Kneeling in Buganda: The Art of [Forced] Humility
By Amandla Karungi
Kneeling as a punishment
In high school, I went to a school where the administration sought to govern not just our thoughts and our words but also our bodies by imposing regular penance with thick sticks slashed across our behinds. A few times though, they changed the punishment for the sake of variety.
This is how I once received the very rare punishment of kneeling down one Monday in my Senior One Year. I was that one unlucky bee buzzing in a class full of other buzzing bees because I was the only one called out for talking in a class of about a hundred. The teacher told me to kneel down outside my classroom. There was no green on that hill outside of the room, just light brown dust filled with small stones that flew into my face.
This particular male teacher punished me often and enjoyed doing it. Whenever he read a list of noisemakers during that sleep session we called night prep, he would emphasize every letter in my name as he called me to take my place on the cracked cement floor of the dining hall. He always did this with a broad smile, mocking me.
That Monday, while kneeling in my clean uniform, I quietly weighed which was worse: the cane or kneeling? In that moment I could not tell, but I decided that canes were probably much worse. That was true of course, but my disdain for kneeling made it difficult to judge. About five minutes into my ordeal and the lunch bell rang.
O level boys punctually filtered out of their classrooms to find me planted in the path to their dormitories. With my body folded in half I felt smaller than usual. I fought to keep a defiant expression on my face but it was defeated by tears.
Kneeling was a school punishment for me but it is not always a form of punishment. If you are female and belong to the Buganda tribe, and certain other ethnic groups in our country, getting on your knees when you greet or serve any man and any “senior” woman, whether on grass, tarmac, dust or cement, in the home, at the mall or at the roadside is a cultural necessity. From childhood you’re taught to fold your legs neatly and coyly while looking in a different direction from the person you are speaking to and state your greetings.
Symbolic start of marriage
Also, as a symbolic act to show male dominion over wives and female subordination to their husbands, kneeling down to serve your husband is a part of the wedding ceremony widely practiced here. It is a much-awaited and celebrated act because it proves that the woman is a humble one who knows her place in the home.
After the “White wedding” custom of cutting the wedding cake, someone brings a throne fit for a king and places it in front of the bride. Just when you think someone is bringing another chair, the groom detaches himself from the arm-linked duo and sits himself comfortably in the chair. The wife then makes her self comfortable on the ground. She is handed a plate with cake and icing from which she picks a piece and raises her hand to her husband’s mouth. Guests receive this gesture with wild clapping and cheering. To add a little milk and sugar to this black tea another step has been added to this custom: the husband is expected to raise his wife and sit her on his laps and feed her like a baby. This is to assure her parents that though he is her superior he will be good to her.
Interestingly enough, I have ended up on a different spectrum from the one I started on. I have found myself a somewhat forced adherent of this culture even though I was not born into it.
Where I come from meekness or mildness is not encouraged, everything is a display of strength and courage. Any kind of weakness is frowned upon, even in greeting. Our greeting tradition goes like this: a somewhat distant hug, sometimes a “side-hug” where two people, regardless of sex, will have the older person placing his or her hands in a motion between a pat and a slap – repeatedly – on the back or upper arm of the less senior person asking “Are you at peace? Are you strong?”
The Woman on the floor vs. the Woman standing
There is a vast sea between the person on the ground and the person standing up; a disconnect between the two women, both of whom could nevertheless make a good argument for either practice. Should I become the meek? Or should I embody the equal?
If I should choose the meek, I desecrate the belief that a woman’s worth is equal to a man’s. If I kneel, I perhaps reinforce our ancestral dilution of female humanity. If I embody the equal, I risk representing myself as the rebellious, white-washed feminist who has no respect for culture, the one who does not know how to cook matooke or sit like a woman.
At the end of every kneel I find myself angry, confused and frustrated; especially with myself for not being strong enough to refuse to do something I do not believe in.
John Roscoe, A 19th Century European missionary, describes the practice in his book entitled The Baganda; an account of their native customs and beliefs by Roscoe, John, 1861-1932. In it he explains that,
“No woman would think of saluting a man standing, and a woman carrying a load would excuse herself from saluting a male friend by saying: ” I am carrying a load and unable to ask you how you are,” meaning that she was unable to kneel to him. If a man greeted a woman thus laden, she would answer: ” I am unable to answer, because I have a load.
The wives of chiefs would not kneel to a man of inferior position, though they promptly did so to an equal. In like manner a man would kneel at once when he met a superior and saluted him, for it was the custom for every inferior to salute his superior.”
Following from this account, I find that though kneeling for men based on social status has evidently evaporated so as to remove the necessity of “inferior” men kneeling to “superior” ones, the inferiority of women has been fervently kept burning by the members of the same sex who benefit from their servitude. Although I must add that, in these cultures, women also kneel to other (elderly) women as well.
A voice from the inside
I consulted a cultural insider, a female Muganda lawyer in her late twenties working in Kampala, about how she feels about the kneeling culture and if she thinks that it still carries a certain importance in modern society.
She explained to me that, in her view, kneeling down to serve or greet someone is such a trivial and so soon forgotten act that it causes neither anxiety nor discomfort for her. As I have heard said many times before, she told me that it takes nothing from her to kneel.
She sees it as an age-old tradition observed to preserve traditional beliefs and values, especially one of the most upheld values of this tribe: respect. Far from its purpose being to humiliate, kneeling is the only display of affection and appreciation that Baganda elders truly understand. Hugging or just greeting or saying thanks by a minor or subordinate while standing is quite foreign and unacceptable.
For her, although it is reserved for women only, kneeling still serves some symbolic purpose and duty; In my opinion, that purpose is to promote humility in women.
On whether it will continue in our fast paced, new-aged society, she thinks it might eventually die out as more people from rural areas get exposed to other ways of communication. This culture is, however, also practised in urban areas; therefore, this argument may not stand.
I have been quite surprised on a number of occasions when I have observed a timid girl settled on her knees, murmuring as if to her own self, avoiding eye contact with all except some far away chair, only for her to stand up afterwards and transform into a boisterous chattering woman seconds later, even to the people she was just whispering to.