Interlacustrine Bantu Religions

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated


INTERLACUSTRINE BANTU RELIGIONS . The term interlacustrine Bantu, as used here, encompasses a variety of peoples who live between the Great Lakes of east-central Africa and speak closely related Bantu languages. Their territory includes some of the most densely populated regions of Africa, consisting of all of Uganda south of the Victoria Nile, the states of Rwanda and Burundi, and a substantial portion of northwest Tanzania. Before independence, most of the area was divided into a number of traditional kingdoms, the largest of these being Rwanda and Burundi in the south and the four Uganda monarchies of Buganda, Bunyoro, Toro, and Ankole in the north. There were also about a dozen smaller but structurally similar units in the Tanzanian sector. The mass of the people are agriculturalists, but in many areas a cattle-owning minority, called Huma, or Hima, in the north and Tutsi in the south, formed a dominant and hereditary upper class.

Today most of the people of the region are at least nominally Christians; there is also a substantial minority of Muslims. But the indigenous cults are still widespread and are remarkably similar throughout the area.

The Spirit Powers

All the peoples of the area have the idea of a supreme being, known as Imana in the south, Ruhanga in the Nyoro-speaking north, and Katonda in Uganda; the last two names mean "creator." In some myths the hierarchical class structure mentioned above is ascribed to him, which to a certain degree may have sanctioned its acceptance by the less privileged. But, in a familiar pattern, the creator god, having made the world, was disappointed by it and withdrew from active participation in human affairs. Shrines are not made for him, nor are sacrifices offered as they are to the other gods (though here Buganda seems to have been an exception). In contrast to the lesser spirit powers, no mediumship cult is dedicated to the supreme being. He is, however, thought to be generally well disposed toward humans, and brief prayers and thanks may be offered up to him on a casual basis.

Far more significant in everyday life are the powerful spirits known as embandwa or emandwa. The most important of these form a group of hero-gods, whose names are well known throughout the area. They are linked in the south with a quasi-mythical ruler called Ryangombe and in the north with a shadowy ruling dynasty whose members are called cwezi. These heroic figures are the subject of a rich mythology; sometimes they are represented as the earliest descendants of the creator, sometimes as having come from a distant country. In either case they were great warriors, larger than life, and the doers of marvelous deeds. They were accompanied by retinues of kin and servants, and their women are included among their number. Like the Greek gods, some are identified with particular features of the environment; thus Wamara is associated with rain and rivers, Kagoro with thunder and lightning, Mulisa with cattle and cattle herding, Mugasa with the Great Lakes, and so on.

Eventually this heroic race vanished from the world: some say that the cwezi disappeared into one of the lakes in the area; Ryangombe is said to have been killed by a wild buffalo while hunting. But whatever their fate, it is believed that they left the institution of spirit mediumship behind for the benefit of their successors. This institution involved both possession and mediumship; it is believed that the possessing spirit, while "in the head" of its medium, may enter into communication with the living within an accepted framework of values and beliefs. Traditionally, these cults focused especially on the hero-gods who were, and still are, regarded as primarily beneficial, concerned especially with human fecundity. In Bunyoro and some neighboring areas the cwezi are known as the "white" embandwa; the color white signifying purity and blessing. These traditional cults, centered on the cwezi in the north and on Ryangombe and his associates in the south, may be said to form the core of interlacustrine Bantu religions.

There are many other spirits of nonhuman and sometimes of foreign origin that can be approached through mediumship ritual. These are sometimes known in the northern areas as the "black" embandwa, and they include spirits associated with the bush, with certain illnesses, and with some neighboring countries. In the interlacustrine area (as elsewhere in Africa) more recent spirits have come to represent new and formidable forces of all kinds, such as hitherto unknown illnesses, manifestations of Western power such as motorcars, airplanes, and even army tanks, as well as such abstract qualities as "Europeanness." All these elements and a great many more have been readily incorporated into the mediumship cults.

In addition to the high god and the wide and growing variety of embandwa spirits, there are the ghosts of the dead. Ghost cults are not necessarily ancestor cults. An ancestor cult is concerned with the deceased forebears of a lineage, who are usually conceived as a collectivity and are believed to be directly interested in the well-being of their descendants. Though traces of such a cult are still found in parts of the interlacustrine area, it has none of the importance of such fully developed cults as have been described among, for example, some West African peoples.

But the cult of ghosts is important throughout the region. It is believed that ghosts are left by people after they die; diffused like the wind, such ghosts are sometimes associated with a shadowy underworld, and it is thought that they may bring death, illness, or other calamity on those who have injured or offended them while they were alive. Ghosts are not necessarily kin or affines of their victims, though very often they are. Disputes are especially likely to arise within a person's circle of relatives, and it is believed that these may readily take the form, postmortem, of ghostly vengeance. Anyone, relative or not, who dies with a grudge against another may "leave a ghost" to obtain revenge.

Throughout the interlacustrine area, ghosts are seen as malevolent rather than benevolent, more concerned to punish than to reward. They are feared rather than revered, though if they cannot be exorcised it is desirable to remain on good terms with them. In either case, recourse must be had to the possession cults.


Generally people have recourse to the cults as a response to some misfortune, and when things go wrong, the first step is to consult a diviner. He, or possibly she, using one of a wide variety of techniques, is likely to ascribe the client's trouble to an embandwa spirit, an offended ghost, or sorcery. If the responsible agent is found to be an embandwa spirit or a ghost there are two possibilities. If the ghost is that of a stranger (or of a very distant relative) or if the affliction is attributed to a minor spirit such as might be sent by a sorcerer, then there are special ritual techniques for exorcising it and either destroying it or turning it away from its intended victim forever.

But the more important embandwa, and the ghosts of closely related kin or affines, cannot be dealt with so summarily. The afflicted person must become initiated into the mediumship cult as the spirit's human medium. This establishes an enduring relationship between person and spirit, a relationship that should be sustained from time to time by further possession ritual. In the course of these séances the possessing power is believed to be able to communicate with the living through its medium, who is supposed to be in a state of trance while this is happening. The spirit may begin by announcing its identity, and then greet and be greeted by all present. It may go on to explain what offended it and ask for food and drinkan offering that should be given to it there and then while it is "in the medium's head." Or it may demand the sacrifice or dedication to it of a cow or a goat, or the building for it of a spirit hut. And it may, if it is the ghost of a close kinsman, ask for the reconciliation of quarreling family members. Before it "leaves the head" of its medium, a spirit, if it is mollified, is likely to bless all present and to promise them good fortune, and especially more children, in the future. Séances are dramatic occasions, involving drumming, dancing, and the singing of special songs, and mediums may assume the language and gestures appropriate to their possessing spirits.

While possessed, mediums appear to be in a state of trance and may claim afterward that they have no recollection of what happens to them when they are possessed. But evidence from several parts of the area indicates that complete dissociation is seldom, if ever, achieved; generally, the medium is "putting on an act." But this does not mean that they are fraudulent; the play they are performing is a religious one, a "liturgical drama" in Luc de Heusch's phrase. And, in addition to providing a ritual means of influencing powers over which there are no other means of control, the mediumship cults are also a source of dramatic entertainment in their own right.

Admission to the cults requires a complex (and expensive) cycle of initiation ritual, often lasting for several days and culminating in the possession of the novice by the spirit concerned. The pattern of cult initiation is broadly similar throughout the area. First, the initiate's change of status is stressed. He, or more probably she, is reborn into a new family, that of her fellow mediums, and this rebirth may be symbolically enacted. Second, the secrets of cult membership have to be learned; in particular, the novice may be told how to simulate possession and mediumship even though she does not actually achieve these states. Threats of the fearful consequences of disclosure confirm the candidate's commitment to secrecy. And third, the process of initiation puts the aspirant in a condition of ritual impurity, needing special ritual to remedy it.

Social Context

Important throughout much of the area was the role of the household medium, in the Nyoro-speaking region called omucwezi wʾeka or, if female, nyakatagara. One member of the family, usually female and preferably initiated while still a child, links the domestic group with one of the traditional embandwa spirits as its medium: this spirit is supposed to have a special concern for the well-being of the family members. Here especially the purity and auspiciousness of the traditional cults are stressed; for only a gentle and well-mannered child is acceptable to the spirits as a household medium. In some areas there is, in addition, a broader association between particular traditional spirits and particular clans, but generally this does not involve any special ritual over and above the "domestic" cults just mentioned.

The relationship between the embandwa cults and the traditional kingships was commonly one of implicit or explicit opposition. In several kingdoms, most notably those of Bunyoro and Rwanda, members of the royal clan (including the king himself) were debarred from participation in the mediumship cults. Kings in the interlacustrine region were not priests. Instead, they maintained priests at courtprofessional mediums who, like everyone else, were subject to the royal authority. Among the larger kingdoms it was only in Buganda, by far the most politically centralized of the interlacustrine states, that the royal line was closely identified with the mediumship cult. The official Ganda cult centered on the ghosts of former kings, whose tombs, carefully maintained, provided the locus for state ritual. But even here it was the lubale (i.e., embandwa ) "priests," and not the king, who were the mediums for the royal ancestors.

In the twentieth century the opposition between religion and state was exemplified in the rise and decline of the Nyabingi cult. This cult focused on a powerful female embandwa called Nyabingi and her associates, whose cult has been ascribed to various sources but may have originated in northern Rwanda, whence it spread rapidly into southwest Uganda. It appears to have begun as a reaction both against the traditional Ryangombe cults and against Rwanda's ruling class, the pastoral Tutsi. But with the coming of European colonial power, the cult became a protest movement against all governmental authority. In the 1920s a revolt by Nyabingi adherents against the local administration was crushed by military force, though the cult survived in attenuated form for many years.

It is not surprising that the embandwa cults found themselves in opposition to the Christian mission churches, which, with only very limited justification, regarded them as being involved with witchcraft. Because the traditional cults were generally seen as beneficent and as being especially concerned with childbearing, attempts by government officials and missionaries to eradicate them were readily interpreted by the traditionally minded as aimed, in the long term, at the elimination of the indigenous peoples themselves. Mention should also be made here of the revivalist and fundamentalist Balokole ("the Saved Ones") movement within the Anglican church. Although this movement affected only a small minority of Christians, its uncompromising evangelism brought it into conflict not only with the embandwa cultswith which it had certain things in common, for example, the notion of being "born again"but also with the secular authorities.

How, finally, is one to explain the continued survival of the cults, old as well as new, throughout much of the area? Some of the reasons are implicit in what has been said above. But among the most important of them is the cults' eclecticism. Inimical aspects of the environment, and in particular the disruptive effects of social change, are not denied or rejected; rather they are assimilated and dealt with through dramatic ritual. To give concrete expression to the forces that shape human lives (even if this is done in symbolic form) provides the interlacustrine Bantu with one basis for coping with these forces.

See Also

East African Religions, article on Northeast Bantu Religions.


Three works adopt a comparative approach. In his Entre le Victoria l'Albert et l'Édouard: Ethnographie de la partie anglaise du Vicariat de l'Uganda (Rennes, 1920), the missionary P. Julien Gorju gives a good account of the cults and of initiation into them in the Uganda kingdoms. Luc de Heusch's Le Rwanda et la civilisation interlacustre: Études d'anthropologie historique et structurale (Brussels, 1966) contains a comprehensive analysis of the Ryangombe cult in Rwanda, taking account also of comparable data from neighboring areas. And Iris Berger's Religion and Resistance: East African Kingdoms in the Precolonial Period (Tervuren, Belgium, 1981), although largely concerned with historical reconstruction, includes an up-to-date review and assessment of current information on the cults over the whole area as well as a useful bibliography. Berger notes in particular the important role played in the cults by women.

There are several brief accounts of the religious beliefs and rituals of particular peoples in the area; see, for example, Lucy P. Mair's "Religion and Magic," chapter 9 of her book on the Ganda, An African People in the Twentieth Century (1934; New York, 1965); J. J. Maquet's "The Kingdom of Ruanda," in African Worlds, edited by Daryll Forde (London, 1954); and John Beattie's "Spirit Mediumship in Bunyoro," in Spirit Mediumship and Society in Africa, edited by John Beattie and John Middleton (New York, 1969). A monograph by a Norwegian anthropologist, Svein Bjerke, Religion and Misfortune: The Bacwezi Complex and the Other Spirit Cults of the Zinza of Northwestern Tanzania (Oslo, 1981), provides a detailed account, based on field research, of the cults among one of the less well known peoples of the region. Relevant to the study of religion in its political context is Elizabeth Hopkins's "The Nyabingi Cult of Southwestern Uganda," in Protest and Power in Black Africa, edited by Robert I. Rotberg and Ali A. Mazrui (Oxford, 1970), a history of the rise and influence of an anticolonial spirit cult. Finally, for an African academic's view of his own traditional religion, see Abel G. M. Ishumi's "Religion and the Cults," chapter 6 of his Kiziba: The Cultural Heritage of an Old African Kingdom (Syracuse, N.Y., 1980)

John Beattie (1987)