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Robert Wangila Napunyi
Robert Napunyi Wangila, the only African to win a gold boxing medal in the history of the Olympics. He was a Samia who fed on fish.

By Bwire Stephen, 31 August 2012
Although Samias have been consuming fish for centuries, the specific association of Samias with fish by other communities started as both social and educational euphoria in the late 1940's when the Samia communities started settling in urban areas and Samia children started competing academically with neighbouring communities like the Dhopadhola, Bagisu, Bagwere, Banyoli, Basoga and ultimately, Baganda in Uganda as well as the members of other Luyia sub tribes in Kenya (Wanga, Banyala Banyore and Maragoli).

Legend has it that in most of the missionary schools where bright Samias went in the formative years of study, they generally scored the very best marks amongst the groups that excelled or passed the examinations.

Not that all Samias were bright but the very brightest of the Samias were generally adjudged brightest in the overall setting be it regionally, nationally or internationally. It was an established statistic that if someone could top all Samias, then he was top notch universally.

This can be verified in schools like Budo, Nabumali,Tororo College, Namilyango, Kisubi, Mwiri, Teso college, Gayaza, Namagunga, Nabbingo in Uganda and Mangu high school, Maseno, Alliance ;Kamusinga etc ,in Kenya where most Samia children went to school in the 1950s-1970s.

During the above period there also developed a general feeling and belief that eating the highly delicious and mouth, watering jelly like brains of the tilapia was the main attribute for the very excellent performances of the Samias that went to these schools.

In Uganda, there is talk amongst the ageing Samias who went to schools in Budaka (Protestants) and Mbale (Catholics) in the 1940s and 1950s (there were no junior secondary schools in Samia Bugwe  till 1960), of how the Bagisu and Bagwere children would compel their parents to prepare them heads of tilapia for eating a day before the examinations in the psychological hope of excelling like the Samias (In those days there was also belief that magical paraphernalia could help one to pass examinations and some of the brightest students were believed to have such witchcraft. For samias the 'magic' in the minds of these other communities, was ('obusuma nengeni')!

For those who did not perform extremely well in class, there was also this coincidental attribute of them excelling in hard and witty sports like boxing and wrestling, where again, the Samias, with their traditional pet title 'Emboko' generally outfought sporting opponents from other communities.

By 1970 for example, the samias as a community had produced the highest number of Uganda boxing champions per capita.To date the only Olympic gold medal worn by Africa in the entire history of the Olympics is claimed by a Samia (Robert Wangila Napunyi Seoul-1988)

Another aspect the Samias were known for was the general stubbornness, sense of independence on decision making and tendency not to deviate from what they believed in (independent minded samias refer to each other as 'Haunga uno')

Naturally this excellent performance in academics and sports put significant limelight on Samias and largely increased their sense of self-esteem and publicity despite their relatively smaller numerical numbers.

Parallel to the above developments, there was also the social set ups started in the 1940s by the Samias in urban areas (mainly Kampala, Jinja, Soroti Tororo, and Nairobi).In these set ups working class Samias (Abebbangi) generally socialized in groups and their men maintained 'ehungu' (communal malwa drinking groups) where members of other communities easily noticed this 'noisy solidarity' as Samia community members thumped their chests and sang self- praising niceties (ohwelaya).If provoked, these Samias fought off and beat up any aggressors like really wounded Buffaloes.

During these drinking sessions the patrons were always referred to as Abahongo or 'Emboko' (big men or buffaloes) and they sang themselves hoarse. These drinking sessions were always made very colourful as mountains of mingled sorghum/millet/cassava cake were served with dozens of tilapia, mudfish and catfish, and devoured completely as the patrons drank, danced and sang, while the matrons ululated and ate to their fill.

In parts of Buganda invaded by Samias mid last century (Kampala and the farmlands in Bugerere and Bulemezi counties) where the then highly inward looking Baganda mainly relished on groundnut sauce and Matoke, and no such open cross gender merrymaking was common, these intrusive eating and drinking sprees of the Basamia started to attract a lot of attention and curiosity as these 'independent thinking and behaving' (Haunga) outsiders started making their presence felt and appeared to despise rather than appreciate the Baganda staple foods and social lifestyle.

These 'Haunga' people preferred mingled flour cake to Matoke and popularized flour as a food stuff, to the extent that up to this day the Baganda who did not have flour in their food nomenclature till about 70 years ago, now call it 'Kaunga'.

In most of their social fora and in the chorus of associating with their best, Samias repeatedly recited the 'Engeni' (the 'engine' as the skull of the tilapia was later fondly called by the Samia Makererians of the 1960-70 era),to which Samia brilliance and wit was mythically attributed and, 'Obusuma', their source of proven strength and lively vigour.

By the time of the dawn of Uganda's independence and formative years of a new nation, the 'obusuma nengeni' had become, to non Samias, the community's identification tool, just like a 'court of arms or emblem' for this generally recalcitrant, academically well performing, socially adventurous and sincerely hardworking community.

Until the early 1990s, the conservative eating habits of the Samia/Bagwe and the belief and confidence in their staple delicacy almost to a point of worship, had made other communities awe them. Samias would hardly struggle to translate what 'obusuma' is and would go into a hotel in Kampala and order 'obusuma ne ngeni', leaving the waiters to do the guessing.

To date 'Obusuma nengeni' remains the symbol of pride of the self-proclaimed 'buffaloes of Bukedi' or as often recited: 'Abasamia emboko, abalia busuma n'engeni' (Samias the 'kalo/fish eating 'buffaloes') Perhaps the only 'carnivorous buffaloes' in the whole world!)

It is, however, clearly becoming evident that fish stocks in Samia are fast depleting and farmlands hardly yield the food crops that graced the land till the mid-1990s.

Ironically, in the 1950-80s, most of the academically brightest students from Samia Bugwe, who earned this 'emblem' for Samias, did not necessarily come from the Samia villages that 'ate fish most' in both Kenya and Uganda, (like Majanji and Sio port and/or Magogwe) where going to school those days was largely shunned, as children preferred to directly fish and get rich early.

All said, no amount of fish eating will bring better results than good educational materials well trained and disciplined teachers, natural ingenuity and effort from students and discipline and financial empowerment of parents.

Based on part of the extensive writings about Samias based on research undertaken by Engineer Irenaeus Wandera Barasa-through his interactions with very many elders of the Samia community in Samia (both Kenya and Uganda) as well as in Samia settlement areas in the old Buganda counties of Bugerere and Bulemezi and in urban areas Kampala,Tororo,Jinja and Soroti.

Source: Sunrise