Kasubi tombs: Tradition clashes with modernity over restoration

The rebuilding of the Kasubi Royal Tombs of the Buganda Kings has brought about a cultural clash between traditionalists and modernists in the Buganda kingdom.

The Kasubi Royal Tombs, a Unesco World Heritage Site, were as destroyed in a fire whose cause is yet to be disclosed, on March 16, 2010.

On March 1, 2013, Unesco signed the Plan of Operation with the Ugandan government for the rebuilding project dubbed, “Technical and financial assistance for the reconstruction of Muzibu-Azaala-Mpanga, architectural masterpiece of the Tombs of the Buganda Kings at Kasubi, Uganda, World Heritage property in danger,” generously supported through the Japanese Funds-in-Trust.

The project’s objective is to set up an efficient risk prevention scheme at the tomb site, with necessary equipment and support for the cost of qualified supervision for the reconstruction. In addition, the project is to provide scientific support to the team in charge of reconstruction to ensure that the outstanding universal values of the site, both tangible and intangible, are maintained.

The proposal was prepared as a result of the studies conducted on the property by the Unesco World Heritage Centre and the experts made available by the government of Japan through the Japanese Funds-in-Trust for the Preservation of World Cultural Heritage.

The governments of Uganda and Japan and the Kingdom of Buganda together with the community of practitioners celebrated the launch of the reconstruction of Muzibu-Azaala-Mpanga on May 13, 2014 at the Kasubi site. The event was organised by the Unesco Regional Office for Eastern Africa and the Uganda National Commission for Unesco.

The reconstruction team includes traditional craftsmen from Buganda, local and Japanese experts, and will involve six phases with Omega Construction as the lead contractor.

The project is being implemented by the Ugandan government and Unesco and is using both traditional and more contemporary building materials.  

Phase three, which is the main component of the entire reconstruction plan is the restoration of the Muzibu-Azaala-Mpanga, the main house where the relics and portraits of the Kabakas are stored. This will cover: the construction of the entire structure including thatching restoration of all floors inner ceiling lining works and replacement of doors and windows.

The reconstruction of Muzibu-Azaala-Mpanga is currently at the thatching stage, which is being done according to Baganda  traditional architecture in order to restore the historical heritage to its original authentic state.

However, Japanese experts are playing the lead role of thatching the Muzibu-Azaala-Mpanga house as a result of their centuries-old experience of living in traditional straw thatched houses and building religious sites made of thatch roofs.

But is also this stage of the reconsideration that has brought about friction among those involved and roped in other interested parties too.

In July this year, it emerged that the custodians of the Kasubi Royal Tombs have been resisting technical aice from local and international consultants on how to ensure the proper restoration, conservation and management of especially the main building known as Muzibu-Azaala-Mpanga, which was apparently being done against the Unesco-approved restoration master plan.

Muzibu-Azaala-Mpanga, which means, “It is an unusual person who begets a cock (a king),” is circular and surmounted by a dome. It is a major example of architecture in organic materials, principally wood, thatch, reed, bark cloth, wattle and daub.

The custodians believe they can do a better job than modern architects and Unesco conservators who are employing scientific approaches and methods. For example, they were against the introduction of contemporary building materials like steel bars.

The resistance by the traditionalists forced Buganda’s Katikkiro (prime minister), Charles Peter Mayiga to issue a stern warning to those delaying the project on July 1, during his once-in-a-month inspection tour of the reconstruction combined with fund raising drive dubbed “Kasubi Ggwanga Mujje,” popularly known as “ettofaali.,” the Katikkiro said.

“The Kabaka’s directives must be followed (that the reconstruction should utilise both traditional and modern expertise). His directives should not be disputed, especially those do to with this place,” he said. Mr Mayiga  added: “I have given you a week from now to conform with this directive if not then you will know who has the Ddamula [a royal mace which is the Katikkiro’s symbol of authority]. How do you disagree with the Kabaka?

“This work should move on with our traditional skills and modern expertise. The first Kabaka did not leave this place with metal bars and when we include metals now, we are adopting modern skills and knowledge. Whoever changes this, he or she is doing it at his own peril,” Mr Mayiga said.

“The traditional custodians and craftsmen think they are better placed to carry out the reconstruction work based on their traditional knowledge, craftsmanship and skills,” a source close to the restoration work who did not want to be named told The EastAfrican.

This newspaper has also learnt that this disagreement has now been settled and work has resumed according to the Unesco master plan.

But the clash of cultures is not the only problem. According to Unesco, the reconstruction of the royal tombs is feasible because the know-how and material resources used in building the original edifice in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are still readily available locally.

But Buganda kingdom officials now say that the local materials are scarce in the kingdom as they are struggling to gather the required amounts of thatching grass (esubi) and reeds (emuuli).

“We have a big challenge in getting grass and reeds. We have had to buy the grass and reeds far away from Buganda. We appeal to those with grass to bring it here or ask us to pick it up because a lack of grass has delayed the thatching of the houses here,” a member of the Kasubi Masiro Gwanga Mujje Committee, Jeff Sserunjogi, said.

As a result, the kingdom has reserved land where grass will be planted solely for use in thatching in the tombs’ reconstruction.

The initial total cost of the entire restoration project is estimated at Ush10 billion ($2.9 million), financed with emergency funds available through the Unesco World Heritage Fund and a significant contribution from the government of Japan through the Japanese Funds-in-Trust worth $650,000 to Unesco.

Japan’s contribution also includes resource management, as well as disaster mitigation measures needed for the conservation and preservation of cultural heritage.

The Kasubi Royal Tombs is a major spiritual centre for the Baganda people where traditional and cultural practices have been preserved. It is considered sacred and a place where the Kabaka and his representatives carry out important rituals related to Buganda culture.

The site represents a place where communication links with the spiritual world are maintained. It is the most active religious site in the kingdom, attracting some 30,000 visitors annually. Because of its significance to the kingdom, anything touching on its cultural authenticity comes under great scrutiny and with good reason.

On his July 1 tour, Mr Mayiga reassured the people thus: “We are determined to complete the reconstruction of the Kasubi Tombs, rain or shine. We want to dignify the Kabakas’ eternal rest.

“This place is one of the milestones of Buganda’s developments proving our technological and architectural aancement. It is proof of our roots and history. I hear people say this place is satanic. This is part of our culture, norms and heritage that is not owned by a single Muganda,” Mayiga noted.

The Kasubi hilltop is the former palace of the powerful King Muteesa I, which he built in 1882 and which was later converted into a royal burial ground when he died in 1884. The tombs cover almost 30 hectares of the hillside which is mainly agricultural land.

The site bears eloquent witness to the living cultural traditions of the Baganda. The site includes the tombs of four Kabakas: Muteesa I, Daniel Bassamula Mwanga II, Daudi Chwa II and Sir Edward Muteesa, within the Muzibu-Azaala-Mpanga, which is a masterpiece of Ganda traditional architecture. 

Contemporary building materials were introduced when it was last renovated in 1938 by King Mutesa II to salvage the collapsing roof and improve the tombs’ structural management.

The site’s main significance lies in its intangible values — the of beliefs, spirituality, continuity and identity of the Baganda people. It also serves as an important historical and cultural symbol for Uganda and East Africa.


According to Unesco, armed conflict and war, earthquakes and other natural disasters, pollution, poaching, uncontrolled urbanisation and unchecked tourist development pose major problems to World Heritage Sites around the world.

For example, the historical Stone Town in Zanzibar is under pressure from human population and pressure from tourist numbers that are opening up the pristine city to more motorised transport affecting the stone buildings, not to mention the demand for modern housing that interferes with the architectural history of the city.

“Because of its architectural heritage and unique history Zanzibar attracts tourists from all over the world, apart from immigrants from rural areas and mainland Tanzania. This has led to strong pressures from property speculators and developers, making it difficult for the Stone Town Conservation and Development Authority to protect the integrity and authenticity of cultural assets,” said Prof Saad S. Yahya of Saad Yahya and Associates Ltd of Kenya.

Human pressure

According to Prof Yahya, the infrastructure modernisation is a major issue addressed by the Heritage Management Plan prepared in 2009-10, together with the financial and institutional aspects of service delivery.

“Luxury hotels and an increasing resident population of rich foreigners pose new challenges in environmental and infrastructure terms, quite apart from threatening the hitherto inclusive and diverse composition of the town’s communities,” he warned.

The developmentconservation tension is a permanent feature of heritage protection, Prof Yahya notes in his paper Reconciling Conservation Objectives with Development Imperatives: Lessons from the Zanzibar Stone Town Heritage Management Plan that he presented at the 15th International Conference of National Trusts held in Uganda in 2013. 

The conference was co-organised by the International National Trusts Organisation and the Cross-Cultural Foundation of Uganda under the theme Our Heritage, Our future – Cultural Diversity for Responsible Development.

The delegates, mostly experts in heritage, history, literature, conservation and archaeology, and other specialists in fields related to cultural and natural heritage also took note of the fact that the tangible and intangible heritage faces risks from human and natural disasters, destruction of cultures, over-population and construction of modern infrastructure.  

“At the same time the professional status of conservation work, at least in the built environment sphere, is seen by many as somewhat inferior, and the result is that architects, engineers and other design professionals are more interested in building new shiny buildings than in maintenance and conservation work,”  he added.