Bakiga people


Bakiga / Kiga / Abakiga / Chiga / Omukiga

Kiga people, or Abakiga ("people of the mountains"), are a Bantu ethnic group of northern Rwanda and southern Uganda. The Kiga speak a Bantu language called Rukiga.They are sometimes referred to as the Chiga or Kiga, while the singular form is Omukiga. Additionally, a large number of Bakiga were still living in Rwanda at the time of European colonization. An Anglo-German Agreement signed in Brussels on 14 May 1910, modified part of the boundary between British and German territories initially established as the parallel of one degree south latitude by the treaty of 1890. Modified were the sectors between the Congo tripoint and the junction of the Kakitumba and Kagera, comprising the present Rwanda-Uganda boundary, and between the junction and the second crossing of the parallel of one degree south latitude by the Kagera, comprising the western segment of the present Tanzania-Uganda boundary. Details of the final delimitation and demarcation of the Rwanda-Uganda boundary between the Congo tripoint of Sabinio and the southwestern branch (Lubirizi) of the Tshinzinga (Muvogero) are given in an Anglo-German Protocol signed at Kamwezi on 30 October 1911. Therefore, many Bakiga became Ugandans by de facto in 1911 when the current international boundaries of Uganda were formally finalized.



The Bakiga inhabit Kabale and part of Rukungiri districts. They occupy the counties of Ndorwa, Rubanda, Rukigain Kabale and parts of Kinkizi and Rubando counties in Rukungiri districts. Due to overpopulation, the Bakiga have been migrating to other parts of Uganda especially t Kabarole, Rukungiri, Kasese, Hoima, Masindi and Mubende districts; and Rwampara, Ruhuma and Ibanda counties of Mbarara district. They have also settled in Masaka and Rakai districts. They are a physically strong people. They speak Rukiga, a Bantu language.



The actual origins of the Bakiga are hidden in varying traditions. Some say that the Bakiga originally lived in Karagwe having migrated from Bunyoro during the Luo Invasion. They are associated with the Banyambo of Tanzania. Another tradition which seems more sensible says that the cradle of the Bakiga was in Buganza in Rwanda. They migrated from Buganza in search of fertile land and to escape natural harzards due to internal political conflicts.

From Rwanda, the Bakiga are said to have migrated to Bwisa, to Bugoyi, then to Rutchru, all in Zaire, and they finally settled in Kigezi. Since the Bakiga are Bantu speakers, this tradition could be true. What may equally be true id that the Bakiga were part of the Bantu speakers who migrated from the Congo region, through Bunyoro, Karagwe, Rwanda and eastern Zaire to finally settle in Kigezi. What has not yet been established are the exact dates when they settled in each of the areas en route to Kigezi.


Social set-up

The Bakiga were organized into clans the biggest of which was Basiga clan. Each clan was composed if several lineages and each lineage had ahead, Omukuru w’omuryango. A man was not allowed to marry from his clan.



The male children could divide their fathers estate amongst themselves. It was normal for fathers to give some land to their daughters upon marriage as part of the assets (emihingizo) to accompany the daughtesr to their new married lives. This used to act as an asset start up (entandikwa) for the new family particularly when the boys' parents asset base was so lacking. At other times when the girls father either had fewer boys or had land in abundance.



A mukiga homestead consisted of a main house or hut, a kitchen, a kraal, sanitation facilities and a series of grannaries. All these were enclosed in a strong fence made up of mainly thorny plants like emikwatangwe (plants that restrain leopards). The fence was meant to offer protection against wild animals on livestock, thieves and enemies.



Marriage was a very important cultural institution among the Bakiga. Traditionally, no marriage could be honored without the payment of bride wealth. In the past, a marriage could be arranged by the boy’s father or uncle on the boy’s behalf. The final arrangements could only be made after the payment of bride wealth. The bride was normally paid by the boy’s father. It involved cows, goats and hoes. The amount paid differed from group to group and from family to family within each group. It is said that it was taboo to sell any animals given as bridewealth.Such animals could be used to obtain wives for the girl’s brothers or father.

The Bakiga are a very polygamous society; the number of wives was only limited by the availability of land and bride wealth obligations.

The Bride wealth paid on a girl was shared among the girl’s principal relatives. Of the relatives the most important were Nyinarimi (maternal uncle) and ishenkazi (paternal aunt). If one of them went away dissatisfied, so they said, he could render the girl barren or cause her to have incessant ill- health by inciting the wrath of the ancestors.

Boys tended to marry at a slightly late age, between eighteen and twenty years, while girls could be marred off between fourteen and sixteen years of age. The normal trend was for girls from richer families to get married later than girls from poorer families. Before marriage, a girl wield spend a month or so in seclusion. During this period, she would be well fed and instructed in the art of home management.



Divorce was a common phenomenon among the Bakiga. The common causes were barrenness and laziness on the part of the wife or the husband. Some other matters of misunderstanding between a husband and a wife could also lead to divorce. A divorce was allowed to remarry but she would fetch less bride wealth this time as she would no longer be a virgin. The majority of the would-be instances of divorce were settled by the elders. They would normally be called by the woman’s father to listen to both the husband and the wife and try to have the two sides reach an amicable conclusion that would prevent divorce. In such cases, it was normal to fine the offending party. Fighting in the home between husbands and wives was frequent, but would not normally lead to divorce.



The Bakiga believed in a supreme being Ruhanga or Kazooba Nyamuhanga; the Creator of all things earthly and heavenly. God is also known through many attributes. As the supreme elder and the ruler of the universe, he is called Mukama. When associated with the power of the sun, he is Kazooba-Nyamuhanga. In his aspect as the one who makes things grow, he is called Biheeko.

At a lower level they believed in the cult of Nyabingi ( the spirit of a much respected rain-maker). The Nyabingi cult was said to have originated from Karagwe. It had its base at Kagarama, near Lake Bunyonyi.  There were special shrines for Nyabingi known as endaro. Through Nyamingi’s representatives known as Abagirwa people would worship and tender sacrifices of beer and roasted meat to Nyamingi. The Nyabingi cult believed that their god was able to make them win wars and give them courage and strength in the agitation against colonialism, some believed that Emandwa would defend them against bad spirits, and other gods were for bumper harvests, good luck and others.

Many Bakiga with the influence of Christianity adopted 'theo-phoric' names. These names are eschatological (Turya-guma-nawe) meaning we will be with God for ever.

Nowadays most Bakiga are Christians (Muslims are few) and starkly divided into Catholics and Protestants, a division which strongly polarizes communities. One's religion can determine professional prospects and religious preferences heavily influence local political elections.


The dressing code

Men used to dress in one cow hide or two if they were rich. The skin hung from the shoulder, covering private parts. A man would belt himself for a fight or a dance, while for clearing land one would put it aside and carry out his work without skin and put it on again after finishing his activity. Women used to wear skirts made from several skins and a top. A skin garment covered the torso. The women garments for Special occasions were designed and decorated with ringlets and beads through tiny holes bored along the edges of the skin (Ebishato). Both wealthy men and women would have additional decorational ornaments for the legs and the hands,"The Enyerere and Emiringa"


Parenthood preparation

 Boys were coached by their fathers and uncles through the men routine. Such included herding cattle, clearing the bushes in preparation for cultivation, hunting, splitting firewood, building houses and others. For mothers to be, Virginity was very important. If an unmarried girl got pregnant, she would be taken to a forest, tied to a tree, and left to the mercy of animals.

Alternatively, she would be thrown over a cliff. Hamuhonga at the boundary of Rwamucucu and Kashambya, Kisizi Falls were some of the areas used for this purpose. At Lake Bunyonyi, a special island was used for dumping these unfortunate girls. From here some were salvaged to become second wives or to be wives of some men with limited means of survival usually unable to raise dowery. A marriage needed to be preceded by a payment of bride wealth, which meant cows, goats, and hoes. If a man had enough of these and plenty of land, he could get as many wives as desired: polygamy was a norm (Turyahikayo-Rugyema,Edel). For instance, one of the remnants of the royal clan of the Abungura, Umwami Katamujuna, had ten wives, though, at the coming of Christianity he had to compromise seven of them. A muhimba Rubango of Ibumba is estimated to have had thirteen wives.


Conflict resolution

In settling disputes the elderly members of a clan the abakuru b’emiryango (Ngorogoza). Clansmen elected a lineage head on the criteria of character (truthful, brave, a war-leader) and power (a rich man, a medicine man, or a priest). Different lineage heads would gather and publicly discuss potential issues of wider concern. What lineage heads did not solve together could result in fighting between groups. The Bakiga were natural born-warriors.


Medical Practice

The Bakiga had very wonderful ways of promoting good health. Some were preventive, corrective while others were curative. The common preventive measures were ample feeding and okushandaga (innoculation/administration of drugs through a skin incision). While good feeding ensured strength and vigor, Okushandaga was meant to confer immunity against a wide range of diseases including protecting a person from being charmed or struck by thunder. Surgery was a wide applied practice ranging from simple to the most complicated surgery as that of the brain for those whose sculls could crack during wars or mere accidents. There were living examples of the people who had undergone surgery survived until they died of old age in my village of Ibumba. There were two ladies who during their youth had been speared and the intestines gashed out. The doctors of the day trimmed and sterilized (Okwotera) small calabashes, carefully stacked the intestines taking care not to strangulate them and pressed them back into their abdominal cavities. One of the ladies was a mother to Rwakabuga a musigyi of Nyakafura village and a church catechist, the other was a wife to Mpigika, son of Nturanabo the son of Mwate the son of Mbumburi of Macumu. Headache was surgically treated by puncturing one of the blood vessels on the facial area above the ear on which a small well trimmed sterilized gourd (engunga) would be stuck by the suction pressure resulting from the vacuum created by the expulsion of air by heat. Excessive bad blood causing headache would sucked into this vessel. Most of the curative drugs were derived from the herbs that treated awide range of diseases. Remedies for poison were selectively and commonly administered (Okutanasya/vomiting in order to expel the ingested poison). They even had an antidote for excessive vomiting induced by such medications. Babies born prematurely could be incubated using millet bran until they could mature. Cuts would be treated with enyabarashana/Bidens pilosae which could effectively arrest the bleeding. Urinaly omplications/Enzibe/possibly prostate cancer would effectively be treated with preparations from the Stinging nestle/ Ekicuriganyi. Bruises and fractures were treated/okumunga either in the presence or absence of the patient as long as the area of the fracture was known. Stories of love portions were rife especially in polygamous settings to attract the close attention of the husband from other wives and women. A critical examination of the bakiga medical practice could form a very vital foundation for relevant reliable basic medical care solutions.


Music / Dance

The form of dance for the Bakiga is called the Ekizino. Ekizino is a royal dance from the Bakiga people of Kigezi, which is known as "Switzerland of Africa" because of its weather and landscape similar to most European countries. Temperatures at night readily drop to 4°C - 10°C. Livestock are traditionally kept indoors, often under a raised wooden pole bed, to generate heat to keep the family members warm.

During colder months, Ekizino is the warm-up dance. Since Kigezi is a hilly region, the men who go out farming early in the morning cold must jump around for a while to get warm, and also to stretch their muscles after work. Traditionally, the people also used to stamp the ground until they found signs of water. Therefore, this very vigorous dance represents their jumping, stamping and is meant to demonstrate stamina and strength. Women participant in this vigorous dance along as well, with a more elegant display of their arms.



The Bakiga were basically agriculturalists growing mainly sorgum, peas, millet, and beans. They also reared some cattle, sheep and goats. Among them were excellent iron- smiths who made hoes, knives, and spears. They were great porters and produced a wide assortment of pottery. Besides, they made a wide range of carpentry object baskets and mats and they reared bees and produce honey.

The Bakiga lived and worked communally. Most economic activities were dome on a communal basis. Grazing, bush clearing, cultivation and harvesting were done communally. The men cleared the bush while the women tiled the land. Men worked together to erect round, grass-thatched huts for shelter. They practiced barter trade amongst themselves and between their neighbors.

The stable foods of Bakiga were sorghum, beans and peas. They supplemented them with pumpkins, yams, meat and a variety of green vegetables.Sufficent food was prepared so that every one could ear his fill. It was considered goof manners to join in whenever one found a given family at a meal. One would just wash one’s hands and join the others without waiting to be invited. If a man had more than one wife, all his women had to serve him at each meal. He could ear the most delicious share of the food among the lot, or all of it if he so wished.

The Bakiga made beer, omuramba, played a significant social role. It had a food component and was an alcoholic drink necessary for social gatherings.Omuramba was normally taken from a pot placed in a convenient place. The men would sit on wooden stools surrounding it and by means of long tubes; they would drink as they discussed matters affecting their country. The elders would also settle disputes, recite their heroic deeds and their history, and sing and dance around a pot of omuramba.

The Bakiga were and still are very good zither (enanga) players. They played it alone or in groups.



The Bakiga‘s domestic utensils included baskets, pots, wnnowingtrays, stools, grindingstones, woodenpestles, mortars and mingling ladles. The other household items were drums and harps for entertainment; spears, bows and arrows for defense and hunting; grassmats (ebirago) for sleeping on and emishambi for sitting on. Previously the Bakiga women dressed in cow hides known as ebisahto or enkanda. They wore bangles on their legs and arms.


Political set-up

The Bakiga were a segmentary society. Political authority rested in the hands of lineage leaders, Abakuru b’emiryango, many of whom had excellent oratory as well as military skills. They were supposed to be impartial in administering justice. Some leaders such as Basubi emerged to prominence because they had mystical skills. They were rain makers. Others were Baigirwa, the mediums of Nyabingi cult.

The Bakiga were warlike. They resisted the Batutsi and Bahima incursions. As a politically segmented society, they did not have a standing army. However, they had warlords who would mobilize and lead the people to war in the event of invasion. The warlords were men who had killed a large number of enemies in wars without losing any of their men or weapons. Every able-bodied male was culturally obliged to be a soldier.


Judicial systems

The Bakiga abhorred anti-social activities and if any one was caught he was heavily punished. Such activities included stealing, blocking paths, murder, sorcery and night dancing. In the case of murder for example, the murderer was buried alive in the same grave with the victim. Virginity was highly esteemed and it was a very serous offence for a girl to get pregnant before marriage. If an unmarried girl became pregnant, she would either be taken to a forest and tied to a tree feet and arms and town over a cliff. Most pregnant girls among the Bakiga were taken to the Kisizi falls in Ndorwa and thrown down the cliff. They would drown in the falls. The lucky ones were simply cursed and disowned by their people.


History / Origin

Pre-colonial period

The actual origins of the Bakiga are hidden in varying traditions. One school of thought claimed that the Bakiga originally lived in Karagwe having migrated from Bunyoro during the Luo Invasion. They are associated with the Banyambo of Tanzania.

Another tradition which claim seems to be based on empirical evidence also aver that the cradle of the Bakiga was in Buganza in Rwanda. Mentioned in one of their folk songs - Abakiga twena tukaruga Rwanda, omu Byumba na Ruhenjere, - meaning that all of us Bakiga, we came from Rwanda in Byumba and Ruhenjere (called Ruhengeri in Rwanda). Both Byumba and Ruhengeri are Rwandan cities. The Bakiga are believed to be the descendants of Kashyiga, who came to be called Kakiga son of Mbogo from the small Kingdom of Bumbogo in Rwanda later. He came to form the present community of the Bakiga of Kigyezi or Kigezi as a result of Immigration. So Bakiga migrated from Buganza in search of fertile land and to escape natural harzards due to internal political conflicts.

From Rwanda, the Bakiga are said to have migrated to Bwisa, to Bugoyi, then to Rutchru, all in Zaire, and they finally settled in Kigezi. Since the Bakiga are Bantu speakers, this tradition could be true. What may equally be true id that the Bakiga were part of the Bantu speakers who migrated from the Congo region, through Bunyoro, Karagwe, Rwanda and eastern Zaire to finally settle in Kigezi. What has not yet been established are the exact dates when they settled in each of the areas en route to Kigezi.

Before the year 1700 A.D., Rwanda is believed to have been occupied by the Twa people, and then was later on occupied by the second immigration of the Hutu people, and the third was the Tutsi. Rwanda was organised in small states and chiefdoms but under one ruler called the Mwami. Originally, he was also known as Omukama. Among the Bakiga, the ruling person was therefore named Mukama, equivalent to Mwami in other parts of Rwanda.
Originally, the name Mukama was not a name, but rather the title of a Ruler. But later on it came to be recognised as a name, implying to one ruling man. In the Bakiga culture, the name was later attributed to God as Lord. Among the Bakiga, the name Mukama is not a female name. There are not many Bakiga called by the name Mukama. It is a name that was reserved to be used in the family of the ruling clan, the Bamuhutu, who possess the inheritance powers. If there is any person bearing the name Mukama, he must be a Bamuhutu, specifically a Mungura/Mwitira, or belong to the royal clan of the Bamuhutu. Not even in Rwanda among the Tutsi who took over the Kingdom after Mbogo had been defeated, did they dare to use the name Mukama because it signified a more fundamental power than they had assumed. Similar names could be like Byamukama, Kyomukama, Womukama, Kamukama, Bainomukama and so on. Therefore, the title for the King in Rwanda remained Mwami (Omwami), whereas in the Rukiga (the Kiga Kingdom) they continued to use the title Mukama (Omukama).


Kiga Kindgom

 Kakiga was responsible for the formation of the Kiga Kingdom, its clans and sub-clans, and all the direct descents of his children. Each clan was identified by a totem and also by what they were forbidden from eating. For example, the Ba-Mungwe’s totem was the bushbuck and they were prohibited from hunting it for food. All these measures were intended for the protection, sustenance, and well-being of the clans as they were not competing for the same food. There are many clans and sub-clans in the Kiga tribe, but the major ones are: Ba-Mungura (the Royal Clan in which the Mukama was supposed to be born), Ba-Musigi (the clan that was supposed to keep the defence of the King or the Mukama), Ba-Mungwe, Ba-Kinyagiro, Ba-Mugiri, Ba-Muhutu, Ba-Mugera, and Ba-Mugyesera, Ba-Mugyeyo. Each of these clans has sub-clans.

The Abukuru b-ekika was a committee of elders chosen by the clan to issue rules and administer justice. If a case was particularly serious and involved more than one clan, the cases would be heard publicly. An Omukuru, ideally a wise elder who knew the customs and traditions of his people, and who could be trusted to give fair advice and justice, was elected to preside over this expanded court.

Kakiga, the son of Mbogo from the state of Bumbogo and of the Abahitira (Abungura) clan, made his move towards the west and settled in the forests of Kagarama, the mountains of the present border of Rwanda and Uganda in Kigezi district. In around 1700, Kakiga established his own community and wished to initiate a new Kingdom, but wanted to go back to fight the Nyoro invaders, first. Kakiga found out that the new land was very fertile and had good grass for the cattle. Together with his friends, they made a deal to stay. These became a new group of people called the Abakiga or Bakiga.
As time went on, the population grew and Kakiga wanted to expand his localities. He started sending groups to search and conquer. He sent the first group towards the east in the parts of Karweru, where the group of the Abasigi was supposed to conquer. This group was under the leadership of Rwandeme. This was believed to be the strongest group that was to fight the forces of Ankore. Unfortunately, Rwandeme lost the Royal drum. Since the Kingdom could not stand without a drum, Rwandeme never dared to return to Kagarama. He remained in the mountains of Karweru and his group intermarried with the Ankore people. This explains why most of the Abasigi are found in these parts of the region. It also gives the reason to why there are many different accents, intonations, and spellings in the Rukiga language.

Out of anger at his father, Mbogo, Kakiga ordered obligatory circumcision of all male children. Many did not support this, but he maintained that every Mungura shall have to be circumcised, and that Kings must be circumcised too. This is why the Abungura is the only clan in the entire Kiga tribe that undergoes circumcision. The circumcision was to be taken at the eleventh (11) age. The rest of the Bakiga do not circumcise under cultural obligation. But these days, some take it for other reasons, but not because they have to. Kakiga also left the Kiga legacy of the system of naming. The Kiga people take the family name after their grand father, or after their father has died. That is why, it is very hard to trace the lineage of the Bakiga through family names. But among different clans, they still hold the norm of the founding father. For instance, Mbogo could be the son of Rwambogo. But in like a seventh generation, Mubangizi could be the son of Mubanga. All in all, the same names would be revolving around in the same family. But nowadays, many educated Bakiga find it useful to use their parent names, even if they are still alive. Even the Royal clan does it. This separation and rebellion will mark the complexity of the Kiga community, letting it look as though she never had a political system.

The major factors that led to the failure of the formation of the Kiga kingdom to the fullest were, mostly, a lack of trust and fear of Kakiga, the lack of a military strong enough for a successful invasion, the sudden prosper and discovery of fertile lands. Kakiga, though he lost the royal drum, he continued to be strong. He sent another group to attack further in the north. This was the group of the Abaromba and the Abahimba. These diffused to most parts of Muko, Rubanda, and Kihihi. Other groups went to Kakore and Mparo, and proceeded to Nyakishenyi and Nyarushanje. We still find a mixture of Ankore and Kinyarwanda accents and intonations in these areas. Kakiga attempted to make another drum, but he could not get testicles of brave enemies to decorate it. He only made declarations that his sons and daughters should not marry any foreigner, because he believed that the pure King should be from Rwanda.

He made his shield out of cattle skin. He promoted agriculture and his tools were mainly the panga, the spear, and the hoe. He enjoyed wrestling, dancing, hunting and keeping cattle. The most common figures of the few known Bungura Royals include: Muhanga (Mubanga), Rwabutare, Kamboji, Kabogo, Katumba, Katamujuna, Kahigyi, Bakunzi, Mbogo, Rwakasole, Mungura, Rwambogo. The Abungura, though few as they may be, are still the recognized Royal clan of the Kiga tribe and most of them live in outskirts of Kabale town, and still enjoy their hereditary wealth. They are not wealthy in the strict sense of the word. They are renowned for their love for research and education. The Bungura were also known for their tough leadership, and at times, they are referred to as arrogant, and aggressive.

There has been a variety of experiences in the life of the Bakiga, such as interactions with other Kingdoms, religions, and many other cultures. The bakiga are very hospitable and enjoy the privilege of having a mixed language. Rukiga, as a language, is a combination of the influence of the accents and alphabets from Rwanda, Ankore, Toro, Bufumbira, and Swahili.

While the Bakiga would later be classified as Hutu, originally they considered themselves an entirely separate people. In modern Rwanda, the Hutus of southern Rwanda are called Banyanduga, while the Hutus in the northern Rwanda are collectively referred to as Bakiga.


Colonial Period

The Bakiga communities defended their independence until the collaboration of German colonial forces and the royal troops of the Mwami or Mukama succeeded in incorporating the region into the Rwandan colonial state at the turn of the twentieth century. The region remained a hotbed of discontent against the central authority for many years. One of the strongest influences upon the character of the Bakiga was the anti-centrist cult of Nyabingi.
After the death of the Rwandan King, Kigeri IV Rwabugiri in 1895, one of his wives called Muhumuza fled to the mountains of Kiga and proclaimed an anti-colonial rebellion in 1911. She was captured the same year and her resistance taken up by Ndungutse, generally recognized as the son of Muhumuza and Rwabugiri. Ndungutse was killed, though sporadic rebellions sprang up until the advent of Belgian rule after World War I. The conditions for these rebellions were created by the system of forced labor tribute (ubareetwa) imposed on the Bakiga by their new colonial masters. P.T.W. Baxter noted that, "The proud boast of the Kiga is that they were never, as a people, subjugated by either Tutsi or Hima." However, this resistance was, paradoxically, in large part led or inspired by disaffected members of the Tutsi elite.

The Bakiga became one of two major forces, along with the hill-level tensions of Hutu peasants and Tutsi chiefs, in the formation of "Social Revolution" of 1959. In the pre-colonial system, land usage was controlled by chiefs who owned land (bakonde) or controlled access to it (bagererwa). With the onset of colonial rule, these chiefs were technically replaced by southern Tutsi and Bakiga who agreed to work for them. However, the old order was never entirely erased, resulting in tensions between the two. While the older bakonde yearned for a return to their old status, younger generations of bakonde were able to merge their claims into that of the anti-colonial/Tutsi revolutionary movement.


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