Bullfighting- Uganda's new tourist attraction or animal cruelty?

Located on the hills of Mountain Elgon, Bududa is not much of a tourist attraction. Although it is the only place in Uganda where communities have bullfighting activities, it remains quite unknown for the world – and Uganda. Whereas some argue that bullfight is animal cruelty, others hope to see a modern tourist attraction centre set up.

On a vast mountainous landscape in the Eastern part of Uganda lays the district of Bududa - the only place in Uganda where bullfighting takes place. The densely populated region  is mainly inhabited by farmers. In addition to the large quantities of bananas, cabbages, and maize grown, the farmers also keep livestock- ranging from cows, goats, pigs and poultry. 

Every other Saturday evening over a fortnight, men and boys gather their bulls to a nearby field and around 5pm into the actual battlefield. Strong bulls, the majority crossbreeds, are greeted as champions, with supporting chants and cheering. The scene reminds of  a cultural circumcision practice where the boy to be circumcised runs around villages with chants of brevity. The welcome chanting of a particular brown well-built bull made everyone, who wanted to catch a glimpse of  the reigning beast, run to the direction of the sound. More bulls are introduced to the game as their owners lead them across the big field to find an opponent. The younger and smaller bulls are paired with same-sized bulls while the bigger ones are paired with the more muscular bulls that can weigh as much as 500 kg to 800 kg.  

Beating the game

The battlefield is crowded with over 50 bulls. Owners beat their bulls to force them to go towards the direction they ought to be at. It is the owner’s mission to find the perfect fighting partner for his bull. Mukhwana, one of the young boys in the field explains that there is a certain bull he always has his young bull battle. “Every time they fight, mine wins, so I always have him fight only that bull because I don’t ever want mine to be defeated”. 

Once the bull is led to its competitor, it slowly approaches him. They later provoke one another in a locking horns- dance while pushing each other around.  After a few minutes of obstinate locked horns, the bulls try to attack with even more strength, fighting more  vigorously, pushing each other away. It is easy to see who will lose as he tries to withdraw from the battle. Running backwards the bull is stopped by its owner who, with beats forces it back to the fight despite that his opponent is stronger and most likely will win. The fight ends when the defeated bull finally runs backwards away from the arena, for good.

Healthy tradition from the ancestors?

According to Constant Matuhu, the chairperson of the Bullfighting Association, bullfights are set up for entertaining and enriching the animals. “The fights improve their appetite, build their necks and chests, and help them work off excess energy, thus stopping them from being destructive and hostile.” He claims that the sport started as a result of fights between communities over a salty water source in Namasho. “People used to fight and kill each other but after some years, they resolved to share the little available water but left the animals to fight for entertainment.”

Like Matuhu, others farmers believe that bullfight is a healthy practice as it supposedly keeps the bulls fit. This way the farmers can sell the bull at a higher price since its strength has been validated. Farmers with a winning bull also enjoy more respect in the community. For many, bullfight has always been there. “I grew up watching bullfights, I had mine when I was a young boy, and up to now, I bring my bulls to fight - to win – it’s what I wanted to do since I was a child”, said Wakyera, a 47 year-old participant.

Bullfighting is a part of the of the Bududa peoples’ cultural heritage. It has been in practice since the 1950s [some sources indicates from the late 60s]. Elders pray to their gods before the fight as a symbol of respect to ancestors, who they believe initiated the sport even earlier. However, the practice regained popularity ten years ago with the opening of the main fighting center in Bulucheke, where hundreds of bulls are brought in from neighboring villages and districts like Manafwa. Unlike the fights in Buchunya,  Bulucheke award the winners, encouraging an even bigger participation but Milton Kamoti, a 53 year old professional marketer disapproves of the tradition.

“I don’t encourage these bullfights because animals get injured a lot, some even die.” Milton remembers a bull that had been so badly stabbed in the stomach by its owner that it collapsed during a fight. Kamoti disagrees that the fights would increase the value of  the bull since the bull can be damaged in many ways under a fight. “If the bull’s skin gets damaged, when time for sale reaches, that skin won’t be as valuable as a clear, undamaged skin.” He also sees a risk with the fights happening close to people's’ homes.  “The fights happen in just an opening clearing surrounded by people’s homes and gardens”. 

Kamoti was an aspiring chairman for Bududa district in the February elections but did not win. If he would, he says that he wanted to “register farmers, introduce a membership fee for the bullfights, use the activity for farmers to educate each other and have the whole event more organized so that the community could gain a revenue from it.”

Peace game like boxing

Saleh of Casa Safaris in Mbale,  works with PR for the EETN , an organisation that brings together entrepreneurs and tour operators in Eastern Uganda, has a different view in the matter. “It’s a game…there are things you can’t do without...it’s like boxing, people get hurt, there are after-effects, which can be reduced for example by having vet doctors to check the bulls before and after the games.” He believes that the game needs to be preserved since it is only available in Bududa. “The community and stakeholders need to give it their best, train the community to tap into these activities, and we need to diversify, not only talk about gorillas, chimps, waterfalls and so. The Elgon region has unique attractions, Imbalu-the traditional circumcision, bullfight and a beautiful surrounding” 

Casa Safaris wants to see an arena built for the audience’s safety. His suggestion is to have more tourists come to Bududa for the bullfights. He believes bullfighting could be a tourist attraction and developed without compromising the tradition and cultural aspects.  “Bullfighting is a tradition; this is the community’s peace games for unity and reconciliation. It’s also a source of livelihood, though people are not yet earning enough from these fights.”

Not all bullfight enthusiasts are though grown-up or in it for the money. Aisha, a 10 years old attends every fight to support her older brother Brian, 12 years old, who always leads their bull to the fights every other Saturday. Aisha says that she never fails to attend because “the fights are close to our home.” Her brother Brian adds with a striking sound of pride that his bull rarely fights “but once it does, it wins.” 

Text by...

Esther Ruth Mbabazi

Esther Ruth Mbabazi is an Ugandan, born and raised in Kampala. She is a self-made photographer who takes time to learn from everybody in her work spheres.