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Copyright F.B. Welbourn 1968


Chiefs and kings

People are most aware of psychic forces when things go wrong. But, if things go right, it is because the psychic forces are functioning smoothly. Every event potentially has a psychic, as well as a physical, co-ordinate. (Freud said that even the most rational activity of the mind has its unconscious, non-rational, counter-part). This is as true in the sphere of politics - the art of ordering a good society - as in individual matters. Indeed, in a traditional society, politics (understood in this fundamental sense) is the more important of the two.

A simple society does not require much in the way of specialisation. Both social behaviour and technology are governed by custom. Fathers can keep order in their own families - if necessary invoking psychic forces like a curse or the help of the ghosts. In larger matters, involving several families, there is probably a council of elders; and the clan head, or in some cases a religious specialist, acts as the channel of communication with the psychic forces on behalf of the whole group. This, indeed, is his primary function. He is important because he is the living keystone in the three-dimensional structure which includes the psychic forces as well as living persons. He rarely has to make 'practical' decisions.

This is well illustrated by the case of the Maasai, a nomadic, cattle-keeping people, who believe in one God and have no belief in ghosts surviving death. Government was by agreement between the elders of each tribe; and, in rare matters affecting the whole people, representative elders from each tribe might meet to take council. Each tribe had a laibon (pronounced 'liebone'), a hereditary office; and there was a chief laibon for the whole people. Each was a powerful sorcerer, who rarely used his power for anything but good. But his chief function, as a diviner, was to mediate between God and men in the great matters of society. In these he had to be consulted. But he could do no more than reveal the will of God. He had no political power to enforce it. His authority rested in the conviction of the whole people that, if the will of God were not obeyed, things would go wrong.

When, at the beginning of the century, the British wished to make a treaty with the Maasai, they made the mistake of supposing that the chief laibon had power to act for his people. Having made the treaty, they enforced it. But the Maasai felt very bitter. The elders had not been fully consulted. The laibon had authority to say whether or not a treaty was according to the will of God. The elders alone had power to conclude it. The idea of a chief with executive powers was wholly foreign to their custom. The laibon proclaimed the will of God but could not enforce its execution. The elders, as a group and not as individuals, made laws, acted as judges in both civil and criminal cases and carried out their joint decisions. But, at least in great matters, they would consult the laibon. Only the physicists could foretell the likely effects of dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Only the politicians could decide whether or not to do so.

A similar mistake was made with the Agikuyu of Kenya, among whom seniority in age was a measure of closeness to the ancestors and therefore of wisdom. Political power rested with the council of elders; and the senior elder of a group acted as channel of communication with the ancestors. Looking for a chain of command which, like the hierarchy of power in an army, ran from individual to individual, the British would choose the spokesman of an elders' council and give him individual executive powers. Judging by western standards of efficiency, they often went on to give chieftainships to younger men who, through education or individual merit, showed greater executive competence but had no traditional authority, as elders, either to exercise authority or to communicate with the ancestors. Matters became worse when such men, on the basis of the power given to them by the British began to claim authority also in the psychic field. It was as though, in a hospital, the lay administrators, having financial control, gave instructions to the doctors and even claimed the right to perform operations. Not only in Kikuyu, but in many other parts of Africa, colonial administrators ran into difficulties because they failed to recognise that a 'chief' was primarily not an executive but a mediator with the psychic forces and that political power was effective only because it had psychic sanction.

In Buganda, however, the administrators thought they had found a system with which they were familiar. Here the early clan system had developed into an efficient, centralised monarchy. Under the king, the country was ruled by administrative chiefs arbitrarily appointed, and equally arbitrarily dismissed, by him. They had no psychic status. As in Britain, 'religion' seemed to be in the hands of specialists with no political significance. The clan heads were still honoured but seemed to have lost political power. Much of this 'seeming' was only on the surface. Both priests and clan heads could still, at times, have political influence. But there was a deeper source of misunderstanding. When the English beheaded King Charles I, they thought they had done away with any claim of kings to have a 'divine right'. The king in council now had political power only. Psychic affairs were confined to the Church. The fact that other kings might still have psychic, as well as political, significance was forgotten.

The king of Buganda seems to have been regarded, in the early days of the kingship, as one among many, equal, clan heads. Whether through personal ambition, or because the clans had to band together, under a common leader, for purposes of defence, the king became known as 'head of all the clan heads'; and, by a number of measures, he gradually established his superiority. Centralised government needs representatives in the provinces, if only to gather taxes and raise armies. For this purpose the king seems, at first, to have used the clan heads. But their loyalty was primarily to their clan ancestors; and he gradually replaced them with administrative chiefs owing loyalty only to himself.

Along with this, one of his titles became 'head of all men'. He was begining to see Buganda not as a federation of clans but as a unitary state. Just as each clan had its founder, of whom all members were 'grandchildren', so all Baganda came to be known as 'grandchildren of Kintu' (the legendary first king). Just as the mutaka was the personification of all his predecessors and at the same time in communication with their ghosts, so the king was the personification of all his predecessors back to Kintu. His jawbone and his umbilical cord were, at his death, kept in a special shrine, where they were guarded by one of his sisters and an officer of his court and became the means through which his successor could consult him in affairs of state.

His burial was on a grander scale than that of other Baganda, with representatives of the clans playing the parts normally played by relatives. Certain of his wives and domestic officers (e.g., the chief cook, chief brewer, chief herdsman) were killed to take care of him in the other world. The installation of his successor was, again on a grander scale, like the installation of any heir; and representatives of the clans again played the parts usually allotted to relatives.

During his life a fire was kept always burning outside his residence. At his death, it was extinguished and its guardian strangled by the fireplace. For, with his death, 'the fire of Buganda had gone out'. 'A wild state of disorder ensued, anarchy reigned, people tried to rob each other, and only chiefs with a strong force were safe, even the smaller chiefs being in danger from stronger chiefs, who did as they liked during the short interregnum' (J. Roscoe, The Baganda, pp. 103f.) For this reason the death was kept secret as long as possible to give the chief minister time to decide on a successor and to arrange for the security at least of the capital. The whole structure of Buganda society was in danger of crumbling because its keystone had been removed. It could be restored only by the installation of his heir - an heir perhaps more to his psychic than to his political future.

Buganda has been, in many ways, Christian country since 1889. But those of us who were there in 1953, when the king was deported by the British colonial government, felt something of the sense of deflation and collapse which overwhelmed almost all Baganda. A highly respected doctor said, 'We have never before been without a king. Tell us what to do'; and this was typical. When the explorer, J.H. Speke, visited Buganda in 1862, he was told, 'No one can say he has seen Buganda until he has been presented to the king.' So in 1953 there was an intense feeling of shame. By losing their king, Baganda had lost Buganda. They had failed to be themselves. They could not again be true Baganda till the king was restored.

This is not to say that the king of Buganda was a 'god'. He was greater than any living Muganda. His ghost was greater than any other ghost. He had become the keystone of Buganda society, without which it could not exist. His psychic significance was greater than his political activity. As the ghosts stood for the solidarity and continuity of clan society, so the king stood for the solidarity and continuity of Buganda. Because Baganda felt so intensely about him, they may well have had no need for a creator god (certainly there is evidence that they paid very little attention to the aspect of things). But he did not himself have power over the forces of nature. He had to consult diviners like any other man; and sorcery could be effective against him. He was not a 'god'. But he may well have taken the place of God in the affections of his people.

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