How time was measured in the pre-colonial area that became Kigyezi (Kigezi) is hard to determine. The elders I spoke with were not aware of the traditional equivalent of seconds, minutes, hours or dates. It is almost certain that such concepts were not part of our ancestors’ civilization, for time did not dictate human activities and social intercourse. Human activities determined time.
A day was divided into:
- Obutaagurukane (dawn)
- Akasheeshe (morning)
- Eihangwe (afternoon)
- Omwebazyo (evening)
- Nyekiro (night)
People were awakened by natural alarm clocks such as the crowing of a cock (rooster), the singing of a dove, the mooing of a cow or a bright sunray shining through some little gap in the house.
One got up when one was ready, not because it was 7:00 a.m. Breakfast, lunch and supper were eaten in the morning, middle of the day and after dusk, respectively, not at pre-set exact times. The meals were eaten when they were ready and as long as there was room in the stomach.
People went to their fields very early in the morning, tilled the soil until evening, with breaks in between that were dictated by one’s body and energy, not by some predetermined schedule. The hunters, gatherers, shepherds, blacksmiths, doctors, priests, chemists, night dancers and other professionals worked until they had accomplished their tasks or until dusk (or morning for the night dancers) arrived.
Meetings of the elders were not time-limited. They talked and talked until they resolved the matter or until they agreed on a plan of action. One went to worship when one was ready or needed to, and one worshipped until one had received absolution of their burden or had completely poured out their hearts to their god.
I am not aware of Rukiga-Runyankore words for time, agenda, program, schedule or such other concepts that govern Western civilizations. These are things that cause the people of Kigezi and other Africans rather troublesome inconvenience.
We are the masters of time, you see, not the other way round. Watches are pure ornaments, modern bangles for adorning our wrists, not mechanical dictators to ruin our heart-friendly pace through life. To us a meeting scheduled for 9:00 AM really means “before lunch.” Lunch, of course, is any time between breakfast and supper. That is living.
Of course there is the small matter of our cooption into the European way of life. It may be a good idea to adapt our traditions to that reality, and keep time with the precision that Europeans take for granted. But I digress.
The closest words for time are akeire/obwire or akaanya/omwanya or ekihe. However, all these refer to a time period, not a point in time. Days themselves did not have specific names. Every day was like any other, with activities determined by need and not restricted by human-made concepts. Everyday was a school day, the students apprenticing at the masters’ feet, so to speak.
Days of the week
The seven-day week appears to have arrived with Europeans. However, Omugurusi Festo Karwemera told me that he learnt from a Munyankore female elder many years ago that her people had had a system that was centred on a seventh day of worship. Every seventh day would be dedicated to visiting a Murinzi (spirit medium) to pay homage and seek blessings and protection. They would keep track of the days by planting special sticks in the ground every day until they got to the seventh one. Then the cycle would start again.
It is noteworthy that in his writings, Omugurusi Karwemera, the most knowledgeable custodian of the traditions of the Bakiga, uses the following names for the days of the week:
- Sande = Sunday
- Ekyokubanza = Monday
- Ekyakabiri = Tuesday
- Ekyakashatu = Wednesday
- Ekyakana = Thursday
- Ekyakataano = Friday
- Ekyamukaaga = Saturday
The prefix “ekya-“ is short for “ekiro kya” – as in ekiro ky’okubanza (the first night.) Some use the prefix “orwa-” instead of “ekya-“. “Orwa” refers to “orunaku” (day). So you have Orwokubanza, Orwakabiri and so on.”
These names refer to the number of the night (day) in sequential counting from Monday (ekiro kyo’kubanza) to Saturday (ekiro kyamukaaga.) This simple numerical system was an invention of the newly colonized elders in the early years of the twentieth century as they adopted European concepts. Our week started (and still starts) on Monday (the first day) unlike the European tradition of starting the week on Sunday.
The traditional end of the year was the harvest period of Nyairurwe (July). The rains of Kicuransi (August) signalled the start of a new year, ushered in with tilling the land and sowing for the new season.
Months were recognised, complete with names, but not necessarily aligned with the European ones. A month was called ekibariro and was determined by a combination of the moon cycles, the seasonal weather pattern and period-specific human activities. In modern Rukiga-Runyankore, a month is called okwezi, which is the same word for the moon. Some call it omwezi, which sounds suspiciously corrupted, perhaps an import from our relatives in the Karagwe, Tanzania area.
The appearance of the moon was cause for joy and celebration. Omugurusi Karwemera told me that women would go outside with their children and mention the name of the month and follow it with a poetic recitation of prayer and thanksgiving. If it was the fourth month of the year, for example, a lady would say: “Nyabihekye ombonekyere gye, nkure n’omushaija wangye, n’otwana twangye, na twijukuru twangye; mbuteere aha ibaare bwere, ndye obwa Kaibo ngyerekyeho obwa Mukoroogi.”
(Be good to me Nyabihekye, so that I age with my husband, my children and my grandchildren; let my millet seed that falls on a rock bloom so that I have an abundance of bread.”)
We do not know how many days constituted a month. What we know is that the year was divided into twelve distinct periods or seasons (ebibariro.) The names of the seasons probably changed and acquired different names over the centuries, just as was the case in other civilizations.
You will recall that the Roman year used to start in March and had only ten named months (March to December). The ancient Romans did not waste names on the cold months of winter when little economic activity took place.
It was King Numa Pompilius who, around 700 BC, added the two winter months of Januarius “January”, with 29 days, and Februarius “February” with 28 days.
Unencumbered by the inconvenience of parliamentary debates and national referenda on such matters, the King decreed that the year would now begin in Januarius. He also ordered that certain months would have an odd number of days because that brought good luck to his realm. He also tweaked the days, setting some aside for commerce and others for religion.
Pompilius created an extra month after Februarius, which he gave the lovely name of Intercalaris (intercalendar). It had 27 days. Over the centuries, Februarius grew shorter, down to 23 days by 450 BC. By the time of the Emperor Julius Caesar, the solar and lunar years had become so misaligned that a revision was necessary.
Around 46 BC, Julius Caesar changed the number of days in some of the months, abolished Intercalaris and returned Februarius to 28 days except that every fourth year would have 29 days.
So the Roman world got the Julian calendar, aligned with the tropical solar year, complete with the month of July, which the good emperor thought a very sensible idea to name after himself.
A little while later, Caesar Augustus tweaked the calendar a bit and, just for fun, named the eighth month after himself. This remained the operative calendar until the reforms by Pope Gregory in 1582 changed it again.
The months in the Pompilian, Julian and Augustine calendars were named numerically, initially starting from March, the first month of the original Roman year. For example, month seven (septem) became September; month eight (octo) became October, month nine (novem) became November and month ten (decem) became December.
Julius Caesar forgot to correct the inbuilt error that saw, for example, Novem, meaning nine, become the eleventh month! Happily time has taken care of things. We now blissfully consider that November cannot mean anything else, and Decem, the tenth month, is really the twelfth. A future emperor may yet save humanity from the confusion.
We have no clue what decrees the great chiefs and kings of our ancient past pronounced in their time management agendas. Since the Bakiga and Banyankore preferred to keep unwritten records, we can only be sure about the names of the months that were in use by the end of the nineteenth century.
The following table shows the classic names of the months of the year in Rukiga and in Runyankore, aligned against the Roman calendar and the modern “Anglo-Rukiga-Runyankore” version. Note that the names of months in classic Rukiga (the language of Bakiga) are different from those in classic Runyankore (the Language of Banyaokore.) The variation may be a result of the difference in weather and agricultural seasons. These variations did not matter at a time when the Bakiga and Banyankore did not have written records, letters and other documents that required written dates. Now there is need to harmonize the names of the months in order to avoid confusion.)
In my childhood, we used to recite the months in song, starting with Muzimbeezi. Like many distortions of our traditions, this version may be what many are familiar with. According to senior elders with memories that predated these distortions, our year ended with the harvest season (Nyairurwe).
For the most part, the derivation of the names of the months is related to natural phenomena and the agricultural life of the community.
Kahingo refers to okuhinga or cultivation, but the message in the name is “it is time time to plant”. This is the time of planting the major crops, especially sorghum. Planting later than this risks crop damage by the Sun. If you missed planting during this month, the elders would warn you that famine was your destiny.
Biruuru refers to enduuru (vocal alarm) that was sounded as a warning about the impending rains. These were our weathermen at work. They would raise the alarm that abaanikyire baaza kujubya, kandi ababagazi barahukye, abashaaruuzi beehuute. (Seeds that were being dried were about to get wet; weeding of the fields needed to be expedited; and harvest of peas was an urgent task before torrential rains began.)
Katumba refers to kutumbagiza emigusha or okutumbagira kw’omugusha gukakura juba gukanyeeta (the rapid growth of sorghum plants.) Given the heavy rains, people often say: Katumba yaaroba!
Nyabihekye refers to oburo buri obuhekye, bwine enjuma zitakatunire (small, premature millet seed) that are abundant during this month. The dancers singing about the heavy rains say: “Katumba yaaroba, Nyabihekye obwambu bwaijura.”
Rwamagira refers to rain that skips parts (enjura kugwa neerenga nari kugwa neerekyeza.) It might rain on one hill, skip the valley and rain on a hill on the other side. This is not a good sign and suggests impending drought. The people say: “Obu egyi njura yaatandika kwamagira yaaza kubura.” (Now that this rain is skipping parts, it is about to disappear.)
From a literal translation of the word, okwamagira or okwamagirira, is the act of using human voices as alarms to scare birds away. Could this name have also referred to that action which was routinely done to scare birds from sorghum in seed?
Kyabahezi refers to a season when people would harvest immature sorghum due to hunger and food shortage. Abahezi bakaba bahangura omugusha beihamu ekihere. They would dry the immature seeds, pound them with empezo (stone) to produce ekihere ky’omugusha and make porridge (enkumba) or orukaamure to which they added honey to make enturire (honeyed alcohol). They would also make bread (oburo bw’obuhemba) from the kihere.
Nyairurwe refers to strong winds by that name. They are frequent and blow hard during what we now call July. They often have akasooroora (a small whirlwind or air vortex of dust and debris, sometimes called a dust devil.)
The origin of the word Nyairurwe itself is not known. When I spoke with Karwemera, he wondered whether it might have referred to okweruura amababi (blowing the leaves.) This month is also called Ibarurantojo, referring to very hot Sun which the Bakiga say nigubarura enjuma z’ebitojo (“it cracks the seeds of local Holly shrubs) or nigwata embwa oruhara (it cracks a dog’s bald head.) Nyairurwe was the first month of the Bakiga year.
Kicuransi refers to the cooling or calming down of the earth after the hot and dry season (Ekyanda). The earth is cooled by the welcome rains that follow the dry, scorching harvest season. People would say ngu ensi yaayecura or yaacureera (has calmed down or yaahora, that is, cooled down). This month is also called Kamena, a derivative of the Runyarwanda word ‘kumena’ or to decant (pour away), meaning that the cream/oil/lotion that one uses on one’s legs is wasted because of the dust and mud.
Nyakanga eyanga imbibo omuka, literally meaning that it does not like to see stored seed at home. It is a period that compels you to get all the seed out of the granaries and sow for the second crop. The family head would also use a metaphor to exhort his wives and children: “Yaimwe mubishohoze!” (Please take the granaries out!)
Kashwa is the period when swarms of winged termites (obuhungambeba), having been provoked by rains or increased humidity, fly as part of their mating ritual before they shed their wings and settle to form a new colony (ekishwa) or colonies (ebishwa).
Museeneene refers to the long-horned grasshoppers (Ruspolia baileyi) that appear by the billions. Eseeneene (senene in Kiswahili or nsenene in Luganda) are a delicacy in the Great Lakes Region and places further south.
Muzimbeezi is an enigma. The experts, including my mother Nyamijumba Muhara wa Bushoberwa Omutanga, my father Kisigo Mulera mwene Rukooko Omukonjo W’Omutenga wa Nyanga and Omugurusi Karwemera mwene Karagare, were not very certain about its exact meaning or origins. However, Omugurusi Karwemera advanced one possible origin: “Obunaku obu amahuri g’ebihuguhugu garugwamu kanyananga eshwekyirwe orububi aha mababi g’ebiti. Kanyananga egyo niyo beeta ‘Muzimbeezi.’ (The season when butterfly larvae (caterpillars) emerge from the eggs. The caterpillar (kanyananga) is what is known as Muzimbeezi.)
Most people today are more familiar with the Anglo-Rukiga-Runyankore names of the months than the classic ones. These modern names (Januari, Febwari, Maachi and so on) are functional and well understood by people who have had at least basic primary school education.
However, they neither carry the meaning nor the power and weight of the classic Rukiga and Runyankore names of the months. The latter are so easy to remember that it would be a worthwhile project for every Mukiga, Muhororo and Munyankore to learn them and use them. Just as we have embraced the Roman names, we should also be good custodians of our ancestors’ rich traditions.