Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Polygamy, Christianity and the Royal Family of Buganda

The British are used to seeing shock/horror stories about their Royal Family in the national press. Over the last 20 years the media have spared us no detail about glamorous royal weddings or bitter royal divorces. Our red-tops publish heart-warming stories as if the Royal Family were our next-door neighbours or, at least, characters in Coronation Street (or, indeed, the Royle Family). Then suddenly the royals fall out of favour, the knives are sharpened and no reputation is left unshredded. Charles and Diana were a case in point.

Uganda has several kingdoms within its borders: one of the legacies of the crazy colonial carve-up. As you might expect, it has also had its fair share of quirky royal stories, several of them provided by the kingdom of Tooro. Revelations about its youthful Anglicised king's conflict with his own privy council, and its powerful Queen Mother’s longstanding friendship with the late Colonel Gadaffi may have provided more frissons than most, but they still do not elicit from Ugandan newspapers quite the same salacious tittle-tattle as such stories would do in Britain.

On the whole, Ugandans demonstrate a fair degree of respect for their cultural leaders. This is certainly true of the Kabaka, the king of Buganda, who, like his forebears, is treated with considerable reverence. The Kabaka is the personification of Buganda. He is a spiritual, not just a cultural, leader.  Political leadership is now considered to be firmly in the past, or so the government regularly asserts, despite a nasty stand off a couple of years ago which culminated in a score of deaths and the burning down of the royal Kasubi Tombs. This was followed by a Parliamentary Bill setting out the powers and responsibilities of ‘cultural leaders’, and the limits thereof. 

The Kasubi tombs, a World Heritage site, before they were burnt down.

Incidentally, when President Museveni reinstated the kingdoms abolished by Milton Obote, the one kingdom he did not reinstate was the one he came from himself: the Kingdom of Ankole. As one columnist put it, ‘In Ankole, there is room for only one bull in the kraal’. However, that is by the by.

The kingdom of Buganda at the heart of Uganda
includes the capital Kampala.

So what is the current story about the Royal House of Buganda and why has it set tongues wagging?

In 1999, the Kabaka, Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II, the 36th of his line, was married in St Paul’s Cathedral Namirembe to a westernised, highly educated and attractive young woman. His bride, Lady Sylvia Nagginda, had given up a prestigious professional career in the USA to become the Nnabagerekka or queen. 

The Kabaka's wedding, the President on the left and
 the President's wife on the right.

It was something of a shock, therefore, when Ugandans opened their newspapers last week to discover that the Kabaka had sired a child outside marriage. Whereas in Britain such an event, not unknown in any royal (or other) family, would have been hushed up (and subsequently leaked), there on the front pages of all Ugandan newspapers were pictures of the Kabaka proudly holding his seven-month-old son.

Since then, debate has raged. The Kabaka’s family was ‘converted’ to Christianity in the 1880s. Having first embraced Islam and then roasted alive a couple of score Christian missionaries and their acolytes, they eventually succumbed to inevitability, were baptised and thus ensured the survival of their kingdom and of their line. 

Some people assert that the Kabaka underwent a Christian marriage and therefore for him to sire a child outside marriage is wrong. Some are angry at the way in which he has treated his wife. They accuse him of breaking his marriage vows and setting a bad example to his subjects. Others, however, have pointed out that within traditional Gganda culture, the Kabaka can do what he likes. Indeed, in Uganda, polygamy has always been the norm for every man who could afford it. Previous Kabakas have had many wives. The current Kabaka was the son of his father’s second wife, a love match following an arranged marriage with her older sister. There is absolutely no doubt that the Gganda culture embraces polygamy.

Kabaka Sir Edward Muteesa II: father of the current king.
The whole issue of Christianity requiring monogamy is also rather more complex than it might appear. The Old Testament includes several examples of polygamous relationships, including Abraham himself.  Indeed, I am pretty sure that Christ himself made no decrees about marriage as an institution, although the abominable St Paul did not hold back from pronouncing on all manner of personal issues. It is the Church which has laid down the rules about marriage, rather than its Founder. However, there is no getting away from the fact that the marriage vows pronounced in church specifically refer to monogamy, and the Kabaka took those vows. No spokesman from the Church of Uganda (Anglican/Episcopalian) has been prepared to comment so far.

One commendable aspect of Ugandan culture is the fact that no distinction is made between legitimate and illegitimate children. All children are acknowledged by their fathers. In fact, Ugandan men often have several children with a range of partners, before and even after marriage. In the past they would probably have made formal arrangements within a polygamous union. However, the coming of Christianity has meant that, except for Muslims and those who openly follow traditional religion, polygamy has increasingly gone underground. Not always, of course: there are plenty of Christians who openly keep several wives. However, that is becoming less common. So, perhaps the Kabaka is really just behaving according to cultural norms and should be commended for his openness and honesty.

However, some people have begun to question the appropriateness of polygamy in a society with an unsustainable birthrate. Some wonder why African women are not allowed the same freedom to have multiple relationships as African men. I think that there may be more protection for Ugandan women within open and formal polygamous unions than in pre- or extra-marital liaisons. Many informal unions are regarded as ‘marriages’ despite the lack of any vows, or, more importantly, documentation which would protect women’s financial and property rights. It is so easy for Ugandan men to walk out of relationships or, more commonly, turn their ‘wife’ out of the house. Women usually leave with nothing. Men almost always retain custody of any children. They are members of the father's clan, not their mother's.

Back to our royal story: a further twist is the fact that it looks as if baby Prince Richard SSemakokiro is likely to inherit the throne. The Kabaka has another son, Prince Jjunja, who automatically takes the title Kiweera (eldest son) but in Gganda culture, the eldest son never inherits the throne. a tradition designed to avoid intrigue, internecine strife and fratricide. Also, the heir has to be from a Muganda mother. Whether the new prince will actually inherit the throne may depend on whether another prince is born, within or outside marriage. However, the heir can be chosen from among any of the descendents of Kabaka Muteesa I (1856-1884). A special council will help the Kabaka to decide who will be his heir, a decision kept secret until his death.

Kabaka Ronald Mutebi II
In the Royal Family, unlike in the rest of Buganda, boys traditionally take on their mother’s clan so that the kingship circulates among all the 56 clans within the tribe.  (It is taboo for any Muganda to marry within his or her own clan.) Indeed, traditionally, the Kabaka has had the right to have sexual relations with any woman he chooses, unless she is from his mother's clan. He is expected to continue the royal line, one which goes back to about 1300 AD. So another argument is that the Kabaka was duty bound to seek an heir once it was clear that one was unlikely to emerge from within his own marriage.

It seems to me that the furore about the Kabaka’s domestic life is just another example of the unresolved tensions between traditional culture and the Christian structure built over it. Many Ugandans resolve the tensions by subscribing simultaneously to two belief systems: traditional religion and Christianity. Baganda often have two funerals, one in church followed by a traditional ceremony. Traditional religion is basically pantheistic.  The Kabaka does not die; he ‘withdraws his hand from the shield’ and passes into the forest (symbolised in royal tombs by the bark cloth curtain).

Bark cloth curtain at the Wamala tombs, Kampala

Inside the Wamala tombs, complete with holes in the roof.

So, the new prince ensures the survival of the royal line. The media story has casualties, of course. I have already mentioned the Kabaka’s wife who, in the language of the press, has ‘maintained a dignified silence’. One other casualty is an unfortunate young woman whom the newspapers incorrectly fingered as the mother of the new prince. Not only has this caused her major problems with her family, but her intended husband with whom she was about to hold an ‘introduction’ (engagement) ceremony has now rejected her.

And the new Prince SSemakokiro, is he a victim of the current controversy? That is unlikely. Firstly, like elsewhere, newspapers have a short shelf life, and tomorrow will be used to wrap muchomo. However, more importantly, Ugandan culture – or, indeed, Baganda culture - is very tolerant of sexual peccadilloes. Ugandans welcome children. If there is one thing they love it is having lots and lots of babies. 

So, where the royal baby has come from is a relatively minor issue.The big issue for all Baganda is which comes first, their Christian faith or their Gganda culture? I think we may see the answer to that question changing as time goes on. The Kabaka may be leading the way.

The exterior of the rather dilapidated Wamala tombs on a rainy day


VS Naipaul, who once worked at Makerere University, writes interestingly about the religion of Buganda in his book The Masques of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief.

See the Epilogue of Richard Dowden’s fascinating book Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles for a moving description of the bringing together of Christian and Kiganda belief during his old headmaster’s funeral rites.

The recent Nigerian novel by Lola Shoneyin The secret lives of Baba Segi's wives is a wonderful account of life in a polygamous household.

You may also be interested in the post Let the people speak, which outlines some of the ethnic and political issues in Uganda.


  1. I was friends with Andrew Ssemukkuttu. He was killed in 1996. I'm trying to do some research on his life and the country of Uganda. Please email me at I've written several pieces on the life he led here in the US.
    Valerie Pepe