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The ‘God’ in Western Ugandan names

By Edwin Nuwagaba

The Western part of the country is a hub of names exalting God. Interesting, right? Ever wondered why? Natukunda (He loves us), Nuwazuna (He is the one who saves), Mwesigye (trust Him), I could go on all day. It is a long story, one I will be delving into. You see, long time ago,   the land that Banyakitara (Banyankore, Bakiga, Batoro and Banyoro) occupy today, was once occupied by a people known as Batembuzi. ‘Batembuzi’ comes from the word ‘okutemburura’ which means ‘taking over a place which was once unutilized, and then developing it’.

 

They were a fully-fledged society with political, economic and spiritual structures. Agriculture was their go to for a better livelihood, and used agricultural products in barter trade. However at a certain time in history, the Bachwezi, who were pastoralists, migrated into the area from Abyssinia. Eventually they were able to dominate the natives. Agricultural products which were once the means of exchange for goods and bride price were replaced by cattle as a means of exchange. According to Mr. Rwangyezi Steven, the director of Ndere Cultural Center, the Batembuzi from that point on were to work harder, mostly working for the Bachwezi in order to have a good standard of living. Meanwhile the Bachwezi were gaining economic power and eventually political power.

They created myths like that of Keiru, Kakama and Kahima which would later present them in the eyes of the people as a superior race sent directly by God. It is said that they built shrines and forced the denizens to worship them as small gods. ‘omuchwezi’ comes from the word ‘okuchwera’ which means ‘spitting’. The High priest in those days who was perceived as a representative of God, would spit in your hands before he began the process of treating or prophesying on you. "Among the Bacwhezi, Bakama;—political heads, were appointed to oversee the different regions of this area," says Rwangyezi. And the Batembuzi had to serve them. The word ‘okutweizera’ (‘to give alms’; the word is commonly used in the Catholic Church during mass) originates from this era where the lower class of people had to ‘okutweizera Abakama’ (take alms to the leaders or officials). Rwangyezi says that the Bachwezi were greatly feared because they intimidated the people they led.

Batembuzi suffered mightily. And the names they called their children depicted the suffering and the desire to escape it. Such names include; Zoreka coming from a proverb; ‘Enaku Zoreka’ literally meaning that times of trouble can open one's eyes to seeing things he never imagined he could see; Ikamukuba (enaku ikamukuba) which means that sorrow overcame him; Katurebe, and others.

When the white colonialists arrived, they found a people overwhelmingly oppressed. The Batembuzi were worshipping the Bachwezi out of fear. The missionaries introduced ‘Okuzunwa’; which you can interpret as salvation or rescue. "People's eyes were opened to a higher God who was greater than the Bachwezi. In this new religion, they found for themselves an escape route. That is how the foreign western religion became a stronghold over this area," says Rwangyezi. And now with money as a means of exchange instead of the cow, people saw themselves getting out of ‘obweiru’ (‘omwiru [singular]’ is a slave of someone). Mr. Rwangyezi says that  with the coming of Christianity people started calling their children names that portrayed God's mercy, salvation and protection, such as Musinguzi, Natukunda, Ahimbisibwe, Muchunguzi and others. However while that was increasingly the case, people in this region lost touch with their cultural heritage as the new religion taught against their former practices, deeming them backward and evil. The people dropped their ancestors’ names which were dubbed heathen. And since then, the Banyakitara have carried names which are in praise of the God of the missionaries. 

Funny, it may seem, but even though the Bachwezi migrated to South Rwanda, Burundi and Zimbabwe a long time ago, the Banyakitara still fear them, superstitiously. "You have heard of people saying that the Bachwezi can make you lose your way home, or they appeared in someone's house and beat him up, or they set a hill on fire," Rwangyezi says. Come to the western region; you will hear no story told of the Bachwezi which is without fear.

The role of foretelling in Nkore child naming

Without a doubt, history affirms that the earlier Banyakitara were deeply spiritual people. They worshipped a higher God whom they referred to as Ruhanga or Nyamuhanga through their mediums. Omufumu (a medium) was an important person in this society. Besides being a medicine man and helping to solve society's problems, his role was crucial during child naming. It was perceived that one's name determined greatly how he or she would turn out in life. The proverb Izina libi riroga mukamawalyo (a bad name bewitches its owner) was derived from this notion. Against this background, the role of naming a baby was placed above its parents. It was the responsibility of the elders and the omufumu.

Darius Kabona, a Chwezi researcher says that the family of the newly born baby would hold traditional festivities in Runyakitara known as Okubandwa (the act of supplicating the family spirits) at the homestead or family shrine, for a couple of days before a child was named. And in the midst of or after feasting or fasting in some instances, Kabona narrates that the emandwa would declare the child's name. Emandwa was a deity. Each family had its own, and through it they prayed to Ruhanga (God) for peace, prosperity, health, rain among other things.

While divination was important in this society, Kabona says that the environmental, social and political atmosphere were taken into consideration while naming a child. It was the role of elders to keep track of their observations of the time, space, climatic/environmental situation and events such as political wars, famine, strife and disease. At the end of the feast, the medium, after invoking the emandwa spirits, would then declare the child’s fate/name, which was normally given in line with the elders’ observations, and in line with the patriarchal names.

Rwangyezi explains that if a family had problems—persistent death in the family for instance—either the omufumu or the elders, guided by the emandwa would come up with a name that could potentially scare off death itself.

In case a baby boy was born during civil wars or disorder he would be named Kobweme, ‘obweme’ meaning strife. He could also be named Rutaro, Rutabaro or Tabaro while a girl child could be named Korutalo. Kabona insists that the reason why it mattered so much to the Banyakitara—how they named their children—is that it was a way of preserving their proverbs, sayings and totems, as some of their names are derived from the proverbs. Over the years, the elders were seen as repositories of information. This information was passed on orally, from generation to generation, and the oral culture/system caused the information to evolve into proverbs, some of which can be traced in recent Runyankole/Rukiga publications. These proverbs have highly influenced the Ankole/Kikiga naming system and actual names given to babies, because they are a useful means in which observations of events, time, space and environmental elements are recorded and narrated over the years; which observations are analysed by the elders when drawing out a name for a newly born child.

The notion that name choice held with it the power to safeguard the family lineage. Like it is until now, families in this region were of a patriarchal heritage. "Naming of the family members was and is still stratified according to the male family heads’ names, rooted in the ancestral lineage," Kabona says. It was really important to the people to keep remembering their ancestors by giving their names to the newly born children, which in Runyankore is known as ‘okwizukiriza’. And if a particular ancestor felt like he had been forgotten, Rwangyezi maintains that he would trouble the family. "If a child was sleeping for instance, small insects would surround him until the issue was resolved," he alludes. It would take the wisdom of the omufumu to figure out which ancestor that was.

A one Father Katuramu JB, a priest at Ibanda Parish in western Uganda says that long before Christianity, Banyakitara had their own way of relating to God. "There was the African Traditional Religion and people called their children names such as Byarugaba or Karugaba implying they already had a relationship with God, though with the coming of Christianity, spiritually influenced names became popular. People believe that if a child bears a Godly name, they are protected," he says.

 

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