Banyoro: their Magic Empaako and Marriage Traditions
Bunyoro Flag

Banyoro: their Magic Empaako and Marriage Traditions

"When a Munyoro or Mutooro meets another Munyoro or Mutooro, the first thing is to ask the other person's Empaako, and then greet the person using this pet-name."

By Eunice Rukundo
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First published: February 5, 2007

How would you readily identify a Munyoro? From their height? Size? Or skin color? Well though most people that have interacted with them agree that the Banyoro are usually dark-skinned and chubby, this is not exclusive to the Banyoro. Besides I have personally met one that is dark-skinned yes, but not chubby at all, and many non Banyoro that are dark-skinned and chubby.

Though some tribes can obviously be identified by their physical appearance, suffice it to say that the Banyoro is not among these. In fact other than their Runyoro-Rutoro dialect, which is also quite closely related to other western Bantu dialects in Uganda like the Banyankole, the only sure way to tell a Munyoro would be by their names. By names I do not mean their traditional names, because most of these are shared with other western tribes in Uganda.

Map of Uganda
Uganda map

This Bantu tribe resides in Bunyoro-Kitara, a kingdom in Mid-western Uganda. It comprises of the districts of Hoima, Kibale, Masindi and Buliisa, in the area to the immediate East of Lake Albert. The tribe boasts of a unique tradition regarding their names. The Banyoro are the only other tribe other than the Batooro who posses the pet-names, Empaako, one of their dearest cultural attributes as I came to learn.

Their native language is Runyoro-Rutoro, which they share with the Batooro, because they have their origin in Bunyoro-Kitara any way.

Image of the Bunyoro coat of arms
Bunyoro coat of arms

The Empaako Tradition

Most unique to this tribe is their tradition of pet-names, which are accorded every Munyoro or Mutoro in addition to their traditional and religious names.

Gerald Businge says that the pet-name, Empaako is one thing that will readily identify a Munyoro or a Mutooro. He explains that Empaako is a special name of endearment used to show love and respect, for salutation and by children to refer to their parents and elders. "It is okay among the Banyoro and Batooro not to know one's surname or religious names but everyone is expected to know another person's pet name because it is what is used more often. When a Munyoro or Mutooro meets another Munyoro or Mutooro, the first thing is to ask the other person's Empaako, and then greet the person using the pet-name," explains Businge whose pet name is Ateenyi.

Photograph of Gerald Businge
Gerald Businge of Ultimate Media

There are eleven pet names shared between the Banyoro and Batooro: Abwooli, Adyeeri, Araali, Akiiki, Atwooki, Apuuli, Abaala, Acaali, Ateenyi, Abooki and Amooti. The 12th pet name is Okali, and the king is greeted "Zoona Okaali".

Unknown to the rest of us non-Banyoro, however, is how important this pet-name is to the people that use it. "If I want to praise someone or show gratitude or even ask a special favor, I use their Empaako to appeal to them more. It has a special feeling it creates in a Munyoro or a Mutoro when you call them with their Empaako," explains Businge.

He further discloses that the Empaako can be the Banyoro's Achilles' heel! "It is difficult for me to deny someone something if they refer to me by my pet name when they are asking. If you want a favour from a Munyoro or a Mutooro, just try calling them their Empaako before you ask the favour," he elaborates.

He says that when his mother wanted him to do a tedious task without complaining, she would call him his Empaako before assigning and he would do beyond the mother's request. The Empaako is thus a social tool for harmony, encouragement and respect, which can be used to refer to people and relations comfortably.

"When I first left Bunyoro and Tooro, I couldn't believe how people can exist without the Empaako. A greeting without Empaako was like having food without source, or any tasteless endevour you can think of," Businge says, explaining just how important these pet names have come to be for the people who use them. Ironically though, like most of the other Banyoro, Businge, despite his passion about the Empaako, has no idea where these precious pet names originate or what they really mean.

"All I know is that when I grew up, I found them in existence and every person is supposed to have one. I don't even know whose choice it was that my Empaako is Ateenyi or why it is that particular one I was given," he says.

He however knows that these names are related to certain things. "Ateenyi is Ekijoka Kya Muzizi-the snake that resides in River Muzizi that separates present day Tooro and Bunyoro, bordering Kibale and Kyenjojo districts." Why he was named after a snake, he neither knows nor shows any negative concern, he is just evidently proud of his pet name!

Isingoma John, on the other hand, knows that he is called Amooti because he was born a twin. "As the older twin, I'm automatically called Amooti and the younger twin (name Kato) Abooki. Otherwise I wouldn't know why I was given that pet name," he confesses.

Photograph of Isingoma John
Isingoma John

According to pet names are decided upon by the parents of the child. Originally when a baby was born in Bunyoro, it was given a Kinyoro name, which is a phrase or words with meaning, and the mpaako or pet-name, save for the twins and the child who comes after them who have special traditional holdings and pet names.

Male twins are named Isingoma and Kato- respectively, and the female twins Nyangoma and Nyakato with the pet names Amooti and Abooki respectively. Or Amooti and Adyeeri respectively. The child that followed was called Kiiza and Amooti for her/his pet-name. The Christian (or muslim) names attained through baptism were a Christianity influence.

Origin of Pet-NamesPet names do not have meanings in Runyoro but are rather corruptions of words in Luo language, original language of the Luo Babito who according to Gideon S. Were and Derek A. Wilson in their book 'East Africa Through A Thousand Years' invaded and colonized Bunyoro from the North about the beginning of the sixteenth century.

According to Okot P'Bitek(RIP) a reknown poet and writer in his book 'The Religion of the Central Luo' the 'empaako' is an Acholi word meaning 'praise'. In Acholi language, abooki means 'I have narrated to you', Abooli 'I have lied to you', Ateenyi 'I have left you' and Adyeri 'I'm your friend'.

Important to note is that the king, and only the king, has two pet names. "When one becomes king they retain their original Empakko given at birth. Okaali is a pet name specially reserved for the king and can not be used by the ordinary person," Businge elaborates. At official functions, the King (Omukama) will thus be saluted with 'zoona okali' to which he does not respond, for after all he is the king.

The only other tribe in Uganda that uses pet names is the Batoro, who in fact though residing in a different kingdom have their origin in Bunyoro-Kitara thus sharing similar customs with very insignificant differences.

"The Batooro respect the pet names more than the Banyoro," says Isingoma Amooti explaining that unlike the Banyoro, the Batooro reserve the four pet names of Araali, Abaala, Achaala and Apuuli exclusive for the men.

Isingoma also says that though the two tribes speak the same language, they pronounce their words differently. "The Batooro have more Nkole influence and it shows in their pronunciation of words," he explains.

The Tooro Kingdom was originally a province of Bunyoro-kitara until 1830 when Prince Kaboyo, one of the sons Nyamutura, the king of Bunyoro at the time rebelled and declared Toro independent. Becaue of the love for his son, Nyamutura let son be. The Batooro and Banyoro are therefore one people residing in different kingdoms.

Photograph of King Iguru
King Iguru

Banyoro Clans

Like other neighbouring tribes like Batooro and Baganda, the Banyoro have clans (Ekika). The clans, which include among others the Baruli, Bagahya, Bayaga, Basita, Bapiina and the Babito, which is the royal clan that provides the kings for the kingdom among others. The clans are based on patrilineal descent. That is, every child becomes a member of the father's clan.

Though every clan has a totem, the totems are not in any way related to their clans or their names. Businge for instance explains that he is sure the clans of Basiita, Bapiina and Babiito share the same totem of the engabi (antelope or bushbuck).

Love and Marriage Among the Banyoro

The Banyoro and Batooro in contrast with most of the other African traditions are free and liberal about love matters. It is for instance the only tribe I know so far where there is no punishment for pre-marital pregnancy. This is and has been the norm even in ancient times. Yudesi Tibasaaga Amooti, a Munyoro lady in her 70s says she got pregnant before she got married with a man who had two wives already.

"I got married to another man as his second wife though because my father did not want me to become a third wife," says Amooti adding that she finally got divorced and went back to her father's home when she had a misunderstanding with her co-wife.

Batooro are also known to freely marry across races. The restriction is on marrying clan mates who are believed to be a group of descendants from the same ancestors thus are blood relations.

"It is only the royal clan of the Babito who are allowed to marry from the same clan in an effort to maintain their 'blue blood lines'," explains Amooti.

The task of finding a spouse was otherwise a parent's affair in the ancient Bunyoro-kitara kingdom. The parents either found spouses for their children through antenatal betrothal, kuswera mu matunda where a man whose wife was pregnant offered the unborn child to a close friend.

In this case that child attained the status of wife at an early age and was handed over at around 6years of age to be groomed by her future mother-in-law. The boy to whom she is betrothed is however ignorant of this information.

Those who are not betrothed would begin to prepare for marriage in their puberty with the girls trimming their hair and nails and smear a special ghee on their skin. Personal and family background is considered with special attention being paid to avoid families with chronic or hereditary diseases.

When a suitable girl is spotted, the groom's family sends a go-between, kiranga obuko to announce their intentions to her family. On his first visit, accompanied by a few kinsmen, kiranga obuko is vague on his intensions only asking for friendship with the family and presenting one large goat and some pots of beer with a promise to visit again.

"It is on a second visit that he declared his real intensions," explains Tibasaanga Amooti. "All the girls in the family are assembled before him so he can declare his choice."

Meanwhile the girl's family would try to learn about the boy's family. Throughout the ordeal however, the girl's family assumed airs of haughty pride while the groom's remained humble. When the groom's family's request was granted, they knelt down and thanked their host.

Next will be the groom taking over beer over which was a license to discuss the bride price, amarwa gekicwa muhendo. Families usually married from families of the same status. Bride price comprised cows, goats and many pots of beer.

Payment of the bride price (Omukaaga) marked the engagement of the couple, which was symbolized by a string of animal skin, engonge, tied on the wrist of the couple.

In wait for the wedding day, the bride is exempted from chores, smeared with ghee and a type of red soil to make her skin smooth. She is also kept indoors. For the Banyoro, the fatter the woman the better. During this the early times, the bride to be also received a range of presents/gifts, ensagalizi, from her parents and relatives ranging from straw mats, baskets and backcloth.

She took with her a bag of incense made out of dried and smoked papyrus reeds and scented herbs which she put in the bedroom to enhance the smell and arouse the husband.

Giving The Bride Away

Photograph of King Iguru's wedding
Iguru at his wedding to Karunga

Amidst a special send off song, ijoooje, sang by her paternal aunties, abaisenkati, the bride was taken at night. The abaisenkati however arrived earlier in the evening where in a nearby bush (hakasaka) they gave their niece some marriage tips.

The bride's father lets is daughter sit on his lap four times to officially bid her farewell and bless her marriage. This is called okubukara.

The in-laws then sang engoma nyabahuma, begging to leave. Just when the bride was about to leave the house, amidst the women's crying for their departing member, one of her male cousins lay in the doorway to prevent her from leaving. The only way to get rid of him was for the in-laws to give him 10 cowrie shells. It is this cousin that would then carry her on his back and whenever the entourage stopped to rest, the bride sat on her aunt's lap

The Welcome At Her New Home

The first person the bride encountered at her new home was the senior wife in the household or wife of one of the brothers-in-law with a gourd who closed a bark cloth curtain in the doorway as she said, "oginsangiremu, Oliginsigamu (you found me in this house and you shall leave me here)". The essence was that the new bride should never attempt to chase away another wife.

She then handed the gourd to the bride implying, 'you are now my co-wife come in and churn'. Inside the house the groom sat on his father and mother's laps four times respectively. This was okubukuara a sign of welcome and acceptance of the girl.

Sexual Relations

On their first night before 3am, a son to one of the groom's sisters, omwiha, climbed up the wall and crowed like a cock. "Then, the bride's aunt who was still with them holds the bride's hands behind her back to make their first sexual encounter easy for the man," says Amooti. This is called okukuza.

Amooti explains that a virgin brought honor for the girl, her aunt and family. The mat with blood on it was sent back to her mother with a gift of a goat. A non-virgin on the other hand brought disgrace but she remained in the marriage and her husband burnt the mat of their first sexual encounter and sent her mother a sheep for a gift. The mother would normally cry in shame for not having kept her daughter "pure".

Before the girl's relatives left, they sounded a warning to the groom and his parents to treat their daughter well, okuteera omusango. It was done by an old man who said;

"this child of mine has come with two names; when she receives a third name, let me know. My child does not visit unnecessarily. She does not visit and spread rumours bringing enmity between homes. She does not stare at passers's by, she does not abuse people, she does not steal. If she abuses her father in law beat her. If you cant cope with her, send her back to me."

After warning the bride to also behave herself, the other relatives left leaving behind her aunt who stayed with the new couple for a few more days.

In the last ceremony, the bride uncovered her head and started doing housework. Then she had officially become a member of her new husband's family. These elaborate marriage cultures have obviously been weakened by Christianity and modernity, to the extent that the Banyoro of today can hardly tell a uniform marriage culture.

Photograph of Bunyoro King Iguru and his subjects
Bunyoro King Iguru and his subjects

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By Eunice Rukundo
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First published: February 5, 2007
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Eunice Rukundo is a graduate Journalist and public relations practitioner with Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd. She is a talented writer who enjoys working with people.