KWOTERA: Burning of Fragrant Incense 

Ku-Otera [conventionally spelled incorrectly as Kwotera] refers to the traditional process of burning fragrant incense in bedrooms, and application of fragrant fumes to clothes. Kwotera is part of the daily lives of the Basongora.  It falls under the domain of social practices. 

The use of Kwotera is a highly advanced art among the Basongora as it consists of varied and elaborate techniques of applying and infusing fragrances to the human body, to clothes and to the public spaces and bedroom areas. It is considered essential for good hygiene and good health, and dignity. It is considered a sign of respectability for someone’s clothes to have the fragrance of certain plants especially “emigaju”. 

It is considered dignified for any home to perform kwotera, and it had social significance to the community. Guests feel more welcome and comfortable in a home that was clean and smelled nice. People whose clothes have a pleasant smell, and whose bodies exude fragrance, are also more desirable and appreciable in social gatherings, and are more attractive in intimate settings. So Basongora, especially women, take great pride and care in the practice of kwotera. 

Any household that would not perform Kwotera was always regarded as a smelly house [enju eyekunuka ihaya].

The enactment of kwotera requires special herbs, oils and equipment, as well as fire. Kwotera begins with the collection of special herbs, including those known as emigaju, eseeta, enyabusinde, and enyakatuzi, among others.  You also need charcoal, gee, a small baked- clay receptacle or glazed mortar [ekiswa], in which the ingredients are mixed. A burning ember of charcoal is dropped into the mixture in the mortar, which then catches fire and releases fragrant smoke. Also required for the enactment of Kwotera, is stiff weaving material for construction of the rugagara frames [papyrus or other kind of reed material], as well as small clay mortar [ekiswa].

The mortar with the smoke is then placed under an inverted large basket-like frame [orugagara] woven with dry papyrus stems. The frame, which has an open grid of interlaced pattern, allows the smoke to rise freely through the lattice.  The frame is then completely covered with clothes so that the smoke is trapped inside and suffuses the clothes. A woman sits besides the rugagara  frame to monitor the process so as to ensure that the clothes don’t catch on fire and burn.  

The person engaged in handling and preparing the kwotera process had to take a great deal of care to ensure that she is clean, and is required to wash her hands thoroughly. 

There are three different methods for treating items with the fragrant smoke. 

The first involves mixing the herbs with gee, then wrapping them inside a piece of cloth, which suspended inside the orugagara frame. A different herb named “omugaju” is then burned with charcoal in the mortar beneath the suspended gee and herb mixture. The gee keeps on melting and dripping into another receptacle called “Orwabya”.  The dripping gee and the smoke from the mortar all mix in the confined space inside the frame [orugagara] to produce a special fragrance that infuses itself into the clothes. The gee collected on the orwabya is later cooled and used to smear the body. The bundle of gee for smearing, when it is treated with smoke, has to be tied and suspended on the rugagara frame with “omutete” sweet grass. 

The second method, called “okwotera kw’ekiswa”, involves preparation of fragrant herbs which are mixed and placed in the mortar, along with the burning charcoal. A woman who has taken a bath than sits naked on a low mantelpiece and places the mortar between her legs, and covers her entire body with cloth, so that her body is infused with the fragrant smoke.  She sits in the smoke for about an hour, or for as long as she can until her skin is sufficiently suffused with the fragrance. The woman performs this kind of kwotera before going to bed at night, or when she has to attend a public function.   

The third method of kwotera is called “okwotera kw’orugagara”, involves preparing the herbs [emigaju], add burning charcoal and then place it under the rugagara frame, and then cover the frame with a thick blanket, and then a bed sheet on top of the blanket, and then on top of the cloth they add their wearing clothes.  Sometime they will cover the frame with a bark-cloth instead of clothes.   The kwotera kworugagara is meant to perfume their clothes.

Most of the work involved in Kwotera is done by women. The enactment of kwotera is mostly a private affair and it takes place in the bedroom.