Ankole people (Banyankole)
There are two main facets of the Ankole culture:
grazing cattle and tilling land. These two major activities
mark the diversity within this culture that an outsider may
think that these are two distinct tribes. It is the richness
and variety that is a sign of the Ankole culture, as a unified
whole with mutually-dependent wholes. One group may look and
behave in an apparently complete manner dissimilar to the
other, but the distinction is only an expression of variety.
The Ankole people, or as they call themselves Banyankole,
are as in the famous Bible story of Joseph, a "coat of
many colors". When you take a cultural immersion to Nshenyi
Village you will experience the multiple layers of a culture
that will leave you gaping with wonder and pleasure.
The Cattle herders (Bahima)
"According to native mythology, the
famed long-horned Ankole cows were originally reared by demi-gods
called BaChwezi. These semi-gods, who were thought to live
in the underground caves, roamed the whole earth looking for
a people with candor, gracefulness, compassion, warmth, inclination
progress. Attributes for qualification for divine bestowment
and they wandered for years in vain. Then, according to the
legend, one of the Princesses of these gods went 'upstairs'
to get water. She was struck by the sight of an elegant looking
man who she fell in love with instantaneously. She invited
him to her home and, as in all good legends, they got married.
When the time for the couple to return to earth came, the
gods gave them tons of gifts and above all the long-horned
cows. Anyone that can win the heart of a divine Princess,
said the half gods, was worthy to possess and look after the
The focal thrust of
Bahima, the cattle keepers of Ankole, hinges on nurture of
cows. Their principal element of the survival for their every
day sustenance has been, and still is, the long-horned cattle.
Right from the break of day, which usually starts off as early
as 5 am, to the wee hours of the evening, a typical life of
cattle herders revolves around the cows.
The daily ritual would
be getting up so early in the morning, milking which is done
by bare hands, and then setting the cows to graze. The cow
herder primarily lets them roam for a good deal of the morning
and then, in the mid hours of the afternoon, he or she takes
the cows to water. A cow siesta, which may last for half an
hour or so, follows and then grazing is resumed. Depending
on the habit of each family, milking of cows in the evening
varies. Some will milk as early as 4 pm while others leave
for it a later time, about 8 pm.
The telling of this
custom may give an impression of a simplistic lifestyle, but
the details in just one day are so intricate and elaborate
that a rocket scientist may stand and pause in admiration.
The beauty however is that, unlike the work of a rocket scientist
that remains within the domain of a few, the complexity of
the cultural lifestyle of a Munyankole cow herder is so accessible
to all, with of course a good old try. Apart from looking
after cows, the typical Bahima also derive their total survival
in terms of income from the animals. They make and sell animal
In addition to commercial
animal products there are several other products that are
so partial to the Bahima culture that they are not found in
other animal rearing communities. Eshabwe (native
royal pudding) is an exceptional delicacy that
was once reserved for the royalty. It is made from ghee. Obutahe,
which is a perfumed body cream, is also made out of ghee.
This organic bodily cream, once exposed to the consumer-hungry
world, will soon become a universal household item.
Up until recently typical
Bahima people lived entirely on animal products. Some went
for months on milk. Although this way of living has been gradually
abandoned, there are pockets of families around the Nshenyi
area that still practice this old tradition.
A humming woman, her hoe and
a child strapped around her back makes a typical morning sight
among the cultivating communities of Ankole. Work is mostly
done in the early morning hours, before the heat of the sun
makes it more tedious to dig. Women largely do the digging,
using hoes and work for a good part of the day, until it is
too hot or, in the rainy season, until the rain is too much.
They can travel long distances looking for work. Depending
on the level of income of a family the working hours vary.
The more affluent work less hours and around the neighbourhood,
whilst the less privileged work till the late hours of the
day. It is interesting to note that Banyankole do not have
seasons of vacation. The reason partly can be found when you
walk onto the field that is being cultivated by the native
women. The sun is hot but not too hot (a summer feeling),
there is singing choruses by all the working women and the
attire is free.
men from the cultivating communities generally do trade, sometimes
near home and at times away and far from home. The trading
centers in the Ankole areas are for the most part run by men
from these cultivating communities. Women grow and provide
for the food in the homes whilst men bring in the other household
necessities. The main staple crops are maize, cassava, matooke,
potatoes, beans and millet. Crops are grown all year round
thus work is all year round.
printed bookes and on some websites the cultivators are referred
to as the Bairu. Note that this term is no longer used acceptably
because it carries an insult!
The male Banyankole herdsmen dress like the Masai
men. Multi-colored wrappers are preferred
during the hot season for easiness and splendor. Usually they
crown their herding attire with a straw hat. Younger men,
however, prefer toupees. During the rainy season the dress
code changes to something more warmer and a pair of jeans
might grace the savannah grazing lands more commonly nowadays
than in the past.
The Bahima ladies have a more elaborate
dress code. Dry season or rainy season, they are ever attired
in elegant clothes that consist mainly of Ekitambi,
Eshuka and Omwenda (traditional cloths including
an African version of the Indian sari and a mantle thrown
over the ladies shoulders). Unlike the men, whose outfit covers
the major areas, the ladies dresses are extravagant enough
to cover the whole body including the toes.
Banyankole men do not have a distinct dress code, except on
special occasions, though generally older men wear ekanzu
(traditional garment for men). The women wear easy slip in
and out dresses.
Marriages among the Bahima are so diverse. Typically an average
marrying age of a non-schooling person is 16 years. The father
of the intending groom will do the choosing for a suitable
bride. He will then engage in negotiations with the family
of the potential bride. Usually there are several ceremonies
that are held and finally dowry is agreed. Although it is
no longer the strict norm, the groom and the bride do not
see each other and in some cases do not know each other at
all until the day of marriage. The dowry, which is cows, is
determined among other things by the level of education of
the affluent cattle herders, polygamy is a reflection of more
wealth. Wives - and they can be as few as three - of one man
normally live a house away from each other. There is no documented
evidence of serious life threatening hostilities within the
quarters of polygamous families. And divorce is a rarity among
Children have always been the crown of any family among the
Banyankole. They were at all times, and still are, regarded
as a blessing. Any wedded couple is expected to have children,
especially in the early stages of the marriage. Delayed childbirth
is looked upon with suspicion of barrenness.
are valued as an investment in many ways. Most families prefer
the first-born to be a boy. This is because
inheritance ordinarily is passed onto an heir. The first-born
too enjoys several other privileges over his siblings, although
the family honor and prestige weighs heavily on him and he
is expected to carry it on to the next generation.
In a typical cultural family a son
receives preferential treatment. In cases where there are
no sufficient resources to take all the children to school,
a girl will be passed over and the opportunity is given to
a boy. Girls in some cases have been merely raised to fetch
It must be stressed that, though
it was the norm in the past, there have been great strides
in improvement towards the treatment of children equally.
With the changing of times there has been some transformation
to this custom and some families prefer to have a daughter
for a first-born. But these are still in the minority.
Children enjoy freedom so early on
in life. However, freedom varies with different families.
The children of not so well off families leave home early
to look for work; sometimes when they just have the age of
11 years. The girls go off to do a maid’s work, whereas
boys do more physical jobs such as rearing goats and cows.
Contrarily, the children of the more wealthy families mainly
go to school and usually leave home when they are getting
the changing of time has had a significant effect on the customs
of the Banyankole people, the one thing that has not been
affected is the "quiver-full" ideology.
The patriarchs of the Biblical days believed that children
were a blessing from God, like arrows in a quiver, and the
more one had the more blessings he could count. They weren’t
alone. The Banyankole believed it too and still do. According
the last national census they had one of the highest birth
rates among the tribes in Uganda. They still count their children
in double-digit figures with pride.
The Ankole people do not boast of world class architectural
designs for the simple reason that they have always built
their residential quarters with practical usage in mind, more
than for display. Despite their efficiency theme in building
there are nonetheless certain building features that reflect
the easy to fix, modern canvass tents were ever invented,
the Banyankole had started the art of making circular
huts out of sticks and grass. These easy to find
building materials made circular huts common among the cattle
herding communities. They could, and still do, take less than
half a day to gather all necessary materials and put up a
shelter that could last for years.
The cultivating communities opted for the similar style of
building. However, their structures were mainly made out of
sticks and wattle.
design of a traditional hut, whether for cattle herders
or cultivators, is very simple. They mainly have two spacious
rooms, one used as a bedroom and the other for any other business.
The inside of the hut is tailor made to suit the taste of
are numerous distinctions between the cow herding and the
cultivating communities in regard to housing estates. Bahima
mainly live in collective quarters, which
are chiefly centered around the hut of the head of the family.
cultivators on the other hand build not necessarily around
the main hut, but within close vicinity. However, with the
passing of the years and the swift pace of modernization,
the communities are abandoning at a faster rate these native
ways of building. Even when a pastoral family opts to construct
a more modern house, they will retain within close reach some
native huts - unlike the cultivating groups who discard them
The staple diet of Banyankole consists essentially of millet.
Millet bread is consumed with relish. The traditional way
of storing the millet is in specially constructed silos, that
are built out of wattle and daub. They are generally oval
in shape and lie mostly behind the main house of the head
of the family. They can store the millet grain for up to four
years. The silo is essentially found among the cultivating
communities and is called Ekitara in Runyankole.