From ancient times to the present day, Africa’s collective imagination has to one degree or another been influenced by the leopard as a symbol of its cultural and spiritual potency. The black panther is the melanistic color variant of leopards in Africa, so perhaps the phenomenal success of the movie of the same name can be used as a current barometer of that potency. North, south, east, west, and diaspora – the leopard is a powerful symbol of African warriors, sages, magicians, priests, gods, goddesses, queens, and kings. In West Africa, sculptures from Ife and Benin portray the leopard as a symbol of wisdom. This statue from ancient North Africa depicting King Tutankhamun riding through the underworld on the back of a black panther, recalls for me the scene of King T’Challa’s journey through his ancestral plane from Ryan Coogler‘s brilliant movie. Africa’s big cats were deified in ancient Khemet, notably in goddess forms as depicted in the physical features of Goddess Bastet and Goddess Sekhmet; or the signature panther-skin dress worn by Seshat, Goddess of writing, architecture, astronomy, books, learning, spells, etc. Khemetic sem priests wore leopard skin garments in similar fashion to priests in Zimbabwe, Southern Africa. Their manner of draping the entire leopard skin around the body is consistent with the ways in which it continues to be worn by East African kings in Uganda‘s post-colonial reality. Geographically located in the neighborhood of Black Panther’s fictional Wakanda, Uganda is also where panther skins are part of the regalia for Karamojong and Acholi warriors.
Uganda, a Eurocentric construct that was economically self-serving, was so-named based on the largest African kingdom of Buganda [surrounding the current nation’s capital of Kampala] and deemed a British protectorate from 1894 to 1962. This status allowed constituent African kingdoms to retain a degree of self-determination in spite of communities having to overcome being split into Britain’s separate, nonsensical national boundaries [Kenya, Uganda, etc.] which only served the colonizer’s interests. Many traditional aspects of the constituent BaNtu kingdoms [see map] thus survived under the commonwealth monarchy which was abolished with Uganda’s independence in 1963. However, under the post-colonial leadership of President Milton Obote, in 1967 Uganda then proceeded to abolish the remaining monarchies. It wasn’t until 1993, under current President Yoweri Museveni that these traditional kingdoms were permitted to reincorporate under the caveat that they were to only be “cultural,” not “political” entities.
According to cultural tradition, the Baganda are ruled by two kings: one spiritual and the other material. Referred to by the title of Kabaka – Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II [pictured above] – the Buganda king holds the historical relationship between clans as sacred to the foundation and well-being of his kingdom. Buganda’s founding [according to Neil Kodesh in Beyond the Royal Gaze] came about through an initial encounter between the heads of two clans: Kasujja – whose clan totem was the colobus monkey – and Kintu (Buganda’s founding Kabaka), whose clan totem was the leopard/panther. Upon this meeting, Kasujja (who was already settled in Buganda) gave Kintu the skin of a leopard for his protection. This skin represents Mayanja, the musambwa or territorial spirit who created the Mayanja River… who appears in the form of a leopard… and who protects the kingdom of Buganda. To this day, the leopard skin is one of the main symbols of royalty in all the constituent kingdoms. Whether worn or mounted – under-throne, under-foot [see pics below] or through the underworld as Tutankhamun – the royal panther king alone is privileged in regard to this sacred totemic relationship.
Mujaguzo are the regalia of Royal Drums which represent the spiritual/supernatural Kabaka of Buganda. Upon the birth of a royal prince or princess, specially selected drummers sound these Royal Drums to announce the glad tidings to subjects of the Buganda kingdom. In order to protect against pre-emptive assassination attempts, the firstborn prince is prohibited from succeeding the Kabaka. Instead, during the reign of the material Kabaka, the prince who will succeed him is selected by a council who’ve observed and compared his development to other princes and kept his name as a state-secret. Upon the Kabaka’s death, the Mujaguzo Royal Drums are again sounded to announce the event to the kingdom. As the late Kabaka lies in state, his successor reveals himself by laying a special piece of bark cloth over his father’s body.
“A KABAKA DOES NOT DIE BUT GETS LOST IN THE FOREST”…
This Baganda expression explains why it is taboo for visitors to several of the Royal Tombs in Uganda’s traditional kingdoms to look beyond the entrance to the “forest,” or after-world of the Royal ancestors.
Often referred to as the Cloth of Kings as worn by Buganda’s Kabaka Mutebi [above] under his leopard skin, barkcloth – the most ancient organic textile in human history – is traditionally used in Royal regalia as well as for the King’s burial shroud. Craftsmen (traditionally of the Ngonge clan), headed by a kaboggoza, the hereditary chief craftsman, employ a prehistoric technique of fleecing the malleable inner bark of the local Mutuba tree, and stretching it out by beating it with wooden mallets to create large, unique pieces of organic terracotta-colored fabric. The bark is permanently renewable, therefore Mutuba trees don’t need to be felled as a result of this annual barkcloth harvesting process. In 2005, barkcloth received UNESCO’s recognition as a “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage.”
Like barkcloth, African culture continues to demonstrate its pricelessness as a renewable, adaptable, instructive and protective community resource. UbuNtu, the heart of BaNtu philosophy, means: “I am because we are…” Known as drum oracle and warrior Queen, Nyabingi is said to have spoken paranormally from behind the barkcloth veils her followers wore during their war against colonial invaders of the Uganda-Rwanda [Wakanda?] area. Though the political bite was taken out of traditional kingdoms so as to preserve the colonial construction of a Uganda nation, the spiritual symbolism of panther skins and barkcloth runs far deeper in the pan-African cultural psyche. The gallery below illustrates this material culture as commonly venerated in Uganda’s traditional kingdoms by monarchs I’m referring to in this post as “Panther Kings“ [top left: Omukama Iguru of the Bunyoro Kingdom; lower left: King Oyo of the Toro Kingdom; right: Omugabe Ntare of the Ankole Kingdom from whence come the magnificent cows which model Celestial Nurse/Divine Cow – Goddess Hathor‘s crown].
Given that the traditional kingdoms of Ankole, Buganda, Bunyoro, Busoga, and Toro surround the sacred source of the Nile River, the musambwa panther spirit may actively be protecting this territory through the deepest elements of BaNtu culture to which they all belong? Swahili – the BaNtu lingua franca – overrides colonial constructs in its reference to Africa’s Great Lakes countries as Nchi za Maziwa Mkuu, meaning ‘countries of the great milk’ – source of the River Nile …the Milky Way on earth as in heaven. While Khemet is widely referred to as the ‘Gift of the Nile,’ ancient Egyptians recorded in the Papyrus of Hunefer [c1285 BCE] their own acknowledgement thus: “We came from the beginning of the Nile where God Hapi dwells, at the foothills of The Mountains of the Moon.” These mountains refer to Rwenzori, one of the sources of the Nile which lies on the nonsensical colonial border between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda, specifically in the traditional kingdom of Toro. In the Bunyoro kingdom directly north of Toro where Lake “Albert” is located, the hereditary Royal title, Omukama, literally means ‘supreme milk-man/milk-bringer’ – [‘King of kings’ = alternative translation] – which is consistent with the BaNtu spiritual understanding of the Great Lakes source of the Nile as Maziwa Mkuu or ‘great milk.’ And in Khemet, the Celestial Nurse or Divine Cow was represented as Goddess Hathor. As cultural custodians, African Royals should be aware of the adverse impact of any lingering colonial presence [Britain’s Victoria, Edward, Albert, George, etc.] on Africa’s geographic ‘milk’ source and delivery system. Like propofol, the teat of this “Victorian matrix” sedates the African giant, anesthetizing His/Her organic, cultural and spiritual self-consciousness; and colonizes the truth humanity needs to contextualize and conceptualize the needs of its multi-dimensional well-being! Any credible reparations must begin at humanity’s source. To our ancestors we ask, What’s next? #UbuNtu ❤
Meanwhile, as we all find our way through the forest, the wonderfully versatile barkcloth – once exclusive to Baganda monarchs – has been put to various creative uses for one and all: