Witchcraft! Voodoo, Juju, Makutu, Magic, Juok, Uchawi… Whatever you call it, every culture has its own version of traditional beliefs. Normally this belief system is focused around good things: healing, cleansing, fortune telling, bringing the rains, prosperity, fertility, love, etc. In Uganda, our traditional beliefs focus primarily on ancestor worship.
Ancient ancestors poses trees and landmarks where people go to pray, bring their sick children, smoke herbs… the list is LONG. Normally, the prayers are accompanied by offerings such as local beer, milk, money, and the burning of wood and herbs. Babies have strings tied around their waists which hold charms to ward off illness, bring prosperity in the future, and even make the babies’ bum grow bigger!
Often families build houses of out of mud, brick, and grass thatch behind their homes for their spirits to live in. There is a special box in the back of the house where the spirits hide during the day, then at night the spirits come out to inhabit the house and absorb the small offerings of milk, beer, animal blood, and meat their descendants have left for them.
When building a house, the inhabitants must slaughter an animal such as a goat or chicken. The blood is spilt over the foundation and the animal’s life and blood is offered up to the ancestors to protect the home and the family inside. The animal is then cooked and the family feasts. Even in modern Kampala, Uganda’s capital city, many people slaughter chickens over their new cars so the ancestors can protect them from automobile accidents!
Talismans made of trinkets and animal parts are often kept in the home or on a person’s body to watch over him and ward off harm. Sometimes these are commissioned by the person needing the protection, but they are often given as gifts from friends or from community elders and family during the recipients rite of passage, for example, following a boy’s circumcision ceremony.
Our antique pre-independence East African coins are a direct link to the ancestors because the ancestors actually used them! The coins are tied to the babies’ waists and the great-great grandparents are asked to protect the child from diseases such as cholera, measles, and polio. During divination, instead of casting bones, here the Balibawo throws a variety of old shells, coins, and trinkets. He then reads how they land. When families hold ceremonies where they communicate with their past relatives, they often adorn themselves with long flowing necklaces made of raffia fiber with trinkets and coins tied in.
Grassroots Uganda on the other hand, uses these coins to make very cool jewelry. We buy them from villagers, and basically reinvent them using our funky West African trade beads, recycled glass beads, and bone beads to both preserve the coins character, and use it for something… a bit more modern.
When you buy our coin jewelry, you are not only supporting Grassroots Uganda and our women, you are supporting the villagers from whom we purchased the coins, and you are buying a little piece of the people’s, and Uganda’s, history.