Superstition reigns as candidates jostle for favours from the dreaded medicine-men, the batuusa
Picture this scene from late November 2010. Nominations of parliamentary candidates for the February 2011 election have just ended across the country. In Butaleja East constituency, the incumbent Emmanuel Dombo who is seeking his third five-year term steps out his house to launch his campaign.
Clad in grey pants and flowered short-sleeved not tucked-in, Dombo who is a heavy six-foot man cuts an imposing figure with a hat. In his right hand he carries a shining spear and in his left, a whitish grey long tailed creature. It is a stuffed squirrel with sunken dead eyes.
In one swift movement, Dombo buries the spear into the ground at his feet. Immediately, an estimated 500-strong crowd in his expansive compound jumps about, shouts, and ululates excitedly.
Then slowly, like a priest performing some ancient hallowed ceremony, Dombo starts waving the stuffed squirrel at the crowd. The frenzy among the crowd intensifies. Even the women who had been busy in the huge kitchen preparing the feast for the festival run to join in. Dombo keeps waving the stuffed squirrel at the crowd who become even more excited as if in a trance. Gradually he calms it down.
"Mwebale, Mwebale," he shouts, "Thank you, Thank you".
Dombo's campaign has started. The stuffed squirrel is his talisman. Everybody knows because the specter of witchcraft and superstition, which is prevalent everywhere but is mostly hidden, is an open affair in Butaleja.
"Superstition among my community is a great treasure, every clan has a 'god' that they consult for any misfortunes that occurs with the intent to attack some of the clan members. Superstition is not taken lightly by the Banyole," says Dombo.
Dombo, 52, has been an MP since 1996.
"I have received favour from the gods of Banyole," he says.
He attributes all this to his loyalty to the batusa whom he says often visit his home to perform ritual cleansing ceremonies.
"When you come to my home you will see things that I have done through consulting the batusa," he says.
"In all my political life, almost 20 years, I have been consulting the batusa and that is why I have emerged victorious in all my political bids because in Banyole, you cannot easily win an election in politics unless you visit those shrines and have yourself blessed by the witchdoctors.
The batusa diviners:
After addressing supporters, Dombo jumped into one of the cars in his compound and, accompanied by crowds of supporters in a convoy, headed to Namulo trading centre for a rendezvous with the renowned traditional and spiritual healer, Byawanga Balagula.
Byawanga's shrine attracts many clients. Dombo's entourage included fellow politicians Justine Mwima, the late Cerinah Nebanda, and Joseph Muyonjo, who is now LCV chairperson.
All were campaigning for various political offices.
Inside the shrine, they all knelt before the batusa, the clan diviners or priests, in a cleansing ceremony and to receive divine inspiration for their campaign as the crowds watched in awe.
Each candidate paid Shs50, 000 to the Batusa who kept chanting exhortations to the gods to come and bless the candidates.
The batusa then instructed the candidates on how to conduct their campaign based on what, they said, the gods had told them.
Batusa are highly regarded if not feared and often are given whatever they demand. As a result, cases of witchdoctors conning clients are also common in Bunyole.
In one case, two men; Robert Nyange and Aramazan Wegulo, were accused of conning members of the public of millions of shillings and failing to give the promised blessings in politics, business, or social relations like marriage, studies, and work.
In Dombo's case, the work of the gods, diviners, or spirits appears to have worked. All three won the elections. In her swearing in ceremony as Woman MP for Butaleja, the late Nebanda came with her batusa to parliament.
Clad in their traditional regalia of animal skin wrapper, no shirt and no shoes, and stick in right hand, the batusa stood behind the 24-year old woman who would die barely a year after the ceremony. Campaigns are on in Butaleja to replace Nebanda following her death on December 14, 2012. Her sister, Florence Andiru, 27, is among the candidates.
Nebanda's mother, Alice Namulwa Mukasa, says Butaleja has traditions that are respected and adored.
"I think every tribe in Uganda has these kinds of traditions for blessings and protection from harm," she says, "These spirits help us a lot in guiding what we do. Those traditions are our customary cultural practices and it does not shock anyone in Butaleja."
Namulwa says Butaleja's history and culture is rich and elaborate.
"It can take me two days to narrate to you how it works and how we the Banyole love it," she said, "In my family we use them and that is why you saw my daughter turning up at parliament with batusa and in traditional clothing."
So is this culture, superstition, or witchcraft?
Superstition is anything that people believe that is based on myth, magic, or irrational thought. They are beliefs that are steeped in lore or tradition, and it is usually difficult to pinpoint their exact origin.
Superstitions may come in the form of old wives' tales, legends, and traditions. They may involve animals, graveyards, ghosts, inanimate objects, or even people.
Yusuf Mutembuli, an advocate in Mbale town who contested the MP seat in Bunyole West, says he does not believe in superstition.
"I am a Muslim, I do not believe in those things, but in God. I know that the people in my society believe in them but I don't believe in them. I treat them with contempt.
"People who pay allegiance to the batusa are simply mistaken. They do that because they have no other alternatives but a person like me who knows that Allah is a perfect God, a God who can provide me with all that I want. Why then should I worship those spirits? They are idols to me.
I don't want to associate myself with witchcraft. Superstitions among the Banyole have been there since time memorial," he says.
Mutembuli says most superstitions start honestly, sometimes from religious beliefs, but are gradually distorted.
"I know even in my own religion there are some people who believe in such acts but it's dangerous," he says.
In some other Christian's communities, there are superstitions about walking under a ladder, through a triangle, or for a girl to be a bridesmaid more than twice.
Dombo says individuals like Mutembuli are an exception.
"Even the highly educated people in Butaleja pay allegiance to superstitions, "he says, "Nobody has come up in our community to condemn these practices."
Dombo says whenever he is doing anything that courts public attention, he consults the batusa.
"They are very important," he says, "The practice has helped me and my community to get results in whatever we have laid our hands on."
Dombo recalls a time when area politicians launched a child immunization campaign without consulting the batusa.
"I tell you, nothing happened. Parents refused to bring their children for immunization totally there was no turn-up rendering the whole exercise ineffective.
"We were then left wondering what to do in confusion. We sat as elders at the district headquarters, and then plan 'B' idea came let us engage the witchdoctors into this programme, so the batusa were brought.
"The results that we achieved thereafter were extremely positive and since that time I have learnt one thing and it has made me believe that superstition is the best option for favourable results in our community.
What is still unclear is how the gods, diviners, or spirits decide on a winner if every candidate consults, pays allegiance, and follows their instructions. After all, some candidates must lose.
But Dombo seems to have the answer. He says his dealings with batusa are really psychological warfare against his opponents.
"It is a tactic that we have realised makes ones opponents to get scared and cannot continue because they are intimidated. The more they see how you conducted yourself with either the insignia or objects. And that is why you see us in possession of those things."