Kubandwa in the southwestern Great Lakes, 15th century – 1930s. A case-study in the historical dynamics of public healing

Start - End 
2020 - 2026 (ongoing)



The history of kubandwa – a complex of therapeutic associations in Great Lakes Africa – since 1500 is intimately linked to gendered social-economic innovation and configurations of (supra)lineage authority. An initial academic focus on kubandwa as a religion of resistance to or legitimation by expanding states under royal dynasties, has been complemented by a focus on social-economic relations in changing ecological circumstances. Using the concept of ‘public healing’, historians have reinterpreted religious movements as therapeutic ones with salient ideological representations of health and affliction. One scholarly view on Great Lakes kubandwa and the cwezi innovation (see below) since the 15th century takes its history to revolve around state development: it was the locus of resistance to and co-optation by centralizing clan/court actors. For some it has been the site of (female, anarchic) resistance against central (male, state) powers, or a puppet of court and clan figures to legitimate their rule. Renee Tantala saw a new configuration between pastoralists and farmers brought about by drought and famine in Kitara (today’s western Uganda) around the 15th-16th centuries as the impetus for cwezi-kubandwa spirits and their mediums to gain authority and influence to the detriment of territorially bound ritualists and ancestral lineage spirits. David Schoenbrun sees new social networks centered around pastoralists and their herds, spreading farther away than before. The northern cwezi innovation influenced southern Great Lakes kubandwa, but the latter also has its own distinctive history. Anthropologist Luc de Heusch interpreted southern kubandwa, centered around Ryangombe/Kiranga, as an anti-Hinda and anti-pastoralist cult, opposed to royal expansion. Iris Berger affirmed the basic contention that southern kubandwa was an anti-pastoralist movement by mixed farmers. Kubandwa evolved as a mosaic within a broader public healing complex. By elaborating on different social units in which spirit affliction and mediumship was manifested, we can shift the state-centered history of kubandwa in the southwestern Great Lakes to broaden the purview of kubandwa as public healing concerned with afflicted fertility and well-being in a historically changing environment of gendered social-economic relations and (supra-)lineage authority. The historical study of this African ‘religion’ as a public healing corporation presents an opportunity to contribute to regional narratives of African history based on deep-rooted indigenous ideology and practice.





Phd Student(s)