Delving Into The Mythical World Of The Bachwezi
Written by: Anthony Natif & Dibo
A mention of Ibanda to a casual observer will conjure up images of Mbarara’s poorer cousin; struggling for relevance in the shadow of its more illustrious neighbor. After all, it’s from Mbarara that Ibanda was curved back in 2005 with the elevation of Ibanda County to district status. To call Ibanda, Mbarara’s poorer cousin though is obviously an overly exaggerated caricature that underestimates the cultural and historical punch this place packs. When you take a cursory look under the hood, you will find that the truth is more nuanced. Ibanda is a hidden gem.
The weekend of March 13-15th, Mountain Slayers Uganda, an eclectic collection of outdoor enthusiasts who have made it their life’s mission to dispel myths about our country one hiking trip at a time, made the 5-hour journey west, to explore this region. They call this “slaying” and to these nature and travel enthusiasts, it’s a welcome hiatus from the humdrum that is daily living. Slays happen every 6 weeks (unless Corona has something to say about it) and they are an opportunity for MSU members to let their hair down, smell the leaves, commune with nature and just celebrate this, the most beautiful of countries. To them, slays are more than just about hiking. They are a cultural immersion, a celebration of individual uniqueness that makes our country the bastion of goodness that it is. It’s the food; it’s the language, the local stories, the dances, the people, and the culture! Ibanda didn’t disappoint.
The pre-hike info pack promised a trek back in time with stories about the Bachwezi, Harry George Galt, the first and only colonial master killed in Uganda as well as a hike up Mabanga hill that hugs Ibanda much like Table Mountain hugs Cape town and into Nyakahondogoro caves, believed by the locals to be the sanctuary of the Bachwezi. The hike delivered on all these promises and then some.
Led by our amiable guides from the Ibanda Hill Trekkers’ Club, the hike up Mabanga started at Nyamirima and took us through hills, gardens, homesteads right up to Nyakahondogoro caves with a brief ascent to the top of Mabanga hill and then back to camp. These caves that can accommodate more than 100 people are a spectacle. Located in Nyamirima, Nyabuhikye ward, Ibanda Municipality, they are a huge income-generating site for the local tour guides. Most importantly for the locals, this cave is a holy site for believers, some of whom are led by a woman called Nyamunyonyi. They come to make sacrifices to and to seek for blessings from their gods. The locals believe this site to be the home of the Bachwezi. It’s incredibly difficult to talk to a local for longer than 5 minutes without hearing a word or two about these demigods who it is believed live among them to this day. They are said to announce their presence through night sightings of fires that cover the numerous hills surrounding Ibanda. As a visitor to this region, you may win yourself a beating by relaying anthropological studies that show that the Bachwezi have never disappeared in thin air and are indeed still resident among us mere mortals but not as demigods but as black people who, like the Bantu, migrated south from Egypt following the liquidation of the Egyptian kingdom and subsequent amalgamation into the Persian empire around 525 BC when Cambyses, the King of Persia took it upon himself to kill the black natives. Whatever the truth may be is entirely dependent on how much one wants to believe in the existence of people flying on brooms and hills burning with no actual fire insight. Adds to the whole mystery of Ibanda. Anyways, back to things local, the area LC1 Chairman, a one Leo Bakyeyaka believes that this region isn’t fully exploiting the economic potential of Nyakahondogoro. He is right. Tourism should come in as a much-needed supplement to agriculture-especially of the subsistence kind-that, like in most of the country, is the major economic activity in Ibanda.
On the African continent, Uganda is a land of “firsts” in areas of female political leadership. Who can ever forget former Vice President Dr. Specioza Wandira Kazibwe, the first female VP anywhere on the continent? She owes a great deal of gratitude to the likes of Julia Kibubura. It is virtually impossible to visit Ibanda and not hear about this amazing woman. Ssebo Julia Kibubura, yes, she was so powerful, the locals addressed her as Sir, was the first female Gomborora Chief in Uganda. She advocated for mass education, especially of the girl child and helped set up many churches and schools. The Present-day St Paul Church of Uganda (pro-Cathedral) traces its roots to the mud and wattle church built on “Ibandura hill”, a place of African Traditional worship by Julia. She was that brave. So brave that her 1905 decision to hold the body of slain British Acting Sub-Commissioner for Western Province Harry St. George Galt, is still part of Ankole folklore to this day. Born in Ibanda to the witch Doctor of then Omugabe Mutabuka, Kibubura was forced into exile when her father, an influential fortune teller and medicine man sided with Mukwenda who was locked up in a power struggle with Ntare-V. Mukwenda lost this fight and thus had to flee. Kibubura and her sister Kishokye as well as her brothers fled to Bunyoro, which was, then under Omukama Kabalega. They were later to return to Ankole thanks in no small part to their spiritual intercession (Okubandwa). As intermediaries between the worlds of spirits and humans, they were welcomed like heroes and given the freedom of Ankole. In exchange, they used their emandwa, Nyakashambi to protect Ankole from any danger. It was therefore a major coup for the Christian missionaries when Kibubura ditched emandwa and started planting churches. A visit to Ibanda isn’t complete without a brief detour to her resting place.
The Galt Monument
The story of Harry George Galt, after whom Galt Street in Mbarara town is named, maybe as bewildering as that of the Bachwezi. Born in Great Britain in 1872, he was Her Majesty’s tax collector for Ankole sub-region who later rose to the level of sub-Commissioner of western Uganda Province. He is said to have been cruel to the locals, a 33-year-old young man drunk on power. On 19th May 1905, the day of his death, just eleven years after Uganda had been declared a British protectorate, he is said to have asked locals to carry him from Fort Portal to Ibanda. And this is where the story gets confusing. The locals’ pleas for a rest fell on deaf ears as he shouted “paka Banda” (not until Ibanda). They trudged along, burdened by the weight of an irascible provincial head, up until Katooma, some 3 km from Ibanda town. He took a rest in a government house.
The locals narrated their awful ordeal and word got to a one Rutaraka, a hunchbacked man whose lack of height was only bettered by his short fuse, who got his spear, matched to the government house in whose compound Galt was resting and hurled the spear in the direction of Galt’s chest. He didn’t survive the impact. Some circles say Rutaraka was hired to kill Galt as a way to stop the molestation of the young boys who carried him over hundreds of miles. Some of our guides alleged that he had come to visit Julia Kibubura and a jilted lover planned his murder. Others claim that Rutaraka was so incensed with his family and knowing that the only retribution for killing a white man would be a blood purge of his entire family, he went and did just. He is said to have taken his own life soon after; a tale that’s disputed by findings from his exhumed body that seemed to suggest that he had been murdered by strangling, hanged afterward to suggest suicide and bring quick closure to the British inquiry into Galt’s murder before it led to the discovery of powerful instigators aligned with Ankole Kingdom that was generally thought to be hostile to the British rule in the region. Clearly, the truth is neither here nor there. Because his death was the first of its kind in Uganda, the British response was swift and heavy-handed in order to send a message to the masses. A trial and conviction were held for two chiefs who were accused of gross negligence. This conviction was later set-aside on appeal by the Court of Appeal for East Africa at Mombasa. The Omugabe and his senior chiefs weren’t spared either, with then Governor Hesketh Bell asking them to hand over hundreds of heads of cattle and hitting them with a special tax to pay for the building of the Galt Memorial Hall. As part of proceedings that the Governor later described in his book “Glimpses of a Governor’s Life” as having been “high handed and arbitrary”, locals were forced to build a monument at the site of Galt’s killing, the very site that Kibubura held his lifeless body covered in a pool of blood. This 5-meter high monument still stands to this day as a painful reminder of the tensions that simmered between local communities and the colonialists in the nascent stages of British rule in Uganda. Sir Hesketh Bell described the punishment meted out to Ankole as so severe; it served as a deterrent for years on end. It is a verifiable fact that no other British colonial blood was shed in Uganda as a result of local agitation.
Other notable places to visit next time you are in Ibanda:
Kijongo Crater lakes
Kashoya-Kitomi forest reserve, now at the mercy of encroachers