Kasubi tomb is situated on a hill within Kampala about 5 kilometres away from the centre of Kampala on Kasubi Hill, the Kasubi Tombs site is an active religious place in the Buganda kingdom. It’s place, as the burial ground for the previous four Kabakas of Buganda, making it a very important religious centre for the royal family and Buganda kingdom at large, a place where the Kabaka and his representatives frequently carry out important rituals related to Ganda culture.
The Kasubi tombs hill is divided into three main areas: the main tomb area located at the western end of the site, an area containing buildings and graveyards located behind the tombs, and a large area on the eastern side of the site used primarily for agricultural purposes.
BujjaBukula the gate house – The entrance to the site is a beautifully built gatehouse called Bujjabukula. According to Ganda tradition, the guards who control access to the site hide behind a see-through woven reed screen, to keep watch round the clock in order to control access. This gatehouse was constructed using wooden columns supporting a thatched roof, with walls made of woven reeds. The Bujjabukula leads to a small courtyard which contains a circular house in which the royal drums are kept, the Ndoga-Obukaba.
Ndoga-obukaba, the house of royal drums – From this forecourt, one enters the main courtyard (Olugya), enclosed by a reed fence and several houses built for the widows of the Kabakas and for other ritual purposes. The entrance into this courtyard is a striking experience as one immediately faces the main tomb building known as Muzibu-Azaala-Mpanga, which is the architectural masterpiece of this ensemble.
Muzibu Azaala Mpanga – The Muzibu-Azaala-Mpanga is the main building circular in plan and has a dome-like shape. The first main building was rebuilt in 1882 by Kabaka Mutesa I as the first palace originally built by Mutesa I’s father, Kabaka Suuna II in 1820 does not exist anymore. Its massive scale can be seen in its external diameter of 31 meters and an internal height of 7.5 meters. However In March 2010, the tombs were engulfed by devastating fire that burned down the main tomb and the smaller huts that surrounded it. The royal regalia and other symbolic mediums in the main tombs were destroyed. Some structures like that housing the royal drums were safe from the fire. The cause of the fires remains unknown till date. The Commission that was set up to investigate the cause of the fires finished their work but the report has never been made available to the public. This left many speculating and pointing fingers. Some suspect it was arson while, a lightning strike or simple negligence from an individual. Because of this unfortunate incidence, the Kasubi tombs were in 2010 included in the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger.
History of the Baganda and the Kings buried at the Kasubi Tombs
To understand the cultural significance of the Kasubi tomb, we need to understand the history of the Baganda people and their kings. The Buganda Kingdom was among the most powerful in Africa before the coming of foreign settlers. The Kingdom had a rich history and civilization dating back to the early 13th Century. The Baganda belong to the Bantu group which spread all the way up to Southern Africa. Legend has it that the first King of Buganda was Kintu. He had a wife Nambi who was handed over to him after he impressed her father Ggulu (the god of the sky) with great deeds. Kintu did not die but disappeared into the Magonga forest.
After Kintu, several Kings ruled Buganda. Unfortunately, information about their time as Kings are not known. It was only during the reign of Kabaka Suuna II (1836 – 1856) that correct dates where recorded. The Kings of Buganda preferred building their palaces on top of major hills throughout the Kingdom. This was help them get a clear view of their dominion, spot approaching enemies and stop any internal rebellions. When they passed on, the tradition was to bury the Kings body in one shrine and the Jawbone in another site. It is still believed that the jawbone contained their spirit. The Baganda like most tribes in Africa believe that once someone dies, their spirit remains. The dead Kabaka would communicate to his successors through a spirit medium. When he King or a member of his house dies, a successor is chosen immediately after burial. Several rituals are performed to appease the dead Kings spirit including sacrificing animals and exchanging gifts (including money).
There are four kings buried at the Kasubi tombs include;
Mutesa I (1835 to 1884). Muteesa 1 was born around 1835 and became King in 1856. He was the 35th Kabaka of Buganda in Uganda and the first to be buried in the Kasubi tombs. He built his palace in the very spot where the Kasubi tombs are located. Mutesa was a very powerful King Muteesa with more wives than any of his predecessors. When he saw his brothers as a threat to his rule, he imprisoned them in a large trench. Many of them died in the trench living him unchallenged. The reign of Muteesa 1 occurred at a time when foreigners starting coming to East Africa in large numbers. Because of this, he became the first king to be influenced by foreign cultures. He became a Muslim after coming into contact with the Arabs who had come all the way from the East African coast to look for ivory and slaves. Mutesa 1 also showed great interest in Europeans. He hosted John Speke (the first white visitor to Buganda) in 1862 and Henry Morton Stanley in 1875. This was at a time when the scramble for Africa was setting pace. Mutesa one allowed his Christian and Muslim friends to convert his royal staff but ensured that they never threatened his authority. Mutesa 1 died in 1884 and was buried at the Kasubi tombs. Before he died, Mutesa told his subjects not to remove his jaw bone for a separate burial. In doing this, he was the first king to deviate from an ancient tradition.
Basamula Mwanga II (1867 -1903) After Mutesa’s death in 1884, his son Mwanga succeeded him. He was the last King to rule a truly independent Buganda. Mwanga became Kabaka when the influence of foreigners had grown rapidly. He saw Christianity and other foreign religions as a threat to his rule and killed many of the Muslims and Christians who had converted during his father’s regime in 1886. After this massive killing his Christian and Muslim chiefs became concerned and combined forces to remove him from power. Mwanga was forced to go into exile where he joined forces with the King of Bunyoro (Kabalega) to resist the British colonialists and get back to the throne. His attempts were futile and they were defeated and exiled in the Seychelles Island. Mwanga died in the island in 1903. By then he had become a Christian and been named Daniel. His remains where send back in 1910 and buried at the Kasubi tomb. His burial at the tombs once again broke with the ancient traditions and turned the place into and important burial ground for future kings.
Kabaka Daudi Chwa II (1896 – 1939): When Mwanga died, he was replaced by his one-year-old son Daudi Chwa in 1897. Chwa was assisted by Christian regents until he reached the age of 18. His reign was low key and he was not as powerful as the Kings before him. When Daudi Chwa died in 1939, he too was buried at the Kasubi tombs thus strengthening the reputation and importance of the tombs culturally and spiritually.
Fredrick Walugembe Muteesa II (1924 – 1969): When Daudi Chwa died, he was succeeded by his son Mutesa II. A conflict developed between the King and Sir Andrew Cohen over amendments to the Buganda Agreement of 1900. The King was exiled in England after this disagreement with the representative of the colonial government. After his return from exile in 1955, the king became the president (constitutional) of Uganda on the day of independence. Tension rose between Mutesa and the more powerful Prime Minister Milton Obote. His palace was attacked by government troops in 1966 led by Idi Amin under the orders of Milton Obote. The King escaped and fled to England where he lived in exile till his death in London 1969. In 1971, His remains were brought back and buried at the Kasubi tombs.
Attractions at the Kasubi tombs
On entering the courtyard, visitors are immediately captured by the beauty of the thick thatched roof which extends all the way down to the ground. Entrance to the Muzibu-Azaala-Mpanga is through a low, wide arch flanked on both sides by richly woven reeds. The inside is partitioned using a huge bark cloth which secludes the “sacred forest” where the four royal graves lie. Entrance to the “sacred forest” is limited to the widows of the Kabakas, the royal family, the Naalinya, and Katikkiro. The inside of the house is adorned with power insignias such as drums, spears, shields, medals, and photographs of the Kabakas buried there. The floor is covered with a thick layer of lemon grass and palm leaves mats. The whole structure is supported by gigantic straight wooden poles wrapped in bark cloth. This creates a striking impression of harmony and power.
The physical features of the Kasubi Tomb represent only a fraction of the traditional life there. The tombs and the entire site environment carry strong spiritual and social significance while the architecture itself carries meanings related to the Ganda traditions. The rich decorative features, invested with spiritual values, reflect the interaction between nature and culture, between the spirits and the living people. One example is the 52 rings of spear grass supporting the great roof. Their number relates to the fifty two Ganda clans.
The hidden part inside the great house, as stated earlier, is known as the “sacred forest” or kibira. It is a sacred area where the Kabakas spirits are believed to reside. Only the widows of the Kabakas have access to the sacred forest.
Apart from the Royal burial ceremonies, other traditional rituals are carried out throughout the year. They include among others the new moon ceremony and the consultation of the mediums. But the main spiritual life is not visible to the ordinary visitor as many ceremonies are performed secretly inside the buildings. This aspect of the Ganda tradition is well known by the population and it is still respected.
The Baganda also observe the myths concerning the origin of death. People believe that every person’s death has a spiritual origin. At Kasubi, when a King or a member of his family dies, they immediately enthrone a successor after the burial and perform rituals to appease the spirits. Animals are sacrificed and gifts of various kinds including money are deposited in the numerous shrines.
Kasubi is also visited by a wide range of Baganda medicine men and women who consult the Kings’ spirits to obtain blessings in their trade.
The thatching technique at the Kasubi tomb is quite unique and can hardly be compared to another African or European thatching technique.
The grass is prepared in conical bundles which are simply laid onto the roof structure without being tied, except for the first layers at the bottom. When one of these bundles is rotten, it can simply be pulled out and replaced. This interesting technique makes the huge maintenance task of the thatched roofs much easier.
The thatching is carried out by the members of the Ngeye clan (colobus monkey clan), who are the only people allowed to do the work. The thatching skills are passed down from the elders of the clan to younger members during an apprenticeship.
This practice is still very much alive with younger members of the clan coming up voluntarily to take on this important responsibility at the site. Special customs are observed when fixing a roof. The widows for example, are not allowed to enter the building when it is being thatched. It is believed that their presence would cause leakage. Pregnant women are also not allowed inside the building during renovation. In addition, thatchers are not supposed to have sexual intercourse during the thatching period. The same custom is observed by the decorators of the poles, who belong to the leopard clan.
Bark cloth is a fabric made from the soft bark of the fig tree (ficus natalensis), and is one of the fascinating skills of the Baganda. This bark cloth has a strong ritual importance to the people of Uganda. To make this soft and resistant fabric, the outer bark of the tree is carefully removed and then alternately soaked and beaten with a grooved wooden mallet, until the fibers become flexible. The bark then re-grows and can be harvested again a year later.
Bark cloth was traditionally popular for clothing, but today, bark cloth is rather used for craft products such as hats, mats, book covers or purses. It is also used to wrap the dead. As a matter of fact, the bark cloth is a respected item in the burial ceremonies of quite a number of communities in Uganda.
The major difficulty in terms of conservation is to keep the thatched roofs in good condition. Although the thatching skills are still well mastered, and the thatch is still available, conserving the roofs requires continuous efforts in terms of monitoring and replacement of the decayed grass. Financial resources are also needed to purchase the new thatch and pay the artisans, and funds are not always available on time.
The site is also affected by other threats. One of them is the shape of the roof, which has changed over the years. Archive photographs show that the original slopes were steeper, and this allowed for a faster drainage of the rain water. Another problem affecting the roofs is the changing climate, which cause more humidity than in the past.
How to access the Kasubi tombs
Getting to the Kasubi Tomb site takes about 15 minutes from Kampala city centre depending on the traffic jam in the city. To reach the tombs, pass along the Makerere University main gate and then join the road to Nakulabye. After the Nakulabye round about, join the Hoima road and drive for about 1 Kilometre. Turn left and climb the Kasubi Hill. After reaching the very top of the hill branch to Masiro Road and you will see the gate/entrance to the tombs. After being checked by the royal guides and filling in their details, visitors are issued a ticket. Entrance fee to the Kasubi royal tombs is about US $5 Dollars or 10,000 Uganda shillings. The fee goes into the maintenance of the tombs and paying off workers at the site. You are also assigned a local guide to take you around after paying the entrance fee.