When I arrived at the ancient traditional religious shrine at the Tanda pits on a cool morning, it was a beehive of activity as pilgrims prayed and smoked pipes, while others chatted, cleaned or prepared meals for the day.
I paid Ushs2,000 ($0.5) for entry, and as I waited for my change and tourist receipt at the main white gate I witnessed as every newly arrived pilgrim went through the mandatory washing of hands with water mixed with herbs, at the right side of the gate.
According to my tour guide, who is one of the caretakers of the shrine, Besweri Ddamba, the Kabaka does not visit this shrine because Walumbe is for the entire Buganda and the world. Instead the Kabaka donates nine black animals, chicken and food to represent the divine of nine in the Buganda traditional religion.
The site was previously under the management of the Department of Museums and Monuments before it was recently transferred to Buganda Kingdom.
To visit the shrine, a local tourist pays $0.5 while foreigners will part with Ushs5,000 ($1.3). According to the caretakers, the shrine receives an average 20 tourists each day. The pilgrims are exempted from paying entrance fees.
“All the revenue generated here is sent to Buganda Kingdom’s treasury,” Ddamba said.
In the Buganda Kingdom, the site is regarded as the home of Walumbe, the God of Death.
There are several versions of the myth of Walumbe. The common one has it that Kintu, the first man on earth. lived alone with his only beloved cow that he depended on for milk.
The creator of all things, named Ggulu, lived in heaven with his three children, a daughter named Nambi and two sons, Walumbe and Kayikuzi.
Nambi and her two brothers would often descend to earth to play and have adventures. On one of their visits to earth, they met Kintu grazing his cow. Nambi fell in love with Kintu and they got married. Walumbe, was not pleased with the union and vowed to wreck their marriage. Ggulu did not want Walumbe to follow Kintu and Nambi back to earth.
When Nambi returned to her father’s home to collect millet for her chicken, Walumbe stealthily followed her back to earth. Legend has it that Walumbe’s arrival in Kintu’s homestead was the beginning of sickness, misery and death on earth.
Walumbe means disease and death in Luganda.
Ggulu sent Kayikuzi to earth to take Walumbe back to heaven. When Kayikuzi arrived on earth, he dug the ground in search of his brother and a fight ensued. Kayikuzi failed to capture Walumbe and the pit shifts are said to be because of their fights. The spirits of Kayikuzi and Walumbe are still believed to roam the area.
The site is covered in a dark thick forested area providing a cool atmosphere for the pilgrims throughout their stay.
“Our ancestors prefer many trees that offer a good environment for the pilgrims to rest,” Ddamba tells me as we stroll towards the shrine.
There are more than 280 pit shafts. Over time, some pits have been filled with soil due to erosion.
“After killing Nambi’s children, Walumbe dug these pits (nyanga) as he ran to hide from his brother Kayikuzi, who was under instruction from their father Ggulu to take Walumbe back home, and save Kintu’s family from further death and misery,” Ddamba says.
There several other shrines, known as embuga in Luganda, for the gods and deities, some in the form of grass-thatched houses. Others are out in the open, and contain spears, shields and calabashes, among other cultural items.
There are also several fireplaces (ebyooto) dedicated to several gods that include Mukasa, Kibuuka, Musoke, Wanema, and Bamweyana.
Followers remove their shoes as they enter the main shrine. They have come from far and wide to pray for blessings, peace in their homes, love, harmony, healing, fortune and prosperity, and for children.
The pilgrims make offerings of coffee beans, chicken, sheep, goats, cows, millet, fruits, water, and a local brew called tonto made from bananas and sorghum.
“We don’t give medicine here, and the pilgrims are not allowed to offer money to the gods. People get healed after praying to Walumbe, who reveals himself to them through dreams,” Ddamba says.
There are animal horns, bells, spears and nets surrounding a fireplace for roasting meat at the embuga ya Ddungu (god of the hunters).
“If someone dreams of sacrificing an animal, he or she can do it here for cleansing the bad omen. And when the Kabaka appreciates the work we are doing here, he will direct us to slaughter a cow or goat,” Ddamba said.
“Women are not allowed to eat chicken here. They are also not allowed to sit on chairs, wear trousers or short skirts,” Ddamba adds.
“At the embuga ya Musoke (god of rain) you drink water that is fetched from Musoke’s well that is nearby. You only come here when you have dreamt of drinking this water for blessings and sharing it with the ancestors.”
We came across women seated on mats peeling matooke, and another one pounding groundnuts in a wooden mortar. I am told that these women dreamt of preparing a meal of matooke and groundnut stew to eat and share with the ancestors.
The site is located about 45km west of Kampala on the Kampala-Mityana road. According to the Department of Antiquities and Museums, the pit shafts are sitting on a flat top. There are more than 50 pits covering 0.5 hectares, but only 12 are clearly visible. The 12 are symmetrically arranged. Their diameter is roughly one metre, and between three to 12 metres deep.
The pit shafts were excavated for the extraction of iron ore. The pit shafts in Tanda and Butiti were first noticed by E J Wayland in 1920, at the time the commissioner of geological survey.
The main shrine is a large pit shaft, known as Embuga Ettanda, where Walumbe is believed to have disappeared into the earth. It is covered with three pieces of barkcloth.
“I belong to the Nkima (monkey) clan and our role in the Buganda Kingdom is to dress the Kabaka during his coronation,” one of the pilgrims Isaac Ssekanjoko tells me.
“One day on my way to school, I heard about this traditional religion. When I came here, I found that worshipers of different beliefs converge at this shrine. I was confused about how modern religion can be combined with traditional beliefs. I am now committed to this religion, and the Kabaka of Buganda,” he added.