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ETHNONYMS: Banyankore, Bahima, Bairu, Hima, Muhima, Iru, Munyankole, Nkore, Nkole, Mwiru, Bahera


Identification and Location. The Banyankole are among the half dozen major ethnic groups in Uganda. They live in southwestern Uganda, where there is a common border with Rwanda and Tanzania. To the east of Ankole District is Lake Victoria, and to the west are Mount Rwenzori and a number of lakes, including Lake Albert and Lake Tanganyika. The land, over 4,000 feet (1,220 meters) above sea level, is hilly with rolling plains covered with fine grass. The Banyankole consist of two major ethnic groups: the Bahima, who are pastoralists, and the Bairu, who are agriculturists. The Bairu are numerically larger, and the Bahima are politically and socially dominant.

Demography. One of the most important of the lake kingdoms in prestige and population was Ankole. While the date when it was first established remains unknown, it is speculated that it may have started as early as during the fourteenth or fifteenth century. Ankole became a focus of study only in the 1920s and 1930s as reported by anthropologist K. Oberg and historian F. Morris.

The Ankole District is 6,131 square miles (15,879 square kilometers). There was a time when the population of Bahima was reported to have been close to 50 percent of the entire population. This, however, for various reasons declined to a mere 10 percent of the whole population.

In 1919 there were 149,469 Banyankole; this rose to 224,000 Bairu and 25,000 Bahima by 1931. By 1959 the population rose to over half a million thus making the Banyankole the second largest Bantu-speaking ethnic group in Uganda. In the twentieth century the Banyankole registered over a million.

Linguistic Affiliation. Both the Bahima and the Bairu speak a language called Runyankole, which is one of the Bantu languages spoken in Uganda. Bantu languages are part of the large Niger-Congo language family. It is widely believed that at one time the Bahima had their own language, which they abandoned in favor of the Runyankole, spoken by the majority of the Banyankole.

History and Cultural Relations

Some scholars believe that Ankole originally was occupied by Bantu-speaking agricultural Bairu. Later, Ankole provided a passage for Hamitic peoples, possibly the Bahima, migrating from Ethiopia southward. These pastoralists conquered the Bairu and proclaimed themselves the rulers of the land. According to some scholars, the more numerous Bairu were serfs and the Bahima were the dominant ruling class. For the most part the two ethnic groups coexisted peacefully.

When the British created Uganda as a protectorate in 1888, Ankole was a relatively small kingdom ruled by a king (Mugabe) with supreme power. In 1901 the British enlarged the kingdom by merging it with the similarly small kingdoms of Mpororo, Igara, Buhweju, and Busongora. The power of the Omugabe was curtailed considerably once his kingdom was legally and constitutionally controlled. However, as the Omugabe of Ankole, the king was entitled to all the titles, dignities, and preeminence that were attached to his office under the laws and customs of Ankole. A political relationship based on serfdom, slavery, and clientship ceased to exist under British rule, and the Bairu became less marginalized and despised.

Four years after the independence of Uganda in 1962 serious conflicts arose between the Ugandan central government and the Buganda kingdom that led to the suspension of the constitution of Uganda; this effectively abolished the kingdoms in that country, including the Ankole kingdom. In 1993, by popular and persistent demand, monarchism was restored in Buganda, Bunyoro, and Toro. However, the Banyankole were not united in their quest for the restoration of the Ankole kingdom, and the matter remains unresolved into the twenty-first century.


In the early history of Ankole most of the nomadic pastoralists had no settled dwellings. Even the king had only a small dwelling with a stockade forming an enclosure for his cows at night. There was no courthouse, and his council met outdoors. In later years that changed considerably. Today settlements are scattered all over the hills, slopes, and valleys of Ankole, consisting of both traditional grass-thatched and Western-style (brick and corrugated iron-roofed) homesteads. Each family owns a fairly large plot of land around its homestead, but usually the homesteads are close to one another. From the top of one of the more than a thousand hills of Ankole, the view of the banana groves appears to be leveled at the top and the surface is entirely green.


Subsistence. The land available to each homestead is used for livestock or subsistence farming. The animals kept are predominantly cattle, along with a few goats, sheep, dogs, and chickens. The Banyankole possess large herds of a native long-horned breed of cattle that are valued for their milk and meat and are of great importance as indicators of power, wealth, and prestige. The crops grown are millet, the staple and favored food, sorghum, potatoes, bananas, coffee, tea, beans, and vegetables.

Commercial Activities. The Banyankole who engage in agriculture sell some produce and beer to get cash to buy clothes, utensils, and furniture and pay for the education of their children. Similarly, those who raise livestock sell some of their animals or animal products in the form of meat, milk, butter, skins, hides, and eggs to raise cash. Craftspeople also sell or exchange what they produce. After the British arrived, commercial activities expanded immensely as there was a flood of manufactured goods (sweets, utensils, clothes, fertilizers, electronic goods, lamps, bicycles) that were in high demand.

Industrial Arts. The king employed expert craftsmen such as blacksmiths who made spears, knives, axes, and ankle bands and armbands out of iron; carvers who made milk pots, drums, wooden spoons, and carved decorations out of wood, ivory, and bone; skinner-dressers; bark cloth makers; sandal makers; and beer brewers. Chiefs engaged the services of the Bairu to supply them with spears, watering pails, axes, and milk pots. The Bairu also engaged in weaving, making mats and baskets, and carving.

Trade. Trade took place between the Bahima and the Bairu in the goods that each group produced. There also was considerable trade between the Banyankole and people from kingdoms such as Buganda, Bunyoro, and Toro as well as people in neighboring countries such as Tanzania, Rwanda, and the Congo. Those who traded with the Banyankole traveled to Ankole to purchase whatever they considered of commercial value, and the Banyankole also traveled to sell and buy goods. This form of trade has continued to the present day.

Division of Labor. From about age eight a boy is expected to be useful in and around the house as well as go to school. He goes out with the men who take the cattle to the pasture and learns to herd cows, milk them, treat their ailments, and protect them from wild animals, especially lions. Both girls and boys learn agricultural activities such as cultivating, sowing, harvesting, and guarding crops against birds and animals. Girls are taught the household chores they will perform when they are married. The mother plays a significant role in rearing children; she disciplines and sends them on errands and supervises their grazing calves. Her duties include cleaning the house, cooking, and looking after children. Children are taught to show respect for their elders and relatives. Mothers teach girls to wash milk pots, churn milk, and prepare food. Girls also engage in making bead ornaments, weaving, making mats, fetching water and firewood, sweeping, babysitting, and going on errands.

Among the Bahima herding cattle was the principal occupation for men. In addition they were expected to build homes for their families and pens for cattle. Among the Bairu both men and women were principally engaged in agricultural activities. In the main men were responsible for clearing the land, while women engaged in household chores. Both men and women did harvesting, but women did winnowing, grinding, and thrashing of millet. Comparatively, Bairu women engage in much physical work; Bahima women spend more time caring for their beauty and personal appearance.

Land Tenure. According to the customary law of Ankole, all land was vested in the Omugabe, who controlled it on behalf of every Munyankole who could use it and benefit from it. Similarly, all animals, particularly cattle, belonged to the Omugabe, although people could do what they wished with their livestock as long as they did not sell the animals to people from outside Ankole without express permission from the Omugabe. This has remained the practice, with the limitation that there is no longer free land available for anyone to claim. People now receive land from their parents or relatives or obtain it commercially.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Banyankole are divided into three major patrilineal clans: Abahinda (royal people), Abasambo, and Abagahe. Each clan traditionally had one or more totems. The Abahinda had two totems: Nkima a small black-faced monkeyand bulo millet that is unhusked and uncooked. The Abahinda were not allowed to engage in magic or medicine or eat unhusked and uncooked millet. Clan exogamy was widely practiced. The three clans are broken down into numerous subdivisions, each of which has a function. Among the Abahinda there were warriors, herdsmen, guards, princes, those who purified and painted the king with white clay, royal shoemakers, carriers of the royal spear, milkers, and those who bathed the king during coronation ceremonies. However, marriage within the clan was acceptable if the couple had second or third totems that were different from each other. Those who belonged to the same totem contributed to the well-being of one another by helping those who were sick, burying the dead, bailing out those in debt, and hunting down those who murdered a clan member.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. By the time girls turned eight or nine, particularly among the Bahima, preparation for marriage began. They were no longer free to run and play without some form of control. Girls were mostly kept indoors, where they ate beef and millet porridge and were forced to drink milk in large quantity so that they would become fat. Being fat is associated with beauty, and the drinking of milk is said to contribute to one's beauty. As soon as a girl's breasts emerge, she is warned by her parents to abstain from sexual activities, which may lead to pregnancy and disgrace the family. In the past pregnancy outside marriage was punished by death or expulsion from the home.

A Munyankole father, occasionally assisted by his relatives, is obliged to get a wife for his son by paying the required bride-wealth. This consists of two cows, three goats, and some pots of beer among the Bairu; among the Bahima it may range from two to twenty cows, depending on how wealthy a person is.

A marriage may be arranged by the couple's parents, or the boy may propose to the girl during adolescence. Once the bride-price has been paid, preparations for the wedding begin. On the wedding day the bride's father slaughters a bull for food. Other forms of food and a considerable amount of beer are prepared for feasting at the bride's home. This is followed by another feast at the bridegroom's home, where the marriage is consummated. At the wedding ceremony the girl's aunt confirms that the groom is potent and that the bride defended her virginity before the marriage was consummated.

A social distinction between the Bahima and the Bairu was established by prohibiting intermarriage between them. The Bahima would find it repugnant to marry a Mwiru. Moreover, it was illegal for a Muhima to give cattle to a Mwiru. A Mwiru would have no cattle for bridewealth for a Muhima wife since all he had was unproductive cows and bull calves. Cattle were essential not only for the legitimacy of marriage but also for the legitimacy of the children born out of a marital relationship.

A woman with no children has no status among the Banyankole, and most women wish to marry and raise many children. If a woman is unable to bear children, her husband is likely to contemplate taking a second wife. Monogamy was the standard practice, though polygyny was not prohibited. Both the Mugabe and wealthy Banyankole practiced polygyny. Today monogamy remains the predominant form of marriage, influenced by Westernization, Christianity, education, and the traditional Banyankole model.

Domestic Unit. A household consists of a nuclear family or an extended family if some family members, such as aged parents or brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, and others, decide to live with the nuclear family on a temporary or permanent basis. In some cases, immediately after marriage the married couple may live with the husband's family, sharing the same compound, or not far from their parents and continue sharing a number of activities, including cooking and eating together.

Inheritance. The Banyankole consider a son to be of special significance because he is an heir to his father's name and wealth and will be responsible for the well-being of his mother when his father dies. If a person is unlikely to recover from illness, he is asked to identify one of his sons as an heir. In general, the oldest son is named, though in some cases this may not apply and the father may identify any of his sons to assume that office. If clan members feel that the father has not made the right choice, they may advise him accordingly or override his choice in favor of the son they think is more suitable. In the past failure to name an heir resulted in the king claiming a person's possessions and assigning them to anyone else he wished.

Succession and the nomination of the heir to the throne were based on two rules. First, the heir had to be a member of the royal line. Second, he had to be the strongest of the king's sons. To determine who was the strongest, the sons had to fight among themselves. The fighting resulted in death or exile until one son emerged as the victor, entitling him to claim the drum (Bagyendanwa) and the right to ascend to the throne.

Socialization. Generally, children are welcomed and warmly treated by all their relatives. The naming of a child is carried out immediately after birth or after the seclusion period. A number of factors influence the type of name that is given to a child: the experience of the mother and father, the time of day when the child is born, the day of the week, the place of birth, and the name of the ancestors (this applies only to the Bahima since the Bairu do not use ancestors' names). The father plays the predominant role in naming the child. At the end of about four months, if the child is a son, the father holds the child, dedicates two cows to the boy's use, makes him sit for the first time, and gives him the name of one of his ancestors. A baby girl is made to sit by her mother and is given the name of an ancestor. She is carried outside the house, directed to look over the plains to other kraals, and told that her fortune and wealth will come from there. This declaration was made in reference to the husband who would marry her when she reached the appropriate age.

A specific rate of development is considered normal, and if a child appears to be a slow developer, small bells are tied to the child's ankles and wrists to encourage him or her to walk according to their rhythm. The child remains close to the mother day and night. During the day the mother plays with and feeds the child. She may put the child to sleep in his or her crib or carry the child with her as she does her daily household or garden chores. At night the baby sleeps with the mother until the arrival of the next baby (usually after two or three years). Then the child may share a bed with his or her brothers or sisters or with other relatives staying with the family. If the mother is too busy to do so, relatives may take care of the child. The relatives who may help in this way are the child's grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins.

For the first seven years of life boys and girls play together, guard calves, and engage in games and activities related to warfare; marriage; herding; building; wrestling; shooting at a target with arrows and making toys out of clay, wires, and other materials; boxing; swimming; playing hide and seek; dancing; and throwing objects. Milk is part of the children's diet, and they are expected to drink it in large quantities; failure to do so leads to some form of reprimand or punishment.

When a girl experiences menarche, she tells her mother, who may decide to inform her husband and others immediately or to conceal it for a while. A mother will conceal the event only if she does not wish her daughter to marry right away or to be persuaded to have sex and run the risk of pregnancy. Although the Banyankole have no special ceremony to mark the attainment of puberty by a boy, he is expected to be able to support himself, marry, and be able to support both his family and his parents in their old age.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Perhaps because of their military advantages, the Bahima maintained domination over the Bairu. They imposed an inferior legal and social status and insisted that they pay tribute to the Bahima through the king, who was invariably a Muhima. The Bairu were not permitted to possess productive cows. If a Mwiru worked for a Muhima, he was given barren cows and bull calves as remuneration. If a Mwiru owned productive cows, a Muhima could dispossess him of that livestock. While the Bahima participated in military activities, the Bairu were not allowed to do this. Similarly, Bairu could not hold high office. They were restricted in the exercise of blood revenge against the Bahima. In terms of blood revenge, they were prohibited from killing a Muhima, whereas a Muhima could kill a Mwiru as a matter of course.

The Mugabe, together with the chiefs and wealthy Bahima, owned slaves, mainly Bairu captured during raids on neighboring kingdoms. It was a common practice for slave owners to give slaves to friends as presents. Slaves had no legal status, and a slave owner could deal with them as he wished. Slaves were not entrusted with herding cattle since they were considered untrustworthy; supervision of slaves was done by a Mwiru headman.

Political Organization. The kingdom of Ankole was controlled by the Mugabe, whose rule was absolute and whose decisions were final. In him were vested physical, magical, and religious powers. The king made decisions regarding peace and war and was responsible for all major political appointments in the kingdom. Appointees could be dismissed for incompetence or personal incompatibility or because they brought bad luck to the king. However, it was impossible for the Mugabe to run the government by himself, and there were some elements of democracy in the running of the government. The king was assisted by his mother, sister, the enganzi, chiefs, office holders, military bands, and a host of servants and specialists.

Next to the king in importance were the kings's mother and sister, who could veto his decisions. Nobody could be ordered to be executed without the consent of the mother and the sister. After the mother and sister came the enganzi, who was the king's chief of chiefs, carrying titles such as prime minister, head chief, beloved one, favorite chief, executive chief, and chief adviser. The enganzi was selected for office with input from the king's mother and sister. It was a policy that the enganzi not be a member of the king's Abahinda clan. For this reason, it was not possible for the enganzi to ascend to the throne. The enganzi was the king's confidant and the only person aside from the pages who could enter the palace at any time. He had his kraal in front of that of the king so that he was available any time the king needed to consult him on state matters.

While an enganzi had to be chosen among the Bahima, over fifty years after the arrival of the British this changed so that a number of Bairu were elected to the eminent office of the enganzi a number of times. Initially the Bahima resisted, but there was not much they could do to change the course of events as political changes swept across the Kingdom.

The kingdom of Ankole had sixteen districts, each of which was under a chief (Mukungu ) appointed by the Mugabe. The sixteen chiefs were invariably cattle keepers who had agricultural people as serfs. The authority of a chief was limited. A chief did not control the movement of subordinate chiefs and other people who might decide to move into his district and graze their animals there. All the land was free to cattle owners, who could settle where they wished and could move elsewhere at their convenience.

Under the chief in the district, there were junior chiefs who reported to the district chief particularly when there were matters that needed his attention. Otherwise they operated more or less independently. Among these junior chiefs were Bairu who assisted with the collection of tax. Despite Bairu junior chiefs playing this role, the Bahima had problems recognizing them as such.

Social Control. Judicial authority was vested in the king, with certain judicial powers exercised by Bahima and Bairu extended families. The king could administer punishment to his subjects in the form of death, exile, beating, torturing, and cursing. He had the right to confiscate the cattle of his subjects, could override the judicial decisions of chiefs and kinship groups, and was the only one who could grant the right of blood revenge. However, no one could be executed without the consent of the mother or the sister of the king.

Whenever one of the subjects appealed to the Mugabe regarding a decision made by one of the chiefs, the matter was referred to the enganzi or one of the favorite pages to try the case. However, disputes of a serious nature, such as those involving more than fifty cattle or women deserting husbands, were brought directly to the attention of the Mugabe for resolution. The Mugabe's court was not in session all the time, but when there were cases, the enganzi brought them to the attention of the Mugabe. The court session took place in the open, where the Mugabe sat in the shade of a tree as he listened to the case. Those in attendance were the enganzi, the Mugabe's pages, private guards, chiefs, and common people.

Benevolently the king would see that a subject whose livestock was raided got the necessary assistance in regard to defense. If a client lost his livestock or property, the king would help him acquire new property or livestock. If one of his relatives was murdered, the king would grant the right of blood revenge.

Conflict. As in any other society, Ankole experienced a range of conflicts at an individual, family, regional, and national level. There were ethnic group as well as political and religious conflicts. Starting at the end of World War II, the Bairu challenged the premises of hierarchy and subordination inherent in the Ankole structural setup. This led to formation of movements such as Kunyamana, which means "to know each other," whose principal purpose was to protest against inequality that the Bahima had imposed on Bairu. As a result, there were changes introduced to cater to the concerns raised by Kunyamana. It is important to note that despite the levels of animosity between the Bairu and Bahima, ethnic conflict in Ankole did not lead to open violence.

The majority of Bairu are Protestants. Most positions of power were held by Protestants with very few Roman Catholics and Muslims holding such positions. This was a source of conflict which had be to be addressed for peaceful coexistence.

There were also conflicts between the king and the colonial government, the former feeling that he was being bullied and marginalized, while the latter felt that the king was not doing what was expected of him as king. Meetings were held and written communication was exchanged with the colonial officers threatening to remove the king from office if his behavior did not change for better. However, there is no record to show that such threats were ever implemented.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Banyankole believed that there was a powerful creator whom they referred to as Ruhanga (God) with permanent residence in heaven. Though there were no prayers directed to him, prayerlike expressions were used. At the birth of a child, people would express their joy by clapping the hands and saying tata Ruhanga ("Father God"). In the event of sickness they would say Ruhanga akutambire ("may God heal you").

According to Banyankole, Ruhanga created the first manRugabeand first womanNyamatewho were to fill the earth with their offspring. From these first human beings were born kings who, after their death, were deified and assumed the role of gods of fertility, earthquakes, thunder, and other such occurrences, to whom they presented their requests.

Apart from kings, who became gods after death, the Banyankole attached special importance to ghosts. Some of the functions of the ghosts were hovering around the living, helping them, or displaying their displeasure if they were not properly treated by surviving relatives and friends, as well as punishing those who failed to adhere to clan law and customs. It was believed that while ghosts were invisible, their presence was unmistakably felt in the wind that blew in the trees and grassy areas for the cattle keepers. For peasants, the presence of ghosts was felt as audible rustling in the grain and the plantain trees. People turned to ghosts more than to the gods for help and made offerings and supplications. Every family in Ankole had a shrine for ghosts, and cows were dedicated to them. Milk was provided for ghosts on a regular basis, and in some instances meat was made available.

Since the arrival of the British and other people from Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, many of the Banyankole have embraced Christianity and Islam as a way of expressing their spirituality and belief in God as their creator. It is reported that there was a time when the king of Ankole, Kahaya, became a Christian. This meant he had to divorce six of the seven wives he had and retain only one in keeping with the church requirement. There are times when conflicts arise between the new form of religion and Banyankole cultural values and traditional forms of worship.

Religious Practitioners. The Banyankole did not have a formal religion and clergy. Traditionally, sacrifices were carried out by mediums and medicine men.

Ceremonies. Various ceremonies are carried out among Banyankole some of which involve joyous occasions, while others may be sad occasions. The joyous ceremonies involve weddings, birth of children, dedication of children, commemoration of important events, rites of passage, coronation of the king and receipt of visitors bringing bridewealth. Sad ceremonies would involve death in the family or the death of the king, sickness, and displeasure of the ancestors. For most of these ceremonies, there is eating, drinking, speech making, singing, and dancing.

Arts. The Banyankole engage in numerous artistic activities involving music, literature, sports, weaving, and dancing. Historian Morris is reported to have collected and translated Ankole's epic poetry. Many missionaries and Banyankole have written books in Runyankole which are widely read at home and at school. Many events taking place in society are expressed in the form of poetry. In the evenings and other times children and parents share stories depicting events and episodes in society.

Epic poetry was composed to celebrate raids of various kingdoms. Songs would be composed to praise the warriors, their valor, and the invincibility of their weapons. There were also songs for praising cattle to the effect that they were objects of beauty and joy forever. In doing this they would use various parts of the body as well as instruments such as flutes, lyres, and drums.

Banyankole are also known for engaging in activities such as making agricultural implements including hoes, sickles, axes, and knives; weapons such as spears, bows and arrows, and clubs of hardwood; making pottery, weaving mats and baskets, using iron, copper, and brass to make jewelry including necklaces, bracelets, headrings, and anklets.

Medicine. The Banyankole generally believe that illness is caused by God, ghosts, or magic. God is said to cause illness and ultimately death because his desires and rights have not been fulfilled and adhered to. A ghost causes illness if cows dedicated to the family are sold or bartered without the consent of the ghost, if offerings due to him are not made, and if clan laws are violated. A hostile ghost from another clan can cause illness. If a person has a grudge against another person, a magic rite may be performed over beer, which is then offered to that person to drink. Once a person discovers that he has drunk such beer, he or she dies of fear.

If an illness is not serious, a man is taken care of by his wife, and a woman by her mother, with traditional (often herbal) medicine. If the illness is serious, a medicine man is called in to discover the cause. Then an appropriate traditional doctor provides treatment. For a fee, female traditional doctors treat women patients; male traditional doctors treat both women and men patients.

With the availability of health facilities in the form of hospitals and clinics, many Banyankole have availed themselves of Western treatments without necessarily forsaking the traditional model of healing.

Death and Afterlife. Among the Banyankole illness is not considered a natural cause of death; therefore, such deaths require an investigation to find the responsible party. By contrast, old age is accepted as a sufficient cause for death. It is held that God allows old people to die after the completion of their time on earth. The Banyankole view death as a passage to another world.

When a man dies, every relative, along with friends and neighbors, is informed. A person who fails to attend the funeral without a good reason may be suspected of being associated with the death. Before burial, the body is washed and the eyes are closed. As the deceased is placed in the grave, the right hand is placed under the head while the left hand rests on the chest. The body lies on the right side. One or more cows are slaughtered to feed everyone present. Beer is provided as part of the mourning. The mourning goes on for four days. A deceased woman is treated in a similar manner except that in the grave she is made to lie on the left side as if she were facing her husband. Her left hand is placed under her head, while her right hand rests on her chest.

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.


Doornbos, M. R. (1978) Not all the Kings's Men: Inequality as a Political Instrument in Ankole, Uganda. New York: Mouton Publishers.

Marshall, H. S. and C. D. Martin (1976). Political Identity: A Case Study from Uganda. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Mwamwenda, T. S. (1995). Educational Psychology: An African Perspective. Johannesburg: Heinemann.

Ntozi, J. P. (1995). High Fertility in Rural Uganda: The Role of Socioeconomic and Biological Factors. Kampala: Fountain Publishers.

Nzita, R., and Mbaga-Niwapa (1995). People and Cultures of Uganda. Kampala: Fountain Publishers.

Oberg, K. (1940). "The Kingdom of Ankole in Uganda." In African Political Systems, edited by M. Fortes and E. E. Evans-Pritchard. London: Institute of African Languages and Cultures.

Roscoe, J. (1923, 1968). The Banyankole. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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PRONUNCIATION: bahn-yahn-KOH-lay

LOCATION: Ankole in southwestern Uganda


LANGUAGE: Runyankole; English; KiSwahili

RELIGION: Christianity (Roman Catholicism, Church of UgandaAnglican, and Fundamental Christianity); indigenous Kinyankole religion


The Banyankole are located in southwestern Uganda. At the turn of the nineteenth century they numbered about 400,000 people. This former kingdom is well known for its long-horned cattle, which were objects of economic significance as well as prestige. The Mugabe (King) was an absolute ruler. He claimed all the cattle throughout the country as his own. Chiefs were ranked not by the land that they owned but by the number of cattle that they possessed. Banyankole society is divided into a high-ranked caste (social class) of pastoralists (nomadic herders) and a lower-ranked caste of farmers. The Bahima are cattle herders and the Bairu are farmers who also care for goats and sheep.

In 1967, the government of Milton Obote, prime minister of Uganda, abolished kingdoms in Uganda, including the Kingdom of Ankole. This policy was intended to promote individualism and socialism in opposition to traditional social classes. Nevertheless, cattle are still highly valued among the Banyankole, and the Bahima are still held in high regard.


Ankole lies to the southwest of Lake Victoria in southwestern Uganda. Sometime during or before the seventeenth century, cattle-keeping people migrated from the north into central and western Uganda and mingled with indigenous farming peoples. They adopted the language of the farmers but maintained their separate identity and authority, most notably in the Kingdom of Ankole. The country was well suited for pastoralism (nomadic herding). Its rolling plains were covered with abundant grass. Today, ideal grazing land is diminishing due to a high rate of population growth.


The Banyankole speak a Bantu language called Runyankole. It is a member of the Niger-Kordofanian group of language families. In many of these languages, nouns are composed of modifiers known as prefixes, infixes, and suffixes. Word stems alone have no grammatical meaning. For example, the prefix ba -signifies plurality; thus, the ethnic group carries the name Ba nyankole. An individual person is a Mu nyankole, with the prefix mu -carrying the idea of singularity. Things pertaining to or belonging to the Banyankole are referred to as Ki nyankole, taking the prefix ki -. The pastoral Banyankole are known as Ba hima; an individual of this group is referred to as a Mu hima. The agricultural Banyankole are known as Ba iru; the individual is a Mu iru.


Legends and tales teach proper moral behavior to the young. Storytelling is a common means of entertainment. Both men and women excel in this verbal art form. Riddles and proverbs are also emphasized. Of special significance are legends surrounding the institution of the kingship, which provide a historical framework for the Banyankole.

Folktales draw on themes such as royalty, cattle, hunting, and other central concerns of the Banyankole. Animals figure prominently in the tales. One well-known tale concerns the Hare and the Leopard. The Hare and the Leopard were once great friends. When the Hare went to his garden for farming, he rubbed his legs with soil and then went home without doing any work, even though he told Leopard that he was always tired from digging. Hare also stole beans from Leopard's plot and said that they were his own. Eventually, Leopard realized that his crops were being stolen, and he set a trap in which Hare was caught in the act of stealing. While stuck in the trap, Hare called to Fox, who came and set him free. Conniving Hare told Fox to put his own leg into the trap to see how it functioned. Hare then called Leopard, who came and killed Fox, the assumed thief, without asking any questions. The Banyankole recite this story to illustrate that one should not trust easily, as Leopard trusted Hare. One should also not act too quickly, as Leopard did in killing the innocent Fox.


The majority of Banyankole today are Christians. They belong to major world denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church, or the Church of Uganda, which is Anglican. Fundamental Christianity, such as Evangelicalism, is also common. Public confessions of such sins as adultery and drunkenness are common, as well as rejection of many traditional secular and religious practices.

The element of indigenous Kinyankole religion that survives most directly today is the belief in ancestor spirits. It is still believed that many illnesses result from neglect of a dead relative, especially a paternal relative. Through divination it is determined which ancestor has been neglected. Presents of meat or milk and/or changes in behavior can appease the ancestor's spirit.


The majority of Banyankole celebrate Christian holidays, including Christmas (December 25) and Easter (in March or April).


Traditionally, in early childhood, children began to learn the colors of cows and how to differentiate their families' cows from those of other homesteads. Boys were taught how to make water buckets and knives. Girls were taught how to make milk-pot covers and small clay pots. By seven or eight years of age, boys were taught how to water cattle and calves. Girls helped by carrying and feeding babies. They were also expected to wash milk-pots and churn butter.

Among the Bahima (the herders), girls began to prepare for marriage as early as eight years of age. They were kept at home and given large quantities of milk in order to grow fat. Today, heaviness is still valued. Among the Banyankole, the father's sister was (and still is) responsible for the sexual morality of the adolescent girl. Nowadays schools, peer groups, popular magazines, and other mass media are rapidly replacing family members as sources of moral education for teenagers.

Traditionally, adulthood was recognized through the establishment of a family by marriage. The acquisition of large herds of cows for Bahima and of abundant crops for Bairu (farmers) were other markers of adulthood. Full adult status was achieved through the rearing of a large family.


Social relations among the Banyankole cannot be understood apart from rank. In the wider society, the Mugabe (king) and chiefs had authority over herders (Bahima). The Bahima had authority over the Bairu (farmers). Within the family, husbands had authority over wives, and older children had authority over younger ones. Inheritance typically involved the eldest son of a man's first wife, who succeeded to his office and property. Relations between fathers and sons and between brothers were formal and often strained. Mothers and their children, and brothers and their sisters, were often close.

Social relations in the community centered around exchanges of wealth, such as cows and agricultural produce. The most significant way that community solidarity was and still is expressed is through the elaborate exchange of formalized greetings. Greetings vary by the age of the participants, the time of day, the relative rank of the participants, and many other factors. Anyone meeting an elder has to wait until the elder acknowledges that person first.


The Mugabe's (king's) homestead was usually constructed on a hill. It was surrounded by a large fence made from basketry. A large space inside the compound was set aside for cattle. Special places were set aside for the houses of the king's wives, and for his numerous palace officials. There was a main gate through which visitors could enter, with several smaller gates for the entrance of family members.

Traditionally, Bahima (herders) maintained homes modeled after the king's but much smaller. The Bairu (farmers) traditionally built homes in the shape of a beehive. Poles of timber were covered with a framework of woven straw. A thick layer of grass frequently covered the entire structure.

Today, housing makes use of indigenous materials such as papyrus, grass, and wood. Homes are primarily rectangular. They are usually made from wattle and daub (woven rods and twigs plastered with clay and mud) with thatched roofs. Cement, brick, and corrugated iron are used by those who can afford them.


Among the Bahima, a young girl was prepared for marriage beginning at about age ten, though sometimes as early as eight. Marriages often occurred before a girl was sexually mature, or soon after her initial menstruation. For this reason, teenage pregnancies before marriage were uncommon. Polygyny (multiple wives) was associated with rank and wealth. Bahima herders who were chiefs typically had more than one wife, and the Mugabe (king) sometimes had over one hundred. Marriages were alliances between clans and large extended families. Among both the Bahima and the Bairu, pre-marital virginity was valued.

Today, Christian marriages are common. The value attached to extended families and the importance of having children have persisted as measures of a successful marriage. Monogamy is now the norm. Marriages occur at a later age than in the past, due to the attendance at school of both girls and boys. As a consequence, teenage pregnancies out of wedlock have risen. Girls who become pregnant are severely punished by being dismissed from school or disciplined by parents. For this reason, infanticide is now more common than in the past, given that abortion is not legal in Uganda.


Dress differentiates Banyankole by rank and gender. Chiefs traditionally wore long robes of cowskins. Ordinary citizens commonly were attired in a small portion of cowskin over their shoulders. Women of all classes wore cowskins wrapped around their bodies. They also covered their faces in public. In modern times, cotton cloth has come to replace cowskins as a means of draping the body. For special occasions, a man might wear a long, white cotton robe with a Western-style sports coat over it. A hat resembling a fez may also be worn. Today, Banyankole wear Western-style clothing. Dress suitable for agriculture such as overalls, shirts, and boots is popular. Teenagers are attracted to international fashions popular in the capital city of Kampala.


Bahima herders consume milk and butter and drink fresh blood from their cattle. The staple food of a herder is milk. Beef is also very important. When milk or meat are scarce, millet porridge is made from grains obtained from the Bairu. Buttermilk is drunk by women and children only. When used as a sauce, butter is mixed with salt, and meat or millet porridge is dipped into it. Children can eat rabbit, but men can eat only the meat of the cow or the buffalo. Herders never eat chicken or eggs. Women consume mainly milk, preferring it to all other foods. Cereals domesticated in Africamillet, sorghum, and eleusinedominate the agricultural Bairu sector. The Bairu keep sheep and goats. Unlike the herders, the farmers do consume chickens and eggs.


In the past, girls and boys learned cultural values, household duties, agricultural and herding skills, and crafts through observation and participation. Instruction was given where necessary by parents; fathers instructed sons, and mothers instructed daughters. Elders, by means of recitation of stories, tales, and legends, were also significant teachers.

Formal education was introduced in Uganda in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Today, Ankole has many primary and secondary schools maintained by missionaries or the government. In Uganda, among those aged fifteen years and over, about 50 percent are illiterate (unable to read or write). Illiteracy is noticeably higher among girls than among boys. Teenage pregnancy often forces girls to end their formal education. Schools in Ankole teach the values and skills needed for life in modern-day Uganda. At the same time, schools seek to preserve indigenous (native) Ankole cultural values. The Runyankole language is taught in primary schools.


All schools have regular performances and competitions. They involve dances, music, and plays. Where appropriate, instruction also makes use of Ankole folklore and artistic expression.


Among the Bahima, the major occupation was tending cattle. Every day the herder traveled great distances in search of pasture. Young boys were responsible for watering the herd. Teenage boys were expected to milk the cows before they were taken to pasture. Women cooked food, predominantly meat, to be taken daily to their husbands. Girls helped by gathering firewood, caring for babies, and doing household work. Men were responsible for building homes for their families and pens for their cattle.

Among the Bairu, both men and women were involved in agricultural labor, although men cleared the land. Millet was the main food crop. Secondary crops were plantains, sweet potatoes, beans, and groundnuts (peanuts). Maize (corn) was considered a treat by the children. Children participated in agriculture by chasing birds away from the fields.


Sports, such as track and field and soccer, are very popular in primary and secondary schools. Children play an assortment of games including hide-and-seek, house, farming, wrestling, and ball games such as soccer. Ugandan national sporting events are followed with great interest in the Ankole region, as are international sporting events.


Radio and television are important means of entertainment in Ankole. Most homes contain radios that have broadcasts in English, KiSwahili (the two national languages), and Runyankole. Books, newspapers, and magazines also are popular.

Social events such as weddings, funerals, and birthday parties typically involve music and dance. This form of entertainment includes not only modern music, but also traditional forms of songs, dances, and instruments. The drinking of alcoholic and nonalcoholic bottled beverages is common at festivities. In the past, the brewing of beer was a major home industry in Ankole.


Carpenters, ironworkers, potters, musicians, and others were once permanent features of the Mugabe's (king's) homestead or were in constant contact with it. Carpenters fashioned stools, milk-pots, meat-dishes, waterpots, and troughs for fermenting beer. Iron-smiths manufactured spears, knives, and hammers. Every family had a member who specialized in pottery. Pipes for smoking displayed the finest artistic creativity. Small colored beads were used to decorate clay pipes, which came in various shapes and sizes, and walking sticks.

Traditional industries are not nearly as significant as in the past. Nevertheless, one can still observe the use of traditional pipes, water-pots for music, decorated walking sticks exchanged at marriage, and the use of gourds and pottery.


Milton Obote ruled Uganda from 1962 until 1971, when he was overthrown by Idi Amin. Obote prohibited the formation of ethnic kingdoms within Uganda. During Idi Amin's dictatorship in the 1970s, all Ugandans suffered from political oppression and the loss of life and property. Obote once again took over in 1980 after the overthrow of Amin and ruled oppressively. Resistance to Amin and Obote resulted in the destruction of towns and villages. Uganda is currently working toward economic recovery and democratic reform.

Since the mid-1980s, AIDS has been a serious problem. As adult Ugandans die of AIDS, many children become orphans. There has been a strong national effort to educate the public through mass media about AIDS prevention.

A growing population, in spite of AIDS, remains a threat to a pastoral way of life. Warfare in neighboring countries such as Rwanda has contributed to population growth, as refugees have regularly come into the region.


Bahemuka, Judith Mbula. Our Religious Heritage. Nairobi, Kenya: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1984.

Hansen, Holger Bernt, and Michael Twaddle, ed. Uganda Now: Between Decay and Development. London, England: James Currey, Ltd., 1988.

Kiwanuka, M. S. M. The Empire of Bunyoro Kitara: Myth or Reality. Kampala, Uganda: Longmans of Uganda, Ltd., 1968.

Mushanga, Musa T. Folk Tales from Ankole. Kampala, Uganda: Uganda Press Trust, Ltd., n. d.


Embassy of Uganda, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available, 1998.

Government of Uganda. Uganda Home Page. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide. Uganda. [Online] Available, 1998.

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