VISUAL ARTS & IDEOGRAMS
KUHUNDA & KUTONA
Kuhunda and Kutona are revered much in homes, and they showcase the beauty of a home. The decorations worn by Basongora on their bodies also demonstrate the beauty and good taste of the wearers.
“Kuhunda” applies to decorating of handheld objects, or objects that are worn on the body. “Kutona” and “Kuraba” refer to decoration of house exteriors and interiors. The social function of Kuhunda and Kutona is to show beauty, dignity, cleanliness [obwecune], happiness, generosity, and hospitality, as well as to entertain or impress guests.
The dignity of men and women in the home and in public is enhanced by the apparent care and effort involved in the creation and decoration of their apparel and ornamentation, as well as their bearing, manners and appearance.
Moreover, walls and woven partitions offer the ability to present special symbolic messages, as well as to display ornamentation. The traditional hieroglyphs used by Basongora also have symbolic or abstract signs [pl. ebirabiso sing. ekirabiso] with meanings that reveal the knowledge, aesthetics and beliefs of the Basongora.
The decorations used on walls that are made up of pictograms and ideograms constitute a very ancient form of Basongora writing, and represent abstract concepts. Stylized images and etchings that have deeper meanings and abstract concepts attached to Basongora beliefs include spirals, concentric circles, concentric squares, waves and lozenges, as well as complex “Eyes of the Bacwezi” patterns of linked circles, and more besides.
There are different standard forms of patterns - and each specific pattern has a name: izinga [spiral]; emikono ye nyanja [waves]; isojo [W-shape]; mitana [curling arches]. There are many other patterns including those named mijumbi [dense patterns of small diamonds], busimbi [large lozenges], etc. These designs are painted or etched on the interior or exterior of the house, or are also etched on milk-pots.
Included among the pictographs are images of constellations - especially Orion’s Belt, the Pleiades [Kakaga], and the Southern Cross - as well as pictograms representing certain planets and stars - for example Venus [Enganzi y’Okwezi], Sirius [Rwabatunzi], and Mercury [Rwabahembezi]. Other common images used in decorations represent the zither [enanga], the chessboard patterns [olwango/kisoro], the papyrus plant, the palm tree, the veil used in worshipping, the fort with trenches or ramparts, a formation of warriors, as well as “tracks leading to the palace”.
Many of these patterns are arranged in special combinations depending on the knowledge skill or preference of the artist. A carefully decorated home shows effort and a knowledge of high concepts. Emphasis on certain images and not on others also reveals the disposition or cultural interests of the family or the artists. The variety and beauty of traditional Basongora ideograms usually indicates that the person who has them in their home is knowledgeable, cultured and refined.
Some of the traditional Basongora patterns used in exterior decorations on walls are based on natural skin patterns found on indigenous Basongora cows. The exterior of the homes are decorated with natural cow patterns that include kagondo [pattern of white ground mottled with black spots]. Kagabo is a pattern made up of large patches of black and white.
The primary and most popular colours used in decorating walls are black, white, and several ochre varieties of earth tones - mostly brown, red and yellow. The Basongora have several words for each one of the popular colours, whereas for other colours only a single name suffices. The colour black has various names: black on a cow is “kozi”; black for humans or natural things is “kiragura”, and; black for beads is “keibika.“ Yellow is “mutana”, light yellow or cream is “muhondo”. Brown is “kitaka”, purple is “kihukyi”, and red is “kituku”. To be white is “ku-era”.
To make fast colours that don’t fade or rub off when in contact with cloth or hands, Basongora mix special natural ingredients. To make the colour white for the walls, you mix ash with sour milk. White is also obtained by collecting chalk or lime from mines.
To make permanent black pigment, Basongora mix cow blood [enjuba] with crushed “ngusuru” [a kind of beautiful but bitter, poisonous bramble berry], or with omuyonga [soot], and with “etete” [sweet grass]. Cows are not harmed in the collection of cow-blood. The technique used in obtaining the blood is called “kurasa” and involves a harmless drawing of relatively small amounts of blood for medication, consumption, or for mixing pigments.
Items that Basongora decorate with beads [Kuhunda] include: the traditional wooden milk pots [ebyanzi]; grazing sticks; omuniga [choker/close-fitting neckband - worn by women]; obwosi [pendants made of elephant nails and worn on a choker around the neck]; orugoobe [band of beads worn around the waist by married young women; emputa [band of beads worn around the head by old women]; ebitaako [head bands worn by young married women around the head]; akagarago [choker - close fitting neckband]; engata/engango [a thick round loop attached to the wall and used for holding upright spears; enkuyo [tradition sisal brush for rubbing-down cows].
Basongora decorate milk-pot covers [emihiiha] using fibres from engaaga [a swamp papyrus-like plant]. The fibres from the plant are soaked in a pigment until they take on the colour of the pigment. The fibres of different colours are then dried and woven into baskets and covers for milk-pots [emihiha].
On social functions - such as weddings - women wear beautifully embroidered headbands and necklaces and bracelets, and men carry their decorated and embroidered grazing sticks.
The personalized sticks have a great deal of value for Basongora. In the past if a Musongora man gave you his stick as a gift, you gave him a cow in return. Etiquette demands that you do not touch or carry another person’s stick without permission. Basongora men spend a lot of admiring each other’s sticks, and discussing the species, history and beauty and strengths of any given sticks, or trees from which sticks are obtained.
The skills involved in obtaining and maintaining sticks in good condition involves a lot of knowledge about botany, since sticks are actually made by cutting off part of the root and stem of a young tree, preferably without killing it. Basongora are protective of - and proud of - the information about where they obtain their sticks, and also about how they treat and age their sticks. Treatment may involve rubbing the sticks in milk or gee, or with special herbs. Basongora men also keep ornamented sticks, covered in woven beads. The women are responsible for decorating and embroidering the sticks.
Although sticks are most kept for decorative purposes, Basongora also prize the skills of being able to use their sticks as defensive weapons if necessary. There are several kinds of sticks used by Basongora, and include: mugamba [yoke], eshando [a Y-shaped stick used to support body-weight and to manipulate loads and used especially by women and the elderly], as well as “omwigo” [used for defensive purposes].
Contrary to common belief, Basongora never use their sticks to hit cows - this is prohibited and frowned-on. The herders drive cows simply by talking to them, or by tapping lightly with the hands or with twigs. The idea is not to inflict pain on the cow, but rather to encourage it to change direction, or to get up, or to start walking.
Basongora men are also fond of dogs, and sometimes in the past they used to dress dogs with a decorated and embroidered traditional collar [ekyambala].
Many of the designs used on the exterior and interior walls are formal patterns that appear to have changed little over the centuries. Similar patterns thousands of years old have been found in Abyssinia [called Ethiopia since 1963]. Artists generally conform to these standard patterns with little deviation. However, the arts of kuhunda and kutona, are falling out of use. Many walls on tradition Basongora houses these days are simply painted all black, or all white, or with a single solid earth tone.
VIABILITY OF THE ELEMNT
Most of the work involved in Kuhunda is done by women. In the past the harvesting of papyrus from which some of the fibre material extracted is done at night during the new moon. Things required in order to do traditional Basongora embroidery and decoration include beads, sisal fibre, sharp pins, small sticks on which to wrap the beads while working.
However, materials are not easily available. For example the pendants traditionally worn by Basongora were made of elephant toe nails. The elephants were not harmed by this practice because they shed their nails or lose them naturally in the wild. In the past Basongora used to simply pick the nails off the ground and shape them into ornaments. However, because the elephants now live in the park and Basongora have restricted access to the park, they have no way to locate and retrieve the elephant nails.
The challenges involved in sustaining the decorative arts are many. The practice of “kuhunda” is associated with rural lifestyles and yet many young people prefer urban and lifestyles in which Basongora arts are still under represented. There are limited marketing skills among Basongora for promoting their decorative arts and crafts.
Moreover, the number of skilled practitioners is reducing as experienced and skilled practitioners age. The skills involved in kuhunda and kutona are physically and mentally taxing, and require perfect eyesight and dexterity, both of which abilities reduce as one ages.
In addition to the challenges listed above, the ancient Basongora ideograms used to make patterns are facing competition from the imported decorations used in modern housing construction. The traditional ideograms are considered simplistic and few practitioners know their names and significance.