“Women are not Allowed to Play Omweso”: Contesting Gendered Spaces through Akakyala and Nakulabye

“Women are not Allowed to Play Omweso”: Contesting Gendered Spaces through Akakyala and Nakulabye

Kirumira Rose Namubiru and Suruchi Thapar-Björkert

Dr. Kirumira Rose Namubiru, a widely recognised and exhibited artist and sculptor was born and raised a Muganda, of the Baganda ethnic group in Central Uganda. Together, we explored how her institutional training at the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Art, Makerere University in Kampala has shaped her perceptions of cultural representations in Bugandan society. Through her art, she carves and chisels alternate spaces of gendered empowerment. During the course of the interview, my own perceptions of the Oware (part of the mancala family of board games), which I had bought in Nigeria in 2005, were significantly modified. I played this ‘pit and pebble’ game many times with my boys and lost on nearly all occasions! The symbolic meanings associated with my participation in this seemingly ‘’forbidden game’’ unravelled in my conversations with Rose.

How has your Akakyala Art Installation created an alternate space for (re)thinking gendered hospitality?
The Akakyala Installation was presented as part of a solo exhibition “Let’s Talk about OMWESO” in 2016, hosted at Makerere University Art Gallery, Kampala (Kirumira, 2016). This installation depicts a female figure seated on a stool playing Omweso, a board game in the mancala family of games (Nsimbi, 1970). She is dressed in popular street attire and demonstrates confidence towards the game she is engaged in. Her Omweso board is made of four dips, three of which are designed using barbed wire while the fourth one is made of a colourful African kitenge cloth (1).

Akakyala is a reflection of traditional female exclusion and restriction supported by Baganda’s taboos and patriarchal gendered narratives. These exclusions are still found in ceremonial and material cultural production spaces such as competitive games, the brewing of beer, pottery, bark-cloth making and in using a number of musical instruments. ‘Abakazi tebazanyanga mweso’, meaning, ‘women are not allowed to play omweso’, is a Baganda narrative that denies women’s participation in an activity – the omweso board game – that encourages public socialising, competitiveness, strategic thinking, creativity and negotiation skills.

Akakyala or omukyala among the Baganda refers to a wife, with most men using ‘omukyala wange’, meaning ‘my wife’. ‘Akakyala kange’ is a term of endearment used by a husband towards his wife. In broader etymology, akakyala is a Luganda polite way of referring to a woman as a petite lady, whose femininity is foregrounded over her other abilities in a gendered space. The other within this gender is omukazi or a woman, who is more aggressive and independent and referred to as ‘kyakula ssajja’ meaning like a man, with masculine-like qualities. This term is used when a woman crosses the designated gender boundaries, like playing Omweso. Akakyala derived from okukyala (visiting) is a metaphor for a woman visitor in[to] a new hospitable space of the marital home or a family (Oldfield, 2013), but who is expected to adhere to the delineated cultural roles of a wife and mother (2). Intriguing was the realisation that in the vocabulary of the Omweso board game, akakyala is a derogatory reference to an outcome of a calculated critical move. In the game, a person who wins (on accumulation of maximum counters) is superior and the one who loses experiences ‘akakyala’ and is regarded as weak. Thus symbolically a close association is drawn between femininity and weakness.

The Akakyala installation raises questions about gendered disuse of mancala board games despite their usefulness as games of strategy and social power allocation. Tied up with the spiritual and cultural history of Buganda, Omweso is a location of power and gendered/classed exclusion, including the patriarchal, masculinist and sexual expressions embedded in the board game. For example, Omweso has three components: a board with dips (signifying femininity and passivity) and seeds or pebbles (signifying masculinity and power); gendered descriptions of moves and lastly; only men as players (Kaggwa, 2016)

Through this installation, I specifically wanted to magnify and challenge gendered narratives associated with cultural artefacts in Uganda (Kirumira, 2019). The barbed wired board dips allude to the cruelty of male chauvinism that attempts to stifle women’s ability to think strategically, prohibits access to basic technologies and disregards the potential of young women in all fields of life. The young female in this installation is able to confront these restrictions by playing the game, represented through the red velvet pebbles that she holds and the kitenge cloth dip. Significantly, the aim of this dissident creativity is twofold: a) to re(allocate) power to women who essentially are viewed through the prism of domesticity and passivity and b) to contest and control a male space but in a non-antagonistic way, without compromising with a woman’s dignity and femininity. I recall Hermkens (Hermkens, 2013) whose research examines the intimate connections between material culture, cultural identity and gendered personhood, where artefacts have the potential to inspire artistic hospitality and create more inclusive gendered spaces.

Soon after my exhibition, one of Uganda’s Quarterly Journals, The Independent, published an article by Nathan Kiwere titled “Talking Omweso: Leading Ugandan [Female] Sculptor tackles the male chauvinism of an ancient board game” (Kiwere, 2016). Though the article ably discerned the idea of ‘male chauvinism’ presented by this ancient board game, it fell short of appreciating the intent of the installation – a young woman confidently situating herself in this forbidden space despite the exclusionary gendered challenge the board game presents. The reassurance, on a basic practical level within which most semi-urban communities in Uganda operate, is that the objective of the Akakyala installation offers an alternate space for (re)thinking gendered hospitality and reinscribes our everyday spaces of being and living with alternate articulations. This has also been the primary motivation behind the Nakulabye artwork.

How do Akakyala and Nakulabye sculptures create spaces for the practice of artistic hospitality?
Though thematically related, Akakyala and Nakulabye (exhibited in a 2016 solo exhibition) are two different artworks speaking about Omweso. Each creates a hospitable interactive environment while enabling an interventionist space, which is empowering. Akakyala is a symbolic narrative about women’s lack of access to culturally significant spaces, while Nakulabye creates a performative space for overcoming these restrictions. Nakulabye is a huge intimidating functional wood sculpture attracting both men and young women to play the game in the gallery space.

The majority of exhibition visitors intrigued by the idea of using a controversial artefact as a subject for expression took it upon themselves to learn how to play the mancala board game and explain to each other its location in specific cultures. Memory about socio-cultural significance however, seemed to overshadow the metaphorical significance of the artwork challenging gendered restrictive spaces. In January 2019, I introduced Omweso as an art form and social skill in the Ekisaakaate camping program for young people, initiated by the Nnabagereka (Queen of Buganda), Sylvia Nagginda (3). Ekisakaate presented a cultural space where Omweso represented artistic hospitality for both young girls and boys from all walks of life. Thus my art resists but also reframes marginalised subject positions through spatial transformation. I see artistic hospitality as the (re)inclusion of women, through artistic expressions in the cultural narrative of the Bugandan society.

Gendered limitations and taboos surfaced in my education and with mostly senior male professors in a post-colonial/post-civil war situation, studying fine art was a creative, academic and psychological contest but a continuous struggle for survival.

How do artistic and intellectual hospitality intersect in your installations?
Formal art education did not prepare me to engage with indigenous artistic expressions that are shaped by specific gendered perspectives. The art school curriculum in majority of universities in sub-Saharan Africa was developed and re-adjusted throughout the twentieth century to conform to the visions and needs of the colonial educators, post-colonial visionaries and later benefactors. During my time as a young student at the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Art, Makerere University (Kampala), I was greatly influenced by local circumstances and mostly relied on European measures of production, achievement and reception. As students, we mastered the art of balancing subject matter between “Africanness” and western “…isms” while using limited resources. My 2016 exhibition “Let’s Talk about OMWESO” opened up the complexities and contradictions that culture embodies and re-imagines the challenges of Eurocentric notions of “African Art”. It brought into focus a renewed interest in decolonising the production of knowledge through pluriversal constructions and understandings. The Omweso board game gave me an opportunity to enter into a world where I could confidently embrace my culture and also ask questions about my location as an artist both locally and internationally. It is as well a beginning to reflect on my art installations over the years and how they are positioned at the intersection between artistic and intellectual hospitality. I re-imagine spaces where artefacts—through artistic representation and mediation, are tangible reproductions of a gendered social space and the value systems attached to them—can be shared, in essence constructing intellectual hospitality.

1.  Omweso board is made out of wood, with thirty-four dips that hold at its start two pebbles each.
2.  Women shouldering domestic responsibilities releases the time for men to build environments of sociality, enriched with cultural capital.
3.  Ekisaakaate (royal enclosure) has been re-invented by the Nnabagereka (Queen of Buganda) as contemporary spaces where children and young adults can stay and be taught etiquette and various social skills.


Kirumira Rose Namubiru is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Industrial and Fine Art Makerere University in Uganda. She teaches Sculpture, Ceramics and Design, with a particular focus on materials (wood, metal and terracotta) and techniques of sculpture. Her major research interest is in developing questions on cultural artefacts and personalities, while reviewing their histories seemingly grounded in narratives with problematic meanings due to displacement from and within their performative context. Suruchi Thapar-Björkert is Docent and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Government, University of Uppsala (Sweden). She researches on gendered discourses of colonialism and nationalism, gendered violence and suburban vulnerabilities, ethnicity, social capital and social exclusion, empowerment and anti-poverty initiatives and qualitative feminist research methodologies.

Photo credits: Kirumira Rose Namubiru

Kirumira Rose Namubiru, Akakyala (2016), Mixed media, 155 cm x 120 cm x 120 cm
Kirumira Rose Namubiru, Nakulabye (2016), Wood, 400cm x 150cm x