Buganda's Okwabya Olumbe and the Tradition of Installing an Heir
Young girl to be installed as Heir.

Buganda's Okwabya Olumbe and the Tradition of Installing an Heir

The day of Okwabya Olumbe is preceded by another ceremony known as Okusula Kulumbe - loosely translated as sleeping over death.

By Enoch Mutabaazi
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First published: February 2, 2007

What is Okwabya Olumbe? This is the question I posed to Daniel Kamoga, one of the few people considered as custodians of knowledge on Buganda culture and clans' matters.

Different people from different clans interpret Okwabya Olumbe differently. "From time immemorial, people have feared death very much. In the Kiganda culture, the death of any member of the family signified that something wrong had befallen the deceased's household. In other words, it meant that death (Olumbe) had invaded that family and everything possible must be done to chase death from that family. There was an element of using force against an unseen but clearly imagined enemy," narrates Kamoga who serves as Owesiga (The Pillar) in Buganda's Ngabi (Antelope) clan.

Kamoga says that Okwabya Olumbe marks the end of mourning period because the deceased is replaced by an heir. "So Okwabya Olumbe means dismantling death and dispersing it from the household whose member has succumbed to its trickery," he says.

The Process

According to Kamoga, there is no specified time limit set in which the Okwabya Olumbe ceremony is to be held after the burial. However, a lengthy process is involved, especially in the older original version of the ceremony, which is still followed to the letter by many Baganda, but has also lost steam with other groups due to resource constraints.

Image of Young girl dressed in Ekifundikwa
Young girl dressed in Ekifundikwa

Messach Matovu, Omusumisi, meaning the one who dresses the heir with Ekifundikwa - an attire made out of backcloth fabric to symbolize the new responsibility the heir is taking over - says that the process of Okwabya Olumbe starts during the burial when Owolugya (the head of an extended family with cultural responsibility) reads out the deceased's will and asks the widow(s) and the children to confirm what has been read.

Image of Man reading Will
Owolugya reading out will to family.

After the burial, Owolugya sends the information he has compiled to Owolunyiriri. Among the Baganda, the cultural power to make decisions regarding conducting the Okwabya Olumbe and installing the heir is exercised in a pyramidal format, ranging from the Kabaka (King) to various clan heads and their lower hierarchs right up to the house hold. What that means is a very important person can have an heir installed by decree of the Kabaka.

Basically the influence and the responsibilities carried by the deceased (before death) as well as the social position of his/her family determine how far the information regarding his/her death, cause of the death and the need to honor the deceased through Okwabya Olumbe as well as installment of the heir will reach further in the clan hierarchy up to the Kabaka.

Matovu says that if the deceased has been holding a middle level office in his clan hierarchy, say Ow'sigga, or has been involved in activities that promote the Ganda culture and causes, has land and leadership influence, the information on his death and need to install his heir will climb up to the Kabaka, the apex of Buganda Kingdom.

Whatever hierarchal levels the information reaches, that clan office has the power to culturally authorize the family members to go ahead and conduct Okwabya Olumbe and install the heir on behalf of the whole clan. There are about ten hierarchical levels between Olugya and Owakasolya-the clan head.

According to Kamoga, the essence of such a lengthy exercise before conducting the Okwabya Olumbe is to create harmony as well as honor the dead by having powerful clan leaders mourn for him/her. It also curbs any misunderstandings that may accrue from the process of choosing an heir, as well as keeping the tradition and cultural values alive.

The Big Day

The day of Okwabya Olumbe is preceded by another ceremony known as Okusula Kulumbe - loosely translated as sleeping over death. Okusula Kulumbe involves relatives, in-laws, friends and well-wishers gathering at the venue of the ceremony a day before.

Image of Relatives keeping vigil
Relatives keeping vigil.

Since in the Buganda culture mourning is not over until an heir is installed, the purpose of the gathering is to keep vigil together with the immediate family of the deceased, comfort and encourage the heir-to-be and sometimes share memories of the good deeds of the deceased.

With exception of sudden incidences where the Kwabya Olumbe and installing the heir are done immediately after burial, in other kwabya lumbe ceremonies the 'mourners' are not actually mourning but rather drinking, eating, dancing and enjoying themselves, after all they are trying to recall and celebrating the life of one of their own who has been snatched from their hands by death. In fact, if the family of the deceased is able financially, they will even hire singing groups to keep company of the 'mourners'.

Death Shown Exit

Drinking and enjoying will continue until six in the morning when Omusumisi calls the gathering to order. He announces to all that the time to drag Walumbe (death) out of that particular household is at hand (Ironically, many Baganda culturalists can not explain why the practice of Okufulumya Olumbe - chasing death out of the house - is done at dawn).

At this moment the widow(s) and the children of the deceased are summoned to gather in main house in preparation of Okufurumya Olumbe.

As the survivors assemble in the house, one of the sons to the deceased's daughters culturally referred to as Omukeezi (early comer) shows up and knocks at the closed door. The door is opened and a calabash full of Omwenge Omuganda - local brew is handed to him. He drinks the booze and passes it onto the rest of the mourners. The drinking of booze which symbolizes the defeat of death and finally pushing it out of the house cause excitement and wild cheers from the children and widow(s) who finally emerge from the house led by the heir to be.

According to Kamoga, the son to one of the deceased's daughters is traditionally charged by Buganda kingdom clan norms to remove Ebibamba - bad omen from their maternal grandfather's household. The process of Okwabya Olumbe involves many activities usually climaxed by installing an heir.

Image of Ladies attending the installation
Ladies attending Okwabya Olumbe in Ekifundikwa.

Choosing an heir

According to Messach Matovu, Omusumisi, meaning the one who dresses the heir with Ekifundikwa - an attire made out of backcloth fabric to symbolize the new responsibility - the heir is primarily chosen by the deceased through the process of writing a will or entrusts the name of the heir to a person considered trustworthy and respected by the deceased's family, normally a brother or senior clan leader.

In case the deceased did not exercise his rights, Matovu says that the family members especially daughters of the deceased are given the first priority to choose one of their brothers as an heir. If disputes arise, it is in the powers of the clan leaders and members at least culturally to advice the children.

Clan Vetoes Heir

Kamoga says that the clan members and leaders in consultation with the immediate family of the deceased have the powers to veto the heir if he/she is considered incapacitated, involves in dubious acts like incest, robbery and other heinous acts that put he clan into disrepute. He says that an heir is also considered not appropriate in case he/she is taking over from a person of the different sex. In other words, in Baganda culture, a woman can not be an heir to a man and vise versa. Even in case where a man gave birth to girls only, one of the sons to his brother or the very own brother will be his heir but not any of his daughter.

The same applies to a woman only that her heir must be a daughter to her brother or her sister not any of her own daughters because they are not members of her clan. The Baganda culture dictates that a child takes on the clan of his/her father. The heir from the day of installment has his/her duties outlined as continuing with the work of the deceased, as well as to love people, his clan, culture and his God.

That is why these days during the time installing of an heir, religious leaders are invited to pray for the heir and give him/her blessings. The argument here is that the deceased has to also be serving the church as well as serving his clan, culture and people.

Installing Heir

Image of Priest blessing the heir
The installed heir being blessed by priest.

The heir is installed by a person called Omusumisi. Before installing the heir, the Omusumisi introduces himself, mentions the name his father and mother and more than three names of his ancestors. He must also be of the heir's clan and have good knowledge of the family of the deceased.

During the ceremony of installing an heir, several activities are conducted among the notable ones is the drum beating. The sound of the drum varies from one clan to the other and should symbolize that clan's slogan (Omubala).

Along with other responsibilities, the heir is given a female aide called Lubuga. Lubuga should be of the heir's clan but most preferably not his/her sister. The purpose of Lubuga according to Kamoga is to help the heir in case it is needed. If lubuga is chosen out side the immediate family of the heir, the family is respected as clans mates.

Both Lubuga and the heir are given symbols. The heir is handed a spear to urge him to be brave amidst challenges, money to wish him prosperity and Ekifundikwa to symbolize the new responsibilities he/she is taking on.

Lubuga is given a knife to peel food signifying her readiness to always serve food to her people and a calabash of local brew to always serve them a drink whenever they need. Hospitality is the point emphasized here.

By Enoch Mutabaazi
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First published: February 2, 2007
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Enoch Mutabaazi is a media practitioner at Ultimate Media Consult with more than six years experience in the print and electronic media. Since he majored in Broadcast Journalism at his graduate studies Mutabaazi first worked as a reporter at Uganda Television (now Uganda Broadcasting Corporation TV) before he discovered his multidimensional skills in writing and public relations at Ultimate Media Consult. He is currently the Production Executive at Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd and writes occasionally.