Situating the Case of the Elders Forum Within Ethnographic Study of Gisu Elders

The larger study used ethnographic research methods, including open- ended interviews, group discussions and participant observation to conduct a qualitative inquiry into the role and function of Gisu elders. Because this research was not originally envisioned as a case study, it lacks many of the features one would expect. However, one benefit of ethnographic research is its focus on allowing the subjects to take centre stage apart from any preconceptions the researcher may have brought. Within the larger study, the case of the Elders Forum in Mbale emerged as a practical and immediate example of elders challenging executive authority. This chapter presents that focus on the Elders Forum and their leadership role in the successful defence of the Bugisu Cooperative Union. In the face of destructive government interference, the Elders Forum demonstrated several unique leadership modalities of Gisu elders. The plight of community-based cooperatives is not limited to the Gisu or even to Uganda. The British encouraged and founded cooperatives all over sub-Saharan Africa, many of which have been affected by contemporary movements toward privatization and/or seized as government assets. The potentially positive role of elder leadership in preserving or revitalizing cooperatives in many African countries broadens the relevance and applicability of this study.

The population for this study included all Gisu people as a tribal society in order to present a holistic view of elder function and effectiveness. The Gisu (also self-described as Bamasaaba, after their prototypical ancestor, Masaaba) are classified as a Bantu tribe; they are primarily settled in Eastern Uganda on and around the slopes of Mt. Elgon. Numbering approximately 2.5 million,24 Gisu people represent 4.6 % of Uganda’s population. They are the dominant ethnic group in five districts (Mbale, Sironko, Bududa, Manafwa and Manjiya) and practise a decentralized form of tribal governance in which the 26 identified clans and clan leadership were more prominent than tribe.25 Gisu Minister of Parliament Nandala Mafabi exclaimed: “Bugisu has never had a king ... We are all Bakukha (elders) in our homes and we are only administered at clan level.”26 When national pressures led them to designate a singular representative, the Gisu eschewed their own word for king, Umuhinga, and named the appointee the Umukuuka—the grandfather or elder. The deliberate choice of the honorific elder rather than king further reinforced the Gisu disdain for central authority and value of elder leadership at the clan level.

To gain perspective on the cultural practice of elder leadership, the researcher was immersed in the Gisu elder context, which involved extended time in rural and semi-urban areas in Uganda. In order to achieve immersion, a number of specific groups and individuals were consulted who shared the elders’ cultural and leadership system, including clan members, political leaders (Members of Parliament, elected Counsellors, commissioners, officials), and other formally designated leaders (bishops, pastors, chiefs, etc.). However, the primary context of inquiry was among commonly recognized members of the council of Gisu tribal elders, known as the Inzuya Masaaba (House of Masaaba). The acknowledged representative of this council is the Umukuuka (elder), who volunteered to cooperate fully with this research project.

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