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The Ankole Culture

For people that trace their roots to the beginning of the human race it is arduous to tell in entirety the culture, because people and their culture are inseparable. Nevertheless, there are outstanding features that make the essence of arguably the most ethnically rich and exciting group of people.


The 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 Ankole cowto 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 sublime cows."

    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 products.

    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 Ekyanzi (gourd)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.

The Cultivators

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.

    The 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.     

    In many 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!

Remarkable customs

Dress code
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.

    The cultivating 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 bride.

    Among 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 the Bahima.

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.

    Children 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 more dowry. pastor boy
     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 married.

    Whereas 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 artistic skill.

    Before 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.

    The typical 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 different families.

    There 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. Traditional hutThe 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 completely.

The Silo
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.

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