Abalangira mu Buganda

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Olulyo olulangira

It is a common misconception that the Kabaka (king) of Buganda takes his clan from his mother. Some go as far as saying that Buganda’s royal family was matrilineal. Both of these assertions are not true. The Kabaka has his own clan which is called the royal clan “Olulyo Olulangira”. Members of this clan are referred to as abalangira for males and abambejja for females. The misconception arose in part because the royal clan has no totem which is something that all other Baganda clans have. However, the totem should not be confused with the clan. The totem is just a symbol but the clan is a matter of genealogy. The royal clan has its own genealogy traced along the patrilineal line, extending all the way back to Kintu.

Another reason for the misconception may be that Kings used to love their mothers and maternal relatives more than their own brothers or other paternal relatives. This is in sharp contrast to the practice in other clans. The explanation for this anomaly is as follows:

A king’s brother or cousin from the paternal line is eligible for succession to the throne and thus poses a threat to the reigning monarch. Indeed succession wars were a frequent feature of the Buganda dynasty. When one of the king’s wives gave birth to a son who succeeded to the throne, her clan would get many favors from the new king to ensure the clan’s loyalty in case of a fight with other putative contenders. But the king did not join that clan. Indeed the Kiganda saying “Ebukojja teva wa lubu lwo” (translation “maternal relatives are not brothers”) applied to the king also. The unusual attachment of the royals to their mothers’ clans is thought to be due to the fact that they provided a ready source of military support in case of a succession war. They could also be used to ‘hide’ a defeated contender. Other members of the royal clan could not be counted upon as much because they all had their own ambitions. In fact in the past, all male offspring of the king were kept in prison, under the guard of the Kasujju (one of the chiefs). The exception to this was Kiweewa, the title given to the king’s first son, because traditionally he was not eligible for the kingship. (The Kiweewa who took the throne in 1888 is said to have done so only reluctantly, and he reigned for just a few months). There are also examples of newly installed kings trying to kill off their male siblings. Mutesa I is known to have done so, as did Kalema.

Another misconception following from the first is that the kingship used to rotate between the different clans. The theory is that since the king took his mother’s clan but could not take a wife from that same clan, his offspring would be by women of other clans. Each clan had a chance to present wives to the king and potentially get royal offspring. Ostensibly, those offspring would belong to their mothers’ clans and this ensured that the throne would go to another clan on the next succession. This so called chance for all clans to be able to provide wives to the king, is in fact no different from the chance that any other clan may have of marrying into other clans. The reality is that the king had a free choice as to who his wives would be (of course within the bounds of cultural constraints). The fact that the wives of the kings came from various clans was simply a result of the exogamous culture, rather than some elaborate form of power sharing scheme.

Unfortunately, the late king Mutesa II helped perpetuate this error when in his book “Desecration of my Kingdom” he claimed that he was of the Nte clan. Consideration of the following issues would lead us to conclude that the late king indeed made an error in his claim.

  • The names of the Nte clan include Kakooza, Kaweesi, Ssemanda and others that are listed in relevant sources. Not a single one of Mutesa’s children was given a name from the Nte clan but rather they were all given names from the ROYAL clan.
  • If Mutesa was of the Nte clan, then one of two things would follow. Either he would become answerable to Katongole, the head of the Nte clan or Mutesa himself would have to become the head of the Nte clan. In Buganda, nobody is supposed to be above the king so there is no way Mutesa would make himself answerable to Katongole. The only alternative that leaves is that he would be the head of the Nte clan. But we know for a fact that he was not head of the Nte clan. The relationship between Katongole and Mutesa II was the same as that between any other clan head and the king.
  • We know for a fact that the Kabaka is the head of the royal clan and he delegates his authority in this regard to the Ssabalangira who is the head of the princes and governs the day to day affairs of the clan while the king is occupied by affairs of state. So if there were no royal clan, why would there be the office of Ssabalangira and what would its function be? The “princes and princesses” would have been absorbed into the clans of their mothers after all!
  • Among the most important cultural functions of clan leaders is presiding over the various funerary rites and the installation of heirs to a deceased person. For a person’s funerary rites to be presided over by someone who is not of their clan would be among the most serious taboos in the Kiganda culture. As the saying goes: “Gabunga tasumika mwa Ndugwa”. We know for a fact that when a prince or princess dies, the funerary rites are not presided over by members of the deceased person’s mother’s clan – a clear indication if more is needed that they are not considered to be members of their mothers’ clans.

Another argument that has been used to buttress this theory is the similarity of the kings’ names to those of their mothers. This gives the impression that the kings took names from their mothers’ clans (and hence the supposition that they were members of those clans). Again, this argument is based on a misunderstanding. The following examples will clarify the point.

  • Nababinge of the Mmamba clan was the mother of king Nakibinge. The argument from is this that the king took a name from the mother’s clan. But this is not true. The king was careful to modify the name before assuming it. Checking the list of names from the Mmamba clan reveals that they have Nababinge for girls and Kibinge for boys. On the other hand, Nakibinge is not included in the names of the Mmamba clan. The king assumed the modified name, which then became a royal name that is not used in other clans.
  • Nassuuna also of the Mmamba clan was the mother of king Ssuuna I. However the Mmamba clan does not use the name Ssuuna, although they still use Nassuuna for girls. Ssuuna is now a name in the royal clan.
  • Najjemba of Ngonge clan was the mother of king Jjemba. In this case you will see that the name Jjemba is not used in the Ngonge clan. Instead, they have Najjemba for girls and Sejjemba for boys. Jjemba is now a royal name although derived from the name of a commoner.

The fact that kings assumed names very similar to those of their mothers, is simply a reflection of the love that they had for their maternal relatives, for reasons detailed before. This practice can be compared to the Kiganda custom of “kubbula” where the name of a favored relative is given to a child. The name given in the “kubbula” can be from either side of one’s family. But if it happens to be from the maternal side, this did not make a person change his or her clan. The clan is a matter of genealogy.

The genealogy of Buganda’s kings clearly traces the ancestry of the kings through the paternal line, not the maternal line! In other words, becoming king depends on who your father is, not who your mother is. The inescapable conclusion from the above is that the royals do indeed have their own clan and that the royal lineage is not matrilineal.

The most authoritative source on this controversy is the late Michael B. Nsimbi who explained the issues most clearly in his “Amannya Amaganda n’Ennono Zaago”. Nsimbi’s credentials regarding the clan histories and naming conventions are universally recognised.


The Role of the King’s Mother

Because of the extraordinary feat and unusual good luck of giving birth to a king, the Namasole (the formal title for the king’s mother) was afforded very high respect and honor throughout the kingdom. The Namasole was given a palace of her own to live in and various chiefs to serve her. In fact the head of her chiefs was also called a katikkiro. This should not be confused with the king’s katikkiro who headed the kingdom’s government. Despite her numerous previledges however, the Namasole had no formal role in the governance of the kingdom. In fact since Kimera’s time to that of Ssuuna II, the Namasole was not allowed to even set eyes on her son who had acceeded to the throne. One of the Namasole’s brothers, given the title Masimbi would go to visit the king on Namasole’s behalf and return with news of the king’s health etc..

An interesting point here is that whenever Masimbi went to visit the king, he would carry a shield and two spears. This was supposed to symbolize Masimbi’s readiness (and hence the readiness of all the king’s maternal relatives) to fight in defense of their “son” if need be to ensure that he retains the throne. Another of the Namasole’s brothers, given the title Ssaabaganzi had the responsibility of consulting traditional doctors and oracles in all matters concerning the king’s health to help ensure his continued well-being. The need for this is not evident since the Kabaka had his own doctors but he did it nonetheless.

The Namasole together with 9 of her sisters and 9 of her brothers formed a team that was called “Bannakazadde ba Kabaka”. They used to be scattered in various parts of the kingdom and served as listening posts to try and forestall any plots on parts of civil chiefs to rebel against the king, or worse still any attempts by a prince to dethrone the king. (The backbone of an Internal Security Organization :-)).

Finally, the Namasole was not allowed to remarry. The theory was that they did not want the king to have to call another man (especially not a commoner!) his Daddy since one can ascend to the throne only when one’s Daddy is dead. Also they did not want the king to have brothers who were not of the royal lineage which would tend to confuse future successions. Hence the saying “Kabaka taddwaako mukopi” – meaning that the king cannot have a commoner for a sibling. Mutesa II was the first king to dispense with this custom when he gave permission for his mother to remarry. Even then, this led to considerable uproar in the kingdom. To quel this, the official duties of the Namasole were transferred from Lady Namaganda to her older sister, Perepetwa Nnaabaweesi.

Abalangira abe Sanje

Abalangira abe Kibulala

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