The Bunyoro Palace secrets
If you have carefully observed Bunyoro kingdom’s empango ceremony action after action, step by step, I bet you are curious about
the coincidences of the number nine.
Better pronounced in Lunyoro as ‘Eempangoo’’ the coronation anniversary ceremony takes place at Karuziika,
a colonial styled double-storeyed structure with French windows and a circular tarmac drive leading up to a glass entrance.
At the empango celebrations, these doors only swing open at 2:00pm for Omukama Solomon Gafabusa Iguru and his queen, the Omugo, to step out. They take roughly nine steps to a small tent with two thrones. Two muscular men, each carrying a wooden spear and shield, accompany them as nine drums paraded on the left side thunder. Facing this tent, roughly nine metres away, a mammoth crowd who sit under nine tents with nine rows each, jump on their feet to ululate and cheer their king. Many fall at the king’s feet. Each time he waves at the crowd, voices pitch “hangara rukirabasaija” Runyoro for ‘long live the king.’
As soon as the royal couple takes their seats, women dressed in barkcloth emerge from the double door huts around the palace to sit at their feet. Ritual after ritual is performed as the king waits to sound the royal drum at 3:00pm— to mark the beginning of the palace dance known as kugurula empango.
Inside the palace museum
When I visited the kingdom’s royal regalia
chamber at Karuziika, Nafutal Balyemera, a caretaker, explained that almost everything at the palace is in numbers of nine. Some rituals are performed nine times or at times that coincide with nine. The Banyoro associate this number with luck, prosperity and positivity.
“It is against this background that the king sounded the drum at exactly 3:00pm, since it is the ninth hour of the day. In other words, the monarch was bidding luck to his kingdom,” Balyemera explains.
Intrigued by the phenomenon of nine, I wondered if I would be bitten by the nine bug during my visit to the royal regalia chambers.
I expected to go through nine security checkpoints, each attended to by nine royal guards, after which I would be asked to part with sh9,000 as the entrance fee.
But as I found out, my fantasy of nine was not quite fulfilled. I neither went through nine check points, nor was hugged nine times. However, a lot behind the closed doors of the spacious regalia chamber were in numbers of nine or its divisible number of three.
Balyemera asked me to confess my sins before entering the palace. His intention was to find out if I was ‘clean’ enough to gain access into the place, as the Bunyoro tradition demands.
“It is a taboo to pay a visit when one is from enjoying sexual pleasures within 24 hours of the visit,” he warned.
By the same token, he asked me to take off my shoes before stepping into the chamber whose entrance is directly behind the main entrance.
This is believed to be a holy sanctuary flocked by many people seeking solutions to their problems.
It is also an arena where the king is blessed before he appears for any function, especially those outside his kingdom. The chamber also doubles as a mini museum where antiquities used by kings from all the three historical dynasties of Bunyoro are kept. These are the Bachwezi, Batembuzi and Babiito.
Once inside, the tour is mostly about listening and admiring historical pictures and artefacts as Balyemera speaks about them with fondness. Each artefact has a story and history to tell. While black and white are the dominant colours on the artefacts used during the Chwezi reign, blue is the dominant colour on those used by the Batembuzi. On the other hand, those used by kings from the Babiito dynasty like Kabalega and Sir Tito Winy have a combination of all the three colours.
But there is hardly an item in the chambers that belongs to the present king because he is still alive. Upon a raised platform in the room sits a legendary nine legged royal stool covered with bark cloth and leopard skins. It is estimated to have been used for over two centuries now (over 200 years).
Upon this stool, the king sits when presiding over kingdom duties or when he is to be blessed ahead of a journey outside his kingdom. Only the king can sit on it. Defiance of this rule would mean daring the wrath of the gods of Bunyoro.
There is hardly an inch of the floor that is bare. The immediate area around the stool is carpeted with lion skins, symbolic of the kings’ might.
The adjacent space is covered with colourful mats symbolic of royalty.
Other than the royal tombs, there is a chamber where the king bonds with his departed predecessors who are still believed to be alive, because here, kings never die, they only “go to rest”.
Leaning against the wall behind this stool are spears in different shapes, colours and materials. Most distinct is a spear that weighs 4kg. It is the spear that was used to fight against Bunyoro’s enemies in past wars.
Symbolizing the agricultural way of life of the Banyoro is a garden rake with four prongs — holding a bag of peas and beans. The fingers of the rake symbolize sparks of lightning and underpin the ruthlessness of early Iron Age rulers like Kagoro Araali.
To this era belongs a sword with its wooden sheath and a hoe in the foreground. On enthronement, kings would swear by these articles to defend the kingdom, ensure justice and mobilise people to grow crops. There are also trumpets and drums made from different reptile skins and animal hides. These are only played by members of the Abasiita clan to lead the annual empango celebrations.
Unlike today where the celebrations last nine hours, in the past the dancing of the palace dance used to last nine days.
The moon festival is also one of the functions spiced up with these musical instruments, among others.
An Elephant tusk that has been passed on for over 10 generations as a symbol of authority. View Uganda Magazine •