My artwork titled Nakulabye, which is 4 meters long and weighs 440 pounds, is an intimidating sculptural replica of the Omweso game board (Fig. 1). The wooden sculpture, twenty times larger than an average Omweso game board, includes four cane stools to sit on during play. Its composition is derived from a human face, and it has thirty-two pits (8 × 4) in the configuration of a mancala board. This sculpture was inspired by my engagement with a group of men that I visited in July 2016 in Nakulabye, a town in an urban area of Kampala City, Uganda. At the Nakulabye Omweso Club, a shop veranda in Nakulabye Town, these men play Omweso and chat against the backdrop of a small television that mostly screens British Premiere Leagues. Observing their exchanges, which seem to be informed by moves on the Omweso board and reveal strong, clearly gendered power dynamics, I became curious about the performative place of Omweso as a cultural artifact of the Baganda people.1 In this article I posit that, despite centuries of cultural diffusion and relocation, Omweso continuously narrates and constantly contends a gendered functional space within the fluid cultural history, memories, and perspectives of the Baganda. I examine the idea that the unusual ethos of Omweso, as a primary (re)source, has contributed to ongoing creative representations and personal artistic visualizations.
Omweso2 (Fig. 2) is a Luganda word for a type of mancala board game (Brauholtz 1932) played among the Baganda and several other ethnic groups in Uganda and other parts of Africa (Wernharm 2002). On the surface, the game is a simple and an ancient form of daily entertainment (Trowell and Wachsman 1953). However, Omweso consistently appears as a location for power and spirituality in the history of the Baganda: it can be a form of divination and may be associated with spirit possession, a ceremonial game as part of a king's coronation rites, and its play has been, at times, a prerogative of the royal court. These locations have developed as restrictive spaces,3 rife with taboos and gendered narratives. For example, in Buganda's material culture, women are restricted in numerous spaces: the playing of mujaguzo (the royal drums of Buganda); the brewing of mwenge bigere, also known as tonto (a local banana beer); the process of making olubugo (a traditional bark-cloth); and the making and, indeed, playing of Omweso (Nakazibwe 2005, Kabiito 2010, Nanyonga-Tamusuza 2014).
As a sculptor—a particularly masculinist subdiscipline of the visual arts in Uganda—I have been actively engaged with cultural artifacts that speak to different historical narratives and their contexts within Uganda's societies.4 My first encounter with the Omweso board was in 2010, when my husband inherited a board from his father, Aloysius Kasujja (1927–2009). Although I had witnessed men playing Omweso, this situation was unique because the cultural taboo of obuko prevented me from handling that particular board—in Buganda, there are restrictions on a woman and her father-in-law in terms of touching, physical proximity to each other, or the handling of personal possessions (see Nyanzi, Nassimbwa, Kayizzi, and Kabanda 2008). My father-in-law's Omweso board (Fig. 3) piqued my interest and caused me to question how I, as a culturally situated female artist, might speak to and about indigenous artistic expressions that are shaped by specific gendered perspectives.
Baganda are a patriarchal society5 that places emphasis on the sanctity of masculinity, denying women access to any intellectually or spiritually beneficial object or practice, such as playing Omweso. However, the do's and don'ts that governed (and may still govern) Baganda women's social life reveal subtle contradictions, denying power to women yet, in some instances, surprisingly allocating it to them (Bantebya-Kyomuhendo and McIntosh 2006, Tamale 2006). I first experienced these gender-restricted spaces when I was not allowed to touch my father-in law's Omweso board. Then, conversations with men in the Nakulabye Omweso Club established specifically that women in Buganda are not allowed to play Omweso. Nonetheless, in the course of my research I found people in three locations whose experiences challenge this restriction and became significant in shaping my perception of the role of Omweso as an artifact and a game in the gendered spiritual and cultural history of Buganda.
The historical narrative of Omweso was informed by my almost chance discovery of a miniature Omweso board in a diorama at the Uganda National Museum6 showing the priestess Nakayima, whose divination practices have transcended time and space and are part of contemporary indigenous culture in Buganda (Ballarin, Kiriama, and Pennacini 2013).7 Second was a visit to Nakku Namusoke, a mukondo (descendant wife) and muzaana (royal servant) to Kabaka Ssuna II (1836–1856), who showed me the Omweso board that belonged to him. In both locations, Omweso silently intertwines with practices of kubandwa or spiritual possession (Pennacini 2009). Third was the Nakulabye Omweso Club, an archetype of masculine cultural idealization whose members perpetuate narratives from Buganda's patriarchal past that persist in the present, asserting that women are not allowed to play Omweso. They also describe okwesa (“playing Omweso”) with metaphors that include a winning move known as akakyala (referencing female passivity) and a counter, known as empiki buteba, that is used for divination sessions and contains lubaale or spirits. (Since empiki buteba in the Omweso game is rare, difficult, and embarrassing to obtain, medicine men usually ask for it as a price for a divination session.)8 The three locations—Nakayima, Nakku-Namusoke, and the Nakulabye Omweso Club—are central to this article in terms of holding and assigning meaning to the object (Kabiito 2010: 53–62; Brenner, Vorster and Wintjes 2016). They are significant in containing and unpacking subtle performative nuances in the personal creative reconfiguration of the Omweso board and game.
OMWESO AS BOARD, GAME, AND GENDERED SPACE
In 2016, I created another sculpture, titled Akakyala (Fig. 4), that engages with Ganda narratives surrounding Omweso. In this work, I used a mannequin9 to create the figure of a young woman sitting on a stool. She is dressed in black and adorned with a trendy, brilliant red necklace and red shoes. Placed in front of her is a bench with four oversized Omweso-like pits containing both black and red counters (Fig. 5). Three of the pits are made of barbed wire, while the fourth is covered with brightly colored, patterned cloth.10 The figure bends forward, as if ready to play on the four-pit board and engage an imaginary player. The attitude and presentation of the sculpture is provocative, exhibiting the young woman's confidence in playing a forbidden game on a tangibly limiting barbed wire board. Akakyala confronts the Baganda narrative that “women are not allowed to play Omweso.”11 It is through this narrative that I present Omweso: the game board and how it is played as an object with power relations and gendered narratives in Buganda (Kiguli 2001; Tamale 2006).
At first glance, the Omweso board presents itself as a simple traditional object utilized for sport and entertainment. It is carved from a flat piece of wood with round or square pits or cups.12 Omweso has thirty-two pits (amasa in Luganda) arranged in front of each player in territories of sixteen pits: eight lengthwise and four deep.13 The game requires sixty-four counters or black seeds known as empiki, from the omuyiki tree (Mesoneurum welwitschianum).14 This board type is sold in many tourist craft villages around Kampala. The performative function of playing Omweso (Fig. 6) is called okwesa or kwesa. According to Nsimbi (1968: 2), Omweso might be one of the oldest pastimes in Uganda, and as a cultural practice, it is still commonly played by men young and old. They assemble at kiosk verandas in small towns or at homesteads of many rural and semiurban communities and play board games while holding a wide range of conversations. Omweso as it is played in Buganda is a highly mathematical and competitive reentrant game, where all seeds remain in play, and the winner plays captured seeds on his side of the board. Rules and procedures require the player to comprehend patterns of arranging counters, making moves, and capturing an opponent's counters, leading to a calculated win (Nsimbi 1968, Weinharm 2002). In the traditional setting, two players squat or sit cross-legged facing each other, placing the board between them (Fig. 7).
Yet its simple format disguises the Omweso game's importance as an interactive, highly competitive performance of power relations and gendered narratives. For example, the most important element of Omweso is to accumulate the most counters, and the player who does so is deemed the most powerful. As a gendered game, Omweso counters are referred to as “men”—thus framed as masculine—while the pits on the board are perceived to be feminine. I encountered this gendered aspect at the Uganda Museum, where the label for an Omweso artifact from Bunyoro (Fig. 8) in Western Uganda reads:
[The game] is played on a board, made usually of wood but sometimes marked out on the ground or cut in the rock, with seeds or small stones called men. Each player has thirty-two men in his two rows of holes, with which he tries to capture his opponent's men.15
The counters are referred to as “men” for reasons grounded in the gendered tenets of the Baganda, where individual roles, although interchangeable, are associated with situations or objects of power (Kiguli 2001: 6, Nannyoga-Tamusuza 2009: 368).16 Therefore, if women were allowed to play Omweso they would be figuratively controlling men. Among the Baganda, gendered power relations are reflected in taboos around many competitive situations, such as going to and winning a war, sexual performance, and playing Omweso.Tamale (2006: 22) notes that playing Omweso in ekisaakaate—spaces set aside in family compounds or the King's palace to instruct young individuals on the roles they are going to play in the social system17—can be a metaphor for contests or sex, illustrated in the Baganda saying Omukazi okukwata mu mweso nga abasajja bagenze okutabaala kyaletanga ekisirani (“A woman who plays the game of Omweso when men have gone to war brings about misfortune”), where playing Omweso is both a gendered taboo and a metaphor for sex. If men were killed or unable to bring home wealth during a war, this misfortune was ascribed to a woman having played Omweso. Or if a man was not sexually successful, he might suggest that the woman played Omweso, intimating that she tampered with her sexuality.18
Omweso is also an instrument of power and a measure of a candidate's suitability for kingship. A ceremonial Omweso board known as buteba (Fig. 9), made of only one cup or dip, is found at Njayuya in Wakiso District, Uganda. This one-pit board carved on a rock is used during a coronation rite where the kabaka (king) plays Omweso with his katikiro (prime minister) (Ray 1991:86). On the eve of his coronation, the ssabataka (head of the royal clans), who is a prince and the heir apparent, plays on the coronation board with an empiki buteba (winning counter), which medicine men in Buganda consider significant in determining the outcome of a divination session. During this rite, a winning move—okutebuka (“to go back”)—is used to enable the king to win. This is to demonstrate his superior political power, knowledge, and strategic thinking over that of his male subjects (Nsimbi 1968: 5). Driberg (1927) indeed attests to how the valued qualities, including intellectual prowess, attached to mancala games lead to local prestige and social status. Among the Acholi in northern Uganda, such games decide between rival candidates for succession to a chieftainship (Driberg 1927: 169).
The terms used in conversations around and during Omweso to indicate important moves describe the players' relationships and positions. There are undertones and intonations for game moves, such as each player's losses and achievements. For instance, when a player wins by capturing counters on both ends of the board in one turn, it is known as emitwe ebiri, a “double head win.” Okutema akakyala refers to capturing seeds from the opponent in two separate moves before they have made any move. Akakyala here connotes the passive character of a woman and is a metaphor for a quick win. Therefore, when two people are playing and one presents a weak stand or easily loses the game, okutema akakyala comes into play and the winner is able to jest about the loser, saying, “twesa n'abakazi abasajja bagenda kutabaala” (“we are playing with women, the men went to war”). My sculpture Akakyala consciously confronts these narratives by presenting a self-confident woman playing on a challenging Omweso board.
Ugandan academic, feminist, and human rights activist Sylvia Tamale says that there is a significant relationship between gender and power in the game, to the point that the game is viewed as being sexually provocative (2006: 21).19 The space in which Omweso is played is clearly gendered with words and phrases that have multiple meanings, allowing men to engage in sexually uninhibited conversation. I also learned at the Let's Talk About Omweso symposium and through interviews at the Nakulabye Omweso Club that restrictions on women playing Omweso can only be lifted by a royal decree. Despite my attempts, I have failed to find evidence for how and when this restriction was imposed. There are many reasons why women are not allowed to play Omweso, and given its cultural, social, and political significance, it is not surprising that it has, for the past century, maintained crucial gendered narratives within Buganda's historical landscape (Marias and Wintjes 2016).
OMWESO PERFORMING HISTORICAL AND POLITICAL LINEAGES IN BUGANDA
The existence of mancala board games in Uganda and other parts of Africa points to its widespread function, distribution, and adaptation by groups of people who may have learned the game through cultural diffusion (Brice 1954, Culin 1971, Binsbergen 1997). For example, mancala boards of similar design and playing patterns exist among the Banyarwanda, Banyoro, and Baganda, who are a Bantu-speaking group in Central Africa. Binsbergen (1997), citing well-known game historians Murray (1952: 158–59) and Bikić and Vuković (2016: 183), notes that mancala board games are ancient, first attested in the Kitab al-Aghani (Book of Songs) by the Arab author Abu'l Faradj (897–967). This situates their origin in the second half of the first millennium ce at the latest. They are still widespread in many parts of Africa, having descended from the royal tombs of Ur in Mesopotamia and the pharaonic tombs of Egypt, filtering down to Sudan along trading and migratory routes, giving birth to numerous variations in sub-Saharan Africa (Binsbergen 1997). The most common mancala games are bao in Tanzania and Kenya; oware among the Ashanti in Ghana, and moruba (or maruba) among the Pedi, in South Africa (Robbins 1982).20 There are, however, missing links in its occurrence in Buganda as a functional object and as a critical agent of its lineage, except for similarities to nsumbi in Zaire (Fig. 10), isingiro in Rwanda, and bare in Ethiopia (Fernald 1978, Wernham 2002: 5, de Voogt 2001). The account that follows is thus based not on any particular antique artifact but on the concept of the Omweso game as it lived through Uganda's colonial and civil wars (1900–1986) to become part of Buganda's contemporary material culture.
Omweso is not found in Buganda exclusively, as the Baganda—such as members of the Nakulabye Omweso Club21—would like to believe. Mancala board games occur in many parts of Uganda under various names: soro among the Madi and Alur, olusoro among the Banyoro, and ekyesho among the Banyankole.22Mancala board games such as choro among the Dodoth of Karamoja in northeastern Uganda and pereauni among the Didinga of southern Sudan (Driberg 1927) are still played. There are variations in the specific gaming procedures or codes found in groups with other social structures—mostly chieftaincies—but many share rules and taboos that are observed in the neighboring Baganda culture, which is a monarchy.
The oldest Omweso board in Buganda could be the miniature board displayed in the Uganda Museum, which houses the diorama of Nakayima, a priestess of Mubende Hill. Nakayima is said to have descended from the Bachwezi, a migratory group who formed a Bunyoro-Kitara dynasty (ca. 1350–1890) in western Uganda.23Schiller (1990: 456) says that, as the Buganda kingdom emerged out of the Bachwezi's political demise, they could have acquired the culture of playing Omweso from the Bachwezi in Bunyoro (Beattie 1964).24
The importance of Omweso among the Baganda has been attested over centuries by Western explorers and missionaries. Young Buganda herdsmen dug small holes in the ground (or rock) and collected seeds or pebbles to play games to pass time (Nsimbi 1968, Zaslavsky 1999, Namono 2010). Articles and notes about Omweso in the Uganda Journal25 (Lanning 1956a, 1956b; Wayland 1931, 1936, 1938) mention sets of mancala-like engravings found at the bank of Muzizi River, Toro Kingdom, in western Uganda. There are also prehistoric rock engravings similar to an Omweso board (Namono 2010: 50) found at Nsongeza and Namunyonyi Hill in central Uganda (Wayland 1938, Pearce and Posnansky 1963, Chaplin 1974: 24, White and Nkurunziza 1971: 175). At Sanzi in eastern central Uganda (Fig. 11) a rock shows clear engravings of multiple Omweso 4 × 8 boards carbon dated to the late first millennium (Namono 2010: 42, 53; Reid 2003: 40–43). These boards attest to the functional importance of Omweso in precolonial communities. Lanning (1956a) says that the spiritual survival of those communities was anchored in the belief that balubaale (gods) carved Omweso boards on rocks there—some are over 400 years old, others recently carved by herdsmen. They have been used over the decades for cultural rituals and political ceremonies (Lanning 1956a).
The designation of Omweso as a royal artifact is found in Buganda's precolonial political history. For example, the kabakas Ssuna II (1836–1856) and Mutesa I (1856–1884)26 owned Omweso boards that functioned as spiritual instruments, symbols of political power, and royal regalia. They played Omweso for entertainment in the lubiri (royal palace) with important ministers and chiefs, and sometimes with their sisters, whose social rank was equal to the king (Nsimbi 1968, Musisi 1991). Men had played Omweso at the royal court even before the reign of Kabaka Ssuna II, but the influx of Arabs, white missionaries, and colonialists during that time changed the dynamic of Omweso from a game played in the king's private quarters to a “traditional pastime and sport” among the commoner Baganda. Its role as an object representing spirituality and authority again shifted when Uganda became a British Protectorate under Kabaka Mutesa I. From this point onwards, Omweso was detached and alienated from its traditional functions, becoming a marker of the superseded past in colonial journals (Ashe 1895: 58–59) (Fig. 12). Colonial and Western religious ideologies insistently positioned Omweso as either a tool of witchcraft and sorcery or a pastime that promoted idleness, an economically nonproductive traditional village activity. According to Nsimbi (1968), the need for labor to work in the new economy of cash crops such as coffee and cotton, introduced in Uganda in 1904, left no time for playing Omweso. In the mid-nineteenth century, Omweso continuously struggled, degenerating into a recreational activity and then regenerating as representation of political interest. The migration of labor from traditional villages into towns or the new kibuga reversed the regal use of Omweso to benefit new cultural-political ideologies and ideas of Africanness (Nsimbi 1968: 7, Musisi 1999: 178, Tumusiime 2017: 64–65).
The political events following Uganda's independence from British rule in 1962 again realigned Omweso from an ideological focal point to a passive cultural activity. For example, in 1966, Apollo Milton Obote (1925–2005) declared himself president of Uganda and abolished traditional kingships, including Buganda's monarchy, alienating the place of indigenous cultural institutions (Young 1966: 8, Kakande 2017: 51). Obote's government further destroyed social practices, art forms, and cultural activities that had been either banned or discouraged by colonialists. During this period, Omweso fell victim to new policies of political control, as the Baganda convened underground for political propaganda about ethnic federalism. Then the dictator Idi Amin Dada (ca. 1925–2003) took political power in 1971. He maintained Obote's status quo of dysfunctional traditional political institutions (First 1971: 132; Oloka-Onyango 1997: 175–76). However, Idi Amin patronized and developed sports to distract the public from his reign of terror, and thus recreations—including Omweso—which had been spaces for conversation about life and politics, became instruments of subversive political activity (Nsimbi 1968: 7). In 1986, after a gruesome civil war (1980–1986), a National Resistance Movement (NRM) took power in Uganda, and in 1993 the current president, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, restored traditional institutions and reinstated the precolonial kingdoms as cultural institutions with no political governing significance. This seemingly manipulative political gesture opened a debate among the Baganda about indigenous culture known as ebyaffe, or “our things”27 (Kiguli 2001: 198). Omweso was reinstated to the public political domain28 and a reserve of Baganda enthusiasts who, through spaces of instruction like ekisaakaate, restore Buganda's traditional values to the younger generation. It is against that fluid historical backdrop that Omweso has silently but firmly continued performing narratives still critical to the survival of Buganda. Art historian Ruth Simbao examined the crowns of ChiBemba-speaking Lunda-Kazembe as objects that reflect styles of regalia but also, most significantly here, as materials in performance that establish the identity of the Lunda crown and of “Lunda-hood” (Simbao 2006: 27). Similarly, cultural sites, activities, and objects such as those found at Nakayima's shrine on Mubende Hill, mukondo at Wamala Royal Tombs, and the Nakulabye Omweso Club have taken center stage as the Baganda proclaim and preserve their culture.
OMWESO PERFORMING NARRATIVES OF WOMEN WITH(OUT) POWER IN BUGANDA
In the Uganda Museum is a diorama of Nakayima, wife of the fourteenth century Bachwesi king, Ndahura. The figure represents a mystical woman seated on a stool mounted on a throne of animal skins (Fig. 13). She is garbed in bark cloth and a beaded headdress and holds a staff in her right hand. Her skin is the hue described by the Baganda as kataketake, a coveted coppery color, and she has the elongated facial features common to the Bachwezi. The display case holds other objects such as spears, shields, pipes, skins, a ntimbo drum, and, significantly, a collection of miniature fetish objects and amulets (Lanning 1967, 1966). The objects were excavated and collected in the 1950s from an archaeological site on Mubende Hill, western Uganda (Pennacini 2013: 24, Lanning 1953: 182, Robertshaw 2002).29 Among those fetish objects and amulets is a miniature Omweso board (Fig. 14). This object raises questions: Why is it in this diorama? What is its function in the regalia of worship among the Bachwezi and what is its later significance among the Baganda?
The miniature Omweso object is made out of wood, and its proportions (4 cm × 6 cm) and appearance are those of a standard 4 × 8, thirty-two-dip Omweso board. Previous studies have shown how miniatures are used not for the actual purpose of the original piece, but for certain religious functions (Nichols 1997: 813; Binsbergen 1997). In some cases, they form part of royal regalia or masquerades. Examples of such boards are found in the oracle baskets containing small objects that are used by diviners among the inhabitants of Southern Central Africa (Binsbergen 1997), along with miniature 2 × 6-pit mancala boards (Delachaux (1946: 70). In essence, the size of the Omweso board and its placement in this diorama suggest that it was intended to be used not for recreation but for spiritual power.30
I began searching for answers about the miniature Omweso object at Nakayima's shrine under a huge tree at Mubende Hill.31 According to Ballarin, Kiriama, and Pennacini (2013: 5) the power dynamic created by Nakayima in this space can be appreciated only by analyzing the divination practices surrounding the natural phenomenon of this enormous tree.32 The priestess Nakayima possesses three identities: a museum artifact, a person associated with the tree, and a mukongozi (mediator or carrier of Nakayima's spirit).33 These provide occasions for conversations about Baganda spiritualities and women's agency.
First, Nakayima the female spiritual figure, presented in the context of the Uganda Museum, contributed to the artistic predicaments I encountered while investigating Omweso as a divination object. My sculpture Buteba (2015) (Fig. 15) is a small wood and copper piece with stone counters that was inspired by Baganda divination practices,34 where Omweso is used by fortunetellers and medicine men (Lugira 2009). The taboo on women (other than royal princesses) playing Omweso creates an ambiguous and intriguing narrative out of the juxtaposition of a divination object with Nakayima's figure in the museum. There is no evidence that Nakayima or her descendants played Omweso; her descendants told me they had never seen a board at the shrine. The caretaker35 at Mubende Hill said that the board at the museum might have been an instrument of divination and spirit possession as used by lubaale (male deities), such as a Ganda high priest named Jjaja Muwanga. The assumption, therefore, is that the miniature Omweso is not Nakayima's prerogative as a woman, but as a princess and Chwezi demigoddess. Secondly, I found a community of tourists and believers visiting Mubende Hill to worship beside the tree, known by the locals as Nakayima's Tree (Fig. 16). They believe that the tree possesses the spirit (emandwa) of Nakayima, which turs it into a shrine for Buganda's cultural worship.36 There is a woman at the shrine called Nalubega Restetuuta (b. 1931) (Fig. 17), who claims to be an intermediary and the current omukongozi (“carrier of the spirit”) of Nakayima (Pennacini 2013:30). Nalubega continues the legacy passed on by mediums of Nakayima who have worked under this tree. As Nakayima's medium she says, “nze Nakayima” (“I am Nakayima”). According to Bell (1991: xi, 1993), mythology can be a basis for understanding the situation being dealt with today of an eternal woman who, through her descendants, still seeks solutions to problems that have followed her down the ages. Sadly, due to the legacy of gendered cultural restrictions, Nalubega does not know how to play Omweso. Of Nakayima's three personas—artifact, tree, and omukongozi—only the diorama at the Uganda Museum has a physical association to the Omweso board.
To conceptualize the disconnect seen between Nakayima and Omweso in her other facets, one needs to comprehend the implications of her roles in all spaces and how those roles speak to the cultural space of the Baganda. Omweso only manifests in gendered locations that have a history of spirituality and in public, male-dominated spaces of power. Since women in Buganda were not allowed to play Omweso unless they were related to the king, the implication of its presence in one of Nakayima's spaces could only point towards her social status as princess and wife to King Ndahura. In addition, Nakayima was considered a medium and later a spirit, so her divination practices gave her high rank in the Baganda political hierarchy (Kiguli 2001: 23).
OMWESO IN THE ROYAL GENDERED CULTURAL SPACES OF BUGANDA
The evolution of Omweso within the cultural practices of Buganda is not restricted to a single function or significance. It was first a divination object, then an instrument of kings' political power and a gendered recreational artifact. Like Nakayima, there are other women who embody notions of spirituality and power, transcending time and space by being part of indigenous culture in contemporary Buganda.
In June 2017, I visited Nnaku Namusoke (b. 1981) (Fig. 18a–b), who belongs to the Ffumbe (civet cat) totem, one of the clans of Buganda, and lives at the palace and tombs of Kabaka Ssuna II, also known as amasiro, at Wamala, Wamunyenye, approximately 12.5 km out of Kampala. She is a hereditary mukondo (wife of a king) and also a hereditary muzaana (royal servant to a king), the king in question being Kabaka Ssuna II. Her great grandmother, she says, was the favorite among the king's 148 wives (Rosco 1965, Summers 2017).37 She said that the spirit of Kabaka Ssuna possesses (kubandwa) any of her descendants in her lineage—including herself—to continuously become heirs of mukondo and commands them to care for his palace and tombs.
Nnaku Namusoke showed me an Omweso board in her custody that is approximately 160 years old and belonged to Ssuna II (Fig. 19). This is a spiritually functional object through which gendered complexities and contradictions are performed. Nnaku Namusoke is a powerful and enigmatic female figure, given that she is the contemporary wife to a dead king. In our first interaction, she—just like Nalubega Restetuuta at Nakayima Tree—introduced herself with, “Nze mukondo, mukyala wa Kabaka Ssuna owokubiri” (“I am Mukondo, wife to Kabaka Ssuna II”). In Buganda, mukondo is the title given to a woman who manages the king's wardrobe38 and only relates to her place at the royal palace. Her positions and roles in the royal palace reveal gendered continuities in contemporary public space.
The life and role of a mukondo and how her life manifests alongside the game of Omweso is indeed a revelation. Despite the taboo, Nnaku Namusoke plays Omweso on the antique Omweso board that belonged to Kabaka Ssuna II. As already mentioned, the only women allowed to play Omweso were abambejja (royal princesses), who are, significantly, masculinized, given the title ssebo (“sir”) (Schiller 1990: 455, Musisi 1991; Kiguli 2001; Nanyonga-Tamusuza 2009). Nnaku Namusoke told me that Kabaka Ssuna II loved to play Omweso with his favorite princes, chiefs, and sometimes sisters, but not with his wives, who are bakopi (commoners) (Nsimbi 1968). Therefore, Nakku Namusoke, as mukondo and not of royal blood, would only play Omweso because she lived at the palace and only due to her association with the royal princesses. Yet why is this woman, who did not hold any power at the royal palace, the custodian of Kabaka Ssuna's Omweso board? In Buganda, holding objects of cultural significance such as spears, drums, and Omweso is related to masculinity, while the roles and statuses of women, like mukondo, are domestic and relate only to femininity. The paradox of her situation is in the spiritual, social, and material culture in Buganda. When you visit Wamala Tombs, you are taken to Nnaku Namusoke, who continuously represents and self-affirms herself by narrating the traditions surrounding her status in this patriarchal space (Pennacini 2009, Ranger 1992). Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (quoted in Pennacini 2009: 16) says that the spirits and the bloodlines of the previous women in Buganda's culture are said to be conserved in persons who continue to represent their ancestors. Nnaku Namusoke confirmed that occasionally, when the emandwa (spirit) of Kabaka Ssuna II possesses her, she plays Omweso on his board. For entertainment she plays any other board available. This situation is controversial because Nnaku, a female, becomes masculinized when she is possessed by the emandwa of Kabaka Ssuna. Nnaku's title confronts the hierarchical culture of the Baganda. As the descendant of her great-grandmother, she continues her role of asserting and branding the idea and existence of women's statuses and roles in Buganda politics (Kiguli 2001: 154–61). But on the other hand, she is not only the gatekeeper of Omweso at Wamala Tombs, but also possesses the reality of the domestic space of women in Buganda. As mukondo and a muzaana at Wamala Tombs, she claims the spirit of Kabaka Ssuna II and guides us into this complex phenomenon, satisfying the spiritual and social functions of the Baganda.
It would be inaccurate to suggest that women in Buganda never play Omweso. Taboos in traditional culture are sometimes overlooked in unusual circumstances, as when a player, such as a princess, needed an opponent for her recreation. In order to confirm that I had no access to the royal board, I asked Nnaku Namusoke if she would allow me play it. She said that ordinarily, if the king was at court, it would be taboo. However, if she or a princess were without companion, anybody (including me) would be summoned and could play. This way, many servants at court learned how to play Omweso, spreading the activity to ordinary homesteads where some women played and overcame cultural restrictions. Such persistent continuities have resulted in absconding from tradition (Tamale 2006: 30). However, women who played Omweso were negatively looked upon as kyakulassajja (being like men), and are referred to as abewaggula (rebellious and culturally nonconforming women). The stories of Nakayima and Nnaku Namusoke point toward gendered power struggles in Buganda's culture. They are both women with[out] power because, even though both use Omweso as a conduit for kubandwa or spiritual practices and one plays for entertainment, their stories are camouflaged by the circumstance of a gendered Omweso board.
BUGANDA'S NARRATIVES CHAMPIONING OMWESO IN CONTEMPORARY SPACE
On the several occasions I had conversations with the men in Nakulabye Omweso Club (Fig. 20), they told me about the functions, characteristics, and structures of Omweso and its play. Although I considered their conversations controversial, to them they were normal, and they asserted with great confidence that women in Buganda's culture were categorically not allowed to play Omweso. The reasons they gave were varied and seemed to involve upholding masculine prestige, relegating domestic responsibilities to women (Tumusiime 2012), and protecting the men's Omweso playing space and its sexual undercurrents.39 This is in conflict with the two culturally significant Omweso objects in the possession of women that I have just discussed. Nonetheless, the Nakulabye Omweso Club champions the cause of women playing Omweso. Some men in the club support young girls participating in district and national Omweso leagues, campaigning to lift any gendered impediments. Even so, there are no women players in the Nakulabye Omweso Club, throwing the legitimacy of their campaign into question. I interviewed Hudson Kyagaba, a young man who is a club member and navigates the historically gendered cultural continuities about Omweso in contemporary space. He is the kafulu40 or current world champion of Omweso in Uganda. His mother is a princess who was a descendant of the omuzaana (royal servant) at Kasubi Tombs, 2 km from Kampala. Kyagaba had access to Omweso because of his lineage's connection to the royal court. He proposed several reasons why women in Buganda were not allowed to play Omweso. First, if they played, they would not have time for domestic duties. Second, Omweso is a highly intellectual game that women cannot understand. And third, the sitting position assumed while playing Omweso is not feminine and if women played Omweso they would be like men. This confirms that it is the socialization process, which relegates genders to either the private or public domain, that determines who may play the game, when it is played, and whether its benefits accrue to either men or women. Men at Nakulabye would commonly play Omweso after a day's work, while the women go home to carry out evening household chores. Driburg says that, during games of choro and pereauni among the Langi and Didinga, men played for diversion after defeat in battle or private loss, but women rarely played (Driberg 1927: 170). Secondly, among the Langi and Acholi in Northern Uganda, stakes were part of most games. Though they were hypothetical, Driburg says that it was not unusual to propose a cow or even a girl as a stake, and prestige and status were quantified in terms of how many girls or cows one won. Although this situation is not seen today, there is still the connotation that a woman is a prize, not a participant, in playing such games.
The domestic narratives surrounding Omweso informed my sculpture Nakulabye. The sculpture weaves stories around and within the Omweso game and the young women who do not play mentally abstract games such as chess, or Omweso.41 The issues that arose in the story of the Nakulabye Omweso Club point towards several factors. Omweso represents continuity in the histories and culture of the Baganda, such as upholding masculine prestige because it promotes competitiveness and strategic thinking. The game reinforces the patriarchal notion that women belong to the domestic space—which is tacitly assumed to lack a need for those skills—and conversations surrounding Omweso, while entertaining, are gendered and sexually suggestive. The presence of Omweso in the spiritual dynamic of the Baganda is another force for continuity. In addition, the Baganda patriarchal system reserves multiple benefits, such as intellectual development (especially in STEM education), for men (Mukama, Tanzarn, and Bantebya-Kyomuhendo 2004: 337; de Haas and Ewout 2016).
Bell (1979: 121–22) says that, for most board games, if a woman became a stronger player, men avoided playing to avoid the ridicule of being defeated by a woman. In Buganda, only recently, and for more strategy-based games such as chess or football, have girls been encouraged to participate competitively. The format of some games is another space of contention, because physical engagement and relationships between players may be considered masculine. For example, in Buganda, for a woman to spread or expose her limbs in public was frowned up as vulgar and unfeminine. There was the fear that playing with a woman exposed men to sexual excitement, so that the man on the other side of the board could not concentrate on the game. Another important point to remember is that Omweso brought many people together under conditions that fostered familiarity. Husbands feared that if their wives and daughters were to mix freely with men, their morality would be adversely affected.
In contemporary Buganda, the space of playing Omweso has not changed and cultural restrictions, especially against women playing, have not been lifted. Omweso has become even more inaccessible as young girls or women have taken on more duties to contribute to the family income. Caregiving, such as providing food, looking after children, cleaning the home, and any other activities associated with domestic space, is still women's domain. The Baganda narrative says that, “Omweso guleetara omukazi obunaffu” (“Omweso encourages laziness for a woman”). Nsimbi (1956: 31) suggests that women customarily had less leisure time than men and simply could not find time to play Omweso. My sculpture Omweso 1 (Fig. 21) is carved out of wood with cups or dips encased in copper and aluminum. This work recycles copper and aluminum cooking pots, which are feminized contemporary domestic materials here performing the functions of self-reflection and self-realization. Although this work is patronized by the Nakulabye Omweso Club, it does not appease the cultural and spiritual responsibilities still prevalent among the Baganda. The lack of transparency in the game, the subtle undertones involved, and the gendered societal disadvantage still challenge my situation as an artist in the space of indigenous culture.
I first presented this research at the Publishing and Research of the South: Positioning Africa (PROSPA) annual publishing workshop that took place in Kampala, Uganda (July 4–8, 2017). The workshop was organized by the Arts of Africa and Global Souths research program in collaboration with Makerere University. I also spent four months at the Arts of Africa and Global Souths program in the Fine Art Department at Rhodes University in South Africa. As a Fellow of the Residency for Artists and Writers (RAW) program at Rhodes (September-December 2017) I had access to the enormous body of literature that I engaged with for this article. I am grateful to Ruth Simbao, her research team, and Carol Thompson at Rhodes University for providing me with feedback on my work, and Stephen Fọláranmí for participating in editing the draft of this article. My gratitude also goes to Hudson Kyagaba the kafulu (expert) of Omweso in Uganda, Nakku Namusoke (Omuzaana) at Wamala tombs in Kampala, and the Nakulabye Omweso Club, all who guided me through the process of reclaiming the life of Omweso as a cultural artifact of Buganda.
Buganda is the country, Baganda the people, Luganda the language, and Ganda the ethnic group (Kiguli 2001: 1).
Omweso as an object is emphasized because of its significance as a concept among the Baganda. In this paper, it becomes a subject of importance beyond an object type, warranting capitalization (Marais and Wintjes 2016).
Kiguli (2001: xiv) uses Pierre Bourdieu's conceptual analysis of space: how being a woman or man is placed to assert different roles and meaning in space, which aptly fits the use of space in this article.
In 1986, I presented a research report as a requirement in partial fulfillment for the Bachelor of Arts (Fine Art) degree, The Significance of Drum Forms in Buganda. I investigated the function and aesthetic value of the ngoma, a drum among the Baganda. During my research, I visited the Kasubi Tombs, where a significant collection of the royal drums were kept, but I could not approach the drums because I was a woman. It was here that I first encountered gendered restrictions about cultural artifacts. Later, I presented artworks inspired by traditional objects from different parts of Uganda as “repositories” of form, technology, and function at the Archive—Tradition and Artistic Expression exhibition held at the Institute of Heritage Conservation and Restoration (IHCR), Makerere University Gallery, Kampala, Uganda, in 2014. The Let's Talk About Omweso exhibition and seminar was held at the IHCR in 2016. The two events sparked off discussions between the public and scholars that prompted me to carry out a biographical review of Omweso.
Buganda has a patriarchal social system where family is traced through the male lineage, including roles, succession rites, and ownership of family property. However, for the monarchy, succession is through the female lineage to ensure rotation of kingship though the fifty-two clans of Buganda (Kiguli 2001: 3).
Uganda Museum, Anthropological Section E18, “Clothing, Nakaima—Priestess of Mubende Hill.”
The miniature Omweso board is part of the original divination regalia excavated from Mubende Hill by the colonialists in 1956 and deposited at the Uganda Museum. Both Nakayima's shrine at Mubende Hill (fifteenth century) and Nakayima's diorama at the Uganda museum are still central as spaces of divination practices, despite critical interventions such as Christianity and colonialism in Buganda and Uganda. Interviews with Nalubega, Nakayima's medium at Mubende Hill, and Abiti Adebo, the Principle of Services at the Uganda Museum, reveal that devotees still worship at both sites. Omweso is still used to describe an assemblage of objects during a divination session among the Banyoro and the Baganda. Nakku Namusoke at Wamala Tombs claims that the Omweso at Wamala is connected to Ndahura, who was Nakayima's husband and the god of smallpox
Hudson Kyagaba, interview with author.
I used a mannequin, not a personally made model, for this sculpture to attract viewers at the exhibition, who were mostly from Nakulabye Town. Mannequins are found in many rural and urban shops in Uganda and are common in Nakulabye Town. They are placed in shop verandas to attract attention to the clothes for sale that hang on them. The men I interviewed do not pay much attention to these mannequins, but they are conscious of the fashion styles displayed.
The fabric used for the fourth bowl in this sculpture is referred to as ekitengi or kitenge, commonly called “African fabric” in Uganda. These fabrics are mostly imported from Congo, Ghana, and Nigeria and are widely used in Kampala for new trends in Uganda's fashion culture. In the sculpture, this fabric connects the woman's trendy Africanness and the Baganda's continuous association with brightly colored, imported fabrics (Pollnac 1975: 90, Nyanzi 2014: 61)
In 2014, when I first encountered the Nakulabye Omweso Club in Nakulabye, there were no women in the group who played this game. Hudson Kyagaba, my informant, is still willing to help me find evidence to establish why women in Buganda were not allowed to play Omweso.
Omweso, like other wooden crafts in Buganda, is still carved using chisels. Other variants such as bao, the Tanzanian mancala, have been made out of materials such as plastics, metal, or clay (Mwanzia Kyule 2016: 94). The Omweso board has not yet been mass produced, and therefore it is still an authentic local craft.
There are other configurations; for instance, oware from Ghana has sixteen pits (2 × 8).
Empiki is both singular and plural. The word “seeds” has double reference, to the organic seeds used to play, but also to small playing stones, because playing Omweso sometimes is referred to as okusiga (“to sow”).
Uganda Museum caption in Anthropology Section E27 under the title “Recreation Activities of Uganda.”
The counters of the Omweso board game being called “men” resonates with other board game formats around the world. Playing pieces or counters are called “men,” kings, pages, horsemen, and only in some cases referred to as queens. For example, the counters in Men's Morris (variants using three, six, nine, or twelve) are called “men.” Roberts, Malcolm, and Bush (1959: 600) note that games of strategy simulate complex social systems such that pieces called “men” capture, kill, loot, or defend, a format used in Omweso. Kiguli (2001: 6) furthermore explains that, among the Baganda, individual gendered roles may shift to satisfy social or political responsibilities in order to emphasize positions or situations of power. For example, royal princesses in Buganda are assigned masculineness and referred to as ssebo (“sir”), and furthermore that, although women in Buganda could not be heads of social systems, the royal princesses could rule in place of the king when he went to war, taking on masculine responsibilities and therefore allowed to play Omweso.
Ekisaakaate has been initiated by the Nabagereka (the queen of Buganda) as a space where children and young adults can stay and be taught etiquette and other social skills. In January 2019, I was invited to introduce Omweso as a social skill in ekisaakaate by the Nabagereka.
Tamale (2006: 21–22) suggests that, through games, the Baganda developed communication conduits about sexuality by using metaphors and symbols loaded with meanings only understood by adults.
Tamale traces connections between sexuality and other aspects of Baganda life, including Omweso. Sexuality comes into play because it is a power game, and Tamale gives an example of ssengas (maternal aunts) using sexually suggestive terminology derived from Omweso “such as okutebuka, nosinzira empiki n'ozizako emmabega, meaning to hesitate during the game (sex) and move backwards, and Omweso gw'omuddirijjano meaning playing back-to-back games (sex), all of which have sexual undertones” (2006: 22) Okwesa or kwesa, meaning “to play Omweso,” is a term also used to denote strategic manipulation such as sexual encounters.
Binsbergen claims diffusion “demonstrates how practices and meanings attached to artifacts are not rigidly confined within local or regional ethnic, linguistic, and political boundaries.” The concept of Omweso and its cousins transverses different cultures on the African continent and is still, he adds, “attached to the objects that function as material foci of their meanings and practices” (Binsbergen 1997: 1).
Personal conversations with members of Nakulabye Omweso Club, among who are Hudson Kyagaba, Musa Tamale (club chairman), Khalid Musajjalumbwa (who is more than ninety years old), and Dirisa Wasswa. All maintain that they, due to their varying backgrounds, have wide knowledge of the culture, history, types, game role, and significance of Omweso, because some of their families have Omweso heirlooms that date to the reign of Kabaka Ssuna.
Nsimbi (1968) provides a detailed account of Omweso's history, importance, procedures, and rules, although with a bias towards its position among the Baganda. He lists eighteen other Ugandan ethnic groups who play, as well as the name each allocates to the game.
See also video on YouTube: https://youtu.be/V5cNHwKqGGI.
Although Dunbar does not give archaeological evidence, his historical account lists a “distinctive variation of the board game as played in Uganda and Rwanda among the skills and knowledge the Bachwezi left behind in western Uganda” (1965: 24.
The Uganda Journal has been published since 1934 by the Uganda Society, an open association for those interested in all aspects and sectors of Uganda. Its central objective is to publish information that would add to the knowledge of Uganda and to record for posterity that which, in the course of time, might be lost, and it has also become the society's forum for broader intellectual exchanges and debate about Uganda. Its emphasis is to maintain a strong organic linkage with the larger Ugandan public in all its diversity (https://www.ajol.info/)
Kabaka Mutesa I's royal Omweso board was lost in the fire that gutted the Kasubi Royal Tombs, a world heritage site, in March 2010. A video of this catastrophic event can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7h_sp8p8jEI.
Kiguli (2001), examining the traditional Buganda institution after independence, explores ebyaffe as a concept of power. These are a set of ideas and customs, material, political, or social concepts considered relevant for the survival of the institution of Buganda. The Baganda's access to any form of their material culture strengthens the legitimacy of their monarchy and identity (Kiguli 2001: xii, 5, 196–99; Oloka Onyango 1997).
A number of scholars reference public and private domains in reference to gender dynamics in the cultural development of Uganda. Oloka Onyango (1997) explains the implications of the political concept of the Baganda to the reinstatement of the kingdoms in the public domain of Uganda in 1993, while Tamale (2006) contextualizes the public and private domains from the viewpoint of sexuality in Bagandan culture. Although Tumusiime (2012) specifically interrogates the idea of gender, she also references other aspects, including the social (Matembe 2002), economic (Bantebya and McIntosh 2006) and political domains.
In August 2016, I found a group of people at the Uganda Museum who, I was told by the guide, come to the museum to worship and bring gifts in reverence of Nakayima.
Nakayima's ethnic origin is contentious. She is believed to have descended from either the Bachwezi, a Muhima [Nkole], or the Baganda. There has been longstanding contention about the area of Mubende found in the “lost counties” of Buganda where the Bachwezi set up kingdoms. The Baganda try to reclaim these counties as part of their land. These counties are Buwekula, Buyaga, and Bugangaizi where, in 1965, a local referendum was held to decide whether they could be part of Buganda (Green 2008).
This is a giant forest tree (Pterygota mildbraeedi) believed to be approximately 400 years old. Today it is visited by locals and traditionalists from all areas of Buganda to worship and ask for favors from Nakayima.
I will take Pennacini's (2013: 30) interpretation of omukongozi based on her extensive research on Baganda spiritualities.
Lugira (1970: 114) shows a motto-like illustration of divination practices used in Bugandan households to give advice. It shows a woman who has gone for help to a diviner, who has as his tools a piece of cloth with divination paraphernalia. The Baganda call this set of divination objects Omweso.
Nagandya-Kijambu, the caretaker at the Nakayima Tree in Mubende Hill, represents the administrative seat of Mubende Town Council, since the site was declared a tourist site by the Ugandan government. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-xjaoaW65w4.
At the shrine, Catholic worshipers subscribe to the idea that Nakayima sometimes appears in the form of the Christian Virgin Mary, both of whom they believe can interceded for their problems. Nakayima also acted as a medicine woman, providing a cure for smallpox, sometimes referred to as Ndahura's disease.
Before the coming of the missionaries, Buganda marriage was polygamous, with continuity through succession. If a wife died, her relatives provided another kin to replace her. Kings in Buganda had access to many wives as gifts and spoils of war. The wives at the palace were given special duties depending on their skills (Claessen 1987, Kaggwa 1934, Rosco 1911).
Among the Yoruba, especially in Oyo, there is a woman with the title iya kere “who takes care of the king's crown and ensures or religious rites on such crowns are performed” (Nzimiro 1979: 346). The iya kere was a palace official with a lot of power. In contrast, the muzaana was of a low rank in the king's harem and a domestic servant.
Conversations with men at the Nakulabye Omweso Club, June 2016. Many of their responses were based on knowledge that had been handed down in conversations about cultural practices with other men in their families or social circles. Nsimbi (1968) confirms some of their reasons for how the game was played and why women were not allowed to play.
Kafulu is a Luganda slang word for “expert/professional” or someone who is supposedly very good in relation to others at whatever activity they engage in.
The making of this sculpture coincided with the screening of the Hollywood movie Queen of Katwe by Mira Nair. The movie depicts the life of a young Ugandan girl living in a slum who learns how to play chess and becomes a candidate master on the international platform. The spaces of Omweso and chess are similar in the way that young women are disadvantageously positioned.