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.
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.