Demystifying Bahima’s origin, race and civilization

Bahima’s history has been shrouded in mystery for a long time. The mystery stems from John Hanning Speke who wrote in 1863 that Wahuma (Bahima) were white people, more civilized than black people or Negroes and entered Uganda from Ethiopia occupied by a ruling white race. Other Europeans added that Bahima were more intelligent with superior qualities and born to rule. Colonial explorers, missionaries and administrators like Samuel Baker, John Roscoe and Harry Johnston in Uganda shared these views (G. Prunier 1995).

Because of racial prejudices against blacks or Negroes Europeans concluded that the civilizations they found in Uganda were developed by white people. They gave credit to Bahima simply because they resemble whites physically such as sharp, narrow, pointed and long noses. Bahima have hidden their true history of precarious nomadic life and absence of material wealth to take advantage of these attributes so that they continue to dominate other Ugandans. Before attempting to demystify the myth let us understand this:

Bahima, Batutsi, Bahororo and Banyamulenge are cousins with three principal characteristics. (1) Whenever they move to a new place, they adopt local names and local languages, (2) they dominate the indigenous people and (3) their men do not marry women from other ethnic groups except from their own. They do the latter to avoid being penetrated by others so that their secrets about dominating them remain hidden. On the other hand they encourage their women (except those from the ruling class) to marry the elites from other ethnic groups so that they win the men over to Bahima side or they get access to their political and other secrets.

Let us resume our story. Bahima’s claim according to Speke that when they left Ethiopia or Abyssinia they wandered in the interior and eventually crossed the Nile into Bunyoro. In Bunyoro “… they lost their religion, forgot their language…changed their national name to Wahuma [Bahima] … [but] retain a singular traditional account of their having once been half white and half black…” (J. H. Speke 1863 & 2006). In other words the only thing Bahima could remember when they met with Speke is that they are originally white people. Do you believe this? I don’t.

Before becoming president, Yoweri Museveni was interviewed by John Nagenda. In the course of the interview Museveni is reported to have said that while the people of south Uganda are linguistically the same, they are racially different. He suggested the matter be investigated (New African March 1986 & Eric Kashambuzi 2009). And it has been.

Regarding their origin, studies have confirmed that there is no trace of any connection – cultural or otherwise – between Bahima and Ethiopians. There are however many credible sources explaining that they entered Uganda from Bahr el Ghazal in southern Sudan with long horn cattle which they still graze (Eric Kashambuzi 2008 and 2009). In fact when you look at Bahima closely they resemble the people of southern Sudan including the Dinkas. This is the first demystification.

The second demystification is about Bahima’s race. Many still insist openly but largely in subtle ways that they are white people using physical features as noted above as evidence. They also still insist that they are lighter-skinned with thinner lips and are more intelligent and therefore superior than other Ugandans and have more beautiful women as Ms. Kesaasi reminded us as recently as April 2010.

To confirm that they are actually darker and have thicker lips than Bantu (J. Hiernaux 1975) you just take a random sample and you will not fail to see who is lighter with thinner lips. About women, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and this matter should stop at that. Serological (blood) studies have also revealed that Bahima are black and not white people (J. D. Fage).

To cling to their ‘white’ origin and deny their Nilotic Luo ancestry, Bahima are arguing that they are descendants of white Bachwezi and not black Nilotic Luos adding that it is the Basoga who are Luos. But there is a problem here as well. First, Bachwezi were not white but black people (G. K. Kahangi 2003). So far it has been very difficult for Bahima to prove any connection between them and Bachwezi.

In fact B. A. Ogot, one of the distinguished and world renowned historians (he served as the general editor of the eight volumes on African history sponsored by UNESCO) has written that “… the important point to emphasize is that, according to the historical reconstruction we are outlining here, the Bachwezi were not Bahima or Luo: they were a Bantu aristocracy who emerged in western Uganda in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries” (B. A. Ogot 1999).

Put another way, other researchers have concluded that Bachwezi were an outgrowth of the established Bantu population who began placing more emphasis on herding. Chronological studies of earthen works in western Uganda show that the oldest sites were occupied by mixed farmers who specialized into cattle herding by the time they occupied the Bigo site confirming that these were Bantu people (Eric Kashambuzi 2009; G. S. Were & D. A. Wilson 1972).

However, Bahima (and their cousins) have continued to take advantage of their mystic links with semi-divine Bachwezi to maintain political hegemony over Bantu including Bairu and Bahutu (Toyin Falola 2000, Eric Kashambuzi 2009).

John Reader has added that Bahima and their cousins have clung to the myth that “… they are lighter-skinned and (it is implied) more intelligent people. This hamitic myth has a long and enduring history; indeed the notion of a separate origin for the pastoralist [Bahima] elites, and their superiority over the cultivators of the lakes region, persists to this day. The idea was reinforced by colonial regimes and since independence the elites themselves [in Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi] have seized every opportunity to perpetuate it” (J. Reader 1997).

Time has come for Bahima and their cousins to drop the idea that they are light-skinned, more intelligent and superior and born to rule because they are not. The governance of Uganda since 1986 and increasingly of Rwanda since 1994 has shed abundant light to confirm that they are not born leaders.

The third demystification is about Bahima’s superior civilization in Uganda. Because of prejudice against blacks Europeans concluded that civilization in Uganda including material culture came from outside and was brought by Bahima. This has been dismissed because Bahima’s nomadic life and standard of living marked by light clothing including cow-hide sandals and temporary grass thatched huts (G. S. Were & D. A. Wilson 1972) do not lend support to the idea of a superior civilization. J. E. G. Sutton has added that seasonal movements of pastoral people in search of pasture and water do not encourage the development of advanced material cultures or centralized systems (B. A. Ogot 1967).

That they had an inferior civilization is confirmed by the fact that they adopted local languages, names, religions and even the Bahutu title of king (Mwami) in Rwanda. Thus, Bantu had a more advanced civilization than Bahima and Batutsi when the two groups met in the lakes region.

Let us conclude with this: We all want to live together in peace, security, prosperity and dignity. Instead of focusing on ethnic differences let us turn our attention to Article II of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) which states “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”.

When these rights and freedoms are denied you begin to see resistance gaining an upper hand and that is what we are witnessing in the Great Lakes Region. It won’t go away until we accept, adopt and genuinely implement Article II just quoted above.