Semiotics In The Family Onamastics Of Social Exclusion Of Women Among Bamasaba And Banukusu Communities In Eastern Africa

This article will start its discourse by defining or operationally simplifying two hard-words used in the headline and then explain who are the Babukusu and the Bamasaba people living in the eastern partof Africa. Thence, the paper will discuss social exclusion, forced movement and gender-mainstreamingof women under the context of the above defined concepts.

Semiotics is a term applied across different fields. It is a term of inter-disciplinary application. It is applied in logic and philosophy to imply symbolic logic or inductive thinking. InAfrican literature we borrow Bukenya’s definitions of semiotics as the branch of literature or orature concerned with implied meanings or values of a literary or cultural symbol. It is under this context that Toni Morrison wrote an opening sentence in one of his novels that, I am the meaning of the sound and I am the sound of the meaning. Thus, in this paper the concept of semiotics is to be understood as the hidden meanings or social implications of a given cultural or ritualistic observation within the family environment of the Bamasaba and Babukusu people of east Africa.

Then onamastics or onamatology is not a new word, as often taken by most of the English speakers in Africa, This word has its origin mostly attributed the European social–anthropological neology in the cultural studies by neoclassical literary and anthropology scholars. The word Onamastics got publicized and popularized to the African audience by Dr. Chilala of the University of Zambia in his paper the Onamastics in Ngugiwathiong’o’s works; from I will marry when I want to the Wizard of the Crow,presented to the second Eastern Africa international conference of literature and cultural studies at Makerere University inAugust 2015. The onamatology as used in anthropology is known as anthroponomastics. And the one in used literature is literary onamastics. In this paper we shall be using both literary onamastics and anthroponamatolgy.To, going to the point; onamatology is the study of names and their direct meanings. It is different from nomenclature as used in biology and logic.Nomenlcature concerned with names used in classification of objects without necessarily looking for the meaning of the names. In a nutshell therefore, this paper is conceptually oriented to an operational position that semiotics is the connotative perspective of a given cultural value and onamatology is the denotative value of any given culture or ritual with its implications to the social dynamics affecting women among the Bamasaba and Babukusu families in the eastern Africa .

The paper will use onamatological examples from the two mentioned r communities by strictly confining its ethnographic data gathered during the month of august and September 2015 from both the rural and urban members of the same communities. This was so because an urban living and rural living members of these communities have the same cultural instincts.

By way of introduction Bamasaba are the Bantu speaking communities found in the Mbale District in eastern Uganda. They observe male circumcision; they practice polygamous marriages and widow inheritance. There economic livelihood is basically derived from, animal husbandry, subsistence farming and petty-peasant trading. Whereas, Babukusu are also Bantu speaking people, they occupy the present western province of Kenya. They share a commonpolitical but not cultural boundary with Bamasaba. Both Bamasaba and Babukusu share the common biological ancestry. Their mythology has it that, they both originated from the common ancestors;Mwambutheir first man to be created by God WeleKhabumbi, or god the creator. Thus Mwambu is their great-grand father and Namaganda his wife is their great- grand mother. The creation mythology is not very clear whether Namaganda was also created by WeleKhabumbi or not. For is so great to create a delicate creature like a woman with such biological feature so filthy that cannot be discussed in public.

Bamasaba and Babukusu claim the Baganda to be their brothers but from their step mother, which was the second wife of Mwambu. Thus they believe in polygamy because their first parent was also polygamous. The fact untowhich the Baganda historians are very objective and not ready to agree.Contrastingly, the Baganda claim common ancestry with the communities in western Uganda but not Bamasaba and Babukusu. Babukusu have the same culture of circumcision, polygamy and widow inheritance just as Bamasaba. Economic livelihood of Babukusu is only different from that of Bamasaba by political accident, because of comparatively positive politics in Kenya that brought commercial sugar, cotton and coffee farming to the western province of Kenya. However, it has to be noted that both Babukusu and Bamasaba are not commercially venturesome into long distance trading.

We now resort tothe discussionof the main part of this paper;the onamatology and the pertinent semiotics of social exclusion of women in the twocommunities. This paper recommends readingOutline History of Babukusu by Fred Makila, an intellectual- cum –fact finding exercise in which youwill have to notice that the name Mwambu means the creator, or he who has powers to bring life. While the name Namaganda,means but in the pejorative sense, the one with a bean seed amid the thighs. Semiotic extension will lead you to the fact that Namaganda was given this name because of her biological nature of having a clitoris.

Semiotics of Social Exclusion inthe Family Onamastics

Let us now turn to the semiotics of exclusion that can be derived from the onamastics of the physical and social features of a home among these communities. Both the communities call a home asMungo or Mulokoba. These two words are used in the military sense like a fort, a barrack, or a walled enclosure. Thus, it is only a man who can rule a home the same way the military commander rules a military unit. According to the customs of the both communities, a man can have as many wives in a home as he wills as long as he will pay dowry. But it is not possible for a woman to have more than one man commanding a home. Given that polyandry as a social beahviour is condemned heavily among these two communities. Within a home there are usuallyfamilies or a family. Both Bamasaba and Babukusu call the family as Enju. Under this context, Enju means an active system of a wife and her biological children. There are also situations under whichEnjumeans physical house in which there is a wife. The house in which un-married man or woman lives is calledesimbabut not enju. Thus, a man has permanent residence in terms of a home, but a woman has temporary residence in terms of enju. Enju can collapse given the peasant architecture that goes with its construction or it can be closed down through divorce which makes a woman to move away from the house she has been staying. The culture does not have time for the painful psychology that goes with an experience of being moved away from the place of habitation.

There are also hidden lessons of social exclusion of a woman to be deduced and even be induced from the gender or sex of children born in the family Sex of children in the family determines future settlement of the woman. This is the present and active experience among both Bamasaba and Babukusu girl child is called by omukhana by the parents, but is called Omugogo, by the brothers, meaning my source of cows, cows to be earned through collection of dowry. And her fellow sisters call her yaya, meaning we share the same lot, fate or challenge.Omukhanaas a word has more semiotics of social exclusion than other names above. Itmeans you will make me get what is treasured by the enemy. This denotes that a girl child can even get married into the homes of enemy neighbours, not for the purpose of peace-building but for the purpose of making her parents earn dowry through a social maneouvre. This is why Babukusu don’t use the word married when referring to their adult and married daughters. They use the word sex.For example, among the Babukusu, a married daughter is not described as married to so and so, but instead the word akwalikha to so and so is used. Akwalikha directly translates to; she is currently have sex at X’s or Y’s home. The semiotics of this onamatology is that, for a woman it does not matter for where to have sex, it does not need to be permanent and binding. She can loosely change herplaces of sexual intercourse as much as her energy allows and as long as dowry will be collected by her male parents and brothers. This open crudeness expressed as selfish patriarchy is still palpable by the time this sentence was being written.

This was just by way of digression. The main point under this context was purported to show that awoman thathas not given birth to a son or a baby boy will not inherit land and hence a place of permanent settlement from her husband. This is so because among the Bamasaba and Babukusu land is not given to the wife but to the sons that wife bears. Land is usually relinquished to the sons through traditional inheritance and succession procedures on death of the husband or when the sons come of age and get married. Thus the son own land and their old mother will stay as a squatter on the land of the lastborn son. A widow without sons is forced to move, remarry, to be inherited into another home or to return to the place of her birth where her parents are. They are these cultural determinants of property ownership among these communities that make the boy child to be treasured by the mothers and hence to be called Omusoleli.Meaning he will remain or persist in this home with me. The persistence of the boy is as good as persistence of the mother. It is the perceived economic despair caused by this cultural crudeness that sometimes makes women to go sexually aggressive and get involved into extra-marital affairs in search of a baby boy in a situation where a boy child is delaying to be born.

Among Bamasaba and Babukusu, an eventuality of twins in the family comes not without risks of settlement to the woman. Among these communities twins that are born but not as first born in the family are known asbukhwana. They are taken to be harbingers of good news, and they are assumed to be originating from the father’s spiritual domain, especially they are taken to be a gift from the ancestors. Whereas, the twins that are born as first born in the family are known as buniikula.These are the evil twins. They are bad omen. They signify impeding death of the entire clan. In these circumstances one of the twin babies is to be killed by the mother as aa ritual of correction. If not the mother of the twins is to be divorced away after going through a certain repugnant ritual. This is why you find a lot of cases of babies thrown or dumped at the road side, in a similar social stretch there are very many sex-workers from Bamasaba and Babukusucommunities which comes as a result of broken marriages caused by technicalities of having had twin babies. It is like this because it is not easy for any lady to get married somewhere else within these communities after being divorced from the first marriage on the grounds of bearing Buniikula.This culture has also tormented the ladies who have been victims of Buniikulainto a mentally programmed cognitiveblockageby choosing or defenselessly ending up to condemning themselves to be evil goddesses but not normal women to re-try a marriage somewhere else.

Other twins also deemed to be evil are those that come immediately after the other twins. These ones are known as Buloongo,meaning twins after the twins,the next twins are called,Bukhiisa, meaning the third twinsthenBukhamala, or the fourth twinsBukhonokhaor the last twinsand so forth. The cultural approach to the eventualities of these types of twins is just as socially exclusive and very punitive to the woman that bare them just as that cultural experience in the case of Buniikula.

I don’t want to resist some truth in the argument that you are unfortunate to be a woman in Africa. The person who made this statement had his own data, maybe. I also submit to this statement by basing on my findings of two months ethnography, participation and interviews among the Bamasaba and Babukusu. I will use the facts in relation to child bearing challenges to justify this argument. In any case where the couple delays or fails to have a child, no gynecologist is consulted for advice. The community declares the wife in this situation to be omugumba. Meaning the barren one. This is a word that is heavily loaded with shame, agony, ridicule, denigration and implied rejection when used against one.To be an omugumba is a very misfortunate position. One is automatically excluded from succession to property. And again an omugumba does not have any claim to her husband in any manner whatsoever. She is looked at as a source of bad luck or a bad spirituality.

Sometimes the woman is declared of being omugumba when in the real sense it is the man that is impotent or sterile. Among the Bamasaba and Babukusu a man cannot fail to fertilize a woman. It is always a woman that is in the wrong in any situation a child delays to be born. Where the community gets disillusioned and doubts that may be it is the man that is sterile, a situation they call omuchili, meaningthe one with a small penis, you will be surprised to see the blame still going to the woman for either having a big vulva for their son or for not being lively in the bed for their son. The community also blames witchcraft by the women he had previously had sex with, or the step mother who might have been envious and cursed a spell of bareness to the impotent man. I mean these are semiotics.

Cultural ways through which bareness is solved are also full of social and psychological pale to the woman. They include vicious rituals like forcing a woman into night running, forcing a woman to be circumcised, marrying other wife or even divorcing and recovering the cows paid as dowry of the omugumba. Where the parents of Omugumba are not able to return the cows then they are forced to give out another girl in addition to the one that is omugumba.

Let me now extend my discussions to the situation of death in the family and their relation to the family Onamastics with its semiotics of social exclusion of women. In the eventuality of death of a married man, a woman automatically becomes un-clean for six months. These cultural position looks like the mourning custom known as bombazine which used to be observed in the old Israel and also in Britain before 1800. Bamasaba and Babukusu also believe that a woman becomes spiritually un-clean ondeath of her husband. The six months period is for her to mourn her husband and also to get cleansed through rituals. The cleansing rituals are known as khusinga namulekhwa likokhe, which translate as cleansing the widow through washing her thoroughly by use of the ash solution. Namulekhwa is the name given to the woman that has lost her husband to death. The onamatological and sematic value of the word Namulekhwa is somehow pejorative. It is something like; now she is left at the mercy of relatives, or free to be taken over, since she is now like a chattel bon-vacantia. She can be taken over by anywilling man, whether from the kinship of her late husband or not, and be moved away to a new home. This can only happen after she has gone through all the mourning rituals related to deaths of her husband. Contrastingly, when the man is left alive and is the wife that has died, there are no tight nor strict rituals to be observed by the man. The man is allowed to remarry even before the burial of the wife. And more so, the man is culturally required to have sex with any other woman within six months after burial of the wife.

More excoriating is a social experience among both the communities of Bamasaba and Babukusu, where the movable properties of the late husband are taken away by relatives of the husband. The widow does not have a cultural right to oppose those taking away the properties neighther does she have any cultural locus-standii to share in the properties of her late husband. Chattels like, tables, radios, clothings, cows, bicycles, watches, chairs, shoes, books and so forth are usually taken away by the brother in-laws on the third day after burial of the husband. The money in the bank account and the money collected during the funeral are also supposed to be taken away in case of balances having been left un-spend during the funeral. This ritual is so sorrowful experiences by women that those of you dear readers with any sense of humanity may not even want to see it happening.After two or three years, final mourning ceremony is done. It is called khukhalaka kimikoye. It involves demolishing of the houses in the homestead of the late, so that he can be forgotten. This aims at paving way for the new homesteads to be constructed.

The houses are demolished without considering where the widow and the orphans, how they feel and where they will sleep. In laws from the clan or community of the husband only demolish the structures, but they don’t build another for the bereaved family. Where they happen to build, they do it to the standard of the structures they have demolished. They can demolish a stone walled modern house, only to move the widow and her children into the new, cold and delicate ruffian thatched. A woman losing her husband gives the community patriarchs an opportunity of exposing the widow to harsh experiences.

About Alexander K. Opicho
Alexander Ernesto Khamala Namugugu Opicho was born in Bokoli village, Bungoma District, in the former Western provice of Kenya. He went to primary and secondary schools in Western Kenya. He studied Accountancy, then governance and leadership at the University. He is currently pursuing a Phd course in management. He has two wives; Literature is the first. He has published poetry with Ghana poetry foundation, the East African Standard and on He has published online more than two hundred essays, several literary criticisms and over six hundred poems. His five books are with the publisher. He believes that the praxis of literature is the practice of freedom

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Articles by Alexander Opicho