Face Music - History of Uganda
  • History of Uganda

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P & C December 1998
- Face Music / Albi

- last update 03-2016

text available in German

The contrast between the various peoples of Uganda reflects the multiplicity of the Ugandan culture, tradition, and lifestyle. Uganda was created by the union of many people with their own tradition. There were four major migration groups, namely Bantu, Hamites, Negro-Hamites, and the Sudanic Nilotics.

Uganda's long string of tragedies since independence has been a staple of the Western media, hence most people still regard the country as a volatile place to be avoided. However, most parts of the country have been stable for several years, and the country's transformation has been little short of astounding. Kampala is now the modern, bustling capital of a new Uganda, a country with one of the fastest growing economies in Africa.
Uganda's beautiful mountains, trekking opportunities and mountain gorillas attract travellers. Before independence, Uganda was a prosperous and cohesive country. Its great beauty led Winston Churchill to refer to it as the 'Pearl of Africa'.


Archeology tells that prehistoric man walked the earth in what is now Uganda (Homo-Erectus), and many sites have been excavated that show habitation over the centuries. One of the more recent excavations is situated in Kiboro, near Lake Albert, where there can be found traces of village life going back thousands of years. Around 1100 A.D., Bantu-speaking people migrated into the area that is now Uganda, and by the 14th century they were organized into several independent kingdoms.

Indigenous kingdoms were etablished in Uganda in the 14th century. Among them, there were the Buganda, Bunyoro, Batooro (Toro), Ankole (Nkole) and the state Busoga. Over the following centuries, the Baganda people created the dominant kingdom. The tribes had plenty of time to work out their hierarchies, as there was very little penetration of Uganda from the outside until the 19th century. Despite the fertility of the land and its capacity to grow surplus crops, there were virtually no trading links with the East African coast. Contacts were finally made with Arab traders and European explorers in the mid-19th century - the latter came in search of ivory and slaves.

Arab traders reached the interior of Uganda for the very first time in the 1830ies, where they encountered several African kingdoms with well-developed political institutions dating back several centuries. Traders were followed in 1860ies by British explorers searching for the source of the Nile River. Protestant missionaries entered the country in 1877, followed by Catholic missionaries in 1879.

After the Treaty of Berlin in 1884 had defined the various European countries' spheres of influence in Africa. Uganda, Kenya and the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba became British protectorates. The colonial administrators introduced coffee and cotton as cash crops and adopted a policy of indirect rule, giving the traditional kingdoms considerable autonomy, but favouring the recruitment of Baganda tribe for the civil service. A few thousand Baganda chiefs received huge estates from the British, on the basis of which they made fortunes. Other tribespeople, unable to find works in the colonial administration or make in roads in the Baganda-dominated commercial sector, were forced to seek other ways of gaining influence. The Acholi and Langi, for example, were dominant in the military, Thus were planted the seeds for the intertribal conflicts that were to tear Uganda apart following independence.

In the mid-1950s a Langi schoolteacher, Dr Milton Obote, managed to put together a loose coalition that led Uganda to independence in 1962, promising that the Baganda people would have autonomy. It was not a particularly advantageous time for Uganda to come to grips with independence. Civil wars were raging in neighbouring southern Sudan, Congo and Rwanda, and refugees poured into the country. It also soon became obvious that Obote had no intention of sharing power with the kabaka (the Buganda king). Obote moved fast, arresting several of his cabinet ministers and ordering his army chief of staff, Idi Amin, to storm the kabaka's palace. Obote became president, the Buganda monarchy was abolished and Idi Amin's star was on the rise.

All political activities were quickly suspended, and the army was empowered to shoot on sight anyone suspected of opposing the regime. Over the next eight years an estimated 300,000 Ugandans lost their lives, often in horrifying ways. Amin's main targets were the Acholi and Langi tribespeople, the intellectual classes, and the country's 70,000-strong Asian community. In 1972 the Asians - many of whom had come from other British colonies to work in Uganda's plantations as far back as 1912 - were given 90 days to leave the country with nothing but the clothes they wore.

Meanwhile the economy collapsed, infrastructure crumbled, the country's prolific wildlife was machine-gunned by soldiers for meat, ivory and skins, and the tourism industry evaporated. The stream of refugees across the border became a flood. Inflation hit 1000 per cent, and towards the end the Treasury was so bereft of funds that it was unable to pay the soldiers. Faced with a restless army wrecked by intertribal fighting, Amin was forced to seek a decision. He foolishly chose a war with Tanzania. The Tanzanians rolled over the Ugandan army and pushed on into the heart of Uganda. Amin fled to Libya. The about 12,000 Tanzanian soldiers who remained in Uganda, supposedly to help with the country's reconstruction and to maintain law and order, turned on the Ugandans.

In 1980 the government was taken over by a military commission, which set a presidential election date for Uganda later that year. Obote returned from exile in Tanzania to an enthusiastic welcome in many parts of the country and swept to victory in a blatantly rigged election. Like Amin, Obote favoured certain tribes. Large numbers of civil servants and army and police commanders belonging to southern tribes were replaced with Obote supporters belonging to northern tribes, and the prisons began filling once more. Reports of atrocities leaked out of the country, and several mass graves were discovered. In mid-1985 Obote was overthrown in an army coup led by Tito Okello.

Shortly after Obote had become president in 1980, a guerrilla army opposed to his tribally based government was formed. It was led by Yoweri Museveni, who had lived in exile in Tanzania during Amin's reign. From a group of 27 grew a guerrilla force of about 20,000, many of them orphaned teenagers. In the early days few gave the guerrillas, known as the National Resistance Army (NRA), much of a chance, but by the time Obote was ousted and Okello had taken over, the NRA controlled a large slice of western Uganda. Fighting proceeded in earnest between the NRA and Okello's government troops, and by January 1986 it was clear that Okello's days were numbered. The NRA launched an all-out offensive and took the capital.

Despite Museveni's Marxist leanings, he proved to be a pragmatic leader, appointing several archconservatives to his cabinet and making an effort to reassure the country's influential Catholic community. The monarchy was finally restored in 1993, with the son of Mutesa II, Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II as its Kabaka. Buganda is now a constitutional monarchy, with a parliament called Lukiiko that sits in parliamentary buildings called Bulange. The Lukiiko has a sergeant-at-arms, speaker and provisional seats for the royals, 18 county chiefs, cabinet ministers, 52 clan heads, invited guests and a gallery. The Kabaka only attends two sessions a year; first when he opens the first session of the year, and the second time when he closes the last session of the year.

Meanwhile, almost 300,000 Ugandan refugees returned from across the Sudanese border. The economy took a turn for the better, and aid and investment began returning to the country. Museveni won elections in 1994,1996, 2001 and 2006.

The 1996 elections were seen as Uganda's final step on the road to rehabilitation, and the country was rewarded by a visit from US President Bill Clinton in 1998, despite its blemished human rights record. In August 1999, Uganda signed onto the Congo peace agreement.

Ugandan Cultures

Uganda's population is made up of a complex and diverse range of tribes. Lake Kyoga forms the northern boundary for the Bantu-speaking peoples, who dominate much of east, central and southern Uganda. They include the Baganda people and several other tribes. In the north live the Langi and the Acholi, who speak Nilotic languages. To the northeast there are the Iteso and Karimojong, who are related to the Masaai and who also speak Nilotic languages. Pygmies (Batwa and Bambuti) live in the forests of the southwest.

Each tribe has its musical history; songs are passed down from generation to generation. Endigindi (fiddle), endongo (lyre), amadinda (xylophone) and akogo (thumb piano) are commonly played instruments. An Acholi, Okot p'Bitek, is one of Uganda's most famous writers of folklore, satirical poems and songs.

Death is sometimes interpreted in the idiom of witchcraft; a disease or any other cause of death may not be seen as the true cause. At a funeral, iIf the relatives suspect someone of having caused the deceased person‘s death, a spiritual medium will call upon the spirit of the deceased and ask who had really killed him or her. In general, it is a fact that the women were the traditional healers. Magic powers and herbs were used for curing an illness or a disease.

There had to be followed strict and rather rigid rules, when the meal was ready to be served. All the members of the household would wash their hands and sit on floor mats. Visitors and neighbours who drop in are expected to join the family at their meal. Normally a short prayer is said before the family starts eating. During the meal, children talk only when elders or parents ask them a question. It is considered impolite to leave the room while the others are still eating.

The women were taught to listen and follow the wishes of their fathers, husbands, and brothers, and even of the other men in their community. The male counterparts were more dominating than the women. In the 1980ies the women in the rural areas like Buganda still used to kneel down when speaking to or with a man. The women in Uganda carried the child on their back and balanced loads on their head. They were not respected less than men when working in the fields. By the twentieth century, women had also started their own trade with the cash crop they cultivated.

For the most part, Ugandan cuisine consists of a stodge filler with beans or a meat sauce, served with chicken, beef, goat, or mutton, The starch and the stodge, respectively, are produced from millet, maize (ugali), cassava (manioka-root), or bananas (matooke). There is also rice, sorghum (an old type of grain), sweet potatoes, or normal potatoes (Irish potatoes). Ugali (maize) is cooked until it becomes a thick mush and sets hard. It is then served up in flat bricks. There is also served chapatis, a sort of omelette (flour, eggs with water). And there are also samosas, this is, dough bags filled with beans or meat. The Ugandan cuisine also comprises fish such as the madazis (carp) or the tilapia (perch). If that does not sound appealing, the country's tropical climate contributes to a healthy choice of fruits such as pineapples, mangoes, bananas, avocadoes, papayas, oranges, or maracujas. Something you do not come across very often but makes an excellent snack meal is mkate mayai (bread eggs). Originally an Arab dish, this is wheat dough spread into a thin pancake, filled with minced meat and raw egg, and then folded into a neat parcel and fried on a hotplate. Beer is probably the most widely available commodity across Uganda. Pombe is a locally made fermented banana beer; and waragi (spirit) is the local millet-based alcohol. Engulia is a sort of grain spirit. Both can knock you around and give you a mean hangover.

Cassava - Maniok Passion - Maracuja

Fibers from the banana plant and barkcloth, the inner bark lining of a particular tree, were widely used before Arab traders brought cotton. Today barkcloths and kanzus (a white cotton robe) are associated with "traditional" male dresses. Women wear wraps of patterned textile (usually imported from Kenya and Tanzania) or the gomezi, a western style dress with pointed shoulders. Other natural materials such as gourds are also widely used for a variety of purposes.

However, there have been some developments in the music of Uganda. Music is gradually being intergrated especially in the capital (Kampala) where instruments of different regions are commonly used together in an orchestra or accompany a dance of another region. All instruments that can be tuned to a similar scale (equidistant pentatonic scale) are now used in the same orchestra for example a combination of adungu (harp), amadinda (xylophone), endingidi (fiddle) originate from different cultures but produce beautiful and pleasant music while in succession. The most famous and one of the oldest ensemble (Ndere Troupe) can be cited as an example here at thinking a mile ahead in the maintenance and development of Ugandan traditional music in harmony.

Native art was very popular; Africans have adopted from the immigrants only as much as seemed to be in accordance with their way of life. Many defended their tribal traditions against Islamic influences, later on also against the Christian religion. The figured-plastic art Black Africa has become renowned for has not achieved the same level of importance among all peoples. Some tribes regarded the decorative painting of their huts or pottery as being more important, others held the carving of masks in great esteem. Among the Bantu people, sculpture was highly developed, its destribution quite clearly demonstrating that women assumed social supremacy.


Manual and artisan skills have been handed from one generation to the next one. Over time, their form, design, decoration (ornaments) and expressiveness have created an identity of its own within such communities (communes). Basketry, pottery and basic daily commodities for the household or for the daily work on the fields were also produced in common; the same was true for tools for the hunt and the prestige. Typical design forms and ornaments have become characteristic for such a community (tribe). For this reason, it is now possible to allocate the production of certain articles in their chronological and local framework to a certain community.

There were manufactured gourd vessels (calabassa) and wooden vessels used for food or drinks; pottery was manufactured without a potter’s wheel; water pipes for smoking cannabis; basketry for daily use; beer baskets or mats made from grass; vestments and coverage made from felts or barkcloth; tails and aprons; belts and girdles; hair dressing and face ornaments; amulets; necklaces or beads, arm and leg decoration, bracelets, rings; further shields, spears, bows and arrows; swords, dancing weapons; hunting knives; finger knives and wrist knives; hunting gear. Decorations, fetish cult figures and ritual masks are carved from wood.
For example, the Karimojong (a Hamite tribe) make their hairdressing from human hair which is felted with grease and clay. This construction is then strengthened by means of a wire netting around the front edge. Then there is made a pattern in the colours red, blue and yellow. The eyelets above the crown and at the backside serve to hold peacock feathers and other ornaments.

Apart from these daily commodities for the household, for the work on the fields or for the battle, there are also produced ritual objects. Fetish figures, masks. Multi-headed spears were used in ceremonial or magic-religious practices. In these rites, pots with several mouths were used to poison the victim having attracted the wrath of the Kabaka (king) with poisoned beer. The Luo (River-Lake-Nilotes) and the Basamia-Bagwe (Bantu tribe) use pots with two mouths in certain rituals, especially those in connection with the birth of twins. In witchcraft, there are also used various objects such as for example totems and cult figures in order to bestow power on the magician in ceremonies. Such magical powers are supported by decorated utensils such as leopard skin, cow tails, tails, animal horns, and snake skin, feathers of rare birds, shells and beads.

Goods made from plastics and aluminum have conquered the market and hence sort of eliminated the local and traditional handicrafts. More and more people used products made from plastics, such as, for example, jerry cans, mugs and bowls. Regional and local artisans have now started to produce traditional goods in modern forms and designs, in this way fighting their way back onto the market. This branch seems to be growing and has an enormous potential as these products may be sold to tourists. Everything is based on the fact that the handicraft and art of the inhabitants with its traditional ornaments is to be expressed in new forms and designs.

- More information please find under– Traditional crafts of the Uganda people

back to the Index – Projects Uganda

Revised by Hermelinde Steiner