The Bachwezi Dynasty

The history of the Kitara complex covers geographically most of the present Bunyoro, Toro and neighbouring portions of Nkore, Mubende and Buganda. It is probably the oldest state system of the [East African] interlacustrine region, and its history is usually conceptualized in terms of three groups of invaders: the Batembuzi, the Bachwezi and the Bibito. […]

The history of the Baranzi clan provides a link between the Batembuzi and the next dynasty in the Kitara complex – the Bachwezi. According to Kinyoro tradition, the founder of the clan, Bukuku, was a commoner and an official in the court of Isaza (c. 1301-28), the last of the ‘pioneer kings’. He is supposed to have taken over from Isaza and at the same
time he is regarded as the grandfather of Ndahura (c. 1344-71), the great ruler of the Bachwezi period. The clan itself had the grasshopper and the civet cat as its totems and it probably came from the Busongora area into the west. As is explained below, both totems are important in Buganda and Busoga history as names of pre-Kintu, and therefore pre-
Bachwezi, groups that moved from west to east across the grasslands to the shores of Lake Victoria.

As we have said, Bukuku, an agriculturalist, provides a genetic relationship between the pioneers and the Bachwezi. Ndahura’s foster-father was, according to Bunyoro and Nkore traditions, a potter by trade, who came from a Bakopi clan. Hence Ndahura’s other name, Karubumbi (from mubumbi or potter). […]

The succession of Bukuku to Isaza’s throne was resisted by several chiefs, who objected to being ruled by a commoner. Bukuku crushed the rebellion, although dissatisfaction became widespread and provided an opportunity for Ndahura to seize the throne and found the Bachwezi dynasty. The traditions of Bunyoro and Nkore are agreed that this dynasty consisted of two rulers – Ndahura and Wamara – and a regent, Murindwa, who acted as such when his brother Ndahura was away on war expeditions.

The [prevailing theory] is that the Bachwezi were local rulers who emerged as a result of the economic and demographic changes that were taking place in the interlacustrine region. It is clear that the empire of Kitara was created by Ndahura (c. 1344-71), a great warrior king, who extended the small chiefdom of Bugangazi over a vast area which included Bunyoro, western Buganda, Toro, northern Kigezi, the Sese Islands, Nkore, Kiziba, Karagwe, part of north-eastern Rwanda and part of western Kenya. He lacked the military power, the bureaucracy and the means of quick communication to be able to establish a centralized state over this vast area. H e therefore relied more on agents who were appointed to represent the king in the various areas. This loosely organized empire seems to have had salt, cattle and iron as its economic mainstay.

King Ndahura, who often led his own army, was captured during an invasion of Ihangiro in Bukoba, when an eclipse of the sun caused panic among his troops. O n his release, he preferred to migrate westwards rather than return as a disgraced king to his capital at Mwenge. Tradition is silent on his subsequent fate.

He was succeeded by his son Wamara (c. 1371-98), who on security grounds moved his capital from Mwenge to Bwera. Wamara’s reign was even more turbulent than that of his father, largely because it witnessed the advent of several immigrant groups. Among those were the Jo-Oma (or Bahima), most of whom came from the Agoro mountain region; the Bantu-speaking clans from the east associated with the Kintu complex; an invasion from the south which probably represented an advance group of the Bashambo clan; and the Luo, who began to infiltrate into Kitara from north of the Nile. […]

King Wamara had attempted to enlist the support of the immigrants by appointing them to important political posts. For instance, Miramira of the Bashambo clan and Rugo and Kinyonyi of the Balisa clan were appointed Wamara’s representatives around Lake Masyoro in the areas which became Kitagwenda, Buzimba and Buhweju. Ruhinda, a Muhima, was placed in charge of the royal herds; Nono, a member of the Basita clan, became a deputy chief in Karagwe; Kagoro, a Luo, became the chief military commander; and Wamara formed a blood brotherhood with Kantu, who had emerged as the leader of the Bantu clans of eastern origin. All these overtures, however, were construed as appeasement by the immigrant communities, who soon developed into over-mighty subjects.

Then there occurred a great famine, followed by a cattle disease which spread all over the empire. Dissatisfaction became widespread. Kagoro, Wamara’s military commander, seized the opportunity to stage a coup against the Bachwezi, who were mercilessly massacred and their bodies thrown into water. The Bachwezi aristocracy, which in any case could not have been a large one, was thus annihilated or, as tradition put it, ‘disappeared’. The coup marked the end of the Bachwezi empire. It was replaced by two conglomerations of states: the Luo-Babito states of Bunyoro-Kitara, Kitagwenda and Kiziba; and the Bahinda (Bahima) states further south in Karagwe, Nkore, Kyamutwara, Ihangiro and possibly Gisaka.

The collapse of the Bachwezi empire led to a fierce struggle between the Luo and the Bahima (the Babito and the Bahinda) for the political control of the region; the history of the successor states for the next three centuries should be viewed in the context of this struggle for political hegemony.

B. A. Ogot (Kenya); specialist in African and particularly East African history; has published many works and articles on the history and archaeology of East Africa; teacher, researcher, former Director of the International Louis Leakey Memorial Institute for African Prehistory.

Source: General History of Africa Vol.IV. [Editor: D. T. Niane] Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century. Chapter 20. The Great Lakes Region.


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