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ETHNONYMS: Unyoro is a corruption of Banyoro. The most popular usages are Banyoro (the people), Bunyoro (the region), and Bunyoro-Kitara (the kingdom). In the past Kitara was used commonly to denote Greater Bunyoro.


Identification and Location. Unyoro was the name nineteenth-century Arab interpreters used to refer to those enemies whom the Baganda derisively called Banyoro, meaning "inferior foreigners." In Bunyoro, however, a chief was called Omunyoro (plural Abanyoro ). Gradually, the name became an honorific title used in addressing individuals of significance.

Bunyoro is one of the administrative regions of the modern Republic of Uganda. The Banyoro live largely in western Uganda, east of Lake Mobutu. The region includes the districts of Hoima, Masindi, and Kibaale.

Bunyoro is part of the western Ugandan physical terrain and is part of the western Rift Valley complex. The elevation is roughly between 2,200 and 4,800 feet (670 to 1,460 meters) above sea level. It is characterized by three topographic patterns: the western Rift Valley system, rising about 2,200 feet (670 meters) above sea level and including the areas around Lake Mobutu; the well-watered and fertile plateau system about 3,400 feet (1,036 meters) above sea level, descending westward on a steep escarpment to the Rift Valley system; and the central hilly system, which runs on a southwesterly to northwesterly axis at a height of 4,000 to 4,800 feet (1,220 to 1,460 meters) above sea level, with a maximum width between 18 and 19 miles (29 to 30 kilometers).

Demography. Physical and historical factors had a strong effect on the demographic history of affected Bunyoro. Although the early estimates of its population based on the geographic extent of the kingdom before the British conquest cannot be accepted as accurate because of a lack of sufficient data, the official guidebook to East Africa estimated a population of 2,500,000 in 1893. The average population density in the 1890s was estimated to be quite high. Bunyoro has become one of Uganda's smaller regions both territorially and in population. The provisional figure in Uganda's 1969 census put the population at 348,000, which ranked Bunyoro as the fourteenth most populous district. Even though most of Bunyoro is well watered and fertile, the population density remains the lowest in western Uganda. Among Uganda's thirty-one subnational groups, the Banyoro are twelfth to fifteenth position in population.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Banyoro speak Runyoro (Nyoro), which is in the Central Bantu division of the Bantu languages. It originally was widely spoken in the Lake Region. In the Paluo area of northern Bunyoro a language related to the Luo language is also spoken. Runyoro is spoken essentially in the Bunyoro districts and to a limited extent is understood in Tooro districts and, to a lesser extent, in Ankole and Buganda. Runyoro is more closely related to Runyankore than to Luganda, however.

History and Cultural Relations

The early history of Bunyoro is not known, but it is thought that people have inhabited the region since the Stone Age. However, among the Banyoro there is a strong tradition that their ancestors founded the earliest state system in the interlacustrine region of East Africa. The founding dynasty is identified as the Abatembuzi (Pioneers). This was probably a pastoral dynasty whose activities are only dimly remembered. It is claimed that the Abatembuzi exercised dominion over agricultural communities that earlier had displaced the region's hunter-gatherers, to whom archaeologists attribute the origins of the Sangoan and Lupemban industries of the Middle Stone Age as well as the Wilton industries of the Late Stone Age.

Between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries this dynastywhose identity as actual people some disputewas displaced by another pastoral dynasty identified as the Abachwezi, who within a century are said to have turned the Abatembuzi state into a loosely organized and amorphous empire called Kitara. Unlike the Abatembuzi, whose identity is not generally accepted, there is no doubt that the Abachwezi were real individuals whose activities are imperfectly remembered. However, the description of their dominion as an empire and the territorial extent of that dominion are disputed. Their reign was short but significant. They are credited with performing supernatural feats and with exercising effortless dominion over those who came into contact with them. They were elevated to a cult statusthe Abachwezi Cultafter their defeat. The dynasty had only three kings.

The last dynasty, which had twenty-seven rulers, the Ababiito Dynasty, still reigns in Bunyoro. It was founded by the Luo, also a pastoral dynasty of Nilotic ancestry. The Ababiito defeated and displaced the Abachwezi during the sixteenth century. Bunyoro tradition claims that the Ababiito exercised both formal and informal influence over the Lake region. The Ababiito existed, but the extent of their dominion is disputed. It is clear that by the eighteenth century their influence came under heavy pressure from their neighbors, notably the Baganda and Banyankore, who had been expanding from their nuclear areas since the disintegration of the Abachwezi "empire." By the middle of the nineteenth century the areas controlled by the Ababiito had shrunk considerably. The efforts of Kabarega, the most famous Ababiito ruler, to reverse the situation were halted by the British conquest of Uganda.

Early in the twentieth century the Banyoro formed the bulwark of resistance against British colonialism. They blamed the British for restoring the Tooro kingdom, which Kabarega had reconquered; for allowing Buganda and Ankole to expand at their expense; and for forcing them to live under the rule of Baganda chiefs appointed by the colonial government. This resentment climaxed in the Nyangire Revolt of 1907, which was a rejection of Buganda's subimperialism but primarily was a passive revolt against British rule. The revolt was suppressed, and direct colonial rule was imposed on the Bunyoro.

In 1933 the colonial government, satisfied that the Banyoro had decided to accept the political reality, signed the Bunyoro Agreement with Omukama Winyi IV and his chiefs, by which Bunyoro district was officially recognized as the Kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara. The Banyoro regard this recognition as a validation of their claim to have presided over a Kitara empire. The agreement also ended the era of direct colonial rule from Kampala. The Bunyoro Agreement of 1955 formally ensured that the Omukama (king) was only the titular head of his kingdom.

The independence of Uganda in 1963 was welcomed by the Banyoro, but they remained unhappy because of the several lost counties; only the Buyaga and Bugangaizi were restored to them. In 1967 the government of Milton Obote abolished all the Ugandan kingdoms and pensioned off the kings, but in 1993 the government of Yoweri Museveni restored the kingdoms. On June 11, 1994, Prince Solomon Gafabusa Iguru was crowned the twenty-seventh Omukama of the Ababiito Dynasty of Bunyoro-Kitara. The Banyoro are engaged in what they call the "Rebirth of Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom" in the context of their reduced circumstances.


Before the nineteenth century settlement patterns reflected clan organization, which was seen as protection against external enemies. The clans (enganda ), which numbered over 150 by the 1950s, were both exogamous and patrilineal. Thus, the location and number of settlements tended to coincide with those of the clans. To a large extent Bunyoro's topography determined the distribution of settlements.

By the twentieth century, because of population movements, the strengthening of chiefly institutions that afforded better protection, technological developments, natural disasters, and colonialism, consanguinity gradually ceased to be the major determinant of where people lived. The dispersal of clan members over the years has continued within Bunyoro, within Uganda, and to other parts of East Africa.

The original houses, which were conical in shape, were made of wattle and clay and thatched with grass. Settlements (byaro) were somewhat isolated from one another except in a few lakeside areas where people lived in compact villages. Each homestead, usually consisting of one or two buildings, had its own gardens and plantain plantations.

Colonialism brought changes to settlement patterns, structures, housing designs, and materials. Now there are brick houses with corrugated iron roofs and various sizes and shapes of dwellings. Some byaro still exist and are being modernized.


Subsistence. The preindustrial economy was essentially one of subsistence: People generally produced food and other goods for their own use. Agriculture formed the basis of this economy. The ancestors of the Banyoro were both farmers and pastoralists, but the majority were and have remained sedentary farmers (abairu ). Their products included millet, root crops, bananas, coffee, and bark cloth. Their implements were primarily hoes and knives. The pastoralists (abahuma) operated mainly in grassland areas. Although it was possible to be both a farmer and a rancher, the two occupations were distinct.

Knowledge of metalworking greatly enhanced agricultural activities. Animal food was supplied by goats, sheep, chickens, and a variety of hunted animals. Under British rule the economy was more fully integrated into the capitalist system; products began to be sold for money. Agricultural techniques were modernized, and the volume of production increased. Crops such as cotton, tobacco, and coffee became prominent, but traditional agriculture and modern agriculture continued to be practiced simultaneously. This has not changed markedly since independence.

Commercial Activities. The Banyoro produced a wide range of goods well before the colonial period, commercial activities involving monetary exchange are essentially a feature of the twentieth century. About sixty market locations scattered over ten counties have been identified, including local, royal, specialized, frontier, central, and satellite markets. The form of exchange was barter. Later in the nineteenth century the Arabs popularized the use of ensimbi (cowrie shells) in commercial transactions. This marked the beginning of a money economy. During the colonial period money in the form of currency gradually displaced the other forms of exchange.

Industrial Arts. Industry was specialized and reflected regional, cultural, social, and religious characteristics. The products manufactured included hoes, knives, spears, bows, arrows, canoes, boats, wood carvings, jewelry, ivory, and pipes. Iron deposits were worked, particularly in Bujenje, Masindi, and Kooki counties. Metalworking was monopolized by guild members who were divided into smelters and smiths. Secluded from the rest of the population, they lived in makeshift huts and worked in groups of ten and twenty. Other important occupations included salt mining at Kibiro and Katwe and mining graphite, copper, chalk, and clay.

Trade. The specialized nature of the economy favored trading. Goods were traded in the numerous markets that were patronized by the Bunyoro's neighbors. There was a complicated network of trade routes that facilitated trading operations. The goods exchanged included both agricultural and industrial products.

Division of Labor. The assignment of basic economic tasks by age was not adhered to strictly. Essentially, the specialized nature of the economy was a major determinant. Generally, women performed most of the basic agricultural tasks and the bulk of the domestic chores, and tasks requiring physical strength were done by men.

Land Tenure. In the pre-European period all Bunyoro land belonged to the Omukama. The system of land tenure known as the Kibanja system categorized land as lands allocated to the hierarchy of chiefs, allocations to clans, and allocations to individuals. During the colonial period the ownership of land became invested in the governor-general as a representative of the imperial government. An important innovation in the period is the concept of a Certificate of Occupancy. The powers of the governor-general were transferred to the government of independent Uganda.


Kin Groups and Descent. Kinship was based on the clan (Rugando ) system. The clans, which numbered over 150, were patrilineal and exogamous, except for the royal clans. Clan members observed totemic avoidances (miziro ). In the past the clans were essentially independent of one another but could form alliances for mutual defense, in which case they entered into a blood-brother relationship (omukago ). Clan members were forbidden to harm one another.

Kinship Terminology. Cousin terminology is of the Omaha type. The children of the father's brothers and the mother's sisters are called "brother" and "sister" and belong to a person's descent group. The father's brothers are called "father" and also belong to one's descent group.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage as an institution existed for procreation, but financial security, clan alliances, and the desire for political power or influence were important considerations. Marriage (Okuswera ) was often polygynous. Traditionally, it was arranged through a person (Kibonabuko ) delegated by the bridegroom's father to collect information about a future bride, such as her clan, family, looks, health, and behavior. If the information was satisfactory and the intended bride and her father were interested in a union, a bride-price was paid to the bride's father. Thereafter the bride moved to her husband's residence. Divorce and remarriage were disfavored but not forbidden. The wife was regarded as a slave of her husband. With the advent of Islam, Christianity, and colonialism, the traditional marriage system was largely replaced.

Domestic Unit. The traditional household was often a polygynous family in which the cowives and their children occupied separate houses. Traditionally, the house contained metal and wooden utensils, clay pots of various sizes and shapes, wooden beds, mats made of raffia, and wooden tables, chairs, and stools. Today a household usually consists of a single monogamous family.

Inheritance. Inheritance was in the male line. A man may nominate any of his sons as his heir. The custom of primogeniture did not apply.

Socialization. Child rearing traditionally was essentially women's work. However, women also had to work outside the home, and so there was a need for caretakers, who could be older siblings (usually also female) or female relatives. Values such as respect for elders, good manners, chastity, hard work, a martial spirit, courage, discipline, honesty, good neighborliness, and truthfulness were inculcated. The naming ceremony was important. Three months after the birth of a boy (four months for a girl), a personal name chosen by the father was given to the child at a simple ceremony. In addition, the child was given a pet name (empaako ), the name Banyoro use in greeting each other. Major cultural rites included the initiation into the Abachwezi cult and graduation into manhood. Traditionally, education involved informal lessons in traditional history, folklore, work, religion, sports, and the use of weapons by males.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Under colonial rule, the village and not the clan became the basis of social organization. Still, the clan heads (abakuru b'engando ), who were elected by the clan members, constituted an important social force, serving as the Omukama's advisers on customary law, including inheritance. Certain clans were associated with territorial administration. There were four royal clans that were divided into 156 royal subclans. The male head of the clans (Okwiri or Mugamba ), not the king (Omukama), ruled the male clan members. The female clan head (Kalyota or Batebe ) ruled the female clan members.

The society was divided into four distinct classes. The Ababiito were the ruling family. The Abohuma (pastoralists) regarded themselves as superior to all others; they originally regarded the Ababiito as part of the Abairu (farmers), who constituted the vast majority of the society. The fourth class was the Abahuka (slaves). However, the inequality premised by this class system was ameliorated by the existence of a considerable degree of social mobility. By the twentieth century the Abahuma had disappeared as a distinct group and slavery had ceased to exist.

Political Organization. The Ababiito developed a state structure that delegated powers and had checks and balances. Authority flowed from the Omukama, a divine, awesome figure, in descending order to a hierarchy of territorial administrators and palace officials who had specific functions. These officials praised the Omukama while kneeling before him. The highest-ranking officials included the Abakama b'Obuhanga (provincial governors), the austere order of the Abajwaro Kondo (crown wearers), and the Abakuru b'Ebitebe (counselors of state). The major institutions of government included the Orukurato Orukuru rw'Ihanga (parliament) and the Orukurato rw'Omubananu (cabinet). Since 1955 the Omukama of Bunyoro-Kitara has been only a cultural leader and the traditional institutions of government have lost their power.

Social Control. Clan heads established and enforced social control over their members and settled interclan conflicts. The hierarchy of territorial administrators enforced customary law and thus exercised juridical control. Conflicts beyond the resolution of the village administrator were transferred to his superior. Some difficult cases reached the Omukama.

The numerous market institutions were also a source of conflict. Under the instrumentality of the market masters (abahoza ) and their assistants (abahoza bebihya ), they exercised social and juridical control. The abahoza were the Omukama's political agents and tax collectors.

The abarusura, or the national standing army, was established by Omukama Kabarega in the second half of the nineteenth century. It was invested with powers of sociopolitical and juridical control in an effort by Kabarega to check the growing influence of the provincial governors after the civil war of 1869. These means of social control and conflict resolution have gradually given way to the laws of the Ugandan Republic.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Traditionally, the Banyoro believed in a creator-god today called Ruhanga. Tradition recounts in detail how Ruhanga created in Bunyoro a microcosm of the world and came to Bunyoro in the company of his brother Nkya Mba. Although the account resembles the biblical story of the creation, perhaps because of embellishment by an early European missionary, it has a peculiarly Banyoro piquancy. Ruhanga, disgusted at the evil he saw in the world, ascended into heaven, never to return. Nkya Mba or Kantu was left behind. Mba had three sons: Kairu, Kahuma, and Kakama. Kakama passed a set of tests prescribed by Ruhanga and thus became the Omukama. Kahuma became his brothers' herdsman, and Kairu, the firstborn, furious at his disinheritance, became the source of evil in the world. This myth is historically and socially relevant because it provides historical justification for the monarchy and a justification of social inequality. Thus, the Omukama is invested with divine attributes on earth. A great deal of ritual surrounded his person. The Banyoro also believed in various supernatural agencies to whom they turned for help or intervention, especially to ensure fertility, good health, prosperity, and population increase. Most Banyoro today are Christians or Muslims, but vestiges of the old beliefs remain.

Religious Practitioners. Religious practitioners included diviners and the spirit mediums of the Abachwezi cult as well as those of minor cults.

Ceremonies. Ceremonies included the coronation of a new king, which involved an elaborate ritual; the Empyemi (succession) rite; the Enjeru (a periodic declaration of peace) rite; and the Mpango ("refresher") rite held every two years to renew the king's ascension to the throne. The coming of Islam and Christianity led to the modernization of some of these ceremonies to make them acceptable to the new religions.

Arts. Literature and written music are associated with the advent of Islam and Christianity. Before then literature was oral, as were music compositions; the art of dancing was well developed. Banyoro artistic talents are reflected in the styles and shapes of their pottery, amulets, and drums.

Medicine. In spite of the introduction of modern medical science, belief in the efficacy of "native" doctors is still widespread. The two types of medicinetraditional and scientificoccasionally go hand in hand, often with disastrous consequences.

Death and Afterlife. The Banyoro believed that Kantu, with the approval of Ruhanga, introduced hunger, disease, and death to their country because he resented how well the society was prospering. Death therefore was not a punishment for sin. Most Banyoro still attribute death not to chance or natural causes but to sorcerers, ghosts, and other supernatural agencies regarded as malevolent. In the past the deceased's body was wrapped in bark cloth, male mourners shaved their heads, and members of the household refrained from sexual activities for about two months. Blankets and sheets have replaced bark cloth, coffins have been introduced, male mourners have a few locks of hair cut from the back and front of their heads, and sexual avoidance has been reduced to about two weeks. The Banyoro believed in an afterlife in the fashion of most African societies. The most important of their ancestors were deified after death.

For other cultures in Uganda, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 9, Africa and the Middle East.


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