far in deep thought, chipped in facts of Uganda's history. "The Arabs were the earliest visitors to the East African coast eventually penetrating into Uganda. They came to exchange slaves for beads and clothes", he noted with a mischievous smile.

Upon Uganda's independence in 1962, Kabaka Frederick Edward Walugembe Mutesa II (1942-1969) became the first president of the republic of Uganda.

Kabaka Mutesa II took over from his father, Daudi Chwa II who died in 1942. He quickly became one of the most popular kings in the kingdom's history. He was fondly called king Freddie although his reign was characterized by disagreements between him and his colonial masters which led to him being exiled twice." Ezau explained.

So began the typical feud between father and son in what become the existence between the monarchy and the nation of Uganda.

In 1966 Uganda's Prime Minister Apollo Milton Obote masterminded a raid on the Lubiri palace, resulting in Kabaka Mutesa II then the president of Uganda fleeing to Britain where he died in mysterious circumstances. In 1967 Obote abrogated the 1962 constitution and abolished all the kingdoms.

Was this to be the death of a monarchy and the nation? Mzee Ezau pointed out that Uganda was then plunged into a reign of terror that lasted close to thirty years, during which several coups and deaths dominated news about the country than anything else.

Yet another life came to be. In 1986 President Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Army/Movement captured state power restoring monarchies in Uganda.

King Ronald Mwenda Mutebi II was crowned in 1993 at Naggalabi, the place of the house of kings, Buganda.

Buganda is reputed to be the most populous monarchy in Uganda, 17% of the national population are Baganda. Their traditions, language of Luganda, rich culture and love of matooke ( green bananas) bring them together. They also have a strong obedience to their king. "It is a common occurrence among staunch baganda to find men crawling and prostrating themselves before a king; or backing a king's decision without question." is the general saying in the capital Kampala. So much is this respect for the king that one is not allowed to turn his or he back on the king, or when a king summons a subject, it is reported that "His majesty has accepted to see you as you requested" even when one never sought to see the king.

But a strain of the old father and son feud continues to be traced. While in ancient Buganda a king was a ruler in every way, today his role is mainly a cultural one. One of the conditions of kingdom restoration was that a cultural leader would not engage in national politics; such as collecting taxes, raising armies and so on. The kabaka presides over cultural preservation and revival, with the help of a katikiro (prime minister) and active Lukiko (parliament).

The waves of the strain are carried in the demands for federalism for the kingdom, termed as "federo". This is not federalism as know the world over. It is one with unique features of self-governance, land ownership, decentralization or devolution of powers.

In February 2005 yet another life is seen to have surfaced. Both the monarchy and the government have agreed to regional governments that have legislative and executive powers. In his opening address to the 12th Likiko that was jammed by his subjects drawn from different tribes, King Mutebi II hailed the outcome of the talks between the kingdom and the government.

The question of the times is, "Is this a sign of a rebirth of a nation?"

In the history of Uganda, a spirit of dialogue, mutual benefit, along with sacrifice, is little known and far apart.

Philosophical words of Buganda Katikiro, Joseph Ssemwogere, seem to well demonstrate this spirit: "What we opt for is always different from what we can practically achieve. Much as the talks were hard, we reached a compromise with something and we shall push for more."

So the monarchy is set to relive. Mzee Ezau insists on the founder of the palace Kasubi tombs claiming: "It is Mutesa's real city."

Inside the big dome shaped grass thatched hut, Mutesa, Mwanga, Daudi Chwa and Edward Mutesa still lie. Inside, the presence of backcloth decorations, spears and portraits of fallen kings as well as mementos, the old monarchy lives on.

By Ibrahim Semujju and Pius Mwinganisa
more from author >>
First published: March 1, 2005
Ibrahim Semujju and Pius Mwinganisa are writers writing for UGPulse from Kampala, Uganda.