Asaba, Ateenyi and Oyire: The making of a Muganda

Kabaka waves to Buganda loyalists

Kabaka waves to Buganda loyalists

was shooting a movie in Kayunga when, during the lunch break, I caught up with a beautiful damsel called Nakato. She had told me her name was Shakira, upon which I insisted on knowing her surname.

As our conversation got intense, Shakira would tell me her name was Nakato, but quickly added – perhaps to check my position on cross-tribal relations – that she was a Munyarwanda whose parents had lived in Buganda for years and had thus acquired Baganda names.

A little serious, Shakira started, “Munaye, no nina okubulira, tuli Banyarwanda, but we changed our names, my real name is…Nyangoma.” On that announcement, I simply fell in love.

I am the quintessential cosmopolitan: Muslim and recently Bugandanized. [That Islam is an inherently cosmopolitan tradition needs no explanation]. Shakira Nakato Nyangoma’s candour and natural graces were simply irresistible. Her Luganda was lucid with unmistakeable local taste.

But while my cupid hormones were bubbling up, admiring this beautiful lass in front of me, my heart was crying. Why would this young girl who by nature and association had fully Bugandanized – was living a cosmopolitan identity – have to warn me about her being a Munyarwanda?

What was the importance of this identity in our conversation? Because, look, identities – tribal, religious or otherwise – are meaningless unless they serve an immediate function especially relating to access to food, water, security or emotional/spiritual comfort.

Why, then, would a girl fully ensconced in the economic and cultural life of Buganda need to constantly remind her interlocutors that she [also] belonged elsewhere?

I cried because I had the answer to this question: This little innocent belle, Shakira Nakato Nyangoma, has lived under an exceedingly tribalistic political order where access to food and resources is legitimated through tribe. Museveni has made tribalism so perverse and visible that now is the first talking point in introductory conversations.

No group wakes up with profiling and hating the other on the grounds of rudimentally categorisation, unless it is a category that enables and disables – access to resources. Those who watch the news on the daily, constantly talk in whispers about a peculiar [ethnic] identity of the people making the big stories.

The first 20 minutes of any news segment is often dominated by a single ethnic – Museveni’s ethnic and his neighbours. To be ethnically identified in a particular way translates into access to power and resources – which means having a camera in front of you making decisions on the rest of the wretches. That is the depth of Museveni’s tribalism.

I tell Nyangoma’s story as a gateway into telling the stories of three bosom friends of mine through whom I want to demonstrate the making of a Muganda cosmopolitan. Part of my ambition is to show how Museveni’s rabid and shameless tribalism continues to destroy Uganda – a country where almost all Ugandans claimed ownership of Buganda and wanted to come to the region and Bugandanize and transform their lives as a collective.

Buganda was Uganda’s America. Just the way earlier arrivals to America, from wherever they came, decided to Americanize and build America. As America is called the country of immigrants, so Buganda is a region of immigrants.

I first met Jessica Asaba at Fountain Publishers when she had come to work with me on the English translations of Paul Job Kafeero’s music from Luganda into English.

While the book One Little Guitar: The Words of Paul Job Kafeero came to life because of the indefatigable and generous intellectual work of Omwana w’Omuzungu, Prof Kathryn Barrette-Gaines, the first and most expansive translations were by Jessica Asaba – who is profusely credited in the book.

Ms Asaba grew up in the household of PJK and learned Luganda and fully Bugandanized. A child of immigrants, who would grow up to become an educationist teaching French, English and Luganda, Asaba found no utility in identifying as a Munyarwanda (until recently).

This does not mean she forgot her roots. She also speaks succinct Kinyarwanda. But flaunting a Kinyarwanda identity is not the way she negotiates her life in Kampala.  Asked for a date, she would never ask about a suitor’s tribal identity before okaying the meeting.

Nowadays she is being reminded to get registered by some obscure new ethnic – all thanks to Museveni’s tribal politics. My bosom friend, author and educationist, Deogratius Oyire, a Jap from Isagaza in Tororo, came of age in Nsambya. Before he announces his Jap roots, Oyire rolls as a true Muganda cosmopolitan.

His Luganda is flawless and has been around the region adjudicating at drama festivals, teaching Church music mostly in eloquent Luganda. Oftentimes, he has constantly used his eloquence to identify with the struggles of the region.

Being a cosmopolitan Jap-Muganda has not taken away his love affair with the Japadhola traditions. He loves his roots. But you will find him complain about how Buganda Prime Minister Charles Peter Mayiga has sunk the cause for Buganda [meaning the region].

My activist friend, and lawyer, Adam Ateenyi from Bunyoro loves to correct my Luganda grammar, and often prefers to chat with Luganda countryside imagery and abstractions. Both of us, Banyoro-Baganda cosmopolitans, our sensibility of Buganda is how this space can liberate us from our parochial rudimentarism and enables us a better life. If we had remained in Bunyoro, perhaps there would be plenty of capital in identifying as Banyoro. 

But once we moved to Buganda, as an open space of immigrants, we took on the culture that earlier immigrants had developed. Over time, successive generations will be fully Bugandanized and will be open to welcoming more newcomers.


The author is a political theorist based at Makerere University.

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd