Tribute to Omugurusi Karwemera, the Icon of Western Uganda

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UPDATE, OCTOBER 2020: Karwemera’s Bakiga museum in Kabale town is currently not accessible, unless you make arrangements with the family. Since Kwanzi/Grace Villa pulled out in August, a new tenant is being sought.

Festo Karwemera was a teacher right to the end of his remarkable life…

People would come to his home on the outskirts of Kabale in Uganda’s Gorilla Highlands region to learn about culture, history, life. People would listen to his weekly radio show on Voice of Kigezi for an enlightening dose of heritage education. People would be uncomfortable to meet him on the streets because he would patiently but mercilessly correct all their mother tongue mistakes. … You didn’t dare call him “mzee” (a respectful title for an elder in Swahili), he was definitely an “omugurusi” (Rukiga equivalent)!

Karwemera in his office; photo by Marcus Westberg

On the radio, Karwemera’s shaky voice made him sound old. Imagine his audience’s amazement when they saw him in real life, cycling around or jogging every morning deep into his nineties! His skin was more like a baby’s than a great grandfather’s…

Karwemera jogging; photo by Marcus Westberg

Festo’s biggest pain was burying five of his ten children over the years. In that regard, he lived too long. In every other, we were counting on him to turn 100 and still be dancing energetic Bakiga dances!

Karwemera at his home; photo by Marcus Westberg

But at 4 in the morning of Sunday, 30 August 2020, Festo Karwemera passed away in Rugarama Hospital, just a short walk from his extensive compound… He had been taken there by his daughter due to breathing difficulties.

Karwemera in his cultural museum of the Bakiga; photo by Marcus Westberg

Born in 1925, he still got to live in a traditional Bakiga homestead as a child — the impressive hut he recreated 70 years later in a huge room of one of his properties. Oh yes, add an amazing cultural museum to 23 books he wrote to instil love for the Rukiga language and the traditions of his area, Kigezi; there was no bigger cultural icon than Karwemera!

Our team had the honour of recording a half-hour documentary “The Bakiga: How We Throw Away Our African Culture” (you can watch it above) centred around that museum in 2006. As a tribute to Festo Karwemera we will be releasing short edits on our social media channels this month, beginning with the gist of it all at the very top of this blog — his message about cultural self-respect. 

Festo Karwemera during a demonstration in his museum; photo by Marcus Westberg

text and video: Miha Logar