East Africa

Preservation of our culture

Back to Home
Preservation of our culture

Written by BB Atwooki


"Preservation of our Cultural Heritage"


Over the past two decades, as I have travelled across Africa, nothing has been more inspiring than the different cultures that I have experienced first hand. This is even more so now that I live in one of the most culturally vibrant and diverse countries on the continent, Nigeria!  


It is always fascinating to watch as we urbane Africans struggle to remain in touch with our cultural roots as we assert our global identity. At many a global conference or UN workshop I would show up in African attire with a captivating gele (head-tie) so as to announce that Africa is in the room...the deference that one received simply because one chose to dress African was always tickling. Never mind the LV handbag!


Cultural preservation in the midst of the everchanging 'global modernization' of our societies lends itself to a delicate balance of institutional building and governance as a whole. The flame for cultural preservation and harmonious coexistence has been interesting to observe in countries like Uganda with the restoration of kingdoms in the early 1990s. 

The issue of traditional rulers remains to be resolved in many modern African societies. As Ken Saro-Wiwa (1995:191) so aptly put it in his detention diary:

Africa's tribes and ethnic groups are ancient and enduring social organizations complete with their own mores and visions, which no colonialism has been able to destroy over the centuries. The African nation-state as presently conceived has only succeeded in stultifying them...


Interestingly enough, as early as 1961 David Apter (1961:ix) in his study of Uganda was able to remark:


By their special relationships with British authorities as well as their institutions, these people have successfully prevented a wholesale assault on their ethnic autonomy. Neither colonial officials nor nationalists have been successful in whittling away the autonomous position of Buganda within Uganda or within a larger context of East African nationalism.


These remarks were made before Uganda attained Independence in October 1962 and more than fifty years later, the Kingdom of Buganda and the Government of Uganda continue to work at their relationship. 


Traditional knowledge can best be married with the modern ideas of democracy through creating viable local governance systems which enable local participation, strengthening of community sense of belonging and ownership by the masses. The Resistance Council system in Uganda that was built on a longstanding traditional system of governance attempted to address some of these issues but the verdict is still out as to whether the goal of meaningful community participation in the development process has been achieved.


We should all appreciate the uniqueness of our cultural fabric and perhaps the preservation of our traditional institutions lies in insulating them from politics. It is these very institutions that make us African and should be carried forward for generations to come.


As an anecdote, I write this a few months from my daughter's wedding, she of the dot.com age and yet we must have the traditional introductory (Kuhingira) ceremony and we have spent the past hour discussing whether or not the Bakiga of Mparo have a traditional attire and if the ceremony is any different from that of the Baganda. And why is this important? It is because we all need a true identity grounded in our cultural heritage.

Muniini K. Mulera
last year
Fascinating observations and thoughts Atwooki. Yes the Bakiga had traditional attire, made of one-of-a-kind leather. The lady would wear a leather skirt, and a leather throw covering her chest and tummy. Appropriate beads and such decorated her attire. Bangles and anklets and waist beads were commonly worn and a beaded head band completed the wardrobe. Sadly these things were dumped as we made the transition to our hybrid culture, with a generous preference for our British heritage.

Today, the Mukiga bride will be seen clothed in an attire that would easily pass for the Kinyankore or Kinyarwanda variety. This is perfectly fine, for fashion is dynamic, borrowing from others as tastes change.

Who influences fashion? The political leaders and the entertainers have a significant impact on national fashions. One recalls the Kaunda suit in East and Central Africa in the 60s and 70s. Kenneth Kaunda and Julius Nyerere were dominant figures that many wished to emulate. Ditto Mandela lovely shirts that made sense in a hot climate. Our current leaders and their spouses would probably have a significant impact on fashion if they were partial to African attire. To her credit, the Nnabagereka (Queen) of Buganda has done her duty in this regard. Sylvia Naginda makes her Busuutis look very beautiful.
Level 1 (XP: 50)
BB Atwooki has written a thoughtful piece, which is even more enticing in the context of her own daughter's impending exit from the nest--and the cultural pomp and ceremony that I suppose it will entail. I agree that Uganda's many cultures, from the Bakiga to the South West to the Alur in the North West, and many others in between, have helped preserve sanity and indeed ensured social continuity in the midst of Uganda's challenges, past and present. Who indeed is not charmed by the elaborate "kwanjula," which these days has taken on gigantic proportions, with each side chaperoned by a court jester--with much laughter all around?

However, given the pressures of today, such cultural exertions have become quite excessive. In the past, cultural practices were more embedded and forthrightness, hard work and decency were the basis for social advancement. This is the reason why Uganda was able to embrace the three Rs--Reading, Writing and Arithmetic--in a manner that had few equals in the region. The societies' sense of decency also included emphasis on cleanliness and decorum--children were taught that "things had to be done properly." Under the socio-economic pressure of the past and "demonstrations effects" from globalization, all these cultural sign posts have been eroded. That probably explains why we tend to exaggerate and indeed "over invest" in the few cultural things that we have left. In a typical "kwanjula" these days, the lucky lady changes the "busuuti" at least 3 times, cuts a skyscraper of a cake, and pulls out some Gucci shoes for the last flourish. I have not mentioned her sisters and friends, nor the bridegroom and his friends. They are all typically at their most fashionable. The idea is partly to wet everyone's appetite for the wedding "bash" ahead. An interesting commentary is that for all the horrendous expense, there are friends willing to shoulder the burden, as indeed for the wedding itself. The bride and groom also borrow money from banks if needed.

For a clear-eyed economist, I sometimes wonder what impact such investments in these cultural mores could have had if some were shifted into more productive investments in commerce and industry. But I suppose culture is culture and economy is economy.

Recent Posts

Popular Posts