These traditional healers are called emandwa, which means ‘the man who has a spirit sit on his head’.
Near an enchanted forest on a tiny island in the middle of Uganda’s Lake Victoria, live the last remaining guardians of a spirit that takes the form of a python.
Legend has it that hundreds of years ago, the Ssese Islands, a lush, white-sand archipelago of 84 islands, were inhabited by the Abassese tribe, a race of super humans known not only for their impressive size and strength but their connection to the supernatural world.
The Abassese believed in a spirit called Mbirimu, a shape shifter, who could take the form of human or animal. One day, as the story goes, Mbirimu was lonely, so he took the body of a woman and gave birth to two creatures, a python and a human. The twin brothers went to live on the island of Bugala, the largest of the Ssese Islands, and the python took the name of Luwala.
The human child built a shrine for his python brother, and the Abassese tribe began worshipping and consulting Luwala for advice. His problem-solving skills were so renowned that people from far away sought his help, and his human brother acted as an intermediary between them and the python, becoming the first in a long line of traditional healers that still exists today.
Called emandwa, which means ‘the man who has a spirit sit on his head’, the traditional healer is the only person who can speak to Luwala, and it’s through him that all requests are made. Only one emandwa can exist at a time, and he must be chosen by both his ancestors and the spirit, devoting the rest of his life to Luwala.
Fascinated by the folklore and powerful imagery of Luwala, I’d come to Bugala Island, the home of the python spirit, to seek out the emandwa.
Finding Bugala was easy: a ferry crossing of a few hours from Entebbe and I was standing on the island pier. Finding the emandwa, on the other hand, was close to impossible: visitors are not generally allowed to visit and my requests were met with blank stares and no leads. It was only later that night, over numerous beers and plates of fried tilapia at a bar with the island’s mayor, that my quest was addressed.
The next morning, after a few motorbike rides zigzagging across the island on dirt roads, followed by hours on narrow muddy footpaths through the bush, I finally arrived at the secret location of the shrine. On arrival, a young boy greeted me, telling me the python spirit knew I was here, but that elders had to be consulted before I could meet the emandwa.
Several hours later, calls had been made and permission granted, and the emandwa arrived. He was not what I expected: he rode up on a motorbike without great fanfare, dressed like everyone else I’d seen on the island – in trousers, a shirt and plastic boots. “Lubala Simon,” he said, pointing to himself. Then he took out a brightly beaded pipe and filled it with tobacco.
“You’re sitting in the home of Luwala,” Lubala Simon began, dramatically opening his arms wide. “This is where the python spirit lives.”
I looked around us: it could be any village, save for a few small differences. In the distance, a fire surrounded by spears was burning next to a large hut surrounded by ornaments. Voices were hushed and there was a sense I was sitting in a special, holy place.
Lubala Simon explained that his role as an emandwa to Luwala is a break with tradition: he’s not in the lineage of the python spirit, but no one in the ancestral line was of age.
“I asked my ancestors, and the elders of the spirit asked theirs, and it was agreed I would do it. When the spirit wants to talk to me, it sits on my head and communicates with me through my body. There are few called to be an emandwa.”
Many stories are told about these healers, whose omnipotence and ability to communicate with Luwala made them important players in Central and East African history. In fact, the Ssese Islands are still considered to be one of the country’s spiritual centres. According to legend, one of the largest tribal groups of what is now Uganda, the Buganda, asked an emandwa to assist them in defeating the Banyoro tribe. The emandwa awarded them a special stick, called the Damula, for victory in battle, made from an enchanted tree on the island. That stick is still handed down between Bugandan kings today.
I was curious about the tree, which is said to still stand in one of the island’s last remaining virgin forests, the Buswa, and asked Lubala Simon if I could see it. He explained it’s a good hour away by footpath. As we walked, villagers stared at us openly and everyone kept a far berth from Lubala Simon, who spoke to no one. We were joined by a few men with machetes; our guards, whose job was to watch over the forest against intruders.
Buswa Forest was a disappointment when we finally arrived: the original forest is almost all gone as it’s been leased out for palm-oil production by the elders, who need the income. The remaining trees didn’t look enchanted, but just like any other bit of forest anywhere else on the island. But I was determined to see this most sacred tree.
Down a tumbling hillside, through a small woodland glen and over a stream, there it was: majestic and ancient. It was also quite dead, a hollowed-out version of whatever it once was. Yet Lubala Simon walked up to it, touching it gently, looking up at it with reverence. “We will keep using this one, the python spirit has other trees ready,” he said, moving over to a younger tree, the possible source of the next Damula, should one ever be asked for again.
It’s not just the trees that are special here. Lubala Simon collects mosses and leaves for medicines during his visions. The stream I’d just stepped over is the one the Damula was dipped into before it could be handed to the Buganda king to defeat his enemies: the water is what gave it power. No wildlife can be hunted here; the trees cannot be harvested for charcoal; and no one can come without permission and a guard. Yet there’s less than a square kilometre of virgin forest left.
Walking back to the compound, Lubala Simon and I were joined by the boy who’d greeted me a few hours earlier. Carefully chosen by the elders the via the emandwa’s promptings, he acts as the python spirit’s attendant. His job is to keep the fire burning 24 hours a day, for if it goes out, the spirit will be displeased. He told me he sleeps with the doors of his hut wide open, and that while pythons go in and out at night, he is never afraid, for they are just Luwala and his children.
He and Lubala Simon led me to the shrine, a tall grass-roofed hut with smoke billowing out of the open door and mingling with another smouldering fire pit at the entrance. I removed my shoes and ducked through the low entryway. With burning eyes, I watched Lubala Simon tend the flames, surrounded by bowls of tobacco, beads, sea shells, dried fruit, bones, coffee beans and paper money.
“Offerings, gifts, payments,” he said, holding each bowl in his hands.
“[People] ask for anything and everything: fertility, wealth, protection. Sometimes they wish for something bad to happen. If what they wish for is very difficult, then they have a task to do. If they do it, maybe Luwala will grant the wish.”
We walked out of the hut, covered in soot and choking on smoke.
Later, one of the elders talked to me about what it means to be part of a lineage that is dwindling. Many have been forced to move to the city for work, or lease or sell holy sites due to financial pressures. Modern life means children no longer want to take on the role of the emandwa, as it requires a lifetime commitment on the compound. Belief, too, is lessening: Christianity and Islam are now the two main religions on the island, while traditional gods are seen as backwards, or even evil.
But the elder told me this is a misunderstanding, and that Luwala is not malevolent, but simply ‘a spirit, and spirits decide what to be’.
It’s difficult to know just how many people still worship in the python spirit, because belief in Luwala is a private practice – even visiting the shrine is not something discussed openly. Yet the elders maintain the compound grounds, have saved a small strip of enchanted forest and turn to the python god for guidance for all things.
“More and more, old ways are disappearing. Our land, our special places, us. But Luwala, our python spirit and ancestor, he is forever. He was here before everything else even was. We will guard him forever, too.”