The Kogyere Oral Tradition [E Kyigano cya Kogyere] describes the reign of a great woman ruler called Kogyere I Rusija-Miryango, who was the ruler and founder of the kingdom of Busongora in the waning decades of the ancient Batembuzi [Founders] Dynasties, and specifically of the Shenzi [Zenj] Empire, about 1000 years ago.
The Kogyere Tral Tradition consists of a body of narrations that form part of the living and collective memory of the people of Busongora and neighbouring communities. Variants of the Basongora language name Kogyere include Koogere [in the Runyoro-Rutoro dialects of Western Uganda and Eastern Congo] and Kogelo [in the Luo dialects of Southern Sudan, Eastern Kenya and Northern Tanzania]. In Rwanda and Burundi she is known as Kogyere Rumeza-Miryango [or simply as "Rumeza"].
The Kogyere Epic Cycle constitutes a complete set of stories composed about the life and times of Kogyere I Rusija-Miryango and usually intended to be performed or recalled in their proper sequence. The stories are usually connected with the administration of the Zenj [Shenzi] Empire and later the kingdom [Busongora-Chwezi] of which she was ruler. The story of Kogyere originated and is centred among the communities associated with the former greater Busongora [Chwezi Empire] in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Congo. The epic of Kogyere is told particularly by indigenous Basongora, and by Banyankore, BaNyoro, Banyabindi, Batooro, and by the PaLuo, in communities found in Kasese and in surrounding districts, constituting an area believed to have been the origin and homeland of Kogyere.
The Kogyere Epic Cycle describes the prosperity of the empire during her reign, and also describes Kogyere as extremely wealthy. Kogyere’s inspirational actions and history is integrated into the social philosophy and folk expression of the people, and hence living on and on, inspiring the communities across generations.
THE KOGYERE REBELLION & FOUNDING OF THE CHWEZI EMPIRE
According to the epic, Kogyere was a daughter of Emperor Ngonzaaki Bitahinduka. She was made Empress and also served as Regent for her niece the Princess Nyangoma, and her nephew, the future Emperor Isaaza Nyakikooto. Kogyere’s reign as Empress of the Zenj [Shenzi] ended when she abdicated, went into retirement, and left the imperial throne to her nephew Ishaza. However, during the reign of Ishaza, the throne was illegally usurped by a powerful courtier named Bukuku [a.k.a: Bucunku, Bukuru]. It was in protest of the illegal usurpation and cruelty of Bukuku that Kogyere led the rebellion that resulted in the break-away and founding of the independent state of Busongora, with Kogyere as its first autonomous ruler.
Most of the stories about Kogyere, which so define the identity of Basongora, as well as constituting a large part of Basongora’s legends and proverbs, refer to Kogyere’s exceptional wisdom, her kindness and her administrative skills, in the course of her rule over the Shenzi empire. The epic stories also tell of Kogyere’s role as the founding matriarch of the Chwezi Dynasty that subsequently grew out of her rebellion, and that came to expand Busongora Kingdom in order to turn it into what became known as the Chwezi Empire.
The story in fact constitutes a stable, closed and complete Epic Cycle - meaning that the stories are not being added to with time, and their form has changed very little despite the loss of detail over the centuries. The Kogyere Oral Tradition is not a fable, but is consistent with what one would expect of an individual who lived. For example there is no magic ascribed to her, and no hyperbolic or mysterious or super human powers attributed to her. Different informers tend to have a different focus on their retelling of the rather long epic, and perhaps details accessible to one informer are lacking in the retelling by another, but on the whole the story is credible.
In the narration the epic is easily broken down into episodes or themes. These episodes and themes then serve as vehicles for delivery of the epic. Story-tellers will simply focus on the these themes depending on the audience or the expertise of the story-teller.
The epic consists of the following key episodes:
[i] The ancestry of Kogyere and chronicle of the various Tembuzi Dynasties
[ii] The enthronement of Kogyere and her wise rule during the Tembuzi Era
[iii] Kogyere’s abdication, the rise of Ishaza and her role as wise advisor
[iiii] The rise of Nyamiyonga and usurpation of Ishaza’s throne by Bukuku
[v] Kogyere’s Rebellion and founding of Busongora Kingdom
[vi] The return of the grandsons of Kogyere to Busongora & rise of the Chwezi
[vii] The Epic of the Chwezi, the rise of various kings, and events in their lives
[viii] The rise of Kakara-ka-Shagama, his prophesies, wisdom and acts
[viiii] The rise of Njunaki Kamaranga - The Last Empress of the Chwezi
[x] The reduction and division of the Chwezi Empire
[xi] The return of Chwezi survivors to Busongora after the break-up of the Empire
The epic can be broken down according to the following themes:
[i] Historical events and deeds of people associated with Kogyere
[ii] Esoteric wisdom, prophesies, ethics, proverbs, riddles associated with Kogyere
[iii] Culture Practices and lifestyles associated with Kogyere’s era
[iiii] Places and sacred sites associated with Kogyere and her contemporaries
[v] Stories about Cattle and their breeds that play an important role in the epic
[vi] The origins of the clans, tribes & states of the Great Lakes Region of Africa
There are sayings and narrations which bring out images of plenty and abundance as blessings for hard work - especially with regard to rearing of cows. One example of such, is the narration of how people’s movements could be stopped for days because Kogyere’s cows were crossing from one village to another. By such narrations, the story presents Kogyere as the richest person in the world and inspires commitment and hope for blessings as a result of hard work.
There are narrations that bring out the images of Kogyere’s saving wisdom. The example of such includes highly esoteric story about the emperor Ishaza "killing off" all the old people in the land and then dressing himself in fresh skin of a zebra, which on drying squeezed his body hard. Since all the old people in the kingdom had died, and the remaining young ones had failed to offer solution, the Emperor was dying in pain - until Kogyere had him immersed in water and the skin softened and he was saved. As a consequence of Kogyere’s actions Ishaza agreed to protect all the surviving old people. Through such narrations, the story presents Kogyere as the wisest person in the world.
However, the story of Ishaza’s dressing himself in a zebra skin, may be understood as an esoteric story with hidden meanings meant for initiates in the Chwezi spirituality. Images such as the death of old people, the ignorance of youth, a zebra skin, Ishaza’s immersion in water in order to save him and his subsequent acquisition of wisdom... all these have additional hidden meanings, and may be understood in special ways depending on the knowledge of the listeners.
The pattern of the zebra hide story follows exactly the rites involved in some of the ancient spiritual practices of the Basongora. For example in the practice of Ku-Banda an initiate was required to ritually "disrespect" or "banish" the elders - say by touching an elder's beard, or saying bad words to them. There is also a baptism rebirth rite that involved immersion and mirrors the Emperors predicament. The black and white pattern of the zebra also happens to evoke the principal colours of the Shenzi and the Chwezi national flags and banners. The story in fact seems to indicate that Ishaza was initiated into the spiritual practice by Kogyere.
There are narration in Kogyere Epic that bring out images of women’s intelligence and heroism, and the egalitarian nature of Basongora society in ancient times. The story presents Kogyere using women servants in tasks where males had failed - such as in the interpretation of numerous complex formulaic riddles. The women in the empire routinely save the old empire from misfortunes. The story underscores the great capacity of women - and servants incidentally - in handling social issues and their elevated status in society.
Even today’s contemporary male leaders in Busongora and related communities, derive inspiration and legitimacy from the Kogyere story. For example the current flag of Busongora Kingdom is known as the Kogyere Maure and consists of a representation of Kogyere as its charge. A primary school near her old palace grounds [Kogere Primary School], and several commercial establishments and a street in the city of Kasese, are named after Kogyere.
Over the centuries, as well as currently, several notable women in the Busongora community are named after Kogyere of the epic narrative. Included among these are two later queens of Busongora - Kogyere II, and Kogyere III Ikamiro. In fact the entire community and territories of the Basongora - including Busongora Kingdom - are collectively referred to frequently as “Busongore bwa Kogyere” [Kogyere’s Busongora]. Culture-bearers name some girl-children and women-achievers after Kogyere, as well as some community institutions and projects, in order to perpetuate the legacy of Kogyere.
Kogyere’s story among the bearers presents their oldest collective memory. The Kogyere Oral tradition provides the constitutional foundation, as well as the ideological structure and vehicle for the cultural values and belief systems which exist in Busongora. For instance because of the belief among Basongora that wisdom is inherited through a mother, married women are called “Nyinabwenge” (mother of wisdom), and women are considered the custodians of the homes’ wealth.
THE PERFORMANCE OF KOGYERE ORAL TRADITION
The Kogyere Epic Cycle is enacted and transmitted through various modes. Narrations of the story are shared for recreation and transmission of cultural values and information. This takes place during the currently disappearing family evening recreation around the fireplace and during collective action and group activities.
The Kogyere story is also enacted through the oldest sayings like “Busongora bwa Kogyere, aha ikamwa ni-jumeera, amajita gatera amaato, amata geser’ente” (Busongora of Kogyere where cows bellow as they are milked, where butter splashes against the drinking trough, and where milk quenches the thirst of the cows], signifying the fact that Busongora was a land abundant with cattle and diary products). The story presents the oldest forms of language expressions, proverbs and sayings in the community and hence serves as a vehicle for transmission of the social philosophy of the communities.
The story also survives through the natural sites which bearers associate with it. These include: Akasozi ka Koogere (The hill where Kogyere’s palace was located); enyanja ya kikorongo (Crater Lake which used to water Kogyere’s cows); ekyeya kya Kogyere (ancestral grazing plains in what is now Queen Elizabeth National Park), and; Akabira ka Kogyere (Kogyere’s forest).
Women in the pastoralist communities spend most of the day in groups, doing handcrafts as they share the story. Men during communal grazing activity occupy themselves with story-telling as they look after their cattle. Communal activities are important and frequent among the Basongora. The practice of “Ku-Bunga” - in which visitors from all the neighbourhood, and from afar, spend several festive days and nights together sharing food and stories at the home of one family - was very common in the past.
However, the frequency of these practices is now diminishing. Although in such story telling sessions, there is spontaneity and everyone is a participant, more skilled story tellers emerge and elders take a lead in passing-on information to young ones, as well as enhancing their memory, listening and narrating skills. The Kogyere Oral Tradition therefore facilitates shared actions, recreation, wisdom, learning, and the inter-generational transfer of values and skills.
The message of the Kogyere story is also packaged in poems and songs accompanied by the traditional “Enanga” [zither]. Women and men serve different roles in these performances, reflecting differentiated gender roles. These performances are done spontaneously in social ceremonies. Although everyone is a participant some more talented individuals emerge and take the lead. The old and young both used to participate but today, the young ones are missing and these traditional performances are drastically reducing.
Thus practitioners and custodians of the Kogyere story are mainly elders, sages, story-tellers, poets, traditional musicians, artists and indigenous families, as well as people who live close to the sites associated with the epic. Modern writers, language promoters, women groups, and cultural Community Based Organizations [CBOs] are also vehicles for transmitting the Kogyere epic.
NB: The Kogyere Oral Tradition is compatible with human rights instruments, mutual respect of communities, and the principles of sustainable development.