Tuesday, December 2, 2014

UG Bloggers Challenge 1: Totems of Uganda

Pesh over at ConcernsOf1UgandanYA informed me of a Ugandan bloggers challenge that is currently underway where one can write about anything under the sky as long as it pertains to ART; be it the performing arts, fashion design, architecture or books. 

Now a few weeks back I had the pleasure to assist with some behind the scenes work at Taga Nuwagaba’s Totems of Uganda book Launch and Art Exhibition and have been meaning to blog about it so this here is the perfect opportunity to kill two birds with one stone!

Protea conference room set up as art gallery.

On 20th November, the who’s who of Ugandan artists, collectors, and connoisseurs gathered at Protea Hotel to celebrate with Taga the culmination of about 15 years research and hard work which was the Buganda Edition of Totems of Uganda. Guests ranged from award winning artist Noah Nnyanzi, artist and politician Gen. Elly Tumwine, cultural leaders like the Katikiiro of Buganda and Prince Wasajja of Buganda, and Art collectors like Margaret Nakimera.

The artist, Taga Francis Nuwagaba signing copies of his books at the Uganda Museum on the second day of the exhibition.

Margaret Nakimera (left) looking regal in a busuuti made out of bark cloth. I couldn't resist snapping a quick pic with my phone and of course it's blurry like the rest because I couldn't use the flash function.
Taga set out to paint and research the totems of Uganda starting with those of the 52 clans of Buganda kingdom in a bid to raise awareness of our cultural heritage and in so doing preserve wild life. He shared an anecdote that I must have repeated about 5 times in the 24 hours after the exhibition about how he got inspired to paint these totems after a road kill incident that could have easily been prevented.

The genius of Taga is not only in his masterful command of paint andcanvas (I mean have you seen that elephant portrait? You can practically smell the dust it was kicking up if you stand close enough!) but also in how he managed to merge art, culture and nature conservation.
The driver of the vehicle in which Taga was travelling seems to have been the kind that loves running over animals in his path. On this particular day, he spots one and targets it. After running it over, a curious passenger asks what that was to which the driver boastfully replies “ki kapakapa …some kind of stray cat,” only to be corrected by an elder that no, that wasn’t just any cat. That was in fact Effumbe… the Civet cat – the very totem of this driver! Upon hearing this, the driver was over come with remorse and broke down and wept that someone else had to take over the driving. And no, he wasn’t being overly dramatic, according to tradition whoever harms his totem has committed a grievous unpardonable sin and would consequently be cursed by the ancestors. Imagine that, eternal damnation all because he wanted to prove he was king of the road.

Effumbe - the totem that set the ball rolling
To anyone else that incident would have been soon forgotten but not to Taga. He realized that like many Baganda, the driver only knew his totem by name; Effumbe and had no idea what it looked like. Taga wondered how many more nearly extinct animals are killed out of such ignorance and decided to do something about it, that something was this book. 
Additionally he and a colleague started the Kakakouna foundation to conserve and preserve our cultural heritage. Not just the wildlife, but our oral history as well, such as the story behind the names of places. 

Of course I had to get myself a copy.  At 200,000UGX it wasn't exactly in my usual price range for coffee table book purchases but believe me you, it was worth it.
The detail in the book is astounding!
Since moving to Kampala three years ago, I have passed through Kamwokya countless times but have never given much thought to why it was thusly named. Taga though had and thus knew the legend behind the name. The story goes that during one of Kabaka Mwanga's bouts of persecuting and hunting down the Uganda Martyrs, he was tiredly trekking back to the palace when he couldn't handle the scorching sun anymore and sought refuge under a leafy tree. The locals upon witnessing the king resting under the tree wondered what would be affecting him to which the guards replied that "akasana kamwokya...the sun is scorching him" and thus Kamwokya came to be! (Taga knew the exact tree but it has since been cut down! The loss!)

Hermione's otter patronus just might be the very same thing as your otter totem. May be.
Listening to Taga explain the link between totems and wildlife conservation made me take pause and think. Maybe this totem thing is not even just an African construct, maybe totems are similar to Patronuses in Harry Potter’s wizarding worlds (JK Rowling) and to dæmons in Lyra’s (Phillip Pullman’s Dark Matters series). When you think about it on such a scale, if world wide no one harms the animal they or their loved ones are linked to, nearly all poaching would die down! So simple, so far reaching. Give Taga a hand; partner with or support the Kakakouna foundation.


  1. Totems are totally not exclusive to Africans. Native American Indians, for one, call them spirit animals; and I am sure there are hundreds of cultures that have them too.

    On a purely superficial note, the Civet cat is fierce. Werq, lol.

  2. Exactly the point I was trying to make. If all these cultures... the native american indians and their spirit animals, plus the Buddhists and their cows... and juggles with adopted patronises...if all these people protected the animals they love, even if it was only the animal that one individual cared about...it would go a loooong way to halt the current rate of extinction.


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