Kasubi one of the 31 royal burial grounds (Amasiiro) across Buganda Kingdom. Traditionally the bodies of the kings were laid in one place, with a separate shrine for the deceased king’s jawbone, believed to contain his soul. It should be remembered that the burial grounds of the Buganda kings and other royal Baganda became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in December 2001, when it was described as “one of the most remarkable buildings using purely vegetal materials in the entire region of sub-Saharan Africa”. The heritage site rests on approximately 26 hectares on Kasubi Hill in Kampala – about 5km northwest of the city center.
Most of the site at Kasibi is open agricultural land and one corner contains a Royal Palace which was built in 1882 by Kabaka Muteesa 1. Back in the day, this was home for Kings, though it is now their burial ground. The then palace turned into a burial ground in 1884 following the death of Kabaka Muteesa 1. Some of the major buildings had been completely destroyed by a fire in 2010. Nevertheless, they have been reconstructed with a much better and modern view with respect to Buganda culture. At the entrance is a phase, “like you we were and like us you shall be” meaning they once had life like we do and so we shall die like they are dead. The site holds royal tombs of four prominent Kabakas (Kings): Muteesa1, Mwanga II who died in exile on the Seychelles Islands and his body was returned in 1910; Daudi Chwa II, and Sir Edward Muteesa II who died in exile in London and his remains were returned in 1971.
At the gate house (Bujjabukula), tourists are assigned a guide. They lead visitors to a small courtyard then to the drum house (Ngoma-Obukaba), which houses the royal drums. Threreafter to the circular courtyard (Olugya) on the hilltop. The Olugya is surrounded by a reed fence. There stands the central building (Muzibu Azaala Mpanga). It was originally constructed from wooden poles, reed wattle and daub, topped by a thick thatched dome, with straw resting on 52 rings of palm fronds. During the reconstructions after the fire, the structure was built with some steel tubes, concrete columns and bricks. It is still largely concealed behind traditional material.
A low wide arch leads to the sacred spaces within, separated by reed portions and bark cloth decorations plus momentous of the Kabakas. There is a sacred forest as well, called ekibila, concealed from public view by a bark cloth curtain. The floor is covered with lemon grass and palm leaf mats. The courtyard is surrounded by houses for the deceased Kabakas’ widows who tend the family graves. These houses are traditionally constructed with wattles and daub plus straw thatched roofs. However some have been rebuilt with bricks and metal roofs following the recent renovations.
Amasiiro is an excellent component of Kampala’s cultural/heritage tourism menu, and it is a worthwhile experience. After all, ‘from ash we come and to ash we return.’
Editor’s Note: Mirembe Kisakye contributed to this article.