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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 September 2008

University of Wisconsin-Madison


This article raises the question of how scholars might make sense of well-known components of social organization in Africa in the absence of the increasingly criticized evolutionary and lineage models that once gave them meaning. In an effort to understand why our earliest glimpses into the distant Ganda past appear in the form of clan histories, the article examines the relationship between clanship, public healing and transformations in agricultural practices. Beginning around the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Ganda expanded upon earlier knowledge of banana cultivation to develop a land-intensive banana farming system. This process coincided with the transformation of previously territorial spirits into portable spirits capable of ensuring the health of disconnected groups of people. At the heart of these undertakings stood the ideology and practices of clanship, which furnished the conceptual bridge connecting transformations in agriculture and public healing. The webs of shrines situated on discontiguous clan lands created therapeutic networks that drew together communities whose leaders possessed a variety of skills, thus forging a powerful connection between clanship, collective health and the composition of knowledge.

Research Article
Copyright © 2008 Cambridge University Press

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1 Susan Keech McIntosh, ‘Pathways to complexity: an African perspective’, in Susan Keech McIntosh (ed.), Beyond Chiefdoms: Pathways to Complexity in Africa (Cambridge, 1999), 1–30.

2 Guyer, Jane and Belinga, S. E., ‘Wealth in people as wealth in knowledge: accumulation and composition in equatorial Africa’, Journal of African History, 36 (1995), 91120CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Andrew Apter, Black Kings and Critics: The Hermeneutics of Power in Yoruba Society (Chicago, 1992); Steven Feierman, Peasant Intellectuals: Anthropology and History in Tanzania (Madison, 1990); David Newbury, Kings and Clans: Ijwi Island and the Lake Kivu Rift, 1780–1840 (Madison, 1991); Holly Elisabeth Hanson, Landed Obligation: The Practice of Power in Buganda (Portsmouth NH, 2003); Peter Robertshaw, ‘Seeking and keeping power in Bunyoro-Kitara, Uganda’, in McIntosh (ed.), Beyond Chiefdoms, 124–35; Pierre de Maret, ‘The power of symbols and the symbols of power through time: probing the Luba past’, in McIntosh (ed.), Beyond Chiefdoms, 151–65; Allen F. Roberts and Mary Nooter Roberts (eds.), Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History (New York, 1996).

3 W. Arens and Ivan Karp, ‘Introduction’, in W. Arens and Ivan Karp (eds.), Creativity of Power (Washington, 1989), xi–xxix; David Schoenbrun, ‘The (in)visible roots of Bunyoro-Kitara and Buganda in the Lakes region: AD 800–1300’, in McIntosh (ed.), Beyond Chiefdoms, 136–50.

4 Kuper, Adam, ‘Lineage theory: a critical retrospect’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 11 (1982), 92CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Despite this pronouncement, Kuper explained that he did not expect the lineage model to be abandoned completely because it ‘suit[ed] modern notions of how primitive societies were organized’.

5 MacGaffey focuses in particular on Europeans' fascination with matriliny, but his comments apply more broadly to a preoccupation with lineality in general.

6 MacGaffey, Wyatt, ‘Changing representations in Central African history’, Journal of African History, 46 (2005), 189207CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Guyer and Belinga, ‘Wealth in people’.

8 Jan Vansina, Paths in the Rainforests: Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa (Madison, 1990), 258. MacGaffey recognizes as much, noting how Kongo ‘have a clear idea of a corporate matrilineal clan subdivided into matrilineages, and think of their society as organized by a repetitive series of them’. MacGaffey, ‘Changing representations’, 197.

9 Buganda is a kingdom located on the northwest shores of Lake Victoria in present-day Uganda.

10 Steven Feierman, ‘Colonizers, colonized, and the creation of invisible histories’, in Victoria E. Bonnell and Lynn Hunt Bonnell (eds.), Beyond the Linguistic Turn: New Directions in the Study of Society and Culture (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1999), 197–200. For public healing as social criticism, see Feierman, Steven, ‘Healing as social criticism in the time of colonial conquest’, African Studies, 54 (1995), 7388CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For examples in the Great Lakes region of analyses of public healing as an alternate form of authority that lay beyond the purview of state institutions, see Iris Berger, Religion and Resistance: East African Kingdoms in the Precolonial Period (Tervuren, 1981); Jim Freedman, Nyabingi (Butare, 1984); Allison des Forges, ‘“The drum is greater than the shout”: the 1912 rebellion in northern Rwanda’, in Donald Crummey (ed.), Banditry, Rebellion, and Social Protest in Africa (London, 1986), 311–33; Iris Berger, ‘Fertility as power: spirit mediums, priestesses and the pre-colonial state in interlacustrine East Africa’, in David Anderson and Douglas H. Johnson (eds.), Revealing Prophets: Prophecy in Eastern African History (Athens OH, 1995), 65–82.

11 The variety of terms designating these groupings in Great Lakes languages – umuryango in Burundi; ubwoko in Rwanda; ishanja in Kivu; ruganda in Bunyoro and Buhaya; and kika in Buganda and Busoga – suggests that the ideology and practices of clanship developed along different lines in various settings within the region.

12 For Buganda, see M. S. M. Kiwanuka, A History of Buganda: From the Foundation of the Kingdom to 1900 (London, 1971), 31; for Busoga, see David William Cohen, The Historical Tradition of Busoga: Mukama and Kintu (Oxford, 1972); for ‘Kitara’, see Carole Buchanan, ‘The Kitara complex: the historical tradition of western Uganda to the 16th century’ (Ph.D. diss., Indiana University, 1974). Justin Willis has more recently pointed out that, while many of the great pioneering works in East African history produced in the 1960s ‘were focused on the production of histories of tribes, people actually thought and wrote in terms of the origins, movements, and activities of clans’. Willis, Justin, ‘Clan and history in western Uganda: a new perspective on the origins of pastoral dominance’, International Journal of African Historical Studies, 30 (1997), 583CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 For notable exceptions, see Newbury's examination of clanship on Ijwi island and Willis's close study of clanship in Buhweju, a region in western Uganda. Willis, ‘Clan and history in western Uganda’; Newbury, Kings and Clans. While notable in its efforts to treat clans in a historical manner, Newbury's analysis is concerned more with the ‘external components of clan identity’ – the relationships both between clans and between clans and royalty – than with the ‘internal components of clan identity’, which Newbury determined were both less important and ‘impossible to ascertain with any precision’ for the nineteenth century.

14 Kalule George William, 3 Oct. 2001.

15 Charles Alex Nsejere, Sserwange Ndawula Katumba, Michael Mugadya Selubidde, 26 Oct. 2001; Hassan Sserwadda, 26 Dec. 2001; Ssalongo Ssegujja Musisi, 16 Mar. 2002; Sserwaji Yozefu and Mbuga Atanansio, 28 Mar. 2002.

16 The derivation may also refer to the process by which old bodies become exhausted and die, with their spirits remaining around their burial sites located on biggwa. I thank David Schoenbrun for this insight.

17 Nsejere, Katumba, Selubidde, 26 Oct. 2001.

18 Walusimbi Ssalongo Benedicto, 12 Oct. 2001 Nsejere, Katumba, Selubidde, 26 Oct. 2001; members of the Kasimba clan, 31 Oct. 2001; Musisi, 16 Mar. 2002; Yozefu and Atanansio, 28 Mar. 2002; Omutaka Kibondwe, 7 Apr. 2002.

19 George Mulumba Ssalongo, 5 Mar. 2002; Kibondwe, 7 Apr. 2002; Ssenyoga Kalika, 13 June 2002.

20 Members of clans that claim indigenous status in Buganda are known as bannansangwa, which translates literally as ‘those who were found [on the land]’.

21 Apolo Kagwa, The Clans of Buganda, trans. James D. Wamala (Uganda, 1972), 7.

22 The Kintu figure usually appears in Ganda traditions as the founder and first king of Buganda. For an examination of alternative recollections of Kintu as a spiritual entity, see Kodesh, Neil, ‘History from the healer's shrine: genre, historical imagination, and early Ganda history’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 49 (2007), 527–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Kato Peter Lukoma, 21 Dec. 2001.

24 In the transformed dynastic version of this narrative, Kintu appears as the first king of Buganda, Kisolo as his prime minister (Kattikiro) and Lutaya as Kintu's head of servants (Ssabaddu). See Kagwa, Clans, 7; Apolo Kagwa, The Customs of the Buganda, ed. May Mandelbaum, trans. Ernest B. Kalibala (New York, 1934), 10; John Roscoe, The Baganda: An Account of their Native Customs and Beliefs (London, 1911), 143; M. B. Nsimbi, Amannya Amaganda N'Ennono Zaago (Kampala, 1956), 222.

25 Falasiko Bali Muttajjo, 12 Dec. 2001; Lukoma, 21 Dec. 2001; Lameka Sonko Ssenkugu, 27 Dec. 2001.

26 The name Muganga derives from the verb okuganga (to heal, cure).

27 Kato Benedict Kimbowa Semwanga, 4 Feb. 2002.

28 Roscoe, The Baganda, 143.

29 Semwanga, 4 Feb. 2002. The bark of fig trees was used for making barkcloth in Buganda. As with banana trees, the planting of fig trees facilitated permanent settlement and the development of more stable communities, as it might take up to two years before a tree produced a respectable bark. See Roscoe, The Baganda, 404.

30 Ssalongo Lukoda Wamala Kaggwa, 4 Feb. 2002; Musisi, 16 Mar. 2002; Simon Mwebe, 5 May 2002.

31 Renee Louise Tantala, ‘The early history of Kitara in western Uganda: process models of religious and political change’ (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin at Madison, 1989), 600–1; G. Schweinfurth et al., Emin Pasha in Central Africa: Being a Collection of His Letters and Journals, trans. Mrs. R. W. Felkin (London, 1881), 265.

32 In addition to the talented doctor Muganga and the priest Ssemwanga, Kisolo's son Ssenkungu also produced the person credited with the discovery of barkcloth in Buganda, and the barkcloth-rich Mawokota region in which he lived constituted an early center for the development of barkcloth production in Buganda. Sonko, another one of Ssenkungu's sons, rose to prominence as a respected diviner. See Kagwa, Clans, 8–10; Nsimbi, Amannya Amaganda, 224. For a discussion of the history of the barkcloth industry in Buganda, see Richard Reid, Political Power in Pre-Colonial Buganda (Athens OH, 2002), 70–6.

33 The following discussion of innovations in the practice of spirit mediumship in the Great Lakes region relies upon David Lee Schoenbrun, A Green Place, A Good Place: Agrarian Change, Gender, and Social Identity in the Great Lakes Region to the 15th Century (Portsmouth NH, 1998), 202–6, 265–9.

34 For further discussion of the linguistic evidence supporting this narrative, see Ibid.


35 Based on new phytolith evidence obtained from their excavations at Munsa in western Uganda, Lejju, Robertshaw and Taylor have recently proposed the presence of bananas in the region during the fourth millennium BC. While this date is significantly earlier than that proposed by Schoenbrun based on historical linguistic evidence and glottochronological reckoning, it does not necessarily call into question the timing and nature of the social processes surrounding the shift to intensive banana cultivation in the northern Great Lakes region. Lejju, B. Julius, Robertshaw, Peter and Taylor, David, ‘Africa's earliest bananas?Journal of Archaeological Science, 33 (2006), 102–13CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 Schoenbrun, David L., ‘Cattle herds and banana gardens: the historical geography of the western Great Lakes region, ca AD 800–1500’, African Archaeological Review, 11 (1993), 3972CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Wrigley made a similar argument using different sources and analytical units. See Wrigley, Christopher, ‘Bananas in Buganda’, Azania, 24 (1989), 6470CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

37 The following discussion relies on Hanson, Landed Obligation, 28–36, and Schoenbrun, ‘Cattle herds’.

38 Hanson, Landed Obligation, 37–8; Wrigley, ‘Bananas’.

39 Hanson, Landed Obligation, 30–1; see also Schoenbrun, ‘Cattle herds’.

40 Hanson, Landed Obligation, 37–8; Kottak, Conrad P., ‘Ecological variables in the origin and evolution of African states: the Buganda example’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 14 (1972), 367CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

41 Hanson, Landed Obligation, 38–9. See also Kottak, ‘Ecological variables’, 351–80.

42 Evidence for the increased emphasis on lineality that accompanied intensive banana farming consists in the simultaneous development of terminologies for unilineal inheritance rules and for property characterized by the presence of perennial crops. See Schoenbrun, Green Place, Good Place, 171–84.

43 Schoenbrun, ‘Cattle herds’, 53.

44 Schoenbrun, Green Place, Good Place, 172–5; Nakanyike Beatrice Musisi, ‘Transformations of Baganda women: from the earliest times to the demise of the kingdom in 1966’ (Ph.D. diss., University of Toronto, 1992), 57–9; Kottak, ‘Ecological variables’, 357; L. A. Fallers, ‘Social stratification in traditional Buganda’, in Lloyd Fallers (ed.), The King's Men: Leadership and Status in Buganda on the Eve of Independence (London, 1964), 72–3, 89–92.

45 Hanson, Landed Obligation, 31–4.

46 Feierman, ‘Colonizers, scholars’, 202.

47 Christopher Wrigley, Kingship and State: The Buganda Dynasty (Cambridge, 1996), 84.

48 Reid, Political Power; Hanson, Landed Obligation, ch. 3. For examples of the earlier generation of scholarship on Buganda, see Kiwanuka, A History of Buganda, and Martin Southwald, Bureaucracy and Chiefship in Buganda (Kampala, 1961).

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