Exploring the language of wellbeing and distress in Uganda

It is great to be back in Uganda. I am here with Cliodhna Cork who is a colleague working at the University of Glasgow who is collaborating with me on an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project that is exploring linguistic idioms of distress, resilience and wellbeing in different sites including Zimbabwe, Uganda, Ghana and Gaza. During the week-long trip to Uganda we will linking in again with Dr Rosco Kasujja from the Psychology Department at Makerere University. We have arranged to meet with people from different language speakers to learn more about idioms used in their language. Over forty of the languages indigenous to Uganda fall into three main families — Bantu, Nilotic, and Central Sudanic — with another two languages in the Kuliak family (see the graphic below for details of how the languages are distributed across the country).

Languages of Uganda

Our first appointment of the day was with Mr. Abiti Nelson, Conservator Ethnography, Department of Museums and Monuments, Uganda National Museum. We had some time to look around the museum, which provided a great opportunity to learn more about Uganda’s rich history and the country’s cultural diversity. Exhibits at the museum included items of cultural significance for the various ethnic groups in Uganda including head-dresses, clothes, tools for daily activities and implements for diagnosing, treating and preventing illness.


In the photograph below showing a section from the ‘Health’ display you can see a Buganda necklace under the ‘Prevention’ title. Rosco explained that this is placed around the neck of a premature baby to protect its health. The displays also included items of dress worn during ceremonies and traditional dances (see the photographs below).


Mr Nelson’s mother-tongue is Lugbara, which according to the 2014 census, is spoken by up to 1.1 million people in Uganda (https://www.ethnologue.com/country/ug/languages). He stated that he also speaks English (which he referred to at one point as ‘a political language’), and some Luganda, Swahili and Luo. Mr Nelson stated that a Lugbara word that is often spoken when people are happy is ‘awadifo’ which translates as ‘thank you’ – an expression of gratitude for fortuitous life circumstances. When asked about objects that Mr Nelson believed represented the capacity to overcome difficulties, he without hesitation responded with the Lugbara word ‘irece’ (known in other languages as calabash). The calabash is coincidentally the topic of the previous blog post. Mr Nelson has done conflict transformation work in Northern Uganda. He described the importance of the ‘Mato oput’ (forgiveness) traditional justice system of communal harmony, reconciliation and healing which was used by the Acholi people in Northern Uganda to support internally displaced people affected by the conflict between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ugandan People’s Defense Force. Mato-put involves the drinking of a bitter concoction contained in the calabash that has been made from roots. The consumption of the drink symbolizes the intention to shift the bitterness between two parties, and the perpetrator of the wrong-doing asks for forgiveness. In Lugbara, ‘Air’ has a prominent symbolic/metaphorical role in creating the correct circumstances for overcoming difficulties e.g. “Oli alari ma vu mi rua” (let good air blow). Eating together and sharing food also carries important significance for overcoming adversity – “Dri osuzu tualu” (put your hands together in one plate to eat food). “Suru ma e’yo” (meeting as a clan to discuss difficulties) was emphasized as an important platform for overcoming challenges.

It seems that a prominent story from Lugbara folklore relates to an arrow that was fired from a bow accidentally that fell to earth and killed someone. It is suggested that the misfortunes experienced by humans are a consequence of the blood being spilt by this arrow. Mr Nelson showed us a bow and arrow that the museum possesses and demonstrated how it can be fired. Historically, the misfortune an individual was experiencing could be assuaged by sacrificing a goat to satisfy the blood debt. The term “Ee ofezu dratia” is used to capture the on-going significance that this story of ‘the blood and arrow’ has for understanding adversity.


Mr Nelson shows us a bow and arrow from the museum collection.

Rituals referred to as ‘Lucou’ and ‘Mungusiza’ (which can be translated as ‘prayer’) were also highlighted as being important. Mr Nelson stated that the Lugbara word ‘opko’ is used to capture the concept of resilience. The discussion concluded with Mr Nelson highlighting the significance that traditional ‘funeral songs’ have historically served for assisting the Lugbara people to process their grief and move on. It seems that since the 1990s there has been a concerted effort from the churches to replace these traditional songs with hymns. There are concerns however that prohibiting the singing of these songs may have a detrimental effect on the grieving process.

It was great to return to Makerere University two years on from my last visit. Students busily made their way around the campus as the marabou storks circled in the sky above.



Cliodhna and Rosco at Makerere University

We had scheduled a meeting with Dr Mulumba M Bwanika, a Senior Lecturer in Humanities & Language Education, College of Education & External Studies, Makerere University, Kampala (http://cees.mak.ac.ug/users/dr-mulumba-m-bwanika). As we made our way to the office where the meeting was to take place a student crossed in front of me with the phrase “Be the salt and light in the world”. This is a paraphrasing of an extract from the Bible – Matthew 5:13-16. It served as a reminder of the important role that religion continues to play in Uganda and the comfort and guidance that people can derive from religious texts – whatever language these texts are written in. Rosco led this session and it was conducted in Luganda, which is the mother-tongue of both Rosco and Dr Mulumba. Dr Mulumba also speaks Swahili and English – he first started to learn English at the age of 5 years. Amongst the information that Dr Mulumba shared, there was mention of the ceremonial significance that the humble coffee bean can play in addressing conflict between parties – the coffee bean is broken in two and the two halves shared with the warring parties. He also stated that if in the past someone had narrowly escaped death (for example, whilst out hunting) then a hen or a cock would be killed as a substitute for the surviving human. As Cliodhna and I sat and listened to the exchange of Luganda between Rosco and Dr Mulumba, it was interesting to observe the non-verbal forms of communication; the use of hand gestures and facial expressions – it was clear that both were heavily engaged in the conversation and that they were enjoying the discussions. There were also opportunities to notice translingual occurrences i.e. the use of words that operate across different languages. Examples of such word usage that I noted during the conversation included words commonly used in English including – ‘structures’, ‘committees’, ‘months’, ‘process’ and ‘district’. In terms of important Luganda words, Mr Mulumba highlighted the following as being important for overcoming difficulties: ‘Okwerekereza’ (sacrifice), ‘Okukola ennyo’ (hardwork), ‘Okufaayo’ (commitment), and ‘Okubeera omugumu’ (be strong/courageous). A key phrase that Dr Mulumba thought captured the idea off overcoming difficulties that was translated for us was ‘Everything comes to an end’ (I was unable to note the Luganda rendering of this phrase), but we look forward to having audio recording of the interview transcribed and learning more.

After a great lunch at Makerere University Guest House (that included the Ugandan staple of matooke/plantains!), we met with a group of trainee teachers who were members of the Baganda Nkobazambogo group (that celebrates Bagandan culture; https://web.facebook.com/groups/bagandankobazambogo/)), which is a subset of the Makerere University Luganda Speakers Teacher Association (MALSTA). The 24 students (11 males and 13 females) all identified as being Muganda (the singular of Buganda) and listed Luganda as their first language. According to the 2014 census, Luganda (also referred to as Baganda or Ganda) is spoken by 5.6 million people as a first language with a further 1 million listing it as a 2nd language (https://www.ethnologue.com/country/ug/languages). This session was facilitated by Rosco and Dr Mulumba and was conducted in Luganda. The trainee teachers engaged enthusiastically with the questions that were posed about phrases, objects, poems and songs that are used to help illustrate the process of overcoming difficulties in Luganda. Fortunately for us, the trainee teachers were not shy about contributing their ideas to the discussions. A number of them sang songs, which their classmates sang, clicked, clapped and tapped along to. During his ad hoc translation of the trainee teachers’ contributions, Dr Mulumba helpfully categorized the songs into 3 categories: secular, religious and folk stories.


It was clear from the discussions that ‘Bulombolombo’ (translated as ‘rituals’) make an important contribution to managing difficulties. Ritual and ceremony has been a key feature of life in Uganda throughout the centuries. The Buganda people had established a ‘traditional religion’ (the ‘Balubaale cult’) well before the arrival of other organized religions (such as Christianity or Islam) in the country (http://www.buganda.com/eddiini.htm). This religion identified ‘Katonda’ as the father of all Gods, and attributed power to ‘Guardians’ (including ‘Mukasa’ – the Guardian of the Lake) as well as lesser spirits (including departed ancestors and spirits that inhabited aspects of the environment). Various daily rituals were prescribed to keep these spirits at bay. The trainee teachers mentioned the importance of rituals such as ‘okusamira’ (which can be translated as ‘prayer’ – and is now used to refer to Christian church services and prayer) for overcoming difficult times. Another ritual that was discussed was ‘kwalula abaana’: an initiation ceremony that uses the umbilical cord of the child, which has been retained from birth for this purpose, where the child is seated on a mat along with other members of the father’s clan to receive their clan names (http://www.everyculture.com/wc/Tajikistan-to-Zimbabwe/Baganda.html). During this ceremony the child gathers with other members of the father’s clan to receive their clan names

A recurring theme throughout the meetings that we had today was the impact that bereavement can have on communities in Uganda. There was clear consensus that when expressing emotions that the mother-tongue was preferred. Some people explained that it provides a richer vocabulary for this than English does. For formal, business and official purposes, English language was indicated to be the language of choice. It seems that a range of narratives have helped to influence phrases, songs, poems and perspectives on overcoming difficulties in Uganda. It has been a fascinating start to the visit to Uganda and we look forward to meeting with further parties in the days to come.


A message about multilingualism displayed in the Education Department, Makerere University.


A fascinating day.

Each of my blog entries will be accompanied by a contribution from Cliodhna:

‘I will be complementing Ross’s posts with my own observations as a first time visitor to Uganda. Today was thus a particularly novel and fascinating experience for me, both in terms of arriving in this beautiful country for the first time, and in the richness of the interview content. Our first stop at the Uganda National Museum was a hugely informative start to the day providing me with a brief introduction to Uganda’s history. As Roscoe didn’t speak the language of our first interviewee, Ross asked the interview questions in English and Mr. Nelson answered in a mix of English and Lugbara. This worked well from our point of view as we heard sections of stories and useful information in English, but we also gathered valuable information in Lugbara on the dictaphone. Mr. Nelson had a wealth of stories of rituals, objects, songs, and phrases significant in his culture to tell us. As he is a curator of the museum he had objects in his office to show us as examples, this really added to the experience, particularly as he seemed to especially speak Lugbara when he was handling them- as he mentioned when he discussed how he uses English and Lugbara, Lugbara is for his cultural setting. We noted significant phrases that seemed to be repeated in relation to the questions we asked and asked him to write them down at the end with translations. Mentions of grief, the church, community, and family were prominent.

Our next interview with Dr. Mulumba was a very different interview to our first one. Conducted all in Luganda, Ross and I observed their body-language and gleaned some information from Roscoe’s short translations. This was a very different dynamic, but evidently a really informative and passionate conversation for the two men who had the opportunity to discuss their shared background and culture. We had an experience of a seemingly ‘untranslatable’ phrase that both couldn’t begin to translate despite being fluent in English. It was a phrase referring ritual of a bond between two people who agreed to protect each other, described as some sort of oath/agreement/contract but they agreed that those words did not suffice to explain the depth of this ritual.

After a quick but delicious lunch at the Makerere University Guesthouse we got back to the school of education to meet a group of undergraduate teaching students. When we came to the question about songs that signified overcoming distress Ross turned to me and said it would be great if we could ask them to sing one of these songs together, but sure enough without being prompted each person who spoke on this question sang the song and the group joined in. As Ross has mentioned I observed some English words interspersed through the Luganda discourses such as ‘feeling’, ‘expressing’, ‘business’, and ‘handshake’. I noted that I would have found it extremely difficult to answer these questions on my own culture or background and it was enlightening to see how even discussing songs, rituals, and phrases brought people together and created a sense of community and joy.

Overall a great and exciting first day and I anticipate a fruitful week ahead.’


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