views updated


ETHNONYMS: Soga (Anglicized name), Busoga (name of territory), Lusoga (name of language), Usoga (Kiswahili equivalent)


Identification and Location. The Basoga live in Uganda's districts of Bugiri, Iganga, Jinja, Kamuli, and Mayuge (formerly known collectively as Busoga). Situated in eastern Uganda immediately north of the equator, Busoga is bounded by Lake Kyoga to the north, the Victoria Nile to the west, the Mpologoma River to the east, and Lake Victoria to the south. Busoga is 3,443 square miles (8,920 square kilometers) in area, with a length of about 100 miles (160 kilometers) and a width of a little over 50 miles (80 kilometers). These natural boundaries have enabled Basoga to have a uniqueness of their own as a group.

The climate and vegetation of the southern zone are influenced by Lake Victoria, where the average rainfall is 60 inches (152 centimeters) a year. This heavy rainfall produces a luxuriant growth of vegetation.

The northern zone is large and flat as the land drops to Lake Kyoga. The lake affects the climate and vegetation in that area. Around the basin of Lake Kyoga, the grass is short and there are papyrus swamps. In an area with an annual rainfall of 40 inches (100 centimeters), the natural vegetation is mainly savanna interspersed with deciduous trees.

Demography. With an estimated population of 2 to 2.5 million in 1999, the Basoga are the third largest ethnic group in Uganda.

Busoga, particularly southern Busoga, has experienced catastrophes since the nineteenth century. Between 1897 and 1911 Busoga lost many people to severe famines, smallpox, plague, and sleeping sickness. Although the population began to recover in the 1930s to the 1960s, AIDS has taken a toll since the 1980s.

During British colonial rule (1895-1962) Busoga attracted immigrants who sought employment in the cotton ginneries, the sugar estate at Kakira, and factories in Jinja, Uganda's industrial heartland. In the late 1980's Jinja had a population of fifty-five thousand, making it the second largest urban center in the country.

Linguistic Affiliation. The language spoken by the Basoga is Lusoga, a Bantu language in the Niger-Congo family. As in the Bantu languages in the Lake Victoria region, nouns among the Basoga are reflected by changing prefixes: human beings are indicated by prefix Ba (plural) and Mu (singular); name of the country (region) Bu; the language Lu and an adjective from these Ki. Thus, the region is called Busoga; the people are Basoga (singular, Musoga); the language is Lusoga; and "of the Basoga," Kisoga.

Lusoga is further divided into two dialects: Lupakooyo, a dialect similar to Runyoro, was traditionally spoken in parts of north Busoga, and the Lutenga dialect was used in the south.

History and Cultural Relations

Historical research relates the origin of the Basoga to that of the Bantu speakers who entered Uganda from northern Katanga (the current Democratic Republic of the Congo) between 400 and 1000 c.e. Beginning between 1250 and 1750, the Basoga migration and settlement in their present location is associated with two cultural heroes: Kintu (the Thing) and Mukama (the Milker).

Migrations around the Lake Victoria area are associated with Kintu, who originated from the Mount Elgon area in the east; traveled through southern Busoga, where he founded states; and later moved to the neighboring state of Buganda to the west.

The largely Bantu population in Busoga was affected by the arrival of Luo immigrants between 1550 and 1700. The Luo migrations which affected parts of northern and eastern Uganda are associated in Busoga with the Mukama figure. Traditionally regarded as the provider of all things, Mukama was the most influential leader of the Luo immigrants who entered Busoga from different directions.

Originating from the east, Mukama traveled westward; stopped in Busoga, where he fathered children who founded important states in the north; and later continued on to the state of Bunyoro in the northwest.

These migrations turned Busoga into differentiated cultural zones consisting of the largely Bantu-influenced region around Lake Victoria in the south and the Luo-influenced area in the north around Lake Kyoga and the Mpologoma River.

These apparent differences were greatly minimized by cultural cooperation between the Basoga and their neighbors. Before the Kintu-Mukama migrations, the Basoga socioeconomic and political society was dominated by various clans, which determine blood relationships. The Basoga cemented their relationships through interclan marriages and over the years used that institution to become closer as a group and coexist peacefully with their neighbors.

Cultural relationships also were forged through the indigenous religious institutions that brought the Basoga together to worship. People all over Busoga would meet at religious shrines built for the founding figures Kintu and Mukama.

Linguistic interaction also provided a basis for cultural cooperation. To coexist with their neighbors, the Basoga, who live near the border areas, adopted dialects that reflect their locations. Examples include groups known as the Bakenhe and the Banyala, who live on the eastern and western basins of Lake Kyoga, respectively. Although the languages (Lukenhe and Lunyala) of these groups cannot be classified as Lusoga, they are similar to Lusoga.

Interaction among the Basoga increased as a result of the changes caused by policies initiated by British and post-independent Ugandan leaders.


The indigenous Kisoga pattern of settlement consisted of randomly dispersed subsistence holdings that were located in a given omutala (a highland area between swamps). The omutala was subdivided into ekisoko kisoko (subvillage), which had an appointed or hereditary headman who distributed land. Land was available to both relatives of the headman and those who were not members of the clan. As long as the land occupant paid the initial dues and fulfilled the customary obligations, the occupant had secure tenure.

A village consisted of dispersed homesteads, and a homestead consisted of a building or group of buildings. Traditional houses were round, beehive-shaped, and thatched with dry banana leaves from the top to the ground. During the twentieth century this building style was converted to grass roofing with walls made of mud. Each family unit consisted of many houses where both immediate and extended families resided.

After the imposition of British rule, houses became more rectangular, were built with multiple rooms, and had white-washed walls. Other materials were used for construction: corrugated iron for roofs, cement for floors, and bricks for walls.

Today, behind each house there are various buildings that serve as a kitchen, grain store, a shed for young calves, and a pit latrine.

British colonial rule introduced clustered settlements, the most important of which is Jinja. European-style houses were built for administrators and individuals who worked in various industries in Jinja. Indian premises that served both as trading and as living quarters were built in Jinja's business district.

To meet the demand for African housing, semimodern houses were built in areas such as Bugembe, Mpumudde, and Walukuba. These houses of varying sizes were scattered at the periphery of the urban core, usually within a radius of three to five miles (five to eight kilometers). The Basoga who lived on the edge of Jinja transformed their land holdings into housing settlements. Consequently, the edges of Jinja have a cluster of houses, food shops, and bars built with permanent or semipermanent materials.

Arabs and Indians seeking to introduce retail trade to Africans developed cluster settlements in the interior of Busoga. Consequently, shops known as dukas were built in towns such as Bugiri, Iganga, Kaliro, and Kamuli.

After the expulsion of "Asian traders" from Uganda in the 1970s, the Basoga moved into the heartland of Jinja and other towns in Busoga. However, as a result of failed government policies, lack of experience, and neglect, Jinja and other towns have become slums with dilapidated buildings.


Subsistence. Every Kisoga homestead has a plantain garden that provides the staple food. Additionally, each house-hold has patches for seasonal crops such as peanuts, millet, corn, and potatoes. On the edge of the holdings are patches of uncleared bush used as a source of wood and grass. The availability of these foods is determined by where one lives. The south, which receives plenty of rain, grows plantains, beans, cassava, and potatoes, while the north, with somewhat drier conditions, grows famine-resistant crops such as finger millet and sorghum.

Because of the region's varied ecology and geography, the Basoga engaged in the exchange of goods. Bark cloths from the north were exchanged for pots and food from the south. Similarly, the Buvuma islands in Lake Victoria, which specialized in fishing, exchanged their goods for food, clay, bowls, and pots from southern Busoga. In the nineteenth century the Bavuma introduced beads and cowrie shells as a medium of exchange.

Commercial Activities. Large-scale commercial economic activities among the Basoga were introduced after the British annexation in 1895. The occurrence of famines and the out-break of sleeping sickness between 1897 and 1911 made it difficult for the British to find a reliable source of revenue. To alleviate that problem, the British experimented with a protectoratewide "dual economic policy" between 1894 and 1923 that involved the cultivation of coffee, rubber, and cocoa on European plantations as well as African-grown cotton. Commercial cotton growing was introduced in 1905 and by 1939 had become the chief source of cash earnings for the majority of the Basoga. Additionally, cotton could be grown alongside subsistence crops. Cotton cultivation also became attractive because its products were critical for industries in Jinja such as animal feed factories, textile mills, and oil and soap factories.

Cotton production dropped precipitously because of chronic political instability and erratic economic management during the 1970's and early 1980's. As a result of the labor-intensive nature of cotton cultivation and the closing of many factories in Jinja, the Basoga abandoned cotton to focus on growing cash-generating foodstuffs such as corn, peanuts, and rice.

Industrial Arts. Pottery was made by specialists and included everyday utensils such as ebibya (bowls), entamu (cooking pots), ensuwa yomwenge (beer pots), ensuwa yamadhi (pots for drawing water), and emindi (tobacco pipes).

The Basoga make baskets, drums, and mats. The common items made with basketry include granaries, pot lids, trays, eating utensils, and storage vessels. Pots are made by both men and women from creepers, grasses, palm fronds, and papyrus bark.

Largely made from the plaited fronds of the wild palm, mats are used as floor covers, partition screens, bedding, and wall hangings.

Drums generate dance rhythms and are played to accompany singing. Churches use drumbeats to announce services. Drums are a popular item for home decorative purposes and traditionally were used to announce a war, invite people to go hunting, and announce a death in a village.

Trade. The decline of cotton production in Busoga diminished its central role in Uganda's economy. However, the Basoga contribute to internal trade by selling food items (bananas, cassava, beans, corn [maize], potatoes, peanuts [groundnuts], and soybeans) within Busoga and to other parts of Uganda.

Jinja's decline as Uganda's industrial town has exacerbated Busoga's economic difficulties. The opening of the Owen Fall Dam in 1954 catapulted Jinja to a position of potential economic leadership in Uganda. Jinja attracted several major industries, including textiles, blankets, spinning mills, copper smelters steel rolling mills, and breweries. Poor management during the 1970's resulted either in the underuse of these facilities or their closure.

The Madhavani Group of Companies, which is located at Kakira, is the only surviving viable enterprise in Busoga. Started in 1905, the Madhvani Group is an Indian-owned enterprise whose operations include several large companies. The Madhvani Group employs over fifteen thousand people and contributes more than $50 million annually to the national economy.

Division of Labor. Women do most of the work central to the survival of the household. To provide food for the family, women and children look after the garden where they cultivate bananas, and ensure the availability of beans, cassava, potatoes, tomatoes, and green vegetables. Men help their wives in clearing thick bushes and felling large trees. Additionally, men protect their homes and provide necessities that cannot be produced from the family plot. Men hunt to provide meat for the family. The introduction of commercial cotton cultivation enabled children to get a Western education and increased opportunities for individuals to work in cotton-related industries. Men found work in cotton ginneries, the civil service, and the private sector.

Since education was the key to getting these jobs, Basoga women, whose education was neglected, ended up becoming homemakers or working at low-paying jobs.

Land Tenure. The control of land has ramifications for almost all aspects of Busoga society. Aside from small-scale land ownership, all other forms of land ownership had economic and political implications for the recipient.

Anybody in Busoga could acquire land, but the size of a land grant varied. The land structure had four levels: the state level, the omutala, the ekisoko, and the individual level. Each of the precolonial Busoga states was subdivided into emitala (singular, omutala ), an area of land bounded by either swamps or natural features such as rivers, valleys, or mountains. Omutala could be small or large. With these natural boundaries, the omutala became a convenient administrative unit for the allocation of land to individuals. The third level in the land structure was the ekisoko, a subdivision of the omutala and the final administrative unit in the state system. Land ownership on a small scale is the last stage in the structure. This category included the majority of cases in which individuals were granted land for daily use.

Individuals seeking land for daily use would contact the relevant authority (the headman of the ekisoko), who would take them through the required steps before land could be allotted to them. Once one paid the required dues and fulfilled one's customary obligations, one could claim tenure over a piece of land.


Kin Groups and Descent. Known as ekika (plural, ebika ) a clan is a patrilineal descent group that includes individuals who recognize a common ancestor through the male line. The father is central to the clan system because all his children and those of his sons belong to his clan. One cannot marry a member of one's clan or one's mother's clan.

A clan's identity is based on the name of its ancestors. Clan names are formed by combining the prefix mu (singular) or aba (plural) with the form ise (father) with the name of the common ancestor.

Basoga clans were divided into two categories: abakopi (commoners) clans to which the majority belonged and abalangira (royal clans). Intermarriages between commoners and royal families tended to close potential social gaps.

In the past particular locations became identified with each clan and were venerated with the title obutaka (ancestral lands). Clan members buried their dead in those lands. However, as a result of population growth, clashes within clans, catastrophes such as famines and sleeping sickness, and raids from neighboring states, many clans dispersed. The clans segmented into lineages known as enda which typically included individuals who traced their genealogies through the male line to a common ancestor. These segmented lineages either kept minimal contact with the original base or forgot it.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. To ensure the continuation of a clan, marriages, particularly those involving men whose offspring automatically become members, are encouraged. Polygynous marriages were encouraged because they increased a man's chances of having a large family.

Since marriages are between families rather than individuals, relatives on both sides become interested in whom one is marrying. Once the two families reach an understanding, the man's side pays bride-wealth to his prospective inlaws in appreciation for raising his wife-to-be.

A wife expects her husband to provide housing and clothing and to treat her and her relatives well. The husband expects his wife (or wives) to be a good cook and to work hard enough to provide daily food, bear children, and have good relations with his relatives. Failure by either party to meet these obligations may result in separation or divorce. Families try to intervene to prevent the dissolution of a marriage.

Domestic Unit. A household may vary between five and ten people. People in the countryside may have a household consisting of a father and his wife or wives, children, and relatives who cannot live by themselves. It is also common for individuals who are educated, are monogamous, have a few children of their own, and live in town to have eight people in their households. This is caused by the willingness of householders to help members of the extended family whose parents might have played a role in their upward mobility.

Inheritance. After the death of a clan member, the clan gathers to perform funeral rites and ensure the legitimate passage of the deceased's property, home, and family.

Two forms of inheritance are followed: omusika owénkoba (heir of the belt) and omusika owémbisi (property heir). The former role is assigned to the deceased's (usually youngest) brother (real or collateral), who becomes the guardian of the family by adopting the children, taking the widow as his wife, and inheriting the belt, spear, stool, and other items that symbolize the personality of the deceased.

Land, livestock, and other property were given to omusika owémbisis, normally the oldest son of the deceased. Succession is now largely based on primogeniture. The remaining property is divided equally among the other children. The youngest brother is still accorded the ceremonious title of omusika owénkoba and, depending on the education and economic well-being of the family, may take over the children and wife or wives of the deceased. If the widow or widows decide to remain independent, they either are provided for by their relatives, buy land elsewhere, or become employed.

Socialization. In the Kisoga patrilineal kinship system, children belong to the man and must be brought up according to the guidelines laid down by their father. The boys, who are the bearers of clan traditions, must conform to their father's strict code of upbringing. Girls, who are generally brought up under their mother's influence, have their social relationships closely monitored by the father. It is the father who grants permission to his wife or wives to leave the home-stead for short visits.

The mother, together with her older children, looks after the younger children and manages the day-to-day affairs of the household. While children freely interact with their parents and members of the extended family, they have to understand the limitations of their social relationship with grown-ups. Under no circumstances can young people interrupt elders when they are engaged in a serious discussion. One must not address older people by the first name. Failure to adhere to these rules may result in beating, spanking, or grounding.

As children grew up (especially boys), they establish their autonomy either by building their own homes nearby or purchasing land elsewhere. In seeking their independence, girls are more diplomatic in maintaining a cordial relationship with their parents and brothers since they regard those individuals as a refuge if there are problems in their marriages.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Although clans have broken into smaller groups, they still form the main social organization. Clans still play important roles in marriages, the naming of children, burials, succession, and land allocation.

The broad division of clans into abakopi and abalangira is deceptive since further divisions can be established within those categories. Larger clans and those associated with the "national" heroes, Kintu and Mukama, were more highly regarded than others. Similarly, individuals who were in charge of the shrines of key enkuni (a place where the clan first arrived) and those who excelled as blacksmiths or pot makers were rich and socially higher than a person who owned a small plot of land. Thus, the so-called commoner clan encompassed a disparate economic strata that was united as a group only by their political obligations to the royal clans.

The social hierarchy of the royal clan consisted of the king, princes, princesses, and other members. Intermarriages between commoners and members of the royal clans bridged the gap between the two groups and increased the chances for upward social mobility for many people. Commoners who excelled as dancers, wrestlers, and soldiers and provided a wife to the ruler could be rewarded by being allocated large tracts of land. Land granted to those individuals eventually benefited clan members who were encouraged to settle on it.

A process of social adaptation to new conditions took place after British colonization. Education became a critical factor in upward mobility. Recruitment into the civil service and private sector jobs required an individual to be educated. Consequently, a class of educated and respected people emerged to fill positions in the colonial service or became teachers, pastors, or doctors.

Commercial cotton cultivation opened up new opportunities for economic and social advancement. Successful cotton cultivation enabled individuals to pay tuition for their children, build Western-style houses, and buy bicycles. This resulted in the emergence of a class of "new people" whose social status reflected the changes in Busoga society.

Political Organization. The clan was the earliest political institution. The head of the clan was the leader in war, presided over council meetings, arbitrated disputes, and apportioned land.

Migrations and settlement between 1250 and 1750 C. E. resulted in the establishment of different states. At the top was the ruler, who administered the state with the help of the katukiro (prime minister), abamatwale (provincial governors), abémitala (village chiefs), and abékisoko (subvillage headmen).

Colonial rule changed political institutions on three fronts: The Busoga states became a single political unit, political institutions from the neighboring kingdom of Buganda were adopted, and the hereditary kingship was abolished. The unification process started in 1906 with the establishment of an overall administrator known as "President of Busoga Lukiiko" (Council). This title was changed in 1939 to Isebantu Kyabazinga (the father of the people who unites them). The new title gave the position a Kisoga identity, and the incumbent was no longer a spokesperson for the council but for the entire region.

After Uganda's independence in 1962, Busoga was accorded the title "territory," a status that gave the region semiautonomy under the leadership of the Kyabazinga. The institution of Kyabazinga, together with other monarchical institutions, was abolished in 1967. Between 1967 and 1996 Busoga was administered directly by the Uganda central government officials, who included a District Commissioner, a Saza (county) chief, a Gombolola (subcounty) chief, and a Mutongole (parish) chiefs.

The Kyabazinga institution was restored in 1996, with its role limited to ceremonial and cultural functions. The administration is run by officials of Busoga's four districts: Bugiri, Iganga, Kamuli, and Mayuge. Each district is headed by a government-appointed District Aadministrator (D.A.), who together with elected officials collectively known as "Local Councils" (L.C.'s) administers the region. The L.C.'s range from the lowest (L.C.-l) to the highest (L.C.-5) official at the district level. This unique administrative arrangement has empowered the ordinary people.

Social Control. Children are taught at an early age what is acceptable in society. Early in life parents inculcate their children with social ideas such as not eating one's totem, not having sexual intercourse with or marrying someone from one's clan or that of one's mother, respecting older people, and giving a proper burial to one's relatives.

Failure to follow these social norms is an embarrassment to the lineage. Similarly, if a member of the lineage succeeds, he or she gives credit to the whole community. The Basoga are deterred from committing some social crimes due to the fear of possible supernatural punishment. A person who commits incest may die, and his or her body will swell to an enormous size. The key to social control is the general understanding that actions have ramifications for members of the lineage.

Conflict. Lacking a central political authority, the Basoga fought among themselves and were raided by their powerful neighbors.

The most contentious issue is land disputes. Technically, land belongs to the clan and its ancestors, and its acquisition by individuals is generally simple. Conflict is caused by inability to determine boundaries between one piece of land and another and lack of respect for the previously agreed on boundaries. These quarrels sometimes lead to murder.

Clan members are always the first to intervene in a land conflict. Efforts are made to determine the disputed boundaries, and if a settlement is reached, the contending parties and the members of the clan have a meal of reconciliation together. If they do not reach an understanding, the matter has to be resolved in the courts of law, something that may take ten years.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Basoga believe in the existence of a spirit power that is omnipotent and timeless and influences activities in a way that is beyond human understanding.

At the top of the religious hierarchy, is Kibumba (the Creator), who created the people and the earth, moved into the sky, and left behind the spirits as his representatives. The spirit world left behind consisted of emizimu (omuzimu, singular), enkuni, and emisambwa (omusambwa, singular).

Omuzimu is the spirit of a dead relative and can affect the lives of that person's descendants. Enkuni represent the first place of settlement for the clan and thus are places of worship. Emisambwa are the spirits of "national" heroes such as Kintu, Mukama, and Walumbe. These spirits are associated with marriage, birth, fertility, and death.

Despite the introduction of Christianity and Islam, a significant number of people consciously or unconsciously observe "Indigenous Kisoga Religious Beliefs." This is the case partly because the Basoga attitude toward religion is primarily utilitarian.

Religious Practitioners. Communication with spirits was done through "religious professionals," the most important of whom were the abaswezi (omuswezi, singular), who act as mediums of various emisambwa. Emisambwa decide who becomes omuswezi by possessing a person, who then is taught the skills of divination and mediumship by the senior abaswezi.

The second category are called the abaigha (omuigha, singular), who play the role of "doctor." These persons are not possessed by emisambwa; but their skills in divination are inherited. Thus, if a father was omuigha, one of his sons was expected to follow in his footsteps. Abaigha can diagnose problems and provide solutions. They also make charms that people wear for protection from diseases and enemies.

There are abalogo (omulogo, singular) who use mystical power to harm or kill people. This group is hated, and if anybody is caught in the act of okuloga, the public may kill that person.

Ceremonies. To placate the spirit of a dead relative, family members have to perform rites involving offerings of food or meat or libations of beer. Failure to maintain a good relationship with the omuzimu can lead to misfortune, sickness, or death. Normalization of this relationship is achieved by sharing a ritual meal with the living members of the family and the displeased spirit.

When families face sickness, drought, poverty, or misunderstandings, the Basoga believe that this may be a sign of displeasure from the spirits. A ceremony intended to reconcile with these spirits is performed. When there is a drought, the Basoga consult with the God of Rain (Musoke ). A variety of foods are tied in a bark cloth and thrown into Lake Victoria, where the God of Rain resides.

The Basoga also honor occasions related to foreign religions. In 1977 the Church of Uganda celebrated a century of Christian activities in Uganda.

Arts. The Basoga excel in making drums, mats, and baskets. Emphasis is placed on indigenous music and dancing as forms of entertainment.

Medicine. The traditional healers known as abaigha are consulted, together with doctors who practice modern medicine.

Death and Afterlife. The musumbwa associated with death is Walumbe. It is believed that when a person dies, the spirit remains alive while the flesh is rotting. Since the Basoga believe that life after death is a continuation of what one was doing on earth, the deceased must be given a proper burial, which includes burying the body in ancestral land, ensuring that all clan traditions are followed before and after the burial, and burying the body with some items that were associated with the deceased.

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.


Batala-Nayenga, Frederick P. (1976). "An Economic History of the Lacustrine States of Busoga, Uganda: 1750-1939." Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Cohen, David W. (1972). The Historical Tradition of Busoga: Mukama and Kintu. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Fallers, Lloyd A. (1965). Bantu Bureaucracy. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Fallers, Margaret C. (1968). The Eastern Lacustrine Bantu. London: International African Institute.

Larimore, Ann E. (1959). The Alien Town. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Nayenga, Peter F. B. (1981). "The History of Busoga," International Journal of African Historical Studies 14(3): 482-499.

(1999). Reconciliation among the Basoga. Jinja, Uganda: Cultural Research Center.

Tuma, A. D. Tom (1980). Building a Ugandan Church. Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau.