The Superstitious Uganda: Land rich in Symbolism and Culture;
Beliefs, Superstitions, Rituals and Customs in Uganda
By: Frank Murima
The best way to understand a community is learning their beliefs, ways of doing things and the reason behind various rituals.
Africans are regarded as very cultural and conservative people and teachings are passed from generation to generation.
In Uganda things are no different; people are subdivided in accordance to their languages and beliefs.
A deeper look into these communities you’ll find out that the whole population has similar underlying moral beliefs. These set of beliefs play a vital role in ensuring that people co-exist in a peaceful manner.
The official national languages in Uganda are Swahili and English, while the Luganda language is the most common.
The national sport is football, led by their national team Ugandan Cranes. They also engage in other sports such as boxing, athletics and many more.
These events are highly regarded and will fill to capacity as supporters cheer their teams with all manner of paraphernalia.
Unlike the west where most of the phenomena are explained using scientific theories, most occurrences here in Uganda are unraveled through beliefs.
It is therefore imperative for every child, adult and elderly to act in accordance to the ways of the land. Avoid those things that will bring curses and bad luck into your life and practice those that bring good luck or omen.
As there are many beliefs in Uganda that cannot be covered in one article, I will use this article to give an overview of some of the prevalent cultural beliefs, rituals, symbols and some of the important acts that are done during ceremonies to appease the supernatural being.
Beliefs, Superstitions and Customs connected to the different stages of life in Uganda
Ugandan people are separated along ethnic lines. Each community has its own beliefs and leaders.
The people are largely classified as the Bantus, Nilotes and Central Sudanese people.
The Bantus are the largest led by the majority Buganda people.
Others include Bunyoro, Toro and Ankore. The minorities include Iteso, Karamojong, Alur Langi, Acholi, Lugbara Madi and Jie.
The Children of Uganda
A child belongs to the community. Every adult in the community therefore has a mandate and responsibility to instill good morals onto the young ones.
A child who doesn’t pay attention to the teachings of the elderly is deemed to have a doomed future and an early death.
As old age is celebrated, the young children will carefully listen to the elderly and change their ways if warned. They should also submit to punishment and not repeat the mistakes again.
Birth Rites and Rituals in Uganda
In the Ankore community, a pregnant mother is administered to herbs either orally or inserted in the vagina. This is done to cleanse the unborn child.
Upon birth several rituals are also performed to the baby. The head of a new born is forcefully shaped on top of a fire lit for birth, the first milk is forbidden for the child as it makes the child ill.
The birth cord is cut using reed and the mother and friends apply spit, cow dung and dust to aid with fast healing.
In the Acholi community, when the wife becomes pregnant, the whole community is excited as this is a gift from God who is a supernatural being.
The husband gives a hen to the wife to take it to her lineage of her ancestors, this act is done to please the spirits of her dead ancestors as they are deemed responsible for the pregnancy. This act harmonizes the spirits of the ancestors of the husband and those of the wife.
Upon returning to her husband, she takes off her maiden dress, her head is shaven clean to remove any sign of girlhood in her. Shea nut oil is then smeared on her head by an old lady as the other women ululate and give a standing ovation, as she has transitioned to a married woman.
Upon birth, people are not allowed to see the baby immediately. For a baby boy it takes three days as for a girl it takes four days. During this period the child is also not exposed to the sun.
A beaded waistband is meant to protect a newly born baby from spirits that are evil. This mark of protection can be worn by a woman up to adulthood.
Twins – Superstitious Uganda
The birth of twins is celebrated in most of the communities in Uganda. It is only during this ceremony when the in laws are allowed to party together.
Twins are regarded as immune to witchcraft. The parents of the twins are supposed to take care of them and ensure their wellbeing. Failure to do so may end up with bad luck for the parents.
Such include discoloration of their skin, a twin killing an unfaithful parent among other atrocities.
Eating twin banana is said to make a woman give birth to twins. So, women who are looking to give birth to twins will look for such bananas.
Among the Basamia and Bagwe community, a double mouthed pot was used to serve beer in the event there was a birth of twins. This is to show abundance and thank the gods for the gift.
Initiation in Uganda – Not for the Faint Hearted
Different communities use different initiating methods on its members. It is an important stage of every person’s life and a transition to adulthood. Some communities especially the Nilotes do it at birth while the Bantus give the boy time to mature.
Initiation among the Nilotes community is performed by a person who has practiced it for years and it is done immediately upon birth. This is to ensure that it is correctly done and in line with the customs of the tribe.
For the Bantus most communities initiate their members through circumcision. This event is not for the faint hearted as some members flee during such ceremonies.
Those who do this are regarded as cowards and get less attention from girls.
Dropping of a stick that they are usually holding during this ceremony is also a sign that a man is weak.
Beaded wristbands are given when both girls and boys are done with the initiation. It is a natural mark that the person has undergone initiation and act as a reminder of their new role in the community.
Marriage in Uganda
This is a very important stage for members in all the ethnic groups in Uganda. It is a sign that you have made it in life and hence a lot of young people conduct very extravagant weddings.
During the customary marriage families from both ends try to show might; Your daughter is marrying into a rich family – Our daughter comes from a well-off family.
Early marriages are rampant. In some communities girls are made to look for suitors when they show their breast and start menstruating. However, this trend is slowly changing through educating the community on the importance of educating women.
Get Pregnant or Get Out
Upon marriage a woman is expected to start bearing children immediately or else is labeled barren.
Even after the first birth, she is expected to have sex with her husband four days after to honor him.
If a woman doesn’t give birth after one year of marriage, traditional doctors are called in to assist.
If their efforts fail, then the man is free to replace her with a fertile woman.
Modern contraceptives are rarely used and most women go for the traditional methods which are quite ineffective. People like to have many children as they are highly regarded as the future custodians and security of a household.
The Curse of Unmarried Mothers in Uganda
A child born out of wedlock is highly discouraged and is considered a curse. In the earlier years the clan killed the girl before she brought the curse.
The shamefulness of premarital pregnancy still looms today and a girl is banished from home to go and look for the man responsible for the pregnancy. The mother is also reprimanded for failing to raise her daughter well.
Death of a Virgin
If a girl dies before getting married, some rituals are conducted. Such rituals include passing the dead body of the girl using the “back entrance” and also a ritual to break her virginity. These rituals are undertaken so that the clan is not faced with a curse and bad luck.
Polygamy in Uganda
Most Ugandan communities are polygamous. A man is allowed to marry a second wife if the first woman is barren. This is to ensure the continuity of the clan.
Another scenario is if the first woman doesn’t produce sons then the man is allowed to marry a second one to bore him sons.
In the patrilinear society a man need sons to continue his lineage and ensure its survival.
A rich man is also allowed to marry many wives if he is in a position to pay bride-wealth. This is to continue his lineage and have many children to inherit his riches.
A poor man cannot marry many wives as they cannot afford the dowry price.
A man has to work hard and amass wealth to marry more than one wife. This is because polygamy is a symbol of wealth and a prestigious status in the community.
Divorce in Uganda
In most of the ethnic groups in Uganda, divorce and separation is highly discouraged unless the wife is barren.
The woman is supposed to avoid such an occurrence by refraining from angering their husbands. They should not deny the man conjugal rights and are expected to be tolerant with the husband’s bad behavior and forgive when necessary.
If the marriage is faced with a major conflict, the woman can be sent back home or voluntarily choose to go back to their home.
The elders of the girl’s clan will not hesitate to summon the man and listen to their grievances.
If the woman is found guilty then the family is fined before her husband takes her back.
If the man is found guilty then his family will pay. The fine ranges from pots of beer to a full grown bull. This depends on the seriousness of the conflict.
Widowhood in Uganda
In most African community a woman is not allowed to remarry especially if she is old and have passed her fertile years. The old sons of the woman are required to take care of her financially and in any other way.
Some communities in Uganda still practice levirate; this is the adoption of the wife by a brother-in-law.
In some rare cases a step-son who is the same age as the widow or older can inherit the wife. This is done immediately the funeral arrangements of a deceased husband are finished.
Superstitious Uganda: Death
In most Ugandan communities, talking about death is prohibited as it is regarded as the work of evil spirits. In some, such as Banyankole, they do not see death as a natural occurrence and blame it on witchcraft.
The body is buried facing East, the man is buried on the right side while the spouse is buried on the left side.
Manual labor during the mourning period is prohibited as it said that it angers the gods who may send famine and drought to the land.
Suicide Superstition in Uganda
In the event of a suicide by hanging on a tree, a hole is dug directly beneath the hanging body and only a woman who has attained menopause can cut the hanging body. The ones who cuts the rope is said to die shortly after.
Death of a Childless Person
If a woman died without children, she was buried with the innermost stem of a banana and a stick was inserted to represent a man. While if it was a childless man, two sticks were inserted on the banana stem to represent woman, this was done to please the spirits of the gods.
Superstitious Uganda: Preparing the body for Burial
In the Bagisu community, the body is prepared for burial by shaving off the hair. This is done in presence of an adult of the same age as the deceased.
If the male had not been circumcised when they were alive, they are circumcised then by a traditional surgeon. This traditional doctor is banned from conducting any other circumcisions in the community.
In the Buganda community, the body is cleaned and set for burial. During the funeral, the dead are to be buried wearing the underwear of the spouse. This is done to confuse the spirits that they have buried the dead with the spouse.
In the past, after the funeral unlimited indulgence in sex and booze drinking took place, this was to continue procreation since one of their members is gone.
Loud mourning is an indication that the deceased was vastly known and loved in their community. This has led to hiring of professional mourners who wail loudly for a fee.
Some of the elderly in the community however are against such theatrics and say that having a stranger cry at a funeral can bring bad luck to the family of the deceased.
General Superstitions believed to bring good luck in Uganda
The Blessing of Rain
Rain is regarded as a gift from the gods. It replenishes the land and ensures that crops grow and cattle feed as there is an abundance of food. In the past if it did not rain, rainmakers were common and would sacrifice to the gods to bring rain.
Drought on the other hand is regarded as a punishment; it is a sign that the gods are not pleased with the community.
The end of a rainbow is believed to have a pot of gold. It is also a natural presentation of the beauty of the gods that watch over the land.
The migration of insects and birds is a sign that rains are close and therefore farmers are excited hence commence preparing their lands.
Having morning dew on your feet rather than ash is a sign that you are hardworking person. This is because early rising is celebrated in many communities.
New Year – An Important Event
The beginning of a New Year is highly celebrated in Uganda. Most people believe that; how you usher the New Year that is how the whole year will be for you, it is therefore important to start in high spirits.
Mussambwa Island – Uganda
The famous Mussambwa Island is a men only island. Women are prohibited from visiting as there are superstitions that it hates women.
The island is full of snakes and this sends chills on most women hence avoid it.
New Cars and Chickens
When a person buys a car in Uganda, people say that it is compulsory for him/her to share a delicious meal of chicken with his family members. A car is still a symbol of wealth and hard work in most of African countries.
Also, by doing this the person is protected from having fatal accidents.
Superstitious Uganda: Squashing of Eggs
When a person returns from hospital, some of the communities make the person squash eggs beneath their feet. This is done to banish the ailment from ever returning to him and his family.
Squashing of eggs is also undertaken by ex-convicts upon their return home. This is to put the past life in jail and a mark of a new life.
Never Eat in a Dark Room
Eating in the dark is said to be eating with the Satan. When the lights are out, one is not allowed to eat until they are back.
This is one is also logical as eating in darkness may result to you eating a foreign object in your food.
Common accepted beliefs/superstitions in everyday life believed to bring good luck and actions people do to avoid bad luck
Greeting and Eye Contact Customs in Uganda
Greetings, if you pass a person in Uganda without greeting them, it is termed as rude.
Greeting a leader is said to bring good luck and prosperity. This is evident in times when a great leader visits an area as everyone scrambles to greet them.
A woman is expected to slightly bend their legs when greeting men. Curtsey shows that the woman is respectful and morally upright in accordance to the rules of the land. This is most prevalent in central Uganda.
Direct eye contact in most African countries is discouraged. Children are not allowed to look at adults directly in the eye, this is regarded as disrespect. One is also not allowed to look their parent in the eye as it seems as if you are measuring them as your equal.
Never Cut Your Nails at Night
It is advisable not to cut your nails at night. This has been a taboo for many years. I think this is one is logical as most people use razor blades and other sharp objects to do this and may end up injuring themselves at night.
Left Palm Itches Superstiton
If your left palm itches, this is a sign that you are going to receive some money, but if your right one itches, owe unto you as you are about to lose some money!
No Bikes nor Goats for Women
Women, especially in the rural areas are not allowed to ride bicycles. It is regarded as men only accessory. However, many are embracing the changes in time and are now riding them to the farms and market.
In the past women were not allowed to own goats. Goats were only owned by men and used as sign of wealth. They also came in handy when they were tasked with paying of dowry.
Common special objects or amulets associated with good luck
Wood, stone carvings and other gifts are exchanged among people during and special occasions. It is important to note that gatherings are highly regarded and so an object gifted during such ceremonies is given much value.
Community leaders carry an oxtail or other objects to signify power. When conducting a ceremony, they may wear traditional regalia as sign of wisdom and their understanding of the culture of that community.
Karamojong women undergo the scarification of their face to enhance their beauty. Married women also used to wear a metallic bead of copper, brass and steel, this was to show her important stature and role in the community.
Superstitions, myths and misconceptions are ways to keep the whole community in check. It ensures that the community maintains its moral uprightness. Also by conducting these ceremonies, they ensure that they pass their teachings from one generation to the other.
By: Frank Murima
Continue Reading about superstitions and customs in different countries