One man’s bid to preserve the dying cultures of East Africa

Monday April 4 2011


As he takes us around his community museum, he expresses disappointment that some of his collections are not on display because of lack of space.

“These items are not supposed to be as squeezed as they are now,” says Godfrey Kawere, the brains behind the Kawere African Museum in Nsangi, on Masaka Road, 19km west of Kampala.

He adds: “My wish is to have my own building to explore adequately my ideas on art.”

Kawere displays a collection of art-pieces, newspaper cuttings and photographs depicting the political history and culture of Uganda, Africa and the world.

He has been collecting artefacts for the past 15 years and is optimistic that he will soon have more space to expand his collection.

“I fund the museum and the collection myself, and it’s not easy, what with equally pressing domestic and financial needs! It’s also a time-consuming pursuit. At times I pay the sources of information, too,” he says.


Kawere is researching on Uganda’s past and contemporary lifestyle, including traditional forms of architecture and homes.

Architectural forms in his display include Kiteeteeyi, Mwamba, Kisuwa and Busitoowa homes, which still exist in the country today.

The Kawere African Museum has a political section on Uganda’s politics, covering pre- and- post independence developments and the key personalities.

It includes history notes, pictures of colonial governors and commissioners, past presidents, cabinets, flags and the evolution of money.

Also included is a history of Kampala — with its mayors, buildings and streets — as well as people who have made positive contributions to sport, health and other fields.

The Kawere African Museum has a section on Uganda’s cultural traditions.

The section has sizable material on kings, their coronation, the Ganda political system, characteristics of different kingdoms, historical scenes and sites in Bunyoro kingdom, chiefs, totems, basketry, music instruments, various methods of making drums, bark cloth and beer, plus traditional dressing and fashion.

Circumcision ceremony

There is also a vivid display of a Gisu circumcision ceremony and a collection of old calendars.

Kawere laments the current swapping of traditional items for modern ones.

He says: “The water pot (ensuwa) is being replaced with jerry cans; the cooking pot (entamu) and the sauce pot (ensaka) with sauce pans; and plates (ekibya) with plastic and melamine utensils. The water container (ensumbi) is giving way to glass and plastic; while smoking pipes (emindi) are being replaced with wooden and metallic pipes,” he says.

Long before Christianity was introduced to Africa, Ugandans believed in a loving Supreme Being. Christianity, therefore, found fertile ground in the country, with similar values and standards, as well as instruments used in worship.

At the Centre of African Christian Studies Museum (Cacisa), on Bbunga Hill in Kampala, one will find materials that depict African values, indigenous wisdom and cultural heritage that have been “inculturated” to promote the integration of Christian and African values.

“We collect artefacts used by our forefathers and compare their religious beliefs with those of Christianity. We intend to visit all ethnic groups in the country soon,” says Monica Mutesi, the Cacisa projects manager.

Mutesi then demonstrates the use of Kakwa spiritual items (soina mata) made of python, animal skins and wood. The Kakwa live in northern Uganda.

They also use the teeth and fat of the python to treat various diseases, such as cancer, appendicitis and ulcers.

Jaws of pythons are placed at kraal entrances to help goats and sheep multiply and increase the owners’ wealth. The jaws are used to ward off evil spirits, sorcerers and witches.

At Cacisa, one can find the Acholi Sacred Pot (abino) and the Spirits’ Fire Place (kotamisambwa) of the Basoga, among other ceremonial artefacts.

Cacisa also houses domestic and garden tools, different kinds of smoking pipes, storage gourds, drinking utensils (endeku), drinking vessels (olwendo) of the Busoga, medicinal bowls, microscopes (ekirumiko) of Tooro kingdom, traditional livestock items and furniture.

There are cultural music instruments, shields, bee apiary (omuzinga) of the Buganda, grinding stones (orubengo), a bridal pot (rukomyo) from Kigezi, ancestral beads (amatembo) from Buganda and a stretcher.

Other artifacts at the Cacisa museum include ancestral rosaries (ensimbi enganda) from Buganda, an Acholi whistle (bila) and clogs known as omukala banda in Buganda.

There is a mortar (ensekuro) from Tooro kingdom, basketry, and leisure items, fishing baskets, homestead baskets, harvesting items, winnowing baskets and milking utensils.

Kawere says lack of funding is the major challenge facing community museums in Uganda.

“As a result, very few community museums own the premises they are on. For example, I need money to publicise this museum and to address the issues of accessibility and space,” he says.

“Gathering artefacts is costly. The public thinks we sell the collection, so they either ask for a lot of money or needlessly hold on to an item, rather than give it out for free. Sometimes we pay for the information as well,” Mutesi says.

Holding a ceremonial gourd from western Uganda, Mutesi adds, “We move from home to home in the countryside looking for artefacts. The space is currently enough because our items are not many.

“We have a problem of accessibility, as some people think it is a residential house. Even then, the public does not want to pay — so it is still free entry at the moment. Publicity on the museum is also lacking.”

“The future of community museums in Uganda seems to rest on non-rent premises. For instance, when the museums receive a few tourists, they don’t feel the pinch of paying rent. In my case, I will liaise with tour companies to bring tourists to this museum on a commission basis,” Kawere says.

“We see a bright future, with more community museums coming up. We wish our association was registered so that it can promote our existence,” Mutesi says.

Kawere is confident that his efforts are contributing to the development of Uganda.

“After my diploma in fine art and design at Kyambogo University, I settled on a community museum as a tourist attraction to compliment the game parks and natural gifts Uganda has been blessed with. My approach is different because I concentrate on history.”

Meanwhile, there is growing interest among the different communities in Uganda to collect and safeguard their cultural heritage.

These efforts are supported by the National Museum of Uganda, in Kampala, and Unesco.

In 2008, the Cross Cultural Foundation of Uganda (CCFU) undertook, with financial support from Unesco Nairobi, a mapping activity to identify existing and potential community museums. The National Museum of Uganda helped in identifying tangible and intangible heritage.

Vibrant initiatives

According to CCFU, which visited 54 initiatives on community museums, 13 can be considered as established and vibrant, while 10 are either dormant or with potential for development. The number of active museums has since risen to 21.

Three of these — Butambala Heritage Centre of Civilisation, Edrisa museum in Kabale district, and the Kabalega Development Foundation Museum in western Uganda — stand out.

Butambala centre is in Mpigi district, the home of the Akasimba clan. The clan is the official ironsmith of the Kabaka (king) of Buganda.

One can see the Akasimba blacksmiths in action at the centre, heating and shaping iron to make farming tools, home utensils and spears.

Edrisa museum (the window) was started by retired teacher Festo Karwemera.

He has a unique replica of the traditional Kiga homestead, complete with a shrine, interior fittings and furniture.

The Kabalega Development Foundation Museum, in Hoima town in western Uganda, has a wide array of spears, crowns, dress and furniture of the kings of Bunyoro-Kitara kingdom.

The king’s stool has nine legs, compared with three legs on ordinary stools. One will learn a lot here on the history of the Banyoro and the king.

According to CCFU, tourists flock to Uganda for its tropical climate, beautiful landscape and fascinating sights and sounds.

These attractions are augmented by the nation’s cultural and historical environment.

In May 2010, community museums in Uganda held their first exhibition at the Uganda National Culture Centre in Kampala where they displayed diverse cultural items from various communities.

The Discovering Community Museums in Uganda exhibited unique cultural items from all over the country.

In a statement presented to the Minister for Tourism, wildlife and antiquities, community museums called for support through funding, tax waivers (as they are non-profit-making entities), and capacity building for community development officers and museum initiators.

The museums also formed the Uganda Community Museums Association to boost their contribution to national development and to collectively appeal for recognition and support from the government as partners in preservation of cultural heritage, education and job creation.