I pause on a trail of bare ground that leads to the entrance of two shrines. I am supposed to be terrified, but for some reason I am calm. No one else is present. I sweep a curious gaze across the area.
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17 years ago .
Enchanted by Walumbe at Tanda
I pause on a trail of bare ground that leads to the entrance of two shrines. I am supposed to be terrified, but for some reason I am calm. No one else is present. I sweep a curious gaze across the area.
By Raphael Okello

I pause on a trail of bare ground that leads to the entrance of two shrines. I am supposed to be terrified, but for some reason I am calm. No one else is present. I sweep a curious gaze across the area.

A network of pits creeps from where I am standing further into a well-maintained green compound that has been fenced off from bushy and farmland surroundings. Some are shallow, but others reveal an ominous darkness that creates an impression of a bottomless pit! A crown of spears shields a cold fireplace in the middle of the two shrines.

I stand on a highly venerated 50-acre piece of land located on Tanda hill in Mityana, about 45km along the Kampala-Mityana highway. This is a site the Baganda believe is a spiritual abode for Walumbe, the deity responsible for human death!

The site stands as witness to a battle between Walumbe, the ‘god of death’ and his brother from Gulu (heaven), Kayikuzi, in the thrilling age-old Ganda legend — Kintu, Nambi and Walumbe. The result of that battle led to human mortality.

Soon Lawrence Ssendawula, the caretaker at Tanda pits arrives. Ssendawula, 57, was born here. This venerated site, which he inherited from his father, was his childhood playground.

“Take your shoes off my son. This is a very spiritual ground,” he asks after taking off his.

With the innocence of a child, I follow him into the bigger shrine where a score of spears, having different outlandish designs, occupy the centre and the soot-coated grass ceiling. A raw smell of locally fermented brew from pots, gourds and calabashes engulfs this shrine, uniquely covered in a carpet of brown barkcloth.

“This is Walumbe’s Palace. It was built by pilgrims, who were sent by Walumbe,” he announces with the confidence that tells he is happy to be consulted.

He narrates the legend with such gusto as if it is the first time he is telling it. But the legend has been narrated over generations that the story line has taken on different versions.

A long time ago, the legend is told, Kintu the first man on earth travelled to Mugulu (heaven) — a place the Baganda believe is in Mukono district! When he got there, Gulu (God) offered him Nambi, his daughter, for a wife.

Nambi’s brother, Walumbe, insisted on travelling along with his sister, but their father, Gulu, cautioned them not to come to earth with Walumbe. They succeeded in coming to earth without Walumbe. However, on their way, Nambi realised she had forgotten corn millet to feed the fowl she had come with.

When she returned to heaven for the grain, Walumbe didn’t let her out of his sight. She came with him and together with Kintu, they settled at Busiro. Today a cave in a small forest near Tanda, is believed to have been their home.

Walumbe went into hiding in Tanda and started murdering Kintu’s children. Gulu sent Kayikuzi to apprehend Walumbe and take him back. While eluding Kayikuzi, Walumbe quickly plunged into the ground, creating a ditch. He could then emerge from another place after drilling through the ground.

With Kayikuzi hot on Walumbe’s heels, the ditches increased in number, but he failed to subdue him.
According to the Baganda, the triumph of Walumbe brought forth the ‘legacy’ of death.

“If Kayikuzi had caught Walumbe, we wouldn’t be dying,” he says resignedly.

Today, he is feared and revered by pilgrims, who come to plead for their lives, ask for blessings and wealth. In turn they appease him with animal, money, beer, egg and fruit sacrifices.

Outside, voices of pilgrims join a choir of bird song. I come out to watch Tanda wake in dramatic fashion. About 20 bare-footed pilgrims move about the compound. A drumbeat throbs from one end and from another, a boy in mid 20s intensely blows a 40-inch long horn beckoning Ganda deities to come and listen to the pleas of the pilgrims. Two male pilgrims dressed in kanzus (white tunics) smoke a ceremonial pipe.

Trails of white smoke lazily curl from the fireplace at the entrance as a boy fervently fans it with his mouth. A man and three women offload brown chicken, a bunch of green bananas, pineapples and a black goat from a car into the shrine where they engage in earnest rituals.

“People come from all over the country to ask Walumbe for many things — life, jobs, better families and wealth. Some other people induced by spirits others come after receiving a vision from Walumbe,” he says.

The name Walumbe invokes awe. The Baganda call him king and ‘God of death’.

It is abominable for the reigning king of Buganda, Kabaka Ronald Mutebi, to set foot on this ground because, according to the Baganda, “a king is not supposed to look into the eye of another king”. He says it is a tradition that has been respected by all the kings of Buganda.

There are over 200 cylindrical pits in Tanda. They measure one metre in diameter and are distinctly placed in one line. Between them is about 1.5 metres. Some of them are shallow; others are deep and connected to each other by underground tunnels.

Most of the pits are shrines associated with different deities like Ddungu, wanema and Kiwanuka but Ssendawula does not know why the deities are here because he is not a spiritual medium. But he is very certain, “These pits have existed from the beginning of time”.

However, according to archives and conservationists at the Uganda Museum, the pits at Tanda were mining shafts dug around 1400–1600s, even before the arrival of the Europeans. From Tanda, Africans at the time extracted iron ore, which they used for making domestic tools. The miners returned to the surface using footholds dug in the side of the shafts.

Peter Bisaso, a conservationist, says similar pits are found in Kako (Masaka), Butiti (Kabarole), Kisururumi and Rugombe (296kms on Kampala-Fort Portal road), but none of them are spiritual realms of deities. From these pits, chalk, coal, kaonite and iron ore were excavated for different purposes.

According to a report by George Taylor, a government geologist in the 1920s, E.J Wayland, then commissioner of geological survey first noticed the pit shafts in Tanda and Butiti in 1920. Iron ore mining had long been forgotten so the pits became a mystery to the public. And as Taylor wrote, “Whatever man doesn’t understand becomes divine.”

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