Tracing Uganda’s history through stories of motherhood

Thursday December 3 2015

Expanded from a PhD thesis, the book is the

Expanded from a PhD thesis, the book is the most comprehensive study of gender relations in pre-colonial Ugandan societies. PHOTO | COURTESY 


The book that is most borrowed from the Uganda Society Library is A History of African Motherhood: The Case of Uganda, 700-1900, by Rhiannon Stephens.

Expanded from a PhD thesis, the book is the most comprehensive study of gender relations in pre-colonial Ugandan societies.

First published in September 2013, the book is a fairly academic text about communities in central and eastern Uganda studied through motherhood. Rhiannon Stephens uses language to portray North Nyanza communities that speak (Buganda, Busoga, Bugwere and Bushana), from as far back as the eighth century, before what we know as Luganda and Lusoga were spoken.

With historical reconstructions of language, Stephens explores motherhood as a social institution, beyond emotional and biological roles.

In using motherhood as the lens to precolonial Africa, the book argues, we can get a broader understanding of African history.

Stephens gives a timeline of the language development of the North Nyanza groups, from the Great Lakes Bantu (around 500 CE) through early Luganda (12th century) and early Lusoga (16th century) to the final breakup in the early 19th century when Lugwere and Rushana are spoken.

For a Ugandan reader, there is another dimension to the familiarity of the words Stephens deconstructs and the customs she theorises.

For example, the word kojja is familiar to many speakers. It is used to refer to male relatives on the maternal side. Kojja is one of the new words created during the time when communities started farming.

According to Stephens, “speakers of proto-East Bantu (the great-great-great-grandparent of North Nyanza) innovated a word for maternal uncle, maadume, which had the literal meaning of ‘male mother’.”

North Nyanza speakers inherited this term but changed its meaning to refer to male in-laws. Stephens says this could be a reflection of the tensions between patrilineal descent and matrilineal ties, or just new ideas of women’s roles in marriage.

For maternal uncle, the North Nyanza speakers coined the term koiza, which Stephens relates to “a verb in Lunyoro that means ‘be greedy or gluttonous’ koija.” The maternal uncles then — perhaps more than now — enjoyed parental rights to their sisters’ children (abaiwa).

In North Nyanza communities, success in motherhood was not about the number of children one had, but if one was mother to the preferred heir; this was the case in households as well as kingdoms.

More than just language has changed over the years. Stephens also writes about the role of the queen mother and the power she wielded in the kingdom. She catalogues queen mothers whose histories are not completely known, and how they influenced their sons’ rule.

The office of the Namasole — mother to the king — was powerful; it came with an army and almost as much influence as the Kabaka’s office.

In current Buganda, the rule of the Namasole is felt less. Prince Wasajja James, who runs a blog on the Buganda Royal Family, says the current occupant of the office is Owek Margaret Nagawa. Sarah Kisonsokole, mother to Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi, passed away and there have been several heirs since her death.

The chapter on Buganda’s queen mothers, titled Contesting the Authority of Mothers in the Nineteenth Century, is the most developed chapter of the book because of the wealth of recorded history. Busoga also had a number of elites who wrote during the colonial times and offered a good ethnography. Stephens called the work written about Bugwere “adequate”.

There was almost nothing written about the Bashana, however. (In a conversation with the author, she said the Bashana number about 7,000 from an independent 2005 census).

The book ends in 1900 when the Buganda Agreement was signed. The agreement changed the political landscape, making offices like that of the Queen Mother and Sister (Lubuga) redundant.