They called it Kaaro Karungi – the beautiful land.


At Kabura and Nyansheko, they marvelled at the horns of the strawberry beast of Rwakitungu, She Whose Horns Are Not Stunted.

The warriors of the Bahima people spent their evenings reciting poetry – which reminds me of the sentiment expressed by a hard-drinking man in a Colorado bar when I asked him about the sign I had seen advertising a ‘Cowboy Poetry Evening’. Swaying a little in his spurs, he said, ‘Huh! I don’t call them men.’

It would be quite wrong however to view the Bahima men as an amateur poetry group. Their poetry was as much a part of their life as bleeding the cattle and was in the same tradition as other epic heroic literature such as the Homer’s Iliad or the Irish The Cattle-raid of Cooley. Their recitations were poetic boasts of prowess in battle and of the magnificence of their cows.

Heroic recitations followed strict rules of syntax and delivery that every male member of the clan was expected to learn. Objects such as spears were given ceremonial names and the skill of the omwevugi (composer) was to come up with a metaphor or alternative noun that was new, but which fitted the rhythm of the recitation. For instance the omwevugi might refer to a spear as enyarwanda. Ente enyarwanda is the name of a breed of cattle with particularly long spear-like horns; or he might have said amashongorwa-nyondo meaning those which have been beaten out on an anvil.

The warriors were given praise names such as Rutatiina-byoma-biiragura: He Who Does Not Fear Black Steel, and Rutashooba Runyabyoma: He Who Moves Quickly. The cattle had their own names based on their colour or the shape of their horns, but they also had praise names, such as Rutunguuta: She Whose Horns Stand Out Above The Herd.

While skirmishes and cattle raiding were common subjects for recitations, other dramas in the life of the clan were also commemorated, such as this sad lament composed in about 1918 during an outbreak of rinderpest.

It starts happily enough:

At Rwekubo near Kinanga, the herd walked proudly having killed a loaned beast.

At Byembogo, they played with the antelopes;

At Natarama, they borrowed the dress of the sorcerers;

But the mood soon darkens:

At Nyumba and Rwemiganda, they were patient in death;

At Obukomago and Nyambindo, they died as the princes died in Buganda;

Alas! I am heartbroken by the groaning of The One Who Returns Home With Pride.

Recitations persisted into the colonial era and the modern world was incorporated into the form. This ekyevugo was composed in the 1940s and starts conventionally enough with several lines similar to this one:

I Who Go To War, the call to battle guided me!

But then goes on:

The letters went through the printing press;

They passed through the linotype;

The cyclostyling was done by Manaase;

Alas, as far as I’m aware, these ballads are no longer performed and the knowledge of how to construct them is vanishing.

The quotes above come from Henry F. Morris’s book The Heroic Recitations of the Bahima of Ankole, Oxford University Press 1964, to which I am indebted for background information.

Beasts of Legend

In 1889, the explorer Henry Stanley emerged from the forests of the Congo after fighting his way through dense forest as he crossing the continent travelling east. Out into the sun after interminable weeks under the tree canopy he was dazzled by the bright open grasslands of the nomadic herders: … it was exhilarating to the nerves to watch the countless grass blades stoop in broad waves … and see them roll and swerve in currents of varying green, after our long forest life… Herd after herd of the finest cattle met us as they were driven from their zeribas to graze on the rich hay-like grass…

The fine cattle he saw were owned by the Bahima, described as the ‘tribe of 200,000 spears’ in The Ghosts of Eden. According to Bahima mythology, the first of their cattle were reared by the Bachwezi, half-gods who lived underground. The cattle were gifted to the Bahima when the gods saw that the Bahima alone possessed the qualities of character necessary to become their guardians. They amply fulfilled the gods’ trust, treating their cattle as personal friends.

An alternative theory of origin holds that Ankole long-horns are related to the first domestic cattle to be introduced into Africa from the Middle East in about 5000 BC. Their nomadic owners migrated south into Egypt and the horn of Africa and then down on into East Africa.

So Adam gave names to the cattle. Book of Genesis 2:20

Like the Karamajong of northern Uganda and the Maasai of Kenya, the Bahima’s lives were devoted to their cattle. Each cow was named after her colour or a feature of her horns. She knew her name: a cow would hold back at the drinking trough if she heard her name called out by her owner. There were at least twenty three names for a cow’s colour, at least thirty three for patterns of markings and at least fourteen for horn shape. A uniform rich red-brown colour (Bihigo) - was the most prized.

Blood and milk

He took the metal tipped ekirasho to lance the cow, the wooden eichuba for collecting the flow and the leather thong to aid the filling of the vein …

The Bahima’s staple diet was milk. A man might drink up to eight litres a day. There were many taboos associated with drinking milk; for example milk could not be drunk at the same time as meat or millet porridge lest the cow from which the milk came became ill. Milk remained coupled to its cow in other ways: although a sick man might be permitted milk, he could only drink the milk of one cow in case it too became ill. A menstruating woman had to abstain from milk for four days otherwise the cow would suffer the fate of infertility and swollen udders.

The diet of milk was supplemented by a little cattle blood although blood was mainly used medicinally; served baked, salted, buttered, or warm and fresh.

Eating meat from a cow was not taboo – if a cow died, it was eaten, and a cow might be slaughtered for a ceremony, but otherwise beef was not on the menu.

Cow’s urine, mixed with herbs, was drunk as a medicine during pregnancy. Urine was also useful for washing: to cleanse pots that had contained sour milk, to wash clothes to rid them of bugs, and to wash the head – although this was followed by a rinse with water.

Be quick

The best place to see Ankole long-horns is around Mburo National Park in south western Uganda where magnificent herds graze amongst the trees near Lakes Mburo and Katchera. Ankole long-horns are increasingly being cross-bred with Holstein-Friesians to increase milk yield. Perhaps the pure-bred Ankole long-horn will soon become rare and should join an endangered species list.