Belonging to many ethnic groups, Ugandans speak over 30 different African languages. English and Swahili are the country’s official languages. The Ugandan people can be classified into several broad linguistic groups. There are the Bantu speaking who are the majority live in the central, southern and western parts of the country. The other group is the Non-Bantu speaking people who occupy the Eastern, Northern and Northwestern parts of Uganda. This group may be sub-divided into Nilotics and central Sudanic people
Bantu-speakers entered southern Uganda probably by the end of the first millennium A.D. and developed centralized kingdoms by the fifteenth century. At independence, Bantu-language speakers made up approximately two thirds of the population. Their languages are classified as Eastern Lacustrine and Western Lacustrine Bantu in reference to the populous region surrounding East Africa’s Great Lakes that is; Lake Victoria, Kyoga, Edward, and Albert in Uganda; Kivu and Tanganyika to the south. Eastern Lacustrine peoples include the Baganda, the Basoga, the Bagisu, and many smaller societies in Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya.
The first category of Bantu people includes the large and historically highly centralized kingdom of Buganda, the smaller western Ugandan kingdoms of Bunyoro, Nkore and Toro and the Busoga states to the East. The peoples in the second category include the Iteso, Langi, Acholi, Alur, Karamojong, Madi, and Lugbara in the north and a number of other smaller societies in the eastern part of the country.
The Buganda makeup the largest ethnic group in Uganda, though they represent only 16.7% of the population. Buganda’s boundaries are marked by Lake Victoria on the south, the Victoria Nile River on the east, and Lake Kyoga on the north. The Basoga make up about 8% of the population. Before the arrival of the Europeans, they were subsistence farmers who also kept cattle, sheep, and goats. They commonly maintained gardens for domestic use close to the homestead. The Bagisu constitute 5% of the population. They occupy the well-watered western slopes of Mount Elgon, where they grow millet, banana, and corn for subsistence, and coffee and cotton as cash crops.
The Western Bantu includes the Banyoro, Batoro, and Banyankole of western Uganda. Their complex kingdoms are believed to be the product of acculturation between two different ethnic groups, the Hima and the Iru. In each of these three societies, two distinct are identified, the Hima and the Iru. The Hima are said to be the descendants of pastoralists who migrated into the region from the northeast. The Iru are said to be descendants of agricultural populations that preceded the Hima as cultivators in the region. Bunyoro lies in the plateau of western Uganda, constituting about 3% of the population. The Batoro evolved out of a breakaway segment of Bunyoro that split off at an unspecified time before the nineteenth century. The Batoro and Bunyoro speak closely related languages, Lutoro and Lunyoro, and share many other cultural traits. The Batoro live on Uganda’s western border, south of Lake Albert and constitute about 3.2% of the population. In pre-colonial times, they lived in a highly centralized kingdom like Buganda, which was stratified like the society of Bunyoro.
Nilotic-language speakers entered the area from the north probably beginning about A.D. 100. They were the first cattle-herding people in the area but relied on crop cultivation to supplement livestock herding for subsistence. The largest Nilotic populations in present-day Uganda are the Iteso and Karamojong cluster of ethnic groups speaking Eastern Nilotic languages and the Acholi, Langi, and Alur, speaking Western Nilotic languages. Constituting about 8.1% of population of Uganda, they are the nation’s second largest ethnic group. The Teso territory stretches south from Karamoja into the well-watered region of Lake Kyoga. Their traditional economy emphasizes crop growing. Many Iteso joined the cash economy when coffee and cotton were introduced in 1912, and the region has prospered through agriculture and commerce. Most of western Nilotic languages in Uganda are classified as Low Nilotic, and are closely related to the language of the Luo in Kenya.
The common pre-fixes of ‘Mu-’, ‘Ba-’ and ‘Bu-’ are used for ‘a member of’, ‘a people’ and ‘the land they occupy’. So for example, a Muganda is a member of the Baganda, who live in Buganda. The name of the country comes from the fact that in Swahili, the prefix ‘U-’ is used instead of ‘Bu-‘.
As in many African countries, dance is an important part of ceremonies and special occasions. Uganda’s different peoples have their own special dances. For example, in the eastern region, the Basoga practice a dance known as Tamenhaibunga which expresses the importance of love and friendship. Its name literally means ‘good friends drink together and don’t fight in case they break the gourd holding the drink’.
Probably the most widely re-cognised Ugandan dance is the Kiganda, where the performers move their lower body to a drum-beat. It’s a tricky dance, requiring great skill to keep the upper torso controlled and rotate to the music from the waist down. The dance has many variations for different occasions, but the version often seen is the one performed in honour of the Baganda king.