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The Nyankore of Uganda

Population:     3,182,700 (CPPI, 2003);
      Joshua Project has two related entries:  Nkole  2,483,000 and Hima  190,000;
      Ethnologue, in contrast, considers all or majority of Nyankore speakers as Hima
Religion:        Traditional, 45% Christian (5% Evangelical), 5% Islam
Registry of Peoples codes:  Nyankore:  107365;  Hima:  103783
Registry of Language code (Ethnologue):  Nyankore:  nyn


The Nyankore of Uganda are the third largest of 43 ethnic groups living in Uganda.  Their land is in the center of the southwestern part of the country, in the districts of Mbarara, Bushenyi, Rakai and Ntungamo.

The Nyankore are divided into two main groups.  They share the common ancestral roots of all of the Iru subgroups, as well as the influence of the Nilotes in the Hima subgroup.  Their language shows their linkage to the general Bantu migrations from central Africa in 500-1000 AD.

The extensive vocabulary relating to the color and description of cattle, as well as certain Nilotic roots, reveals the fusion of Nilotic influence into their culture.  They also share significant traditions and language with the Iru of the Nyoro/Tooro.

The Nyankole are also sometimes referred to by other forms of their name, such as Ankole, Nkole and Nyankole. lists them under the name Nyankore-Hima.

The Nyankore subgroups have two generally distinct appearances.  The Iru (Bairu, meaning "The Black People") trace their heritage to the early Bantu-speaking peoples and have dark skin, curly hair, and prominent facial features.They are generally shorter than the lighter-skinned and more aquiline-featured Hima who consider themselves Nilotic.

The name Hima actually comes from early Cushitic cattle herders who invaded the Bantu farmers.  Being the elite, they identified with the tall but darker Nilotic invaders who came later from the north, like the Bito.  Both these invading peoples settled down and took up the language of the earlier Bantu people.  The Hima gave their name to a form of the Bantu speech they, along with their relatives the Tutsi, learned from the Bantu they conquered.

Almost half of the Nyankore over ten years old are illiterate, with a higher pro portion among the migratory Hima, and only about 10% have any post-primary education.  The overall literacy rate is between 50 and 60%.  The Iru are a primarily agricultural people, and the Hima are primarily cattle herdsmen, each group still preferring the lifestyle of their early ancestors.

The Nyankore language is clearly Bantu, but exhibits a Nilotic influence in some word stems and extensive vocabulary relating to animal husbandry.  The speech of the Nyankore and Kiga is basically the same language, which -- in Bantu fashion -- each ethnic group calls after its own name.  There are lexical differences, though they use the same Bible translation.

The Nyoro language is also very close and some linguists consider them all as dialects of one language.  Nyankore was first written down by Europeans missionaries, and follows a pronunciation pattern similar to Italian.

Like most tribal languages in Uganda, Nyankore has not kept pace with the introduction of world culture or technology.  Since education of children over 10 years old takes place strictly in English, technical and professional vocabulary is most commonly expressed in English.  The Nyankore encourage the preservation of their language, and local print and broadcast media are available in that language.

Major languages spoken in Uganda are Ganda, Soga, Nyoro, Tooro, Lwo, Teso, Swahili, English

Political Situation:
The Nyankore, although a numerous group now, were not pivotal in the early history of Uganda.  They have a tradition they were subjected to the overlordship of the Nilotes who invaded and later dominated the entire southwestern region of Uganda.  This legend is given credence by the fact that the Hima trace their ancestry to the Nyoro.

Unlike their neighbors who adopted the central control of the Chwezi as their model of government, Nkore social structure emphasized clan loyalty, and they do not have a King.  Although as a part of the British Protectorate scheme, the clans were united under one ruler, they have not been able to clearly reestablish that form of traditional government.

The Nyankore are currently in political ascendance because the current president of the country is from the Hima subgroup of this tribe.  This Hima heritage also seems to account for the Museveni government's support of the invasion of Rwanda by his Tutsi relatives, the previous generation, Tutsi, refugees from Rwanda had lived with the Hima in Uganda.

The Nyankore culture continues to thrive in the villages, although economic factors are forcing transition.  They have benefited from government's emphasis on cash crop production by subsistence farmers.

The provision of the government for ranching schemes and development of permanent water catchment systems has reduced the migratory herding of the Hima and integrated them into stable communities.  Educated Nyankore find more economic opportunity in the capital than near home, and are separated physically and culturally from their heritage and clan structures.

The Nyankore were reached by missionaries and Ganda catechists a number of years after the Ganda were introduced to Anglicanism (Church Missionary Society, 1877), Catholicism (Catholic White Fathers 1879), and Islam.  Although nominally Christian, this heritage of religion is deceptive.

Many people see Christian and traditional rituals as equally valuable sources of spiritual power.  They observe the rituals of their religion scrupulously, alongside their equally careful practice of the rituals of their traditional beliefs.  Many purchase and use the traditional charms to protect their homes, children, and gardens from curses.

When problems come, the final appeal is most often made to the spirits of the ancestors through the services of a witch doctor, diviner or traditional healer.  It is estimated that 5% of the Nyankore have a cultural commitment to Islam.

People are aware of salvation as a word because of the "Balokole" (saved) movement of the East African revival.  However, many people need to be challenged with a relationship with Jesus Christ that goes beyond the mere outward conformity to legalism that the "Balokole" movement has degenerated into.

As in many other peoples of Uganda, the Anglicans and Catholics competed strongly for members during the early years of their work.  Certain geographic areas and their residents may have an overwhelmingly majority of one faith due to the effectiveness of this early work.  Although very loyal to their religious heritage on a cultural level, educated Nyankore tend to minimize their involvement with religion which has little impact on their personal morality.

The East African Revival had great influence on the Nyankore.  During those year s, many Nyankore came to a true saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.  Unfortunately, their heritage was not preserved.  The word Balokole, meaning "the saved," can be heard in almost every village, yet the understanding of this term is far from Biblical truth.  The "balokole" are legalistic and judgmental, and believe that by sinning they can fall from saving grace.

Today, the responsiveness of the Nyankore to spiritual issues can be seen by the large crowds that gather for witchcraft demonstrations, religious ceremonies, and evangelical crusade events.  People readily believe in God, having been taught from childhood the reality of the spirit world.

The Roman Catholic Church claims 38% of the Nyankore and the Anglican Church 55%.  Several evangelical denominations work among the Nyankore.  Evangelical members of the traditional churches, however, estimate that only 5% of the adherents of the Anglican or Catholic churches have a personal faith in Jesus Christ.  Though familiar with Biblical terminology, they do not know the biblical meaning of many of the common Christian religious terms.  The whole Bible is available in the Nyankore language.

The Nyankore is the second largest people group remaining in Uganda without any significant Baptist work.  Baptists have conducted a vigorous student ministry with Bible studies and other activities among the university community.

In the mid 1990s, a joint effort of the Baptist Union of Uganda and the Baptist Mission of Uganda focused on establishing new churches in urban centres where there was currently no Baptist work.  The primary strategy of the Baptist Union of Uganda in recent years has focused on entering population centres and geographical areas where there is no Baptist presence.

In the 1990s and into the 21st century, Baptists have been heavily involved in working with AIDS patients and social education related to AIDS.  Baptists managed a national program in coooperation with the Uganda government to promote absitinence among the unmarried youth, in a program called "True Love Waits."

Related on this Site:
[TXT] Hima, Ham and Cush
[TXT] The Hima People of Eastern Africa
[TXT] Tutsi and Chwezi:  History and Pre-History
[TXT] Tutsi, Hutu and Hima – Cultural Background in Rwanda


The Hima Peoples
Kingdoms of Uganda
Bunyoro-Kitara Virtual Museum
Nyankore:  Ethnologue
What is an Ethnic Group?

Nzita, Mbaga-Niwampa.  Peoples and Cultures of Uganda.  Kampala, Uganda:  Fountain Publishers, (no date).

Apuuli.  A Thousand Years of the Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom.  Kampala, Uganda:  Fountain Publishers, (no date).

Karugire, Thomas.  The Story of Uganda.  Nairobi, Kenya:  Oxford University Press, (no date).

Kiwanuka, M.  S.  M.  The Kings of Baganda.  Nairobi, Kenya:  East African Publishing House, 1971.

Nyakatura, J.  W.  N.  Anatomy of An African Kingdom.  New York:  Anchor Press, 1973.

Katoke, Israel K.  The Karagwe Kingdom.  Dar es Salaam, Tanzania:  East African Publishing House, 1970.

Ngologoza, P.  Kigezi and its People.  Dar es Salaam, Tanzania:  East African Bureau, 1969.

Ssekamwa, J.  C.  A Sketch Map History of East Africa.  Guildford, U.K.:  Hulton Educational Publications Ltd, 1971.

Atieno, Odhiambo E.  S.  A History of East Africa.  London:  Longman Group Limited, 1977.

Orville Boyd Jenkins
Originally written September 1996
Revised and first posted on OJTR 27 April 2006
Last edited on 15 March 2011

Copyright © 1996, 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.
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