Wallace G. Mills Hist. 316 6 Nkole

Nkole and the Interlacustrine Kingdoms

K. Oberg, “The Kingdom of Ankole in Uganda,” in Fortes& Evans-Pritchard, African Political Systems,pp.121-62.

- we want to look at the interlacustrine kingdoms (see map of the interlacustrine kingdoms) and shall use the above chapter on Nkole as our major example, but I want to make some general remarks and mention some of the other kingdoms.

- first a short discussion of terminology

- as was noted earlier, Bantu languages, unlike Indo-European languages which use suffixes to denote differences (singular, plural etc.), use prefixes; you will see some of them in Oberg:

- the practice among scholars today is usually to omit the prefixes and just use the root.

- the origins of the kingdoms can never be known with 100%certainty. Most of our information about the origins come from oral traditions, which were used by Oberg; these traditions include those about the Chwezi. There has been a good deal of uncertainty and debate about whether the Chwezi were real or mythological figures.

- Africans had a strong desire to maintain continuities of their societies. As we shall see again and again, tradition was very important. Law and political legitimacy were based upon tradition and custom.

- African societies were non-literate (i.e., no writing or written records). There were no written laws or constitutions. Thus, knowledge about the past and history, about how things are done and why things are the way they are depends upon human memory for its preservation.

- because of this dependence on memory, memory capacities of non-literatepeoples are often highly developed (we, who depend upon books and written records, fail to develop the full potential of our memory; we can get along because we can look most things up if we need the information).

- as useful as oral traditions have been in African history (the techniques were systematised and extensively used in the post-1945 period), they nevertheless, have limitations. Not surprisingly, the more remote the time period covered by the oral tradition,the more difficulties there are.

- best of course are oral accounts of eye witnesses (great efforts have been made in some cases to record accounts of old people before they die) or accounts of what people were told by eye witnesses (often parents and grandparents). The first can cover events up to about 70-80 years ago while the second can go up to another 60-70 years. Even these oral traditions have to be treated with rigour, but going into 3rd hand accounts produce more difficulties and problems of transmission.

- details tend to be forgotten or lost; therefore, tellers may interpolate other details that help the story to make sense, especially in terms of something they know from their own time. Also, as stories are passed down from generation to generation, there are not only the quirks of memory but also language changes or there are cultural changes. Again, when something no longer makes sense, there is a tendency to make changes and substitutions so that it does make sense.

- however, kingdoms and chiefdoms have an interest in maintaining oral traditions, particularly in explaining political legitimacy. Thus, the history of the royal clan (and therefore the history of the political succession) is often preserved for long periods. Often such histories are mostly lists of kings/chiefs supplemented with fragments of information (perhaps there will have been a natural disaster, or a war with significant results whether a victory or defeat, perhaps a succession diversion, etc.).

- there is also sometimes a problem of tampering. If a person not normally in the line of succession does in fact take over, both he and his successors will want to legitimise their claims and powers by changing the history (e.g., to assert that the person they supplanted was not the legitimate heir or claimant).

- in many kingdoms and chiefdoms, the history of the chiefdom/kingdom is recited frequently (several times a year) at celebrations and as part of official ceremonies. This helps to keep the memory alive. This is especially true in many of the interlacustrine kingdoms. In some cases, the task of preserving the history is given to a particular family, in effect, the court historians. However, as the stories are repeated frequently, everyone hears them repeatedly and this helps to maintain accuracy. The oral traditions of the interlacustrine kingdoms are probably the oldest and longest in Africa; they seem to go back 700-800 years or so. [Some oral traditions of Polynesian peoples in Hawaii and of theMaori of New Zealand go back even further—over a 1000 years.]

- the Chwezi are part of the oral histories & legends of most kingdoms of the interlacustrine area; the only notable exception is in Buganda.

- in the 1960s, there was a great deal of expectation that extensive collection and analysis of oral traditions would bring more information about whether the Chwezi were real people and who they were. It was also hoped to get a clearer idea of the origins of these kingdoms and of the peoples who make them up. However, the understanding about the origins is not too much further advanced from the position taken by Oberg, except that the part about the Hamites has been abandoned by all serious scholars.

- the general consensus is that the cattle-keepers were probably Nilotes who migrated southward into the area much the way the Maasai have in more recent times. Whether the Chwezi were actual people or merely legendary is not known, but the high degree of similarity in the stories about them and the role they are ascribed in the founding of so many kingdoms leads many historians to believe that there must be some basis in fact.

- this kingdom is representative of the interlacustrine kingdoms although there are substantial differences. The strict separation into pastoral and agricultural castes was not a feature of all the kingdoms; in Ganda and Nyoro, pastoralism was not very significant nor of high status. Instead, agricultural is very fruitful and the population denser than some of the other kingdoms. Perhaps the number of early pastoralist migrants was less and they were more absorbed by the agriculturalists. While there were certainly status differences in Ganda and Nyoro, there were not the rigid castes described in Nkole.

- however, in Rwanda and Burundi, the social and political structures were similar to Nkole with fairly rigid separation of pastoral Tutsi and agricultural Hutu. In the wake of the terrible conflicts recently (although several bloodbaths have occurred since independence in the 1960s), there has been a good deal of debate about whether the hatred and hostility are rooted in the pre-colonial relationships on the one hand or a result of the of colonial policies of theBelgians. Proponents of the latter argue that colonial authorities used divide and conquer tactics and favoured one group over the other to create the hatreds.

- however, it is not quite that simple. With Christianity and education, the traditional groups can react very differently. As we shall see (this happened frequently in west Africa where the dominant minority was Muslim), the subordinate group may be more open to acquire education and Christianity; as governments require more educated personnel, these are the people that get ahead and their status rises. In other words, an entirely new system of status and stratification emerges and the positions of the subordinate and superordinate groups gets reversed. The new elite in the former subordinate group is likely to be much less willing to accept subordination, especially if they are in the majority; on the other hand, the former dominate group are usually not willing to give up their position. New ideas, such as democracy or rule by the majority, make it unacceptable to the majority to return to the pre-colonial relationships. Thus, by the end of colonialism and the beginning of independence, the situation and the dynamics had been radically and fundamentally altered.

- Oberg argues that for the most part, the two castes were physically and racially distinguishable. However, as Oberg notes,important chiefs tended to take Iru women as concubines and their children got incorporated into the family. Thus, except in outlying areas where the taking of Iru concubines by the Hima chiefs was not as common, there has apparently been a good deal of mixing.

- the same claim about the clear differences in appearance used to be made about the Tutsi and Hutu, but this seems to have been greatly exaggerated; traditionally, Tutsi not only dressed differently, but also practised distinct posture and ways of walking and moving (i.e., aspects that are culturally derived rather than via the genes). The result was a different visual impact; observers almost always stated very categorically that Tutsi were taller (not true), had less negroid features, were more aristocratic looking and so on.

- as cultural change came during and since the colonial period, the differences have become minimal or non-existent; when both speak the same language, it is almost impossible to distinguish merely by looking.

- thus, if the Hima of Nkole were descendants of Nilotic pastoralistswho migrated as a group at some time in the distant past and if they did manage to prevent children of mixed liaisons from being assimilated and absorbed in the ruling caste, then it is possible that there were some physical differences. However, I think it is prudent to treat such a claim with a good deal of caution. People who believed the stories of the Hamites expected to see differences and the eye has a strong tendency to see what it expects to see. [This is why proof-reading one’s own work is so difficult; your mind knows what should be there and there is a strong tendency to ‘see’ what should be there rather than what is actually there!]

- the mugabe is the symbol of the nation, but more than that, to some extent he embodies the nation. His vigour and health affects the health and welfare of the society as a whole. If he is ill or weak, then the society is also.

- because of this, the mugabe could not be allowed to weaken and die slowly. When he began to age or to become sickly, the mugabe would be poisoned so that a new, healthy and vigorous mugabe could be enthroned.

- this perception of the mugabe (as well as the practice of regicide) was seen by many anthropologists as a form of ‘divine kingship’ where the king is the link with the supernatural world and his well-being affects all of society.


- the system of succession is kind of like that among bees—awar to the death of the king’s sons. The system tries to ensure that the strongest and most able son succeeds to the mugabeship; it also eliminates all rivals because brothers and uncles are the most likely rivals and potential usurpers. As we shall see in other African societies, this is a serious and frequent problem (it is a problem for the chief or king, rather than the subjects; rivals are an important check on the autocratic power of chiefs because the people can switch their allegiance to a rival if they become unhappy with a chief or king).

- another benefit of the system is that it serves to limit the size of the royal clan which can sometimes be a serious problem if they have high status and privileges.

- this issue has been a matter of some debate and there are some similarities with European feudalism.

- the Hima form a warrior society and there is the concept of the relative equality of warriors— that all are essentially ‘free’ men. Not all have the right to offer leadership and some have more status than others, but they believe that the relationship between the leaders and others is based primarily upon personal bonds and reciprocal obligations.

- the ‘clients’ approach the Mugabe pledging loyalty and support (especially that they will respond to a call for military duties); the Mugabe in return dispenses cattle and promises to provide protection. This idea of a ‘contract’ between leader and supporters is reinforced by the belief that the client can repudiate the arrangement if unhappy.

- European feudalism was a political/social system of armoured, mounted warriors (knights) dominating the majority who were mainly agricultural producers. There was almost a caste system (class), and a large portion of the subordinate agricultural population was unfree. In the case of England, as a result of the Norman invasion and conquest, the dominant warriors were foreigners. The relationships among the dominant warriors were, at least in theory, based upon personal loyalties and reciprocal obligations. However, the desire to establish dynasties and pass on wealth, status and position to descendants began to assert legal rights which had growing priorities.

- Viking society also shows some similarities in that political relationships were primarily personal. However, there was no caste system whatever in Viking society; warriors originated from the general population, and if they survived their military activities, they tended to settle down again as agricultural producers.

- the key point is that just because a society shows some elements that are common in a number of warrior societies, including Europe under feudalism, that does not make the society feudal.

- when Europe and Nkole are compared, there are significant differences in the relationship of the warrior castes with the agricultural producers.

- in Nkole, the warrior caste defined themselves as cattle keepers, and these had no control, rights, etc. over the agricultural population. While the cattle keeping warrior caste in Nkole did share in some of the agricultural production (beer and millet porridge), they did not derive it directly; they shared in part of the tribute raised by and on behalf of the mugabe.

- in feudal Europe, the king parceled out the land (rather than cattle as in Nkole) to his supporters. Armoured, mounted knights required substantial resources to support and maintain them; the surpluses of agricultural production of their lands (domains) were intended to supply those resources. However, land is useless without labour to work it. Thus, the agricultural producers (villeins or serfs) were tied to the land and thus were considered to be owned by the warriors along with the land. As an individual owner, each warrior was entitled to a significant share of everything produced by the agricultural labourers on his domain. This was the contract; in return for receiving these resources (the land, the labour, and the surpluses produced), the warrior (knight) was to provide services and support—military, political, even financial in some cases.

- in practice in Europe, the rights to land fairly quickly became hereditary; however, the theory of the personal contract remained for a long time. Whenever there was any change, the contract had to be made again.. If a king died, all vassals had to come to renew their oaths, swear fealty, etc. to the new king; the new king would in turn again grant the lands to the vassals and make his promises to fulfill his obligations (protection, maintain order, maintain the law, etc.). When a vassal died, his heir had to appear and go through the ceremonies in order to inherit officially.

- in government and administration, there are both similarities and differences:

- in both, the monarch has all or most rights to collect taxes or tribute; the monarch is also the highest legal authority.

- however, in Nkole, the means to administer and control are relatively limited. The mugabe relies mostly on regional chiefs who have a good deal of leeway. The amount of tribute collected and how much was passed on were not specified.

- in Europe in the early days of feudalism, the system was not too much different, but kings began to build bureaucracies. Court systems were set up to administer the law and apply justice. Bureaucracies were set up, initially to collect taxes, but increasingly to do other things as well. Members of these bureaucracies were hired and fired at the will of the king; they were thus entirely dependent on the king’s favour for their jobs and success. Thus, royal power grew. However, many scholars would argue that this bureaucratic development in fact gradually brought feudalism to an end in Europe.


- the bureaucratic development was absent in Nkole. However, in the Kingdom of Ganda (see short article The Kingdom of Ganda), it was fairly advanced; there, the political system was more centralised. Ganda was divided into clearly defined districts with governors and sub-districts with ‘chiefs’—a clearly defined hierarchy based upon territory. All of the governors and many of the ‘chiefs’ were appointed directly, promoted or fired by the Kabaka (king). Although these officials tended to come from the prominent, higher status families, they got appointments, etc. primarily as individuals.

- all the governors reported directly to a prime minister. There were in fact several ministers with general responsibilities (treasurer, minister in charge of the army, minister in charge of the navy, etc.); these ministers not only acted as a check on each other, but could also keep an eye on the district governors to ensure that they were not becoming too powerful.

- in both legal matters and taxation, central control was much more significant than in Nkole; taxes, e.g., were specifically set at so much per head and the proportions to be kept or to be forwarded were also specified. In fact, the degree of centralisation and elaborate administration were surpassed in Africa only by the levels reached in Dahomey (which we shall also study).

- this is a very important element in all African societies. After we have looked at several societies, I shall try to draw some generalisations about this aspect and its importance in understanding African outlooks (cosmologies) and in understanding the effects on social and political behaviours.

Drum Cult

- Oberg concentrates most of his attention here on the Drum cult; such cults are a specific feature of several societies in the interlacustrine area, but not elsewhere.

- this cult has special significance as the most important integrative element in Nkole. In a society where almost everything is different for the different castes—Hima and Iru— the Drum Cult applies to everyone and the Drum is interested in the welfare of everyone.

- however, Oberg also notes other elements of religion and the supernatural in passing; these elements or variations are almost universal in Africa:

- a key point to note is that for Africans, almost everything is influenced and even determined by supernatural forces; thus, no one can ignore these elements either at the individual and family levels or at the political and societal levels. We shall come upon this element in virtually every discussion of African political systems and societies.

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