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Exploring Uganda's milk culture

By Martin Kitubi

Added 16th October 2017 12:55 PM

Milk and other milk products play a big part in the life of the Karimojong.

Exploring Uganda's milk culture

Milk and other milk products play a big part in the life of the Karimojong.


Margret Lomonyang, the co-ordinator of Karamoja Women Cultural Group, has lived in Karamoja almost all her life.  To her, livestock are the life of the people and this is seen in how much they rely on their cattle.

Lomonyang was representing her people at the launch of the Drink Deeply Milk Exhibition at Uganda Museum in Kampala recently. 

The exhibition was about milk traditions in Uganda and Switzerland. It aims to present the different knowledge of milk and its cultural social aspects. The idea started in 2015, from a co-operation project involving Uganda National Museum, Igongo Cultural Centre and the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich in Switzerland.

Represented were communities with a background of cattle keeping including Karamoja, Ntoroko, Ankole and Teso, as well as the Swiss Alps.

The Museum has set up a section to showcase dairy farming, processing and consumption patterns in the three cattle-keeping cultures of Ankole, Karamoja and Switzerland. This includes ways of preserving milk, making cheese and butter. The section will be open up to March 2018, thereafter, it will go mobile to take the exhibition to different parts of the country.

Rose Mwanja Nkaale, the commissioner Museums and Monuments in Uganda, noted that cultural practices can transform lives in the country. Dr Thomas Laely, the Director Ethnographic Museums at the University of Zurich, added that culture can be used foster development of communities. He said the Swiss Alps in Switzerland have developed in dairy farming because of their culture, and urged Ugandans to take similar steps.

Karamoja style
The Karamojong people are mainly nomadic pastoralists who move to several areas and across the border to Kenya and South Sudan in search for pasture and water. This does not support crop farming, so they tend to rely heavily on their cattle. Thus, milk and other milk products, including clarified butter (ghee) and cheese, play a big part in their food. But they also consume fresh blood, which they can extract without killing the animal, and can be made more nutritious by adding milk before drinking. They also keep goats and sheep, not only for meat, but milk too. Gourds are also used extensively, commonly for making ghee and buttermilk. Calabashes, which are split gourds, are used to serve and drink all beverages.

 "We drink fresh milk, on social functions including marriage and other rituals. But the quantity of milk is down because of drought and famine, and we do not have better practices on how to keep cattle like in Ankole," Lomonyang said.  She suggests that Government should not push the Karamojong into crop growing, but instead improve mechanisms on producing quality milk to boost dairy farming and food security.


Milk in Ankole

In Ankole society, prestige is culturally measured according to assets owned, particularly cattle. At almost every ceremony, Banyankole consume milk, yoghurt or use clarified butter (ghee) in one form or another. One of the must-serve delicacies is eshabwe, which is made by whipping ghee with rock salt to produce a treasured white sauce. It is at times mixed with strips of mushrooms, meat to give much better taste.

Milk is often added to a millet porridge consumed by people of all ages, especially children. In Ankole fresh milk is kept in containers called ebyanzi. According to Jovia Busingye, from the ethnographic section at the Uganda Museum, fresh milk tastes better when the ebyanzi are smoked beforehand using dry grass.

Igongo's  James Tumusiime says cattle and milk are a treasure given to the Banyankole by God.  "From childhood we took milk and its products more often than even water, from fresh milk to boiled milk," he said, adding that every family in Ankole was required to obtain ekishabo, a kind of calabash used in making clarified butter and yoghurt. After milking, the milk is kept in ekishabo for about two to three days to ferment into yoghurt, commonly known as bongo. When it is given a few more days with regular shaking, it turns into butter.

Busingye noted that calabashes are not to be placed on the ground, so the homes had a special table called olugyegye constructed to support the calabashes.  "Olugyegye means a lot in our culture. It is a sign that you are tidy," she added.

These practices related to milk production and consumption are common in most communities in western Uganda, including Banyoro, Bakiga, Batoro and Batuku among others. Western Uganda is the country's biggest source of milk to urban areas.

The Swiss side of the exhibition displays both traditional and evolved modern milk processing and packaging methods, including butter churning and storage containers. Visitors can also listen to sounds and taste some cheese as part of the interactive exhibition.


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