Rough and Tough People of the Hills

The Gorilla Highlands Initiative was born 10 years ago in the land of the Bakiga (pronunciation: “Bachiga”; singular: Mukiga; language: Rukiga), the tribe from southwestern Uganda. This is a little peek into their history …

The term Bakiga was first used by the British authorities in the 20th century to refer to independent clans who had never called themselves anything like that previously. Local people thus learned to see themselves as Bakiga during the colonial period and it became a source of identity and pride after Uganda’s independence (1962).

Many years ago our team made this documentary with a Bakiga elder, Festo Karwemera (RIP)

Bakiga Origins

There are different traditions about the origins of the Bakiga. The first is that they originally lived in the Kingdom of Karagwe (northwest of today’s Tanzania) having migrated from Bunyoro during the Luo invasion and are associated with the Banyambo of Tanzania. Another tradition states that the cradle of the Bakiga was in Buganza in Rwanda. They left in search of fertile land and to escape political conflict. From Rwanda, they are said to have moved to what is now Congo and finally settled in southwestern Uganda. It is also possible that they migrated from the Congo river region, through Rwanda and the eastern Deocratic Republic of the Congo to finally settle here.

There are other theories; one states that they are called after Kakiga (defender), the son of Mbogo, from Bumbogo (Rwanda) and of the Abaitira (Abungura) clan. One oral tradition is that Kiga was originally Kinga, translated as ‘Of the Earth’. Another is that it is a nickname derived from Ebiga (Runyarwanda), which is translated as cracks and scars on the body caused by not washing.

Group of Bakiga, early 20th century; photo by E. M. Jack

A simple solution is that they were called after Rukiga (a Rwandan word for mountains); this was the first place name discovered by the English. However, there is no one theory as each clan has its own history of origins, migrations, settlement, and relationships with other clans — whether through intermarriage, merger or conflict.

Bakiga were a one class society that did not have kings but was based on clans, lineages and households. These are unique in this region because unlike kingdoms around them there were no caste differences (with the exception of slaves). The clans were not static units but always in the process of fission and sub-division and, at any one time, were in temporary equilibrium. While clan leaders would sometimes meet and publicly discuss issues of wider importance, local politics between clans and lineages predominated.

Inter-clan conflict was not uncommon with feuds between families sometimes lasting generations. These could be solved through blood-brotherhood oaths or exchange of gifts.


Bakiga Household

The outer boundary of the household compound was made up of a palisade of poles and sticks to protect against wild animals and raiders. Inside were the various residences of the family. Each wife had her own house and her property of fields and livestock that was under her control and not shared with other wives; her children lived with her until adulthood.

Lighting and maintaining fires took a lot of time. It was forbidden to bring fire into a house where there was already fire burning. In the house, there was no furniture except for stools and beds built either on the floor or built using forked sticks and a woven frame.

The inner rooms had woven papyrus partitions (sometimes plastered) and floors were covered with decorated mats made of swamp grass. The roof was thatched with dried grass in overlapping layers with a covering in the centre to avoid rain drip; a small stick set in the centre was only removed on the death of the householder.


Women made coiled (sewn) baskets while men made woven (checker and wickerwork) baskets, checker weave winnowing trays from bamboo and fish weirs from papyrus. Woodwork was men’s responsibility and the most common products were iron tool handles, stools, bowls, paddles and troughs.

Clothing was usually made from animal hides though among the poor woven grass skirts were common. While men could strip naked when working in the fields, women were more modest, particularly after adolescence.

Among the Bakiga hygiene was not a major issue and many had an abhorrence of water, they neither drank it (preferring sorghum based drinks) nor washed with it.


Beer was brewed from sorghum and was mostly reserved for chiefs, elders and heads of households. It was the social lubricant of all festivals and social occasions and was plentiful after the harvests. Women were not allowed to drink in public and a non-alcoholic sorghum drink was more common among them. Elders smoked pipes with unprocessed tobacco.

Illustration by Martin Aijuka

Birth Among the Bakiga

Traditionally, pregnancy and birth was surrounded by numerous taboos and rituals that had to be followed to ensure the infant’s survival. No special preparations were made for the birth, which could happen anywhere. The mother often had the child alone, squatting or kneeling, and sometimes with the assistance of other women, co-wives or mother-in-laws who gave praise at the safe arrival.

For the first four days she remained in seclusion, her husband by her side, and her neighbours brought gifts of drinks, food and firewood. When the remains of the umbilical cord fell off, the placenta was buried near the gateway. In the meantime the father announced the birth by building a fire using the gateposts and by placing a bow in the infant boy’s hand to make him brave and ready to defend the family. If the infant was a girl, grass was used as a symbol that the house will be kept clean and neat.


Mother and child then made their first public appearance after 4–8 days when relatives and friends could admire the baby whose head was shaved. The reception was a time of celebration among the community. The child was usually named by consensus among the participants. Sometimes it was called after a recent local event, the place where it was born or with some reference to God and his attributes. A child who died before being named had no status.

The woman also visited her parents with a small gift of gruel as an offering at her paternal grandmother’s shrine, as she had helped her conceive, and maybe some beer. In return the grandparents may have given some land or a goat if it was a firstborn. Afterwards the mother resumed her life with the baby tied on her back and breastfed as required.

Bakiga baby; photo by May M. Edel
Bakiga baby; photo by May M. Edel

The appearance of the first teeth was celebrated by various rituals such as placing pumpkin leaves with gruel or sorghum drink into the child’s mouth and shared with the adults; that was called ‘eating the teeth’ or ‘eating maize’. However if the upper teeth came first, they were extracted as it was believed to be a bad omen.

Twins were considered special, but their placentas were considered dangerous and buried in a marked spot that all would avoid preventing leprosy. They were treated alike, given gifts together, punished together, and girls married off together. The parents also had various taboos and restrictions, some temporary, some permanent.

Bakiga Relationships


Relationships between the various people in the Bakiga compound, lineage and clan were bound by many formal rights and prohibitions. Elders got the most respect and younger generations always deferred to them and made many small offerings of food and other services daily to ensure their comfort and happiness.

Wives’ relationships with their in-laws were strictly bound by rules; i.e. they were not allowed to say their names or even their husband’s name, consciously doing this was a cause for scandal. A father demanded respect and obedience from his children while the mother tended to have much closer relationships, particularly in polygamous marriages.

When disagreements occurred between husband and wife, her grownup children often sided with her. There were no special rules regarding siblings; their relationships developed as with siblings anywhere. Other relationships, between uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, cousins and in-laws, had rules.


Typical of people everywhere, grandparents and grandchildren had the freest and closest bonds. Still, when an elder died the children were not allowed to touch any of the deceased’s possessions, which would be hidden away lest the child break the taboo inadvertently.

The community served as the mediator of relationships between unrelated people and was similar across all clans. Normally, family heads and elders would settle and arbitrate local cases. Thieves and wizards were despised; they would be beaten or speared to death if they were caught. A woman who poisoned a person to death would be given poison to drink.

Crimes committed in a group could only be solved within the group with the exception of one accused of murder by witchcraft — such a person would be stoned to death by everybody. Informal judges and juries would try cases and act as arbiters; trial by ordeal was a last resort. In some clans a murderer was buried alive under his victim.

Whenever there was a fight in the family and it could end in divorce, the case would be taken to the elders. If the husband was proved guilty, he would offer a pot of beer and a goat to the woman’s family to redeem his wife. If the woman was found guilty, she was verbally disciplined. No fine was levied on her in case it caused trouble in the family. Conflicts and fights between men were treated lightly, but fighting among women was frowned upon.

Swedish Prince Describes Bakiga

Prince William of Sweden (1920):

On the open space before the administrative offices about 500 negroes had assembled in separate groups under their chiefs. The different tribes kept resolutely together and refused to mix with each other. In front of each such group the nimblest men jump and dance while the others stand close together in a mass and shout or beat the drums. Now and then the fighting spirit seizes them and the keenest step aside, make high jumps, and twist and turn and challenge each other with provocative shouts and threatening gestures. Only sticks are allowed at a peaceful ngoma but sometimes the actors grow so excited that they catch hold of a spear. Then an askari must instantly intervene to prevent bloodshed.

The women generally stand by themselves in a wide circle. They shout, clap their hands and sway the upper part of the body in time to the music. Now and then a small group will enter the circle and dance a solo with bent knees and outstretched arms. Young girls as well as old women with children on their backs like to perform, but they never move a muscle of the face during the performance, so that their expression remains unchanged and stereotyped. It seems as if the whole thing did not affect them in the least. …

The Ba-chiga also performed many different dances. Especially wild was the challenging war dance in which the opponents fenced with each other as in single combat. They beat their shields, jumped high in the air and balanced on one leg, while the cowrie shells in their hair flew about like water drops. …

Night fell cold and damp over Kabale but it in no wise cooled the eagerness of the dancers. On the contrary. Round the enormous fires the black figures jumped like evil spirits, evidently without any trace of fatigue.

featured photo and other images from the Bakiga Museum by Marcus Westberg


  1. Članek mi je dopolnil znanje o skupnosti Bakiga, ki sem jih imela priložnost spoznati pred leti. Čestitke avtorju, odlično napisano.

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