Situated on a hill with in Kampala, The Kasubi tombs tourism site is an active religious place in the Buganda Kingdom . Its place as a burial ground for the previous 4 Kabakas of Buganda makes it a very important religious centre for the royal family, a place where the Kabaka and his representatives frequently carry out important rituals related to the Ganda culture. It is an outstanding example of traditional Ganda architecture and an exceptional testimony of the living Ganda Traditions. For Uganda and the East African region as a whole, the site represents an important symbol for its history and culture. The site was inscribed on the UNESCO world heritage list in 2001.
The Kasubi tombs are situated five kilometers away from Kampala city centre on Kasubi hill, the Kampala/ Hoima road. When coming from Kampala centre, pass Makerere University and drive down to Nakulabye. At the Nakulabye junction, turn right on the Hoima road , drive 1 km up the kasubi hill( on your left ), and turn left on the Masiro road. The entrance to the Tombs is marked by a thatched hut.
HISTORY AND CULTURE OF BAGANDA
The Baganda belong to the Bantu speaking people and date their political civilization back to the 13th Century AD. According to oral tradition, the first Kabaka of Buganda was Kintu. He is said to have come with his wife Nambi, whose hand he won by performing heroic deeds at the command of her father Gulu, the god of the sky. Kabaka Kintu is said not to have died but to have disappeared into the forest at Magonga. At kasubi and in all other royal tombs, there is an area behind a bark cloth curtain known as Kibira or forest where certain secret ceremonies are performed. At the Kasubi tombs, the Kibira is the area where the real tombs of the Kabaka are, while in front of the curtain there are raised plat forms corresponding to the position of each Kabaka’s tomb behind the curtain.
The first Kabaka to be buried at Kasubi tombs was Muteesa I who was the 35th King . The dates of the reigns of the Kabakas are only precisely known from Kabaka Suuna II, who ruled from 1836 and 1856.
History, Buganda kabakas have always built their palaces on strategic hills to control the major roads to the Palace and find easy ways to escape in case of an invasion or rebellion. When they died , the traditional practice was to bury each Kabaka at a separate site to establish a royal shrine to house his jaw bone which was believed to contain his spirit at another site. These shrines were staffed by descendants of the Kabaka’s leading chiefs, his wives, his ritual half sister, and by spirit medium through which the dead Kabaka communicated with his successors. Many of the s shrines are still maintained today.
The four Kabakas at Kasubi Tombs
Kabaka Muteesa 1
Muteesa 1 was born around 1835 and was crowned in 1856. He established his palace at Kasubi tombs in 1882 , as did his father, Kabaka Suuna 11. He was so afraid of rebellions that he imprisoned all his brothers in a great trench , where many of them died. Muteesa became a very powerful kabaka and had more wives than any of his predecessors. He was also the first Kabaka to be influenced by foreign cultures. He adopted some Islamic religious practices, learned from Ivory and slave traders who traveled inland from Zanzibar. He also showed interest in Europe after hosting John Speke, who was the first European visitor to Buganda in 1862. When the explorer Henry Murton Stanley visited him , in 1875, he requested teachers of European learning and religion. At this time, European countries, particularly England and Germany were speaking the territories at the source of the Nile . Although Muteesa allowed his Muslim and Christian Guest to compete with each other for converts among his royal staff, he never let them threaten his authority. He died in 1884 and his body was buried, whole at his palace, Kasubi. He had decreed that his jaw bone should not be removed from his body. He thus broke two traditions; first being buried whole and second being buried in his former palace at Kasubi. Mwanga 11 succeeded his father in 1884 and was the last Monarch of an independent Buganda. In 1886, many of Muteesa’s subjects who had converted to Christianity or Islam were burned to death. Mwanga’s leading Christian and Muslim cheifs became worried and combined their forces to overthrow him.
Mwanga II joined the resistance struggle against the British colonial forces in 1897. He joined forces with Kabalega the by then King of Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom , but they were defeated and captured on the 9th April 1899. Both Kings were exiled to the Seychelles Island. Mwanga II who had by then been christened Daniel, died there in 1903. His remains were brought back in 1910 and buried at Kasubi. This again broke the Old tradition of burying Kabakas at different sites thus making Kasubi an important burial site of the kabakas of Buganda.
Kabaka Daudi Chwa II
His son Daudi Chwa succeeded him at the age of one year in 1897. He ruled with a regency of 1 catholic and 2 protestant chiefs until he attained maturity at the age of 18 years. Daudi Chwa died in 1939 and he was also buried at Kasubi Tombs with his two predecessors. This strengthened further the ritual value of the Kasubi tombs.
Kabaka Muteesa II
Kabaka Duadi Chwa was succeeded by his son Edward Muteesa 11. In 1953, a conflict developed between Muteesa II and the then Governor of the Uganda protectorate sir Andrew Cohen over Changes in the Buganda Agreement of 1900. Muteesa II was exiled IN England and he was returned in 1955. When Uganda attained independence from the British on 9th October 1962, Muteesa II became the constitutional president of Uganda. However, tension soon developed between him and the then prime minister Appolo Minister Obote which culminated in the storming of the Kabaka’s palaces in may 1966. He escaped and went to Exile in England. he died in 1969 in London and his remains were brought back and buried at Kasubi in1971.
With all these four Kabaka buried at the same site, the Kasubi Tombs became a re known Important Shrine in Buganda’s history. Each prince and princess is who is a descendant to any of these four Kings is buried at Kasubi behind the main shrine. Consequently, apart from its ritual value, the site has also become culturally important as the cemetery of the royalty of the Buganda Kingdom.
In 1967, Obote abrogated the 1962 Federal Constitution and introduced a republican constitution with him self as president. This change abolished Kingdoms of Uganda. The Ugandan Government repressed the tribal Kingdoms which were perceived as a threat to the national interest. The palace of Kabaka Mutesa II was attacked by government troops led by Idi Amin and the Kingdom that was brought to an end by President Museveni. Mutesa II died in London an London but his Son Sabassaja Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Kimera Mutebi II returned from Exile and was crowned in 1993. The coronation has helped catalyze a cultural renaissance amongst the Baganda and many of whom had little awareness of Ganda Traditions.
The Kasubi tombs hill can be divided into three main areas; The main Tomb area located at the western end of the site, an area located behind the main tombs containing a number of buildings and grave yards and large areas on the eastern side of the site used primarily for agricultural purposes.
The entrance of the site is a beautifully built gate house called Bujjabukula. Traditionally, guards were hiding with in the house behind a woven reed partition , day and night , in order to control access. This gate house was constructed using wooden columns supporting a thatched roof, with walls made of wooven reeds. The Bajjabukula leads to a small courtyard which contains the Ndoga- Obukaba, a circular house in which the royal drums are kept.
From this forecourt, one enters the main courtyard (Olugya) enclosed by a reed fence and several houses built for the widows of the Kabakas and for other Ritual purposes. The entrance into this county yard is a striking experience as one immediately faces the main tomb building known as Muzibu-Azaala- Mpanga, which is the architectural masterpiece of this ensemble.
MUZIBU AZAALA MPANGA
The first palace originally built by Mutesa I’s father, King Suuna II in 1820 does not exist any more. The main building that can be seen today was re built in 1882 by Mutesa I . The Muzibu – Azaala – Mpanga is circular in plan and has a dome like shape . Its massive scale can be seen in its external diameter of 31 meters and internal height of 7.5 meters. On entering the courtyard, the attention of the visitor is immediately captured by the beauty of the thick thatched roof which
extends all the way down to the ground. Entrance to the Muzibu- Azaala – Mpanga is through a low wide arch flanked on both sides by richly woven reeds. Its inside is partitioned with a huge bark cloth which separates the ” sacred Forest” where the four royal graves lie. Entrance to the “sacred forest” is limited to the windows of the Kabakas, the royal family, the Nalinya and Katikkiro. The inside of the house is adorned with power insignias such as drums, spears, shield, medal and photographs of the Kabakas buried there. The floor is covered with a thick layer of lemon grass and palm leaves mats. The whole structure is supported by gigantic straight wooden poles wrapped in bark cloth. This creates striking impression of harmony and power.
The thatching technique at the kasubi Tombs is quite unique and can hardly be compared to another African or European thatching technique. The grass is prepared in conical bundles which are simply laid onto the roof structure without being tied, except for the first layers at the bottom. When one of these bundles is rotten, it can simply be pulled out and replaced. This interesting technique makes the huge maintenance task of the thatched roofs much easier. The thatching is carried out by the members of the Ngeye Clan( Colobus monkey clan), who are the only people allowed to do the work. The thatching skills are kept among them
selves, with knowledge passed down from the elders of the Clan to younger member during an apprenticeship. This practice is still very much alive with younger members of the clan coming up voluntarily to take on this important responsibility at the site. Special rules a are respected when fixing a roof. The widows for example are not allowed to enter the building when it is being thatched as it is believed that their presence would cause leakage. Pregnant ladies are also not allowed inside during repairs. Similarly the thatchers are not allowed inside during repairs. Similarly the thatchers are not supposed to have sexual intercourse during the thatching period. The same prohibition is observed by the decorators of the poles who belong to the leopard clan. The fabric made from the soft bark of the fig tree ( ficus natalensis) is one of the fascinating Ganda skills. This bark cloth has a strong ritual importance to the people of Uganda. To make this soft and resistant fabric, the outer bark of the tree is carefully removed and then alternately soaked and beaten with a grooved wooden mallet, until the Fibers become flexible. The bark then re- grow and can be harvested again a year later.
Bark cloth was traditionally popular for clothing, but today, bark cloth is rather used for craft products such as hats, mats, book covers, purses and many other items. It is also used to wrap dead bodies. As a matter of fact, the bark cloth is a respected Item in the burial ceremonial of quite a number of communities in Uganda.
The physical features of the kasubi Tombs only represent a slight fraction of the traditional life there. The rich intangible heritage of the site is crucially important to the continuity of its heritage value.
The tombs and the entire site environment carry strong spiritual and social significance. The architecture its self carries meanings related to the Ganda traditions. The rich decorative features, invested with spiritual values reflect the interaction between nature and culture, between the spirits and the living people. One example are the fifty two rings of spear grass that were binded and support the great roof of the tombs. They are numbered to represent the Ganda clans which are 52 in number.
The hidden part inside the great house as stated earlier is known as the “forest” or
Kibira. . It is a sacred and secret area where kings spirits reside. Only the widows have access to this part behind a bark cloth curtain.
Apart from the Royal burial ceremonies , other traditional rituals are carried out throughout the year. They include; the new moon ceremony and the consultation of the mediums. But the main spiritual life is not visible to the ordinary visitor as many ceremonies are performed secretly inside the buildings. This aspect of the Ganda traditional is well known by the population and it is still respected. The Baganda also observe the myths concerning the origin of death. People believe that every person’s death has a spiritual origin. At Kasubi when a King or a member of his family dies, they immediately enthrone a success after the burial and perform rituals to appease the spirits. Animals are sacrificed and gifts of various kinds including money are deposited in the numerous shrines.
Kasubi is also visited by a wide range of Baganda medicine men and women who consult the kings’ spirits to obtain blessings in their trade.
The major difficulty in terms of conservation is to keep the thatched roofs in good condition. Although the thatching skills are still well mattered and the thatch is still available, conserving the roofs requires continuous efforts in terms of monitoring and replacement of the decayed grass. Financial resources are also needed to purchase the new thatch and pay the artisans and funds are not always available on time. The selling of this booklet is part of a strategy to create a conservation fund for the site.
The site is also affected by other threats. One of them is the shape of the roof which has changed over the years. Archive photographs show that the original slopes were steeper, and this allowed for a faster drainage of the rain water. Another problem affecting the roofs is changing climate, which cause more humidity than in the past.