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 Curtis Abraham

BaHima young women in traditional covering and headband




When Nineteenth century European explorers, missionaries, colonial officers, big game hunters and the like encountered the BaHima pastoralist in what was then Ankole District, Western Uganda they saw a community whose culture and physical appearance was more akin to the mobile livestock herding societies of the Horn of Africa and North Africa rather than to other Bantu-speaking peoples in sub-Saharan Africa (by extension the same could be said of the BaTutsi of Rwanda and perhaps the BaHaya of Tanzania). No one knows for certain where their exact origins lay (though mitochondrial DNA analysis could solve this ago old mystery.    

The BaHima are undoubtedly one Africa’s most fascinating pastoralist societies. For example, theirs was an almost religious- like observance of dietary taboos.  Their traditional diet included millet “bread” and plantains. All other vegetable produce was taboo for their palate. Furthermore, even when these acceptable foodstuffs were consumed, drinking milk was forbidden until twenty-four hours had elapsed.  In modern times, even when this strict taboo was relaxed somewhat to include beans, groundnuts, peas and sweet potatoes the twenty-four hours grace period was still observed.


But perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of BaHima culture relates to their sexual customs. However, this should be understood within the cultural context of BaHima society.


Unmarried Bahima girls were kept in splendid isolation from the prying and lustful eyes of their male counterparts. Her virginity was jealously guarded and custom dictated that every girl wore a veil or head covering (perhaps a cultural remnant of the North African or Horn heritage). It was considered shameful to be seen by men without one. It mattered little whether or not she knew the person who stood in her presence.


(Unmarried girls traditionally wore a light mat or enyagamu on her head: it may be over the face so they she may see through without being seen, or turned around so that it hangs on either side of the head. Women covered their heads with bark-cloth or okwetwekerera that was later replaced by a cloth. It was considered shameful to be seen by men. Old women were not so careful to cover their heads).


However, once married young women enjoyed a sexual freedom perhaps unparalleled by women in other east African pastoralist societies. The BaHima were renowned for their very liberal sexual norms. Until a generation ago, Bahima women were sexually available to all males who were friends or relatives of the husband. This applied to a very large part of the kraal but not all, hence the Banyankole proverb: Those living together bear children that are alike This was an essential part of the entertainment of a visitor that he should sleep in the same bed as his host and his wife and have the use of his wife. A MuHima woman was also free to engage in sexual activity with her brothers-in-law and father-in-law. A father-in-law, for instance, had as much right to have sex with his daughter-in-law as did his son.


A MuHima bride holding traditional milk pot and woven cover                                 



Visitors were highly valued in BaHima culture. They were they wined (with banana wine, a fruit wine made of mashed fermented bananas with yeast and sugar, and a traditional “beer” called tonto, which made from ripened green bananas and sorghum) and dined (with millet bread and millet porridge) but they were also comforted with sexual favors by the wife of their hosts, this was an important part of the welcome. If the visitor was the husband's father, the husband left the bed and his wife entirely to him and went to sleep with a neighbour who would share his bed and wife with him as long as the father was there.


However, a visit by a MuHima man to a male friend, whose wife was the visitor's sister, her mother's sister, or his mother's daughter, the visitor slept on another bed. Unmarried boys were also allowed this right as soon as they became sexually mature. And when a boy visited his married brother, he had sexual access to his wife who might unveil in his presence (veils or head coverings were worn by women even if they slept with a friend of her husband. She might never allow her face to be seen by him in the open. Only her father, husband or brother could see her unveiled face). A woman never paid visits except to her father or her own near relatives.


For a MuHima woman to sexually satisfy her husband was an important part of married life. During the first week after a wedding, someone always lay with the bride and groom. In most instances it was an aunt of the girl (usually one of the sisters of her father). This period was used for the aunt to educate and advise the new bride on sexual matters. The aunt would eavesdrop as the newlyweds made love and if the right noises weren't heard she could physically demonstrate to the young bride what to do.

Ankole long horn cattle, which are given as bride wealth

After a week or so, the aunt departed. And, as a show of thanks, was usually given a young bull by the girl's husband. But sex was neither simply for the sake of sex nor was it mere wife-swapping. The sharing of wives (okwarirana) was an important unifying factor in Bahima culture. Moreover, it was an extension of the love that these cattle-keepers deeply felt for each other. A wife did not belong only to the husband but was property of her extended family and their close friends.


In spite of these sexual freedoms, however, BaHima women had a lot of taboos regarding such behaviour.  These were behaviours towards her husband and men in general (such as abusing), taboos regarding milk and the kraal; and others such as fighting or raising an alarm.


F. Lukyn Williams, an early researcher on BaHima society, listed some twenty of these restrictions. For example, if a cow was in heat, it was a serious offense if the owner's wife committed adultery. If she did and was caught, her husband gave her a severe beating. This was a less austere punishment than in earlier times when the wife would become an outcast of the kraal. The male owner, however, was permitted sexual intercourse with his wife, but with no other woman until the cow was no longer in heat. Therefore, sexual relations were not solely restricted to social matters but was also part and parcel of BaHima economy.


BaHima men were also restricted from sexual activity on certain occasions. For instance, when a family was entering a newly built kraal (Okukuza mushozi) the man was not permitted to sleep together with his wife or have sexual intercourse with her on that first night. Instead, a small hut was constructed within the kraal where he spent the first night. The following morning the wife must be the first to churn the milk to butter. We can only speculate that such sexual restrictions-to traditionally superstitious people like the BaHima were perhaps to ensure no bad omens followed them into their new dwelling. Bad luck was directly related to the cow and its milk production.


The sexual freedom which a MuHima woman enjoyed after marriage almost certainly guaranteed her children. The offspring of such familial or friendly encounters belonged first and foremost to the man. Evidently, BaHima women were able to choose whether or not to bear such children. For among their personal possessions were herbal medicines which were used to induce abortions. There were other medicines that were used as contraceptives.


Part of the sexual paraphernalia BaHima woman had in their possession was a small clay pot of about five inches in diameter covered over the top except for three openings (Engyemeko rukome). This was used for perfuming their private parts. The perfume was actually a plant called (Omwenyi-Mushayija), which was dried then burned in the perfume pot. A MuHima husband would know that his wife was in the mood for intimacy if she perfumed herself with this scent.


In earlier times this practice was an essential part of the Okuza Omunkukuru- a type of woman's assembly. Before the cattle were brought back to the homestead at night women of the same age gathered at a particular location bringing with them their perfume pots and herbal perfumes. Here they would mix different herbs and perfume themselves. Amongst them was an old woman, a wise matriarch who would consul them about sexual matters, among other things. This item is still very important today and constitutes part of the customary gifts that a father gives to his daughter during the giveaway ceremony that precedes the wedding.




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