By Titus Kakembo
You may have read about Bigo Bya Mugenyi in your primary history books. While in Masaka last week, I opted to shuttle there.
The one-hour journey was monotonous without anything to write about save for some primates pulling faces, egrets in flight and the endangered long horned Ankole cow.
The road is dusty but smooth without any refreshment facility in place.
On arrival we embarked on a trail which made us hop like kangaroos in flight where it was muddy, dodge thorny thickets and swat insects digging their antenna in our flesh.
A cop was behind us with his AK47 held on set. Then our self-styled guide, Steven Singel, opens a narrative embellished with what sounded like science fiction to me.
“We are supposed to draw water and cleanse ourselves before trekking the long journey into the Bigo Bya Mugenyi forts,” cautioned Singel. “Do not take chances. Just wash your face, palms and feet to be on the safe side with the gods in case they get angry.”
GourdstrueGourds used for storing milk and ghee. Photo by Titus Kakembo
As we ploughed through thickets, the scenic hills and green canopy could not be ignored. While there it dawned on me that, the new executive director of Uganda Tourist Board (UTB), Steven Asimwe and his team have a challenge to improve on the maintenance of such historical sites.
Singel is just a volunteer keeper of the site and gets no salary from Ministry of Tourism.
“In the past this place was teaming with bush bucks, leopards and reptiles,” says Singel pointing at trenches. “If they had mouths, there are volumes of history buried in them for centuries.”
An insect bite, a shrub digging through my Jeans slarks and an encounter with reptile are encounters Singel never cautioned us about at the start of the trail.
After thirty minutes, of climbing hills and slipping down slopes we eventually got to the entry of Bigo bya Mugenyi.
The palace is punctuated with numerous grass-thatched huts. In the inner ring is a well-kept site on a raised ground where people go to pray to the Chwezi gods for blessings and wealth.
The Bachwezi are believed to have had mysterious tendencies like leaving foot marks on rocks, vanishing in thin air and flying with the wind.
Below this sacred place is a big hut enclosed with bamboo trees. The interior is decorously matted with bamboos poles and mats. There are also smooth calabashes with which milk and water are ferried.
Like the charred Kasubi tombs, the hut is graced with big drums that are sounded when people gather to pray and pay homage to their gods. There are baskets where consultation fee is placed to appease the gods.
Bigo Bya Mugenyi is evidence that Uganda is homogenous although it is split into numerous tribal groups.
It is endowed with other cultural sites of Ndawula and Nakayima sites, names that feature prominently in Buganda history too.
“Before the Bachwezi disappeared like Kintu in Buganda,” said Singel “It was here at Ndawula fort where people used to gather and ask for blessings.”
Today conservative believers from Buganda and abroad, (between 20-50 people every month) visit the seat of the Chwezi gods.
Singel survives on tips that they give him. Another site replicated in Buganda is that of Nakayima which is also thronged by people asking for twins and wealth. The distance of about two miles between the sites is done on foot because it is a holy ground.
Nobody can explain why Ndawula and Nakayima forts are not as prominent as Mugenyi but the guide says because Mugenyi’s fort was nearer and had mercy on people, it made the site more prominent than others.
The generally accepted tradition among the Baganda of Mawogola, attributes the construction of Bigo to ‘the Stranger who is supposed to have entered Buganda from the north some six hundred years ago
The site however, presents a challenge that no Ugandan authority or scholar has cared to take up. As a historical site it is totally unprotected except perhaps, on paper.
Many Ugandans suggest that Bigo-bya-Mugenyi should be gazetted as a historical site and should be cordoned off and have a permanent guard instituted.
trueNeatly woven ceiling of the main hut at Bigo bya Mugenyi. Photo by Titus Kakembo
Sights and Sounds of Bigo Bya Mugenyi