book reviews / Born in a Treacherous Time / culture

Book Review: Bunyoro: An African Kingdom

Bunyoro: An African Kingdom (Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology)Bunyoro: An African Kingdom

by John Beattie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Man’s path from paleo-history is a fascinating study. Since our records of that era is confined to rocks and natural artifacts, those like me who want to understand what man was like in that time must extrapolate from more recent but similar groups of primitive people (I used the word ‘primitive’ in the anthropologic sense meaning the basis for derived forms rather than crude or preliterate).

I’ve spent a good bit of time reading about world tribes such as the noble Maasai, the easy-going pygmies, the !Kung–all cultures that are disappearing as ‘progress’ assaults their borders and spreads a life style that they would never come by naturally.When these last bastions of early civilizations are gone, we will lose a critical tie to understanding how religion came to be, why man adopted jewelry as decoration, how counting evolved (some tribes count only to two, some as far as ten and then multiples of ten), and where symbolic names started.

This latest book, Bunyoro: An African Kingdom is about the Nyoro of western Uganda. John Beattie wrote his treatise in 1960, based on research he did in the ’50’s, before the Kingdom was banned by Idi Amin, before it was recreated in the 1990’s, before it adopted the very western religion of Christianity. In this eighty-three page book, he doesn’t cover any of my questions, but were I able to study the Nyoro, I’m sure I could find answers–and Beattie probably did too, just not in this short book.

Here are my notes from the book:

  • They live in small groups rather than villages, though they like to live close to one other. They believe good neighbors should help and support each other
  • The typical Nyoro is a small farmer who cultivates 4-8 acres of land, owns goats and chickens and maybe a few sheep. He grows millet for food, as well as sweet potatoes, cassave, peas and beans.
  • He makes beer from bananas
  • Transportation vehicles include bikes and even cars
  • They are courteous, hospitable and generous people, quick-witted, thoughtful and humorous
  • They believe that some people are always above others, some always below
  • Their government was European, as they were under British control, meaning chiefs were salaried positions. Councils advised them on a variety of decisions. Taxes were collected and sent to Britain.
  • Despite the British rule, I expected to find a traditional isolated native population, uncontrolled by any outsider, but Beattie’s description is of a people who embraced the progress of civilization and subverted their historic roots to a foreign system of life. Because Beattie reported them to be an amiable, content people, well-enough off, I suspect they were happy with the exchange. This is contradictory to the Indian experience with British rule. I wonder how much of that can be attributed to the size of the populations.
  • Their family units are patrimonial and polygamous with a high divorce rate.
  • Certain legal matters are adjudicated by neighborhood courts rather than a formal national system of law. The primary aim of these village tribunals is to restore good relations as well as to punish the offender.

Where a Western nation is hardly recognizable as itself fifty years ago, the Nyoro haven’t changed much. Despite the fact that Britain relinquished control of Bunyoro and they are now an independent Constitutional Monarchy, the typical year that Beattie experienced in the 1960’s is pretty similar to what Wikipedia currently details as typical:

  • January (Igesa), there would be harvesting of millet
  • February (Nyarakarwa) they did not have much work to do
  • March (Ijubyamiyonga) fields were prepared for planting simsim
  • May (Rwensisezere) there was not much work
  • July (ishanya maro), women would prepare fields for millet
  • August (Ikokoba) was the months of burning grass in the millet fields
  • September (Isiga) was for planting millet
  • November (Rwensenene) was named after grass hoppers
  • October (ijuba) was a month of weeding
  • December (Nyamiganura or Katuruko) was a month of rejoicing and festivities as there was little work to occupy the people

Today, they describe themselves as “the oldest Kingdom in East Africa and once the strongest military & economic power in the Great Lakes area.” For more about this fascinating culture, visit their official website. Find out about their King, their Queen, their world.

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for five blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a weekly columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing TeachersCisco guest blog, IMS tech expert, and a monthly contributor to Today’s Author. In her free time, she is the editor of a K-8 technology curriculumK-8 keyboard curriculumK-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum, and creator of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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11 thoughts on “Book Review: Bunyoro: An African Kingdom

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Letter from the Field–Part I « Jacqui Murray

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  5. The wisdoms and customs that have vanished with these ‘lost’ or destroyed tribes have always fascinated me. This sounds like a ‘must read’ to me. Really glad to have come across this book, and thank you for bringing it to my attention


    • Since the cultures are gone, we can’t even observe them anymore. I get some information on cultures from the late-1800s and early 1900s from Gutenberg Press, but there just isn’t much. And their approach to living in groups, tolerance, politics is fascinating. Sigh.


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