“All the nations that have ever lived have left their footprints in the sand,” wrote historian, Prof. Ivor Norman Richard Davies. He could well have been talking about a tribe called the Wanga, (also known as AbaWanga), the founders of the only historical kingdom in Kenya — the Wanga kingdom, writes Joseph Batte.
The Wanga, (also known as AbaWanga), are the founders of the only historical kingdom in Kenya, whose cultural monarch is known as Nabongo. The Wanga number 703,000 and mainly occupy Kakamega county, one of the most densely populated counties in Kenya.
The reigning Wanga King, Peter Shitawa Mumia II. Next to him are portraits of his royal ancestors
Although they distinguish themselves as a different tribe, ethnically, they are classified as Luhya, who number about 6.1million and make up about 16% of Kenya’s total population of 38.5 million. Before the advent of the British colonialists in 1886, the Wanga kingdom was the most highly developed and only centralised kingdom in Kenya’s entire history.
For generations, the Wanga have told their children that their kingdom is a derivative of Buganda kingdom and that it was established by a Muganda prince. The same information about their origins is posted on their official and non-official websites!
Mzee Francis Batte, 71, a respected Buganda oral historian and folklorist, confirms this piece of history. “The Wanga story is not news to me. The Wanga were Baganda princes who left during the reign of Kabaka Mawanda and established a kingdom in present day Kenya,” Batte says.
The Nabongo Cultural Centre in Matungu trading centre in Kenya has information that explains the origins of the Wanga, and has documentation of their once glorious past. Situated just two kilometres from Mumias town, the centre was built in 2008. It serves as the headquarters of the Wanga kingdom, burial grounds, museum and information centre.
Matungu is a sleepy trading centre whose tranquility is disturbed by the buzz of trucks and tractors ferrying sugarcane to Mumias Sugar Factory in Mumias town — both are named after the greatest king of the Wanga, Nabongo Mumia The Great.
ORIGINS OF THE ABAWANGA
Research shows that the ancestors of the Wanga were part of the Bantu migration out of western-central Africa around 1000BC.
Records at Nabongo Cultural Centre show that they migrated to what is now Kenya, from Kush, North Africa from a kingdom called Misiri (Egypt).
Ali Wamanya, the secretary general of Wanga kingdom and administrator of Nabongo Cultural Centre, says “Nabongo” was the original name of their kingdom, established as far back as the 4th Century while they were still in Egypt.
However, British colonialists named it “Wanga” after the founding father, Nabongo Wanga. Ali Wamanya says the Wanga left Egypt after a conflict they had with the Pharaoh at the time.
“He plotted to kill our king called Makata after receiving information that he (Makata) possessed special powers that made the land where the Wanga lived more fertile, while the rest of the empire was often dry and ravaged by famine,” he says.
The Wanga then fled to Cameroon. “While in Cameroon, we were led by a king called Nsimbi. After one generation, we went to Ethiopia, where we lived for two generations.
Unfortunately, in Ethiopia, our king called Kamanyi was killed by an antelope. Our elders advised us to leave Ethiopia. To date, it is taboo for any Wanga person to eat antelope meat,” he says.
According to Wamanya, when the Wanga left Ethiopia, they travelled to Sudan, decided to follow the Nile and entered Uganda through Bunyoro and settled in Buganda. “We were led by a king called Nangwela. Records show that we lived in Buganda for five generations (150 years). When Nangwela died, he was succeeded by Kabaka Mwanga, Mbwoli, Mwanga II and Muteesa I.
Although Wamanya does not seem to get the chronology of Buganda kings right, his assertions confirm what historians say about the Wanga: They were part of the migration that settled in the Central region, around Kampala area and formed Buganda Kingdom in the 14th Century.
Wanga Kingdom’s burial grounds. Thirteen of their kings are buried here.
LINKS TO BUGANDA KINGDOM
Wanga elders believe they are directly linked to the royal clan of Buganda. “We are biologically related to the Abalangira and Abambejja, the royal clan of Buganda. We are directly linked to Buganda kingdom, to Muteesa, Mwanga, to the current Kabaka of Buganda Ronald Muwenda Mutebi.
“For that reason, it is taboo for any Wanga man or woman, especially from the Abashitsetse royal clan, to marry a Muganda from the royal clan because we are related,” Wamanya says.
WHY THE WANGA LEFT BUGANDA
In Buganda’s culture, a king’s brother or cousin from the paternal line is eligible for succession to the throne and, thus, poses a threat to the reigning monarch. This explains why succession to the throne was always a bloody affair. Brother turned against brother and cousin against uncle. There are two versions of the story of the Wangas’ move, but all of them point to a Muganda prince.
The first version says a Muganda prince called Kaminyi, a son of Kabaka Mawanda of Buganda, fled to the Tiriki area in the current Western Province of Kenya after his father was killed by a group of Baganda princes led by his cousin Mwanga I of Buganda. There, Kaminyi became a ruler. When he died, he was succeeded by his son Wanga, who took the title Nabongo and established Nabongo kingdom in the 18th Century.
Wamanya says Mwanga had two sons. One of them was called Wamoyi. There was a quarrel between him and other princes that forced him to leave Buganda kingdom with his supporters. He travelled eastwards, crossed River Nile and finally settled at a place called Ibanda in Samia Bugwe, present day Uganda. That is where he died and was buried.
In the Wanga history, Wamoyi, Mbwoli and Kamanyi, are some of their kings who died and were buried in Uganda.
ABAWANGA IN KENYA AND KINGDOM EXPANSION
The wanga playing the Omweso game, evidence that their roots are in Uganda
Upon the death of Wamoyi, his son Mwanga III left Ibanda and went to Maseno, near Kisumu at a place called Lela. He died and was buried there. His son Wanga left and came to a place called Tiriki and finally Matungu. On their way to Matungu, they rested at a place called Ejinja, which they named after Jinja in Uganda.
On arrival at Matungu, Wanga went on to reign over a kingdom that expanded and stretched from Jinja in Uganda to Naivasha. Later on, he instructed his subjects to bury him at Matungu and also decreed that Matungu would become the burial place for all other kings.
“Since then, we have had 13 kings who were buried here. They are: Wabala, Wanga Muswi, Kibwire, Musindaalo, Kitekyi, Netia (killed by Masaai warriors), Kitekyi, Osundwa, Wamukoya, Shuindu, Mumia the Great, Shitawa and Peter Mumia,” Wamanya says.
The formation of the Wanga kingdom led to rapid territorial and political expansion, especially in the latter years of the 18th Century.
There are two versions regarding the extent of the Wanga kingdom domain during its heydays. The first version is that the Wanga kingdom extended as far west as Buganda, as far south as Samia, as far north as Mount Elgon and as far east as Naivasha.
The second version is that the Wanga kingdom coincided in size with North Kavirondo, later called North Nyanza, the present day Western Province in Kenya. Mutesa I, the grandfather of Mutebi, worked with my grandfather, Nabongo Mumia. And he (Mutesa I) was aware of the linkage that the Wanga have with Buganda, says the king.
WANGA KING CONFIRMS HIS BUGANDA ROOTS
His Royal Highness Nabongo Peter Shitawa Mumia II, the present king of the Wanga, was born in a mission hospital on September 14, 1952. He is the grandson of the great Nabongo Mumia, who ruled the Wanga kingdom for 67 years from 1882 to 1949. He was installed as king of the Wanga in 1974 at the age of 22, following the death of his father, Nabongo Shitawa. His coronation as the 14th Nabongo of the Wanga took place in 2010.
LOSING THEIR GANDA CULTURE
A grass thatched hut similar to those found in Buganda Kingdom at the cultural centre
Although the Wanga trace their origins in Buganda, they can hardly speak a sentence in Luganda. They also do not practice commom ganda customs. For example, their women do not kneel when greeting.
Mzee Ramathan Nyangweso Kanui, who is regarded as the historian of the kingdom, blames the loss of their ganda culture on absorbing new cultures while discarding old ones.
“The few Luganda words that are still part of our dialect include Olukato (smoking pipe) and Omwami (Sir). On our way here, we met other cultures, which we absorbed and had intermarriages with, such as the Luo in Kisumu area. We even adopted some of their names, like Otieno. When we met the Luhya, we adopted their culture too and began circumcising our male.
“In Buganda, if you commit suicide you will not be buried in the family cemetery. The body of the suicide victim is even whipped. The Wanga used to practice the same rituals, but have since forgotten them. A suicide victim is buried at the family cemetery and you cannot dare whip it like you do back in Buganda.
“Our grandfathers used to tell us that while we were still in Buganda, we washed and buried our dead in backcloth made from a tree called Miruba (Mutuba). When we came to Kenya, we could not continue with the practice as there were no such trees. So, we had to devise other means of burying our dead — in animal skin. The first king to be buried in an animal skin was Nabongo Wanga.
“When somebody died, a cousin would come and perform some rituals, which included climbing the roof of the house to remove an object we call Kisuli (Kasolya). Before he went away, he would be given items like a hen or goat. I remember a cousin performing the same rituals when my father died. This ritual is still practiced in Uganda, but unfortunately for us, we have discarded it.
“Marriage was organised by the parents. Until recently, we also used to celebrate the birth of twins with pomp like it is done in Buganda.
“Our children used to kneel before their elders. And when your father died, you were not supposed to marry his widow. While it is still a taboo in Uganda, it is not among the Wanga anymore,” he says.
Kanui remembers that the Wanga carried with them the art of brewing a banana wine commonly known as Mwenge bigere or Tonto by the Baganda.
“When the Arabs came, they told us it was bad, so we stopped brewing it. We stopped worshiping small gods and objects like stones (lubaale) and trees, like the Baganda still do. This is a practice that goes back to our days in Egypt.
Like in Buganda, the Wanga also have a traditional mancala game called Omweso, which was supposedly introduced by the Bachwezi of the ancient Bunyoro- Kitara empire.
Although the Wanga Mweso playing board is made up of only 16 pits, instead of 32, when playing this game, which is sometimes called “sowing” or “count-and-capture,” they use the same rules as among the Baganda. The artifacts that have been carefully preserved at the centre.
Continues next week...