Beyond the Royal Gaze: Clanship and Public Healing in Buganda

By Finnström, Sverker | Anthropological Quarterly, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Royal Gaze: Clanship and Public Healing in Buganda


Finnström, Sverker, Anthropological Quarterly


Neil Kodesh, Beyond the Royal Gaze: Clanship and Public Healing in Buganda. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010. 264 pp.

In 1996, when I was accepted for the Ph.D. program in cultural anthropology at Uppsala University, my intention was to go to the northwestern shores of Lake Victoria and the Kampala area in central Uganda, to study the complex interplay between the cultural and political leadership as it played out in the famous Buganda kingdom. I eventually ended up in war-torn northern Uganda instead, but back in 1996, as I was trying to figure out a more specific research agenda, I found myself scanning the secondhand bookshops of Uppsala, in search for anything that I could find on Uganda. Among other books, I came across a torn first-edition copy of James Frederick Cunningham's Uganda and its Peoples (1905). It cost me some twelve US dollars. This coffee-table-kind-of-book covers most of the then British protectorate, although it focuses, as has been the historical and academic bias ever since, on central Uganda and the indigenous kingdoms under British rule. The so-called tribes of Uganda and their racial characteristics are listed in pseudo-anthropological chapters that turn sketchier the more geographically peripheral to the capital Kampala they are. In a parallel development, the more geopolitically peripheral, the more primitive the people described are alleged to be. So when John Hanning Speke and James Augustus Grant famously crossed the Nile on their journey from Buganda to Khartoum, the Australian journalist Alan Moorehead (1960:68) proposes in The White Nile, one of his acclaimed books, " the tribes grew increasingly more primitive; they were back in a region of naked, painted men who carried bows and arrows and who knew nothing of the arts and crafts of Buganda."

As I embarked on the reading of Kodesh's book, I was given the opportunity to return to Cunningham's old text. For the dust jacket to Beyond the Royal Gaze, Kodesh borrows a spellbinding photo from Cunningham's book, which turns out to be a beautiful and very smart illustration of his project to reanalyze the historiography of the precolonial Buganda kingdom. His ambition is to investigate healing and the creativity of power, to be able to understand clanship as an organizing tool for community building and collective health. More particularly, Kodesh wants to recognize "the importance of historical visions that lie outside official, courtly histories" (5).

Indeed there is a long-lasting bias in the scholarship on what we today call Uganda, where the norm and starting point in the analysis is the royalist and courtly imagination of the politically centralized Buganda kingdom, in Kodesh's terms encapsulated as a "triumphant narrative of centralization and modernization" (5). This scholarly imagination-built on indigenous Ganda mythology, as well as colonial and racist imaginations such as the infamous Hamitic hypothesis-was integral to the creation of the Uganda protectorate. According to the Hamitic hypothesis, anything that resembled civilization in Africa must have been the result of ancient influence from Egypt, and in the prolongation, from Europe. The Buganda kingdom was an example of this. As Kodesh shows, the writing of the history of Buganda was a joint project that brought together in strange unity European missionaries, colonial administrators-cum-ethnographers, and indigenous Ganda intellectuals. The more of a periphery to this project, like the Acholi of northern Uganda where I have worked, the more primitive people were concluded to be. Pioneer colonial administrators of northern Uganda have described the effort to include the Acholi into the protectorate of Uganda as greatly discouraging, because the Acholi seemed to have nothing compared with the political sophistication of the Baganda. In leaving Kampala (and thus Buganda) for the provinces, to their frustration the administrators found themselves dealing with people who seemed to have nothing that answered to the civilization they had encountered in Buganda.

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