Western Lacustrine Bantu

Western Lacustrine Bantu

The Banyoro, Batoro, and Banyankole people of western Uganda are classified as Western Lacustrine Bantu language speakers. Their complex kingdoms are believed to be the product of acculturation between two different ethnic groups, the Hima (Bahima) and the Iru (Bairu). In each of these three societies, two distinct physical types are identified as Hima and Iru. The Hima are generally tall and are believed to be the descendants of pastoralists who migrated into the region from the northeast. The Iru are believed to be descendants of agricultural populations that preceded the Hima as cultivators in the region.


Bunyoro lies in the plateau of western Uganda. The Banyoro (people of Bunyoro; sing., Munyoro; adj. Nyoro) constitute roughly 3 percent of the population. Their economy is primarily agricultural, with many small farms of two or three hectares. Many people also keep goats, sheep, and chickens. People often say that the Banyoro once possessed large herds of cattle, but their herds were reduced by disease and warfare. Cattle raising is still a prestigious occupation, generally reserved for people of Hima descent. The traditional staple is millet, and sweet potatoes, cassava, and legumes of various kinds are also grown. Bananas are used for making beer and occasionally as a staple food. Cotton and tobacco are important cash crops.

Nyoro homesteads typically consist of one or two mud-and- wattle houses built around a central courtyard, surrounded by banana trees and gardens. Homesteads are not gathered into compact villages; rather, they form clustered settlements separated from each other by uninhabited areas. Each Munyoro belongs to a clan, or large kinship group based on descent through the male line. A woman retains her membership in her clan of birth after marriage, even though she lives in her husband's home. Adult men usually live near, but not in, their father's homestead. Men of the same clan are also dispersed throughout Bunyoro, as a result of generations of population migration based on interpersonal loyalties and the demand for farmland.

The traditional government of Bunyoro consisted of a hereditary ruler, or king (omukama), who was advised by his appointed council consisting of a prime minister, chief justice, and treasurer. The omukama occupied the apex of a graded hierarchy of territorial chiefs, of whom the most important were four county chiefs. Below them in authority were subcounty chiefs, parish chiefs, and village heads.

The Nyoro omukama was believed to be descended from the first ruler, Kintu, whose three sons were tested to determine the relationship that would endure among their descendants. As a result of a series of trials, the oldest son became a servant and cultivator, the second became a herder, and the third son became the ruler over all the people. This tale served to legitimize social distinctions in Nyoro society that viewed pastoral lifestyles as more prestigious than peasant agriculture and to emphasize the belief that socioeconomic roles were divinely ordained.

During colonial times, the king was a member of the Bito clan. Bito clan members, especially those closest to the king, were considered members of royalty, based on their putative descent from Kintu's youngest son, who was chosen to rule. The pastoralist Hima were believed to be descended from Kintu's second son, and the Iru, or peasant cultivators, were said to be descended from Kintu's eldest son, the cultivator. Even during the twentieth century, when many Banyoro departed from their traditional occupations, these putative lines of descent served to justify some instances of social behavior.

Among the most important of the omukama's advisers were his "official brother" (okwiri) and "official sister" (kalyota), who represented his authority within the royal clan, effectively removing the king from the demands of his family. The kalyota was forbidden to marry or bear children, protecting the king against challenges from her offspring. The king's mother, too, was a powerful relative, with her own property, court, and advisers. The king had numerous other retainers, including custodians of royal graves, drums, weapons, stools, and other regalia, as well as cooks, musicians, potters, and other attendants. Most of these were his close relatives and were given land as a symbol of their royalty; a few palace advisers were salaried.

Almost all Nyoro political power derived from the king, who appointed territorial chiefs at all levels. High-ranking chiefs were known as the "king's men" and were obligated to live in the royal homestead, or capital. The chief's advisers, messengers, and delegates administered his territory according to his dictates. During colonial times, the three highest ranks of chiefs were assigned county, subcounty, and parish-level responsibilities to conform with the system British officials used in Buganda. Most kings appointed important Hima cattle farmers to be chiefs. People provided the chiefs with tribute-- usually grain, beer, and cattle--most of which was supposed to be delivered to the king. Failure to provide generous tribute weakened a man's standing before the throne and jeopardized his family's security.


The Toro Kingdom evolved out of a breakaway segment of Bunyoro some time before the nineteenth century. The Batoro and Banyoro speak closely related languages, Lutoro and Lunyoro, and share many other similar cultural traits. The Batoro live on Uganda's western border, south of Lake Albert. They constitute roughly 3.2 percent of the population, but the Toro king (also called omukama) also claims to rule over the Bakonjo and Baamba people in the more fertile highlands above the plains of Toro. These highlands support cultivation of coffee as well as cotton, rice, sugarcane, and cocoa. Jurisdictional disputes have erupted into violence many times during colonial and independent rule and led to the formation of the Ruwenzururu political movement that was still disrupting life in Toro in the late 1980s.

Toro is a highly centralized kingdom like Buganda but similar in stratification to Bunyoro. The omukama has numerous retainers and royal advisers. Chiefs govern at several levels below the king, and like the kabaka of Buganda, the Toro ruler can appoint favored clients to these positions of power. Clientship--often involving cattle exchange--is an important means of social advancement.


Ankole (Nkole) is a large kingdom in southwestern Uganda, where the pastoralist Hima established dominion over the agricultural Iru some time before the nineteenth century. The Hima and Iru established close relations based on trade and symbolic recognition, but they were unequal partners in these relations. The Iru were legally and socially inferior to the Hima, and the symbol of this inequality was cattle, which only the Hima could own. The two groups retained their separate identities through rules prohibiting intermarriage and, when such marriages occurred, making them invalid.

The Hima provided cattle products that otherwise would not have been available to Iru farmers. Because the Hima population was much smaller than the Iru population, gifts and tribute demanded by the Hima could be supplied fairly easily. These factors probably made Hima-Iru relations tolerable, but they were nonetheless reinforced by the superior military organization and training of the Hima.

The kingdom of Ankole expanded by annexing territory to the south and east. In many cases, conquered herders were incorporated into the dominant Hima stratum of society, and agricultural populations were adopted as Iru or slaves and treated as legal inferiors. Neither group could own cattle, and slaves could not herd cattle owned by the Hima.

Ankole society evolved into a system of ranked statuses, where even among the cattle-owning elite, patron-client ties were important in maintaining social order. Men gave cattle to the king (mugabe) to demonstrate their loyalty and to mark life-cycle changes or victories in cattle-raiding. This loyalty was often tested by the king's demands for cattle or for military service. In return for homage and military service, a man received protection from the king, both from external enemies and from factional disputes with other cattle owners.

The mugabe authorized his most powerful chiefs to recruit and lead armies on his behalf, and these warrior bands were charged with protecting Ankole borders. Only Hima men could serve in the army, however, and the prohibition on Iru military training almost eliminated the threat of Iru rebellion. Iru legal inferiority was also symbolized in the legal prohibition against Iru owning cattle. And, because marriages were legitimized through the exchange of cattle, this prohibition helped reinforce the ban on Hima-Iru intermarriage. The Iru were also denied highlevel political appointments, although they were often appointed to assist local administrators in Iru villages.

The Iru had a number of ways to redress grievances against Hima overlords, despite their legal inferiority. Iru men could petition the king to end unfair treatment by a Hima patron. Iru people could not be subjugated to Hima cattle-owners without entering into a patron-client contract.

A number of social pressures worked to destroy Hima domination of Ankole. Miscegenation took place despite prohibitions on intermarriage, and children of these unions (abambari) often demanded their rights as cattle owners, leading to feuding and cattle-raiding. From what is present-day Rwanda, groups launched repeated attacks against the Hima during the nineteenth century. To counteract these pressures, several Hima warlords recruited Iru men into their armies to protect the southern borders of Ankole. And, in some outlying areas of Ankole, people abandoned distinctions between Hima and Iru after generations of maintaining legal distinctions that had begun to lose their importance.


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