How culture mistakenly portrayed Teso as cannibals

Faustino Ojuloto, 90, a Teso elder, shows a baobab tree under which elders used to dump skeletons of their ancestors during a special ceremony at Malaba in Busia County on Tuesday. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

A stone's throw away from Malaba River that marks the Kenya-Uganda border, we meet 90-year-old Teso elder Faustino Ojuloto who looks younger than his advanced age.

Ojuloto gives us a quizzical look that slowly fades into a smile that lights up his face.

Apparently, his thorough grasp of the historical background of the Teso community puts him a cut above the rest.

"Teso people crossed into Kenya from Uganda circa 1872," Ojuloto explained.

"During their stay in Uganda, they lived at a place known as Akorete in Tororo. Wanderlust hit a section of them and they crossed into Kenya. They entered the country through Malaba border which, at the time, was known as Chigereni" he adds.

"After entering Kenya, they broke up into several groups. While one group moved to Nambale, others moved to Amukura and Angurai. There are about 13 Teso clans," says Ojuloto.

At some point, communities neighbouring the Teso stereotyped them as cannibals. A fable was told that the Teso and Bagisu people of Uganda eat human flesh.

“That is far from the truth," Ojuloto says with an easy smile." The Teso have never practised cannibalism. However, they had a culture about the dead that their neighbours failed to understand. It is that lack of understanding that made others believe the Teso ate human flesh."

"The Teso had a tradition that appeared chilling to other tribes. Ten years or more after a man's death, his skeleton would be exhumed. Young men would dig up the grave to expose the skeleton. From there, old men in their late 80s brought out the bones and placed them at the base of ‘Ekaererete’ (baobab) tree. There, they performed some ceremony," Ojuloto said.

"A non-Teso once chanced upon an exhumation it is said. Out of fear, or perhaps horror, at seeing Teso elders around human bones, a rumour started that the Teso were cannibals. No, they are not, “he said.

According to Malik Nabwire, Teso elders took advantage of this belief and exploited it to instill fear in children. The notion that they used human bones to cook or stir traditional brews was enough to scare children from tasting traditional beer.

“The children were normally told that the traditional liquor brew was prepared and stirred using the ulna and that any child who dared taste the brew would face serious consequences.”

Ojuloto explained that whenever the time to exhume a skeleton was due, family members of the dead man would be assailed by sudden unexplained illnesses and other bad tidings.

"That was the sign that the spirit of the dead man wanted to be released. After the exhumation ceremony, the strange illnesses would disappear from the family. Such ceremonies were normally held in November and December."

Under Teso culture, girls were waylaid and hijacked into marriage.

“Young Teso men never used to seduce girls. Once a boy took fancy to a girl, he would notify his father. Thereafter, his father would approach the girl’s father with a proposal and pay the bride price of about 15 cows.

Only then would a girl be notified that she had a suitor. Later, her mother would then ask her to either fetch some firewood or water from the stream. Unknown to her, she was being sent into an ambush laid by suitor’s friends. Once they grabbed her by force, she would be taken to her new home," Nabwire said with a chuckle, perhaps on recalling how he got his wife.

Elder Ekirapa Emojong said it was taboo for a son-in-law to be present during the burial of his father-in-law.

“The son in law only came to mourn the departed after 40 days. A special ceremony was held in which a cow was slaughtered and traditional beer taken to appease the spirit of the dead man."

The Teso did not have a specific shrine and did not worship a particular god, Ojuloto said. “What used to happen is that whenever it was necessary to curse someone or rid one of bad omen, a special ceremony would be held under a tree popularly known as ‘Sidongororo’ (red poker).

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