Funerals Among the Bagwere

Funerals Among the Bagwere


The mourning period can take as long as three to seven days, climaxing with okunaaba, a ritual where different herbs are pounded, mixed with water and sprinkled over all mourners.

By Joseph Burite
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First published: November 18, 2007


A story is told of one affluent traveler who, on his way through Pallisa, stopped by the roadside to buy some sweet potatoes at an elderly man's stall. Unimpressed by the old man's stock, he aired his views loudly and proceeded to search for better potatoes from the neighbouring stalls. On failing to get better potatoes, the traveler returned to the first stall but to his dismay, the old man told him 'to get lost'. Of course, the elderly potato farmer needed the money but his pride reigned on this occasion.


This farmer was a Mugwere. The Bagwere are an agricultural tribe who occupy the eastern Uganda districts of Pallisa and Budaka and are believed to have settled here from Bulamogi and Bugabula where they had settled briefly after the collapse of the Chwezi Dynasty and the subsequent arrival of the Luo. Their dialect, Lugwere, is said by historians, to be a mixture of three languages including Lusoga, Lulamogi and Lugisu. This could probably have resulted from intermarriages between these three tribes. It is therefore easily recognisable that these three languages (Lusoga, Lulamogi and Lugwere) share a lot and are virtually indistinguishable.

In Bugwere, death is a communal concern and according to Mzee Laban Nyaango, an elder of Naboa County in Pallisa, tradition dictates that survivors must weep and wail loudly to express their sorrow or else be suspected of having had a hand in a departed person's demise. In the past, this suspicion, if confirmed by the elders, would spell dismissal from the community and the loss of all personal possessions of the guilty party.

"The older the deceased, the more significant the death. Relatives and friends mourn by singing during a procession through the immediate neighborhood of the deceased's home and visit the communal well where it is believed the spirit of the dead is washed away. The corpse is washed, stretched out and dressed in new clothes, after which it is laid in a coffin (the coffin was introduced after the colonialists arrived). The elders, behind closed doors, perform some rituals. Only a few people are allowed to witness this because of the sensitivity of the rituals performed. It is also done to give respect to the dead," says Robert Mudanga, a technician in Pallisa town.

Traditionally, the community priest presided over the rituals. Because of the presence of evil tomb raiders in Bugwere, the corpses were buried with mweroko (a small grinding stone) or a needle to fortify the body against them. Mpiima Betty, a housewife living in Kampala, says that in Bugwere it is believed that if a corpse was commanded by the tomb raiders to come out of the grave/tomb, it would reply that it is busy, either sewing or grinding.

The mourning period can take as long as three to seven days, climaxing with okunaaba, a ritual where different herbs are pounded, mixed with water and sprinkled over all mourners. This is done at the front doorway of the deceased's house where a goat is also slaughtered and eaten later. This, according to Nyaango is the act of cleansing the community, to ensure that the spell of death is eliminated from them.

Abayiwa (nieces and nephews) of the deceased are fed on chicken the night preceding okunaaba to thank them for their significant role in organising the funeral. They maintain the general cleanliness of the deceased's homestead during and after the funeral, for which they are paid customarily. The mourners are always organized in different groups with relatives from specific families or with a specific relationship in a particular group, tasked with particular duties at the funeral.

To offer monetary condolences to female members of the deceased's household, money can be wrapped in a piece of cloth and tied around the bereaved lady's waist. This does not apply to men. Mpiima says this is done to show solidarity with the bereaved and help them overcome the shock. The owners of the clothes in which the money is wrapped pick them at the end of the mourning period and this offers them a chance to be acknowledged as having supported the bereaved at their darkest hour.

Mourners in Bugwere

Mourners in Bugwere.

If the death is of a young child, it is believed that they are always spiritually pure and therefore caution is taken not to speak any ill of them. Brand new white cloth to represent purity is laid in their coffin. The used clothes, Mpiima says, are spared to leave the child's mother with memories of her child.

Mzee Laban Nyaango observes that a suicide is treated very differently from a 'normal' death. No weeping, prayers or rituals are offered. The Bagwere are therefore very keen on respecting the natural course of life and so are unsympathetic to any suicides. If suicide was by hanging, the tree on which it happened is uprooted or burnt. If a suicide is committed in a house, it is destroyed, not withstanding its beauty, size or value.

The Bagwere are known to love their own, even in death. Regardless of how far away a death among them happens, they will always make sure the corpse is transported and buried on their ancestral land. This reflects a remarkable degree of solidarity, even in the face of misfortune. It is this urge to cleanse and maintain a community free of misfortune that has always inspired the Bagwere to be united. The Bagwere will always be together. Dead or alive.

By Joseph Burite
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First published: November 18, 2007
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Burite is an upcoming writer, currently pursuing his degree in Mass Communication at Islamic University in Uganda (IUIU), Mbale.