Friday, April 17, 2009

Trip to Bujora, museum of the Sukuma tribal region

The Easter break was an excellent opportunity to explore the region neighboring Mwanza, but where were we to go? Adrian asked his graduate students for suggestions, and some mentioned a regional museum dedicated to what was once the dominant tribe of the area, the Sukuma. Most people in Mwanza and at the university speak Swahili, but the Sukuma are the largest tribe in Tanzania. But we are not so much aware of tribalism and tribal distinctives here as we were in Nigeria. So we decided this would be a very good way to discover something of the local history and see as well how the people of  Tanzania lived during the pre-colonial period. 

Sign for the Sukuma Museum

One of Adrian’s students, Pascal, was interested in visiting this museum himself; so together with Albert, his former fellow student, who is now teaching at SAUT, we took off in Albert’s vehicle, heading for Bujora, about a half hour ride east of Mwanza. Once we left the highway we found that the “short distance” to the museum (according to our guidebook to Tanzania), was a few kilometers, and we were glad we did not have to walk that part, since most of it was uphill. The museum, and particularly its chapel, was built on the highest ground in this region. The museum itself was established in 1954 by a Canadian priest, Fr. David Clement, together with local committees to help preserve some of the local culture. At the time, Bujora was a forest, an area known for violent death, whether from predatory animals or from tribal groups who specialized in twisting the necks of their victims.

A prominent feature of the museum, a map of the area, once dominated by the Sukuma and its various subordinate kingdoms. Bujora, the location of the museum, is directly east of Mwanza; the town is not marked, but identified by the end of the railway tracks on the water. Our university is located in the area to the southwest of Mwanza, labeled Negeji (Nyegezi is the name today).

The chapel, a central focus on the grounds of the museum

The community worshiping on the grounds was practicing for the Maundy Thursday services to be held later that day. The singing, typical of Catholic services in East Africa, formed a lovely backdrop for our visit. 

This museum was built by the Roman Catholic Church, which began work in converting the tribe over the last 100 or more years. The chapel, built in the shape of a traditional tribal house (though much bigger than such a hut!) represents the heart of this open-air museum. We noticed it before we saw any other parts of the museum, since it took a little while to locate our guide.

View inside the chapel; the altar also incorporates traditional shapes

A special feature for a Catholic chapel is the container and cupboard to keep the reserved host. In this chapel the container had been built, on a smaller scale, of course, as a typical two-storey royal residence, as below.

The royal pavilion, for the chief or king of the tribe; it is also designed in the shape of a royal throne

Pascal, modeling the king, with attributes of royalty, especially his feathered crown and shield

The wooden throne for the king was carved out of a single piece of wood. The smaller stools were of interest to us, because the shape is exactly like those still constructed and used by the Tiv of Nigeria; indeed the Tiv are a Bantu tribe, as are most of the tribes of Tanzania. But also of interest in this scene is the gameboard displayed here; although the rules are a bit more elaborate, the principle for the game is the same as that which we discovered as a favorite in the Philippines, where it is called “sunka.”

One of the prerogatives of royalty was to call the people to assembly, and for this purpose the drum was essential. The museum collected a number of drums, most of them are rather well preserved.

Our guide, Sylvester, was helpful in explaining the significance of what we saw, particularly the central importance of the drum, also featured at the signature exhibit marking the opening of the museum. 

Drums are important especially for traditional dances. As focal point for an annual dance competition at harvest time (June to August), the Dance pavilion at this museum was instrumental in keeping alive the traditional tribal dances. The competitions feature competing dance societies each trying to attract the largest crowds through innovative dance steps or props. The dances are performed with use of different implements (like those in farming); some use very distinctive clogs, and we noted dances which feature a python.

The skin of a python is used in dances. Even a live python is a favorite feature in some dances. Sylvester told us that a python is kept on the museum grounds for this purpose (although we did not get to see it).

Dancing with high clogs 

Wendy with plaque acknowledging donors for the construction of the dance pavilion. It was interesting for us to note that donations had come especially from Canadians. 

Aside from these central structures, the museum also featured items of everyday life.

A representative hut of the blacksmith

Some ironwork implements of the blacksmith 

Inside the family homestead of a representative of the tribe, containers for milking cows or goats, as well as containers for drinking

Pots for keeping water, and gourds used as ladles, or spoons

Especially interesting was the hut of a medicine man, or traditional healer, featuring photos of well-known medicine men, with their implements, like horns for medicinal ingredients.

More implements, a skin on which the sick could rest, and bracelets as amulets against danger and evil.

Outside the hut of the medicine man, shrines as replicas of huts for the ancestors, as the focus of prayer to the gods; as 'living-dead' the ancestors were to intercede with deity on behalf of the family.

A chicken coop used to protect chickens from predators

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