Religion in Traditional Uganda


Among African traditional societies there were no denominations in religion. Only what people in different cultures knew was that there was a supreme God worthy of praising. They worshiped him in different ways without division. European colonial rulers came to Africa for political reasons and this is how divisions among religion started. Let us take a look at religion in a few cultures in Uganda;

Religion among Banyankole

The Banyankole’s idea of Supreme Being was Ruhanga meaning the creator. The abode of Ruhanga was said to be in heaven, just above the clouds. Ruhanga was believed to be the maker and giver of all things. It was, however, believed that the evil persons could use black magic to interfere with the good wishes of Ruhanga and cause ill- health, drought, death or even bareness in the land and among the people.

At a lower level, the idea of Ruhanga was expressed in the cult of Emandwa. These were gods particularly to different families and clans and they were easily approachable in the event of need. Each family had a shrine where the family gods were supposed to dwell. Banyankole would offer sacrifices to emandwa in form of offertory and thanks giving.

In the event of sickness or misfortune, the family members would perform rituals called okubandwa as a way of supplicating the gods to avert sickness or misfortune.

The Banyankole did not believe that death was a natural phenomenon. According to them, death was attributed to sorcery, misfortune and the spite of the neighbors except in the case of an elderly. Natural death was expected at an older age. They even had a saying: Tihariho mufu atarogyirwe. Meaning; “there is no body that dies without being bewitched”. They found it hard to believe that a young man could die if it was not due to witchcraft and malevolence of other persons. Accordingly, after every death, the persons affected would consult omurangi to detect whatever was responsible for causing the death. The Banyankole also had taboos. Their Taboos varied from clan to clan and no one would eat his totem.

Religion among Banyarwanda

The Bahutu and Batutsi belied in a supreme being called Imana or Rurema. Imana was believed to be the creator and giver of all things and was believed to have mediums in the form of Nyabingi or Lyangombe Biheko. Each family had a shrine, indaro where people came into contact with their God through consultations with Nyabingi. Indaro was regarded as a very sacred place and the family head would offer sorghum; bread and beer to the gods as circumstances indicated. If the head of the family died, his first –born or first son would take over all the duties of tendering sacrifices to the gods in the family indaro.

Religion among the Batooro:

The Batooro had a concept of a supreme being Ruhanga. Ruhanga was believed to have created all things. He was believed to be a good and benevolent being who unless wronged could not do harm to the people. However, it was believed that the world was full of evil doers; evil spirits and sorceress who could employ their magic to undermine Ruhanga and cause disease, misfortune, barrenness, death and droughts or even bad weather.

The Batooro believed that there existed mediums some of whom were agents of the devil while the good ones were agents of Ruhanga. The Batooro also believed in the Mandwa cult. Shrines were constructed for the worship of emandwa in every home. The Mandwa were usually worshipped and praised by playing of entimbo (drums) and trumpets. In the actual process of worship, people would wear skins (emikako) knitted with beads and cowrie shells. An important medium of the Mandwa would wear a six centimeter bark-cloth material with horns on the head (ekisingo). The whole process of worshiping involved a lot of eating and drinking.

In the event of disease, death or misfortune, omurangi (diviner) would be consulted to interpret the cause. Thereafter, appropriate measures would be taken to appease the God. Supplications to the Mandwa were normally effected at night. A man would put fire in front of the house and pronounce his problems to the Mandwa. The language used in addressing the mandwa was slightly different from the common one used in ordinary parlance. The pronunciation of certain words was slightly altered. Surprisingly; in talking to emandwa the Batooro would use Runyankole terminologies. For instance Omukama was pronounced as omugabe, okurora as okureeba, omwaana as omwerere, and several others.

Religion among Bakiga:

The Bakiga believed in a supreme being Ruhanga, the Creator of all things earthly and heavenly. At a lower level they believed in the cult of Nyabingi. 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 Nyabingi’s representatives known as Abagirwa people would worship and tender sacrifices of beer and roasted meat to Nyabingi.

Religion among Baganda:

The Supreme Being among the Baganda was the creator Katonda. Katonda was believed to have had neither children nor parents. He was said to have created heavens and the earth with all that they contain. Katonda was however, not believed to be very different from the other gods called Balubaale. In fact he was believed to be one of the seventy three Balubaale in Buganda. There were three temples for Katonda in Buganda and all of them were situated in Kyaggwe under the care of priests from the Njovu clan. The Balubaale were believed to have been men whose exceptional attributes in life were carried over into death.


The Balubaale had specific functions. The most important among them were; Katonda Ggulu god of the sky and the father of Kiwanuka god of lightning. Then there was Kawumpuli god of plague, Ndaula god of small pox, Musisi god of earthquakes, Wamala god of Lake Wamala and Mukasa god of Lake Victoria. Musoke was the god of the rainbow and Kitaka was the god of the earth.

There were temples dedicated to the different Balubaale throughout Buganda. Each temple was served by a medium and a priest who had powers over the temple and acted as a liaison between the Balubaale and the people. In particular clans, priesthood was hereditary, but a priest of the same god could be found in different clans. The priests occupied a place of religious importance within society and they usually availed themselves for consultation.

Religion among Basoga: The Basoga believed in the existence of gods and sub-gods. Below Lubaale, there were Mukama the creator of all things; Jingo the public god who attended to the general needs of the people; Nawandyo and Bilungo the god of plagues. Semanda, Gasani and Kitaka were other gods the Basoga believed in.

The Basoga believed in the existence of a spirit world. They called the Supreme Being lubaale. Human agents worked as messengers of Lubaale, or the ancestors, or other minor gods. To the Basoga, the spirit world, places of worship, animated objects and fetishes had power to do good or evil to the living. The Basoga call magicians, fetish men and spirit mediums Bachwezi.

Religion among Banyole: The Basamia –Bagwe had an idea of a supreme being called Were or Nsaye. Were was said to dwell in heaven and to be responsible for creating the earth and heavenly bodies; they also believed in ancestral spirits. Ancestral spirits were believed to intervene in human affairs and were known to cause harm, death and misfortune if not properly attended to. For this reason, each home stead had a family shrine on which to appease the ancestral spirits. These spirits could be called upon in the event of sickness or misfortune and they were normally appealed to for good health, fertility of women and good harvests.

The Basamia- Bagwe believed in the existence of omwoyo, the heart of a living thing. They believed that when someone died, then omwoyo would take flight in the form of a shadow or wind. Such a departed spirit becomes omusambwa.

Emisambwa are believed to have power to interfere with the living. They also act as a link between Nsaye and the living. Emisambwa had their abode in Emagombe, i.e. in the underworld. The Basamia-Bagwe also had taboos. Their Taboos varied from clan to clan and no one would eat his totem. The society was patri-lineal and women took up the clans and taboos of their husbands. The Basamia-Bagwe also believed in witchcraft and curses. Theft and immorally would result into being bewitched or cursed. Basamia –Bagwe also valued rain makers known as abakimba.

Religion among the Luo- Alur: The religious rituals of worship among the Alur were cultivated and protected by the Bandwa, the Jupa Jogi and Jupa Jok. These were in effect the Alur equivalents of the clergy. The equivalent of God was known as Jok. The manifestations of jok were more often than not in personal terms. Thus Jok could be male or female, young or old and so on. But sometimes Jok could be conceived of in non personal forms, for instance, as a situation. The ultimate nature of Jok, however, was quite unknown.

Among the Alur, worship was not routine such as every morning, evening or on Sundays and Fridays. It was necessitated by misfortunes of one kind or another which required that Jok should be appeased. The Alur believed that misfortunes or disease were not natural consequences. To them misfortunes and disease were caused and the causes took different forms.

In the event of misfortune like sickness, the family head together with his brother or two associates would go to a diviner known as Julam bira, jolam wara or Anjogato have the misfortune diagnosed. The diviner would employ the various instruments at his disposal to trace the cause of the trouble. He would then advise on the appropriate measures to take to avert the misfortune. Misfortune was said to be caused by evil spirits or by evil persons who by use of magic, could Harm otherwise healthy person.

Religion among the Acholi: The Acholi believed in a supreme being called jok. The shrine for jok was known as abila. All sacrifices, private and public were offered inside the abila. The spirits of the dead were known to appear near the abila. However, these spirits had no permanent dwellings.  They were believed to wander about and thereafter appear by signs.  They were worshiped so that they could assist the bereaved ones or exercise their power to make hunting successful or scare evil spirits away from the village. They were believed to help the surviving members of the families if they were treated well.

It is interesting to note that there was the Christian idea of God among the Acholi as Jok. However, when the missionaries came, they forced the Acholi to adopt the idea of Lubanga to represent God. Formerly, among the Acholi, the term Lubanga or Lubaya was used to mean death or evil. Lubanga was known to cause evil and kill people. Every bad thing was attributed to Lubanga just as every good thing was attributed to Jok. No huts or shrines were built for Lubanga in the villages. Sacrifices, or cooking for Lubanga was done outside the village and the dung of fowls was often added in his food as another step to degrade him. Yet this same Lubanga is now the idea of God which the Christians forced the Acholi to adopt.

Religion among the Iteso: The Iteso believed in a supreme being called Edeke. However, they were much more involved with ancestral spirits which were believed to cause ill luck if not well attended to. Every family possessed an ancestral shrine where libations were often poured or placed to placate the ancestors.

Particular clans had specific taboos, mainly animals they were not permitted to eat. The bush-buck (ederet) was taboo to a number of clans.

Religion among the Jopadhola: Like the Acholi, the Lugbara and the Langi, the Japadhola conceived of jok as a supreme being. However, they did not take it as far as the Acholi and the Langi did. Among the Jopadhola, the concept of jok was later merged into the Banyole belief in Were, a supreme being whose chief services to mankind were mainly connected with fertility.

Jopadhola traditions assert that they have always believed in one Supreme Being called Were. In physical terms, Were was conceived of as a white merciful and good being who could manifest himself in various ways. As god of court yard known as Were madiodiopo, he was believed to take care of the home and the family.  As god of the wilderness were Othin, he was believed to guard and guide men when they went hunting, fighting or on a journey.

In every home, a shrine was built for Were. On each side of the shrine, two white feathers were planted in the ground. Every morning, the owner of the home would open the gate and approach the shrine to tell Were to make the day “as bright as these feathers” planted into the ground. Whenever one was going for a journey, he would approach his shrine to ask Were to make the journey “as peaceful as this shrine”.

Besides, Were, the Jopadhola believed in the cult of Bura. The concept of Bura is said to be foreign to the Jopadhola. It was introduced by someone called Akure from Bugwere. Tradition says, however, that it was not Akure but his nephew Majanga who turned the cult into a universal institution among the Jopadhola.

In conclusion therefore, like in the sense of the early church documented in the bible, God called and spoke through prophets as whistle-blowers when the whole Israelite enterprise was on the brink of self-destruction. Also African traditional religion had a prophetic ministry—there were prophets and angels in different forms according to different cultures. The calling of a prophet or omurangi in Runyankole was to speak for God. A prophet would teach, give guidance, counsel, or rebuke as necessary.