Sites and Sounds of Uganda
The hammerkop
Publish Date: Aug 19, 2013
The hammerkop
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Uganda is a birding paradise, attracting thousands of tourists every year. Every week, we will feature a different bird in this section.Today we look at the hammerkop

The hammerkop is a medium-sized wading bird found in wetland habitats in Africa, south of the Sahara,Madagascar and coastal southwest Arabia. In Uganda, it is found along water bodies and wetlands.  It is also known as the hammerhead stork or anvil head. Its curved bill and crest at the back looks like a hammer, hence its name.  There are two sub-species, with one being smaller and darker.

Hammerkops are mostly silent, except when in groups. They hold ceremonies of up to 10 birds, in which they run circles around each other, calling loudly, raising their crests and fluttering their wings. Another behaviour is false mounting, in which one bird stands on top of another and appears to mount it.  They build huge nests near a water source. The strong nests can be made with thousands of sticks and mud to strengthen the walls and plaster the neat, tunnelled entrance. The birds decorate the outside with bright objects.

The tunnel leads to a chamber big enough for the parents and the nestlings. Hammerkops construct three to five nests per year and hold noisy house-warming parties for new nests. But often, they end up being evicted from their homes by owls and eagles. They eat fish, shrimp, insects and rodents.

•    Binomial name: Scopus
•    umbretta
•    Kingdom: Animalia
•    Phylum: Chordata
•    Class: Aves
•    Order: Pelecaniformes
•    Family: Scopidae
•    Genus: Scopus
Species: Umbretta


There lives a healing ghost on a tree
By Harriet Birungi
The leaves rustle overhead and a gentle breeze can be felt. The ground is covered by lush green vegetation, the middle eaten away to expose a dark shade of brown ground from which a thick, old tree with large buttress roots (forming nooks and fissures) juts out. This is home to Nakayima’s shrine, a priestess who died over 500 years ago. It is believed that Nakayima used to cure people of ailments from this hill and when she died, her spirit remained on the hill, from where she continues to treat and bless people who pay her homage. And indeed, if the numbers of people who flock this place are anything to go by, Nakayima’s spirit lives on.

A group of people, all clad in white, move from one buttress root compartment to the other in what I am told is an act of submitting prayer requests. Each person who completes a prayer, makes dainty steps backwards with their hands feeling for the edge of the root.  Denis Semuli, an employee of Mubende Town Council, who also doubles as my guide, interjects my thoughts: “They are not supposed to turn their back to jajja.

Turning your back means you are leaving. You cannot leave until you return to the main entrance, which is the starting point for the prayers. You only return there after you have been to all the compartments.  “Once you are done praying, you are not supposed to wave goodbye. You simply walk away slowly,” Semuli explains.  He is quick to add that all the 18 compartments must be visited and at each, a different prayer said. This is because each part of the buttress root is tasked to a particular need.

He says it does not mean people come with only 18 needs, you say whatever you want, depending on the most pressing.  Like all things sacred, the Nakayima tree is guarded. Semuli says you cannot proceed unless you have declared your intentions to the caretakers. After you have made your intentions known, you are guided on how to proceed.

Worshippers at the Nakayima tree. The tree is said to grant prayers to those who pay homage to the spirit of the fallen priestess

There is an old lady wearing a headscarf, who directs believers on where to start, how to behave and what to leave at each buttress compartment. You must also reveal the clan you belong to.  For each buttress compartment you get to, you leave coffee beans and money. The money has to be in coin form. Four coffee beans are left at each prayer point.

Currency notes are a reserve for the basket at the entrance. The starting point is the wider opening of the 18 compartments, which also looks out to the road leading to the hill. Common prayer requests include riches, a marriage partner, ability to conceive, conception of twins, freedom from disease, trips abroad, employment and provision.  “There is no limit to how long one can stay.

People are free to come here anytime they want. There is no restriction on arrival time and duration. You may stay as long as you want or as long as the spirit has directed,” Semuli says.  He adds: “There are instances where people stay for weeks.

For those who choose to stay longer than a day, the green grass in front of the main tree becomes their home.  “The belief is that by the time one treks to the hill, they have chosen not to sleep in a house. Their problems are overwhelming,” he says.  “So come rain or shine,” says Semuli, “They have to brave the weather. Usually, they set fires to evoke other gods of Buganda like Kiwanuka, Kalisa, Mukasa and Kibuuka, for additional blessings. 

Semuli clarifies that the tree does not reward those praying for evil to befall their enemies. “Rather, you pray for what you do not have. Thanksgiving can be expressed through leaving foods like meat, milk and fruits, which are prepared and served to people in the area and those there to pay homage,” he says.

  As I absorb all the information, my thoughts are interrupted by movement. I look on in bewilderment as the small black milk gourds at the entrance and jerrycans of milk, are carried off by hungry residents in the area. Children proceed to different buttress compartments looking for the coins left behind, while a congregation of adults and children sit in the tree shades, waiting for the buffet (thanksgiving meat) to be served. 

Amid all this, Semuli chips in, cutting my thoughts short, to state that the trees surrounding the Nakayima tree are grandchildren of the dead priestess.  The Nakayima tree is up a hill that overlooks Mubende town. The hill rises 213 metres above the surrounding terrain to a peak of 1,480 metres above sea level. The hill provides an excellent view of Mubende town and the surrounding area. The tree is visited by people paying homage to matriarch Nakayima of the Bachwezi. They were believed to be demi-gods, whose dynasty ruled large parts of Uganda

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