The evidence of civilisation around the Great Lakes of East Africa dates back 5,500 years, but if we want to name names, monarchs tend to keep better records because their right to rule depends on it. So, we know that the kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara existed from the 11th century to today, surviving an attempt by Britain to dissolve it in the 19th century. It was one of the most powerful kingdoms of central-east Africa. Bunyoro-Kitara was established by the people belonging to the northern portion of the kingdom of Songora, also known as either the Empire of Kitara (the Empire of Light), the Kingdom of BuShongora, or the Chwezi Kingdom. As per oral traditions, the kingdom of Bunyoro was initially a region within the kingdom of Kitara, whose exact founding is beyond the recorded history. The foremost rulers of Kitara are said to be the Batembuzi Dynasty dating back to the 11th century. At the peak of its power in the 14th century, Kitara was ruled by a dynasty known as the Bachwezi or Chwezi. The empire of Kitara lasted till the 16th century when leadership passed to Luo people from Sudan, and a new kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara was founded under the leadership of Rukidi Mpuga, who was the first Omukama (King) of the current dynasty. Starting from 16th century, the kingdom of Bunyoro became one of the most significant and dominating hegemonies in the whole region by the start of 18th century, due to a period of continuous expansions starting in the mid of 17th century. The earlier Chwezi monarchy continued as a smaller polity within Bunyoro.
The hegemony of Bunyoro continued to flourish until about 19th century when the internal divisions and a period of instability started, and the kingdom began to lose its land. British rulers invaded the kingdom and took over its control. Omukama Kabarega was the last ruler of Bunyoro-Kitara whose rule was overthrown by the British in 1894 and afterward, the kingdom was abolished, and it was merged into British Protectorate in 1896. In 1993, the kingdom was again established based on a constitution which allows and recognizes the kingdoms. At present, the kingdom holds its autonomous status, but due to continuous instability, it is merely a skeleton of a mighty empire it used to be!
Kingdom of Kitara, 14th century
The kingdom of Kitara included the parts of modern Uganda, northern Tanzania, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Zambia, and Malawi when it was at its peak in the 14th century.
Kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara, 18th century
In the 16th century, the Kingdom of Kitara was witted away, and the kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara was founded. At its peak in the 18th century, the monarchy ruled over approximately the whole region between Lake Victoria, Lake Edward, and Lake Albert which includes the total area of present-day Western Uganda, eastern Zaire, western Kenya and some parts of northern Tanzania.
Present-day kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara
At present, Bunyoro-Kitara is a smaller kingdom area comprising of areas in mid-western Uganda. It covers an area of 18,578 square kilometers with two third of the land and one third covered by water mass. It has an estimated population of 1.4 million. The current Omukama of Bunyoro-Kitara is Solomon Iguru I. He is the 27th Omukama (king) of Bunyoro-Kitara.
The Kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara was a very prestigious, widespread and a great kingdom at the peak of its power. The region enjoys the rich history spanning over 4000 years, if oral tradition is to be believed. The kingdom of Bunyoro is a remnant from the kingdom of Kitara, when it was invaded by Luo people from Sudan in the 16th century. Before that, it is claimed that Kitara, also known by other names, was a successor state to Meroe, Napata, Kush and Aksum. When Aksum disintegrated into kingdom of Makuria, the Zagwe kingdom, the Damot kingdom and the Shewa kingdom in Northeast of Africa, another kingdom broke away in the south to form the Empire of Kitara, also known as the kingdom of Busongora or the kingdom of Chwezi.
Starting at the later date of the 11th century, as per oral history, three dynasties had ruled over the area, from the time when it was a kingdom of Kitara till present day kingdom of Bunyoro Kitara.
(i) The Batembuzi Dynasty- Pioneer rulers and inhabitants of the area.
(ii) The Bachwezi Dynasty-Rulers of Kitara at its peak in the 14th century.
(iii) The Babiito Dynasty -Rulers of Bunyoro-Kitara after the 16th century.
(i) The Batembuzi Dynasty
The first rulers of the area comprising of Bunyoro-Kitara were of the Batembuzi dynasty. The word “Batembuzi” literally means forerunners or pioneers. The Batembuzi reign is not well documented and has to be derived from oral tales and scholarly investigation. There is a very little agreement among scholars, regarding the period of Batembuzi reign in history. Even the names and successive order of individual kings are not properly documented. It is believed that their reign dates to the height of Africa’s Bronze Age. Different scholars have given a different number of individual Batembuzi rulers, ranging from a minimum of nine to maximum twenty-one.
(ii) The Bachwezi Dynasty
The Bachwezi or Chwezi are considered as successors of the Batembuzi. They are attributed to the reign of the ancient empire of Kitara at its peak. Very little is documented about them. As per researchers, there were only three Bachwezi kings whose names were Ndahura, Mulindwa, and Wamara, written in the order of the period of their reign. The Bachwezi are credited with the introduction of the unique, long-horned cattle- Ankole, coffee growing, and the first appearance of a hegemony ruled from northern Uganda.
After Luo people invaded Kitara, the power structure was re-organised, and a new kingdom was formed by the name of Bunyoro-Kitara under the leadership of Babiito dynasty.
The following monarchs are form one possible list of the reigns from the 11th century to 14th century:
1 Kogyere I Rusija-Miryango Empress] [1090-1120]
2 Kogyere II [Empress] [1120-1130]
3 Kyomya I kya Isiimbwa [1130-1140]
4 Mugarra I [1140-1150]
5 Ndahura I kya Rubumbi [1150-1160]
6 Mulindwa [1160-1170]
7 Wamara Bbala Bwigunda [1170-1200]
8 Kyomya II Rurema [1200-1210]
9 Kagoro [1210-1220]
10 Kakara-ka-Shagama [1220-1250]
11 Njunaki Kamaranga [Empress] [1250-1280]
12 Shagama-rwa-Njunaki [1280-1300]
13 Wahaiguru Rukuba-Ntondo [1300-1310]
14 Kateboha [1310-1330]
15 Nyakahuma [Queen Regnant] [1330-1375]
16 Kirobozi [1375-1400]
17 Mugarra II wa Kirobozi [1400-1420]
18 Buyonga bwa Kirobozi [1420-1430]
19 Kyomya III [1430-1460]
20 Nkome [1460-1485]
(iii) The Babiito Dynasty
The Bachwezi dynasty was followed by the Babiito dynasty of the present-day Omukama of Bunyoro-Kitara. According to researchers, the beginning of the Babiito dynasty rule in Bunyoro-Kitara was started around the time when Bunyoro was invaded by the Luo from the North. The first king of Bunyoro-Kitara was Mpuga Rukidi I, who was of Babiito dynasty. To date, there have been a total of 27 Babiito kings of Bunyoro-Kitara. The list along with the period of their reign is included as under.
Rukidi of Bunyoro – late fifteenth century/early sixteenth
Ocaki of Bunyoro – early sixteenth century
Oyo Nyiba of Bunyoro – early sixteenth century
Winyi I of Bunyoro – early sixteenth centuryOlimi I of Bunyoro- mid-sixteenth century
Nyabongo of Bunyoro – mid-sixteenth century
Winyi II of Bunyoro – late sixteenth century/early seventeenth centuryOlimi II of Bunyoro – mid-seventeenth century
Nyarwa of Bunyoro – mid-seventeenth century
Cwamali of Bunyoro – mid-seventeenth century
Masamba of Bunyoro – late seventeenth century
Anabwani I of Bunyoro, – late seventeenth century
Kyebambe I of Bunyoro – late seventeenth century
Winyi III of Bunyoro – early eighteenth century
Nyaika of Bunyoro – early eighteenth century
Kyebambe II of Bunyoro – early eighteenth century
Olimi III of Bunyoro – c. 1710-1731
Duhaga of Bunyoro – 1731- c. 1782
Olimi IV of Bunyoro – c. 1782-1786
Nyamutukura Kyebambe III of Bunyoro – 1786-1835
Nyabongo II of Bunyoro – 1835-1848
Olimi V of Bunyoro – 1848-1852
Kyebambe IV of Bunyoro – 1852-1869
Kabalega of Bunyoro – 1869-1898
Kitahimbwa of Bunyoro – 1898-1902
Duhaga II of Bunyoro – 1902-1924
Winyi IV of Bunyoro – 1925-1967
Solomon Iguru I – 1993–present
Events leading to the foundation of Bunyoro-Kitara
The Kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara emerged from the empire of Kitara which existed until the 16th century. It was also known as Bashongora, Bachwezi or Chwezi Empire. As per oral history, it was comprised of the areas around Great Lakes of East Africa. The kingdom of Kitara, at its peak during the 14th century, was ruled by Bachwezi or Chwezi dynasty who were successors of Batembuzi. Bachwezi is thought to have reigned the territory of Kitara from 10,000 BC to 1500 AD. The agricultural and linguistic evidence behind this is the ubiquity of Sorghum and continuous presence of Central Sudanic languages in northern Great Lakes area. According to the oral tales, the Kitara Empire was conquered by Luo people, who came into the region from the southern part of present-day Sudan and established the kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara in 1500 C.E under the leadership of Rukidi Mpuga.
No one exactly knows what happened to the Bachwezi after the formation of Bunyoro-Kitara. There are many legends about their disappearance. According to one story, they migrated towards the west and disappeared into Lake Mwitanzig since they were believed to have divine power. Another legend claims that they disappeared into Lake Wamala, which is named after the last king of the dynasty. A more popular belief suggests that Luo people conquered the Chwezi dynasty, who had already been weakened by numerous issues like disease and starvation and were forced to escape to distant parts of the disintegrating empire.
Established in the 16th century, the kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara reached its peak in the mid of 18th century. The empire rose to its maximum power and monitored many holiest shrines in the area. It achieved its economic by occupying the profitable saltworks of Lake Albert and by possessing the excellent metallurgy in the region. This made the kingdom as the strongest military and economic power in the Great Lakes area.
The kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara had a central system of government. The top of the leadership belonged to the King known as Omukama. The position of king was hereditary. He was considered the most vital person in the kingdom. The king was further assisted by the provincial chiefs and a council of nobles, in administrative matters. The King himself was also the commander in chief of the military forces of the empire. Armed units were stationed in every province, and the chief of the province used to be the commander of military detachment posted in his province. The Omukama was also assisted by members of the advisory council known by the name of Bajwara Nkondo (Literal meaning: Wearers of the crowns made from monkey skins). There existed a political school in the kingdom, and all the chiefs had to pass through it. Moreover, as a sign of loyalty, each provincial chief had to send his beloved son to the King’s court. Leadership was not only confined to men as there existed female rulers in history as well.
Politically, the Ruler had utter authority over his matters. He had the authority to appoint the county chiefs known as “Abamasaza” to administer each county. Each county was called a “saza”. Below them were sub-county chiefs, “Abagomborozi” who were administrators of sub-country. Under sub-country chiefs, there were parish chiefs (community chiefs) “Abemiruka” and Sub-parish chiefs “Abatongole.” At the end of the leadership pyramid, at very grass root level, there were the village chiefs “Bakuru b’emigongo.” This hierarchical arrangement was very helpful to transmit the king’s messages at the grass root very fast. Later, the office of the Prime Minister “Omuhikirwa” was established with the purpose of leading the civil service of the whole Monarchy. All county chiefs were answerable to the prime minister and he, in turn, used to report to the King.
Traditionally, the Kingdom was the provider of food to other neighboring territories. The soils of the kingdom were very fertile soils and empowered people to cultivate plenty of food not only for their home consumption but also the surplus was vented to the neighboring kingdoms. The economy of the country, therefore, was substantially based on agriculture. Crops were cultivated carried using traditionally made agriculture tools. Exchange trade was also common. The people residing along the Lake Albert were known as the Bagungu, and they were mostly fishermen. Some groups were hunters, and they used nets, spears and knives and other locally-finished tools for hunting small animals while the big animals were killed by digging deep pits. These people used to exchange fish or dried meat with other foodstuffs. The invasion of Bachwezi people from the north introduced the tradition of cattle keeping on a larger scale in the area. They used to keep long-horned cattle which could produce more milk. Salt processing was another industry, and it is still going on till date.
Arts and Crafts
The kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara was famous for producing a variety of wooden items, items made of furs and skins, palm and sisal tree items, stone and iron tools, pottery and mud made items. These items were manufactured on an economical basis and were either sold to other countries or exchanged for many other items that they needed.
Native art was very popular; some tribes considered the decorative painting of their huts or pottery as being more important, others held the carving of masks in great honor. A wide range of handicraft products was common including mats, baskets, beads, pottery, leather products, and woodcraft, etc. It has been a tradition from start to hand over craftsmanship and skills from generation to generation. This tradition seems to have diminished over time.
Culture and Language
The people of Bunyoro are known as Nyoro or Banyoro (singular: Munyoro). The language spoken is Nyoro which is also known as “Runyoro.” They are known as very soft-spoken people with a rich culture which was depicted through their family system, the events of birth and death and many other festivals like moonlight festival, new Bunyoro year festivals and similar!
The Banyoro were traditionally polygamous folks when they could pay for it. Many weddings did not last for long, and it was quite a common thing to be divorced. All families were governed by the oldest man of the household called “Nyineka,” and the overall village was run by an elected elder who was chosen by all the elders in the village. He was known as a “mukuru w’omugongo.”
A few months after a baby was born, he would be given a name by a close relative, but the father always had the final saying. Two names were given to the baby; a personal name, and a traditional “Mpako” name.
Death was always supposed to be the work of evil magic, ghosts, or alike. When a person expired, the eldest woman of the family would clean the dead body, cut the hair and beard, and close the eyes of the deceased. The body was left for viewing, and the women and children could cry/weep, but the men were not.
Decline of Bunyoro-Kitara
Due to internal problems and political instability, Bunyoro-Kitara started to decline in the late 18th century. At the end of the century, Buganda, an adjacent country, seized the regions of Kooki and Buddu, belonging to the Bunyoro-Kitara. Afterward, during the late 1830s, a large province of Toro got separated from the kingdom, taking along with most of the Kingdom’s salt works. At the same time in the south, the kingdoms of Rwanda and Ankole started to rise swiftly, taking over the control of some small kingdoms that once, had been part of Bunyoro-Kitara.
By the mid of 19th century, Bunyoro-Kitara lost its territory and became a small state, though it was still rich due to the resources which were generated by trade routes over Lake Victoria, linking it to the shore of the Indian Ocean. At that time, the economy of Kingdom was mainly based on the trade of ivory which was of very volatile nature. Due to this reason, an armed conflict developed between Buganda and the Bunyoro kingdom and with that, a long period of political instability started.
Britain used “divide and conquer” tactics to invade and colonize the area, and in July 1890, an agreement was signed, according to which, the region in the north of Lake Victoria was assigned to Great Britain. In 1894, Great Britain declared the region as its protectorate. Together with the Buganda kingdom, Omukama of Bunyoro-Kitara resisted against Great Britain, to regain control of the lost kingdom. However, the Omukama was arrested in 1899 and deported to Seychelles. Afterward, Bunyoro was occupied by the British Empire, and a portion of the kingdom’s territory was assigned to Buganda and Toro with the result that Buganda administrators took over the country.
The people of Bunyoro rebelled in 1907, but the protest was put down. During world war-I, the region remained loyal to Great Britain as its protectorate. As a reward, a new agreement was signed in, and the region regained its autonomy. From 1967 till 1993, the monarchy was abolished by the Ugandan government which was re-established in 1993. At present, the kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara is one of the five basic kingdoms of Uganda along with Buganda, Rwenzururu, Busoga, and Tooro.
“The Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom,” Bunyorokitarakingdom. <http://bunyorokitarakingdom.org>
“The Bunyoro Culture,” Ugandatravelguide. <http://www.ugandatravelguide.com>
“Bunyoro,” Encyclopedia Britannica. <https://www.britannica.com>
“The Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom,” Bunyoro-Kitara. <http://www.bunyoro-kitara.org>
“Bunyoro Kitara,” Ugandaletsgotravel. <https://www.ugandaletsgotravel.com>
A book about the kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara
John Nyakatura,” Anatomy of an African Kingdom; A history of Bunyoro-Kitara,” 1973. ISBN: 0385069669, 978-0385069663