Few things are as culturally painful as watching a modern school-educated Mukiga or Munyankore eating oburo (millet bread) and enyama (meat).
Out comes a knife and fork, delicately supported by soft, washed and well-oiled hands. The millet bread, already pre-cut into small manageable pieces, is lifted from its container and gently placed on a Royal Doulton with hand-painted periwinkles that would have pleased Mrs. Bouquet (Bucket) of Keeping Up Appearances.
One is mortified by the sight of millet bread served on a plate or one of those expensive-looking ceramic bowls with a lid. Worse is the sight of oburo and meat joined on the plate by things that should never be seen near the glorious pair – rice, pasta, peanut sauce and even uncooked leaves and roots upon which various dressings are poured.
Amidst conversations about the state of the nation and other weighty matters, the knives and forks clink away as the diners chip off small bits from the millet bread, dip them into the sauce before directing the forks upwards.
The teeth part just enough to let the fork deliver its small cargo onto the tongue. The pursed lips quickly close as the diner savors the food without comment. He swallows the small piece of food with ease as he reaches for a glass of water, juice or wine to wash it down. Is it any wonder that people complain of stomach upsets that were unheard of before the arrival of the Europeans?
It is just as well that my grandparents are no longer around to witness this cultural treason that has overthrown the great art of eating millet bread. Yes, there was a time when a man ate oburo in style, complete with names of each phase of the proceedings.
But first, let me tell you a few things about the dinner etiquette of the Bakiga. Various foods had specific containers. Millet bread was always served in ekiibo or akeibo, a beautifully woven little basket with a round peaked lid. The Banyankore and Bahororo call it endiiro and the Banyarwanda call it akeebo.
The meat and soup were served on orucuba (orubeehe), a wooden oval dish with a handle, or in orwabya (a small clay pot) or bowl-like modified gourd.
Other foods would be served on orugari (a shallow, almost flat woven dish) or in entemere (a woven bowl).
There were a few prohibitions at mealtime. According to Omugurusi Festo Karwemera, it was considered bad manners to remain silent between mouthfuls; to simultaneously chew from both sides of the mouth; and to lick one’s fingers and hands.
Conversation was encouraged between mouthfuls, for silence during a meal suggested greed.
Proper consumption of millet bread was a joyful but potentially hazardous exercise. A man was expected to empty a standard millet-bread container after digging in only five times.
He would break off a handful of the bread, mold it into a ball, press his thumb into the middle to create a crater, use this to scoop up some soup together with a piece of meat and deliver the whole thing, called enogo, into his mouth.
He might chew the nogo a couple of times, more to entertain his taste buds than to make it easier to swallow. He would then swallow the big ball of food and hope for the best.
Each nogo had a name. The first was called
ITEMBYA MIZIGA meaning “the tear-inducing one.” It would be so big that as it negotiated its way down the esophagus (gullet), tears would flow.
After a sip of obushera, a cold sorghum beverage, the second nogo, called ICWA NGISHA, would follow. Engisha were necklaces that were worn by men, often with protective or magical properties.
The word “icwa” comes from “okucwa” or to split or tear an object. The second nogo would be so large that it would distend the neck, jutting Adam’a Apple against the necklaces and scattering them all over the place.
Another sip of obushera, a little conversation and then IHENDA BITEBE would follow. (Okuhenda means to break. Ebitebe are wooden seats, usually stools.) This third nogo would leave the diner so full and strong that his seat risked breaking under his weight.
While he enjoyed his millet bread and meat, the man’s wife and children, seated nearby, would dig into their vegetarian dishes. The man, having had his fill, would prepare the fourth nogo, which was called TOORA MWANA WE OTANTEERANA NA NYOKO (take this, young lad, for I don’t want any misunderstandings with your mother.) He would hand the nogo to his grateful son, as a bribe of sorts.
More conversation, more sips of bushera, and then the final nogo, known as KABUHWE TWETEEKYE, would cap the proceedings. The literal translation was “let it be finished and we sit idle.” The diner would feel bereft, with the coded message that he still had room for more nogos.
Omugurusi Festo Karwemera Mwene Karagare Kabure Nkeecwere shared a variation on the theme that has 6 nogos. The Karwemera version names them as follows:
ISHANJUURA-MUMIRO, meaning “the one that widens the throat.”
The second is BAKABUHINGA-OGYIREHE?”, meaning: “where were you when they planted the millet?” The person dining would say this while offering it to a passerby who stared at him with evident interest.
This is followed by ICWA-NGISHA (translated above).
The fourth is ITARATAMBYA-MIZIGA (same as ITEMBYA-MIZIGA … above).
The fifth is TOORA MWANA WE OTANTEERANA NA NYOKO (see above).
The sixth is KABUHWE TWETEEKYE (see above.)
We watched our elders eat this way and learnt that dining was not simply a physical satiation process, but a work of art and drama.
However, it was Lazaaro Tabaaro mwene Kakorwa, my late father-in-law, who first taught me the names of enogo. He told me in August 1980 that in his youth, he would empty endiiro before a “dove completed its song.”
My education was further refined by Erika Bayenda mwene Kyarukara Omuheesi wa Kahondo ka Byamarembo. By God’s grace, he is alive and well, one of the last living experts in the art of making and eating Itembya Miziga, Icwa Ngisha, Ihenda Bitebe, Toora Mwana we Otanteerana na Nyoko and Kabuhwe Tweteekye.
Then Omugurusi Karwemera added his version, enabling us to vary our eating with an added round.
I honour these three gentlemen by sharing their knowledge with posterity.