Local Wildlife

Totems of the Bakonzo: The forgotten Bullet against Poaching in Rwenzori

BY JOLLY MBAMBU

The human-animal relationship is marred with love-hate relations which are as old as mankind.

While it was common to find people hunting down animals for food (meat); it was also not uncommon to find some with animals they domesticated as part of the family; owning them as pets.

Those that were domesticated as pets became part of the family supporting their masters accomplish several tasks ranging from, but not limited, to protection and hunting for dogs as horses and donkeys supported the transportation and other laboring activities.

But while the pets were friendly to the master’s family, other animals especially wild game was in many instances hostile to people. Finding yourself in direct confrontation with animals like lions, buffaloes, leopards, elephants and hyenas was close to signing a death warrant yet the different clans were tagged to belong to these various dangerous animal species.

The Bakonzo people of the Rwenzori in Western Uganda for example have all the fourteen main clans associated to wild animals. Once a clan was tagged to a particular animal, it was assumed that all animals of that species became part of the clan and that under no circumstances whatsoever would a clan member eat meat of that animal.

Selevest Kule Walyuba is a cultural enthusiast and a conservationist at Kiwa Heritage in Kasese town.

Walyuba explains that the once a clan was attached to a particular animal species; the clan members were forbade from inflicting any harm or damage on the animals but instead to relieve it of any pain and help save its life if they found it in trouble. This, he says, informs the concept of emitsiro (totems) among the Bakonzo people.

Selvest Kule Walyuba, Director at Kiwa Heritage. Photo By Alex Baluku.

“It was inconceivable that the Bakyira could kill a buffalo or the Baswagha to kill a leopard. The Balegha and Banyisanza also could never lay trap for the monkey and elephant respectively”.

Walyuba adds that it was a taboo for any clan member to inflict harm on an animal associated to their clan and the repercussions for such course of actions used to be dire.

He says:  “If you ate your totem, you would develop a skin rash and it was believed that you would attract curses to the entire clan, which is why there were always concerted efforts to ensure strict adherence to the protecting one’s totem.

Walyuba however expresses dismay over the rate at which many Bakonzo people have abandoned this practice adding that many of them don’t even know what their emitsiro (totems) are.

He blames the continued poaching in conservation areas partly on the failure to be conscious of one’s totem. Walyuba says hunting today has turned into a trade where poachers slice their kill into pieces and sell to other people who don’t seem to care what type of animal they are buying.

“In the olden, every family had at least three animals they never killed or partook of. This is because, normally the mother and grandmother belonged to different clans and that meant that their totems would also be respected within that family. This was key in preserving various animal species for posterity” He adds.

A 2013 report by Uganda Wildlife Authority-UWA titled “poaching, a threat to biodiversity and barrier to sustainable development in Uganda cites, the Bakonzo, Bakiga and Banyaruguru as lead poachers in the country.

Records from the Wildlife Body also indicate that in the 2020/2021 Financial Year, 2,310 wildlife crime suspects were arrested with 22,449 different types of poaching implements including 10 guns.

This is over a 16% increase from the 2019/2020 Financial Year when 1,987 suspects were arrested with 13,645 poaching equipment including 23 guns.

The report reveals that the most affected animals are the antelopes, hippopotamus, buffalos and waterbucks whose meat is often used for home consumption while elephants, leopards, crocodiles, and chimpanzees suffer largely because they are targeted by traders.

Augustine Kooli, the Kasese District Environmental officer under Natural Resource Department says continued poaching is a threat to a balanced natural eco-system.

Augustine Koli, Kasese District Senior Environment Officer. Photo By Alex Baluku.

Kooli adds that the people must appreciate that animals within the conservation area support the growth of vegetation within those areas; adding that the vegetation has a direct impact on the climate conditions of the neighbouring areas.

“We don’t seem to know that if we tamper with the natural eco-system; we would be affected most as a people. Look, for-example, if you finished all the antelopes in the park, wouldn’t the lions and leopards come for you? In the same vein, if we killed all the lions, the antelopes would be so many that we would have nowhere to put them”, He says.

Mr. Erikana Baluku Ndyooka, the Obusinga Bwa Rwenzururu Minister for Culture cautions the Kingdoms’ loyalists against buying meat whose source is not clearly known in order to avoid feasting on their totems.

Ndyooka argues that you cannot rule out that the natural disasters the Rwenzori is grappling with could be because of continued disregard of totems by sections of people within the community.

“We have already identified this challenge. Many of our people no longer even know their totems. We have started a campaign through the clan leaders to sensitise the people on the need to uphold their totems.”

The minister also expressed gratitude to other persons who have moved out of their way to sensitise the Bakonzo people about their clans and totems.

But Ronah Masika, who works with Cross Cultural Foundation of Uganda-CCFU says efforts by clan leaders need to be supported by all conservation agencies if zero poaching is to be realised.

Ronah Masika, worker at Cross Cultural Foundation of Uganda-CCFU. Photo By Alex Baluku.

Masika says previously clan leaders have signed a communique denouncing poaching and also founded the annual Kibandu (chimpanzee) football tournament which later collapsed due to limited funds. She says this would have been a golden opportunity for all conservationists to sensitise the people about the value of preserving animal species and linking them to certain aspects of their culture.

Indeed, around 2006, a popular musician Chance Kahindo released a song titled Ebihanda By’abayiira (clans of Bayiira/bakonzo) sensitisating people about their clans and totems.

It is no doubt that Ebihanda By’abayiira became a popular refrain within the communities of Kasese and Bundibugyo. Kahindo was later to ride on the popularity of this and other related songs to join politics; today he is the mayor Kasese Municipality,

Masika invites UWA to support popular ideas that discourage poaching and promote preservation of all kinds of species within the protected areas.

Walyuba concurs with Masika arguing that many people for example who are well-known for poaching are also uneducated and thus supporting people get out of poverty could also go a long way in helping curb illegal killing of wild animals.

Mr. Bashir Hangi, the Communications Manager at Uganda Wildlife Authority reveals that as an authority, they are already having established community-led initiatives that are promoting conservation in alignment with the Uganda National Development Plan III.

Bashir Hangi, Communications Officer-Uganda Wildlife Authority-UWA. Photo By Jolly Mbambu.

Hangi, who appreciated the culture of totems among the Bakonzo people, however, agrees that there is need for all players to work together and preserve the endangered species on the Rwenzoris. “It would be prudent that the kingdom officials also play their part in ensuring that these totems are not decimated; it can be a collective action where we partner with all players to ensure that we preserve wildlife”, He says.

He urges the Obusinga Bwa Rwenzururu to use her established platforms to sensitize the community about the negative impact of encroaching on the protected conservation areas.

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