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Monday, April 11, 2011



The riddle is a popular art form performed in social discourse. In describing the structure of the riddle, I hope to re-define the riddle as genre and riddling as performance. My thesis is that the structures of popular riddle acts in Lusoga consist of seven moves which are embedded and embodied in the context, audience and event of the performance. There are two types of riddle forms, the ‘short’ dialogic formulaic riddles and the narrative didactic dramatic riddles. The short dialogic formulaic forms which are at the centre of this present study are usually solicited and performed by people with a common goal or interests.

Applying ethnographic approaches such as participant observation, unobtrusive observation, critical discourse analysis, textual analysis, qualitative gender analysis and analogy; I carried out this study in Busoga in the Eastern part of Uganda in three localities over a period of two years from January 2008 to December 2009. I documented three elaborate riddle events: Diikuula’s Love riddle, Nsinze seed school and Edhikolyoka Group for my case study.

My findings show that the riddle in Lusoga is a free form that is freely enjoyed and performed by people of all ages during their everyday social interactions. A riddle event is made up of riddle acts and each act consists of at least three to seven moves; namely antecedent, precedent, unravelling, crowning, declamation, affirmation and agreement. Each riddle act corresponds to one of the twelve riddle patterns that I have described in my case study. A riddle act has at least three actones or lines of performance meaning that the dialogue goes beyond one person. Audience, context and event are at the centre of the performance as the means by which the riddle is realised.

Preliminary analysis shows that riddles as elaborate literary forms of discourse used by audience-participants in specific contexts during a particular event to communicate a desired message. As a result, a common riddle precedent may be re-performed in the new context to generate ‘a new riddle’ with a newly contextualised preferred answer. This newness reveals that riddles are living thoughtful performances in the everyday social discourse.

Key words: riddle event, riddle act, riddle structure, Lusoga, audience, performance

The Structure of Popular Riddling in Lusoga[1]


In this essay my aim is to analyse riddle performance as social discourse and in the process re define the structure of the riddle in performance. My thesis is that the structure of popular riddle performance acts in Lusoga language and culture consists of seven parts or moves which are embedded and embodied within the context, audience and event. The ‘short’ dialogic formulaic riddles which are at the centre of this present study are usually solicited and performed by people with a common goal or interests. Riddle acts in this category vary in the lengths and numbers of the action lines depending on the audience-participants and the given context of the event. The riddle acts, K.23. K.24 and K.81, which I have used in this paper, were performed during an ethnographic field work I carried out between January 2008 and December 2009. I recorded this riddle event at Nsinze village in Namutumba district in Eastern Uganda on 21 August 2009 from 10:00 A.M to 05: 00 P.M and I refer to the text edition of 15 March 2011.

First, I discuss the existing theories on the structure of the riddle as performance. Second, I propose a general theory on the structure of riddle performance. Third, I describe the structure of these three ‘short’ dialogic formulaic riddle acts. These randomly selected riddles were part of a larger performance made by a heterogeneous audience of ten people. All together they performed 113 riddle acts with 53 riddles won by their proponents, 47 lost to the opponents, they had 03 false starts and 09 acts were marred by uncertainties and turn-taking issues. The performance arena was a small village library room which I predetermined because of its convenience for my recording.

The context, audience, and event

Maranda’s generative theory posits that riddles are generated by rules and worldviews of people who manipulate these rules and those contexts, especially the cultural context which is responsible for generating other cultural forms.[2] Her assertion that riddles “are not fixed verbal formulaic forms which must be narrated correctly but rather, flexible forms that conform to established rules of play”[3] informs this study. Some of the determining factors for these rules of play are the context and the event in which the audience performs. I share both these views and those advanced by Harries that, “a study of the riddle in Africa demands a direct examination of both the situational context and of the texts”[4] because without a clear understanding of the context, the riddle in the performance may not be fully embraced.

Methodologically there are several proposals for the contextual analysis of folklore forms. Richard Bauman proposes that the field-worker in folklore organize the data around six broad foci: "(a) context of meaning (what does it mean?); (b) institutional context (where does it fit within the culture?); (c) context of communicative system (how does it relate to other kinds of folklore?); (d) social base (what kind of people does it belong to?); (e) individual context (how does it fit into a person's life?); (f) context of situation (how is it useful in social situations?)" (Bauman 1983:367). Kaivola-Bregenh0j (1992) distinguishes in the narrating process the situational context, the linguistic context (Brown and Yule 1983:46-50), the cultural context, the cognitive context, and the generic context. And in the discussion of the context of ballads, Barre Toelken proposes to examine "(1) the immediate human context of performance ... (2) the social context ... (3) the cultural-psychological context... (4) the physical context... (5) the time context, the occasion on which the performance takes place" (Toelken 1986:36).[5]

The audience, I must emphasise, is a very important component in this analysis because without an audience riddles cannot come alive. Unfortunately, just like Yankah has observed, “despite the centrality of the notion of audience, the audience constituent does not seem to be consistently woven into the fabric of current theories of performance in folklore.”[6] The audience-participants in my case studies are identified in the performance record using the first two letters of the names they were popularly called during the performances. This information is not only intended to provide an aesthetic record of the performance, it is the basis for accurate description, interpretation and analysis of the riddles performed.

The audience-participants in this event were E.P Baamugha (79) Retired teacher [Ba], Hussein Kigenyi (35) Librarian [Hu], Julius Golooba (10) form 3 [Ju], Maluufu Mukisa (13) Primary 6 [Ma], Gulere Wambi (42) Researcher [Gu], Cecilia Nabirye (15) form 3 [Na], Jacqueline Azaalwa (17) form 3 [Ja], Budala Muloiva (16) form 4 [Bu], Joel Kimoimo (16) form 2 [Jo], Gerald Isabirye (15) form 2 [Ge]. A quick scan through the audience shows that there were 7 male and only 2 female participants. The majority of the members were children below 18 years and attending school. The three adults present are active in the education sector and farming.

The event was held at a public library in a small room with shelves and books all over the place. I had recording equipment, books and soda bottles on a wide table in the middle of the room. The “performance arena” [7] in which the event took place influenced the language and utterances of the event in many ways. Foley ably puts it that, “words are always situated; they cannot naturally occur but in context, and they cannot naturally recur without reference to prior occurrences and prior contexts.”[8] That is why I believe that the words used in a riddle do not constitute ‘the riddle’ when pulled out of the context of the riddle performance event.

Accordingly, any aesthetic expression is rooted in and explained by its context of culture, which in turns it reflects. Within folkloristic anthropological discourse (Bauman 1983), culture as a whole is the context upon which aesthetics, and folklore as art, depends. Culture comprises the set of symbols, ideas, beliefs, and knowledge that interprets folklore utterances for speakers and listeners. In the literal interpretation of the term context as a frame for communication, context of culture serves as the broadest contextual circle which embraces all other possible contexts.[9]

Structure of the riddle acts

According to Miruka, the riddling cycle has three parts in seven moves namely; the invitation and agreement in part one, the riddle and responses in part two, and finally, if the response is wrong, the challenger asks for a prize, the prize is offered, the challenger accepts then gives the correct response.[10] It is implied here that the ‘correct answer’ is not contestable. However, in Lusoga riddling, the answer is contestable although the riddler may not retract it. There is little or no evidence about answers being fixed by tradition; rather it is this constant riddling in the everyday conversations that tends to fix certain answers to particular riddle statement and situations. Admittedly, the formulaic riddle structure is fairly fixed and the audience appropriately package their observations within agreed frame using the conventional and sometimes non-conventional words and actions to communicate.

One other view is that the riddle has four possible scenarios. Glazier describes four sequences of Mbeere riddles as the opening formula, which in my case is the antecedent and, Burns calls it the event signal.[11] Then, the riddle proper[12] corresponding with what I have called the precedent, unravelling and crowning; the fourth is the “exchange formulae” which in my case is the declamation. The opening formula of the riddle frame matches with what I have termed the antecedent[13] and it may be any judicious ways of letting the other person know that a riddle being performed.

Another view is that there are two parts to the riddle namely, the precedent and the sequent. It is further argued that, “in any discussion on riddling, confusion results when terms with a loaded meaning, like "question," "answer," "query," "proposition," and even "riddle"' itself are used imprecisely.”[14] I have picked up the term ‘precedent’ from here. Burns on his part describes five moves: I) riddle act initiation II) riddler’s statement III) riddlers’ initial response to statement IV) riddler-riddlee interaction in the contemplation period, and V) the riddle answer sequence.[15] I use the term ‘riddle act’ from Burns and I re-organise the five moves in order to allow for a more detailed and clear analysis.

In my view, riddles are consummated by a keen audience during a remarkable event in a remarkable context. I have found the following moves in Lusoga riddling to correspond with what Burns has proposed: i) antecedent corresponds with the riddle act initiation ii) precedent corresponds to riddler’s statement although it is not in the sense that Burns conceived it, iii) In the unravelling I combine moves III and IV; and in move V) the riddle answer sequence corresponds with moves: iv) crowning v) declamation vi) affirmation and vii) agreement. Describing the riddle act in such detail facilitates the analysis of riddle metrics,[16] thematic patterns, intertextuality, embodiedness and embeddedness of the riddle in social discourses.

I wish to differ from Archer Taylor’s labelling of some riddles as true and others as false. Thatthe ‘true riddle' or the riddle in the strict sense compares an object to another entirely different object, may also contain an introductory and a concluding element” is still a point of contention and his argument that, ‘the question and answer’ riddle forms are ‘false riddles’ [17] is not convincing. I am of the view that all ‘riddles’ are justified by their context, event and audience. No matter what form they take, riddles are discourses in everyday life and to question and answer is one way of human expression which cannot be denied.

Patterns of the riddle performance acts

Popular riddle performances in Lusoga are notably dialogic, narrative and sometimes formulaic in structure. Usually performed as contiguous, perceptible, auditory, sight, and experiential activities, riddles in Lusoga are embodied and embedded in the everyday social interactions. The structure of popular riddle acts in Lusoga conforms to Burns description of “riddling as a genre of traditional behaviour” with a “performance domain” and a “social situational domain” organised in riddle acts within a riddle event, and riddle actones within riddle acts.[18] In Lusoga, the riddle is a dialogic communication which is made up of seven major moves namely: antecedent, precedent, unravelling, crowning, declamation, affirmation and agreement. Each of these is fashioned by the context, event and audience prevailing at the time of the performance. I have identified twelve popular patterns of the riddle acts in the Lusoga language and culture.


R is riddle act or the complete unit of discourse during a riddle event.

Cp is context of performance describing the circumstances under which an act happens.

Ap is the audience-participant and refers to the people physically present during the act.

Re is the riddle event or the occasion where people use riddle discourse to interact

Rp is riddle performance which is the actualised event with an audience in context

a = antecedent, p = precedent, u = unravelling, c = crowning, d = declamation, a1 = affirmation, a2 = agreement, da = disagreement.

I conceive that the structure of a riddle act is the total interaction between the context of performance, riddle event and audience-participants on the antecedent, precedent, unravelling, crowning, declamation, affirmation and agreement processes. I represent this relationship with the following standard formulae:

R = Cp+ Re + Ap [a + p + u + c + d + a1 + a2]

There are twelve patterns that I observed in Lusoga riddling.

Pattern 1 R = Cp + Re + Ap [a + p + u + c + d + a1 + a2]

Pattern 2 R = Cp + Re + Ap [a + p + u + c + d + a1 - a2] da

Pattern 3 R = Cp + Re + Ap [a + p + u + c + a1 + a2]

Pattern 4 R = Cp + Re + Ap [a + p + u + c + a1 - a2] da

Pattern 5 R = Cp + Re + Ap [a + p + u + a1 + a2]

Pattern 6 R = Cp + Re + Ap [a + p + u + a1 - a2] da

Pattern 7 R = Cp + Re + Ap [p + u + a1 + a2]

Pattern 8 R = Cp + Re + Ap [p + u + a1 - a2] da

Pattern 9 R = Cp + Re + Ap [p + u + c + a1 + a2]

Pattern 10 R = Cp + Re + Ap [p + u + c + a1 - a2] da

Pattern 11 R = Cp + Re + Ap [p + u + a1]

Pattern 12 R = Cp + Re + Ap [p + u - a1]

The odd patterns are unanimous in that they resolve the riddle on general consensus, while the even patterns are tentative because they have disputants who may strongly hold on to their different views. Where a, c, d, a1, a2 and da are significantly absent in the verbal dialogues, they are often indicated non-verbally through different forms of gestures. In addition to the structure of the dialogue, the length and status of a riddle act, the themes in the conversation, and the personality of the actors are important in our analysis of riddle texts. I have used the following theory to explain how these aspects shape a riddling event.


Lr Length of a riddle K, indicated by the number of actones or lines

Ip Identity of the main riddler of the precedent

Id Identity of the main performer of the preferred answer

Pt Themes in the riddle precedent

Dt Themes in the preferred answer and or the declamation

Tp Thematic pattern of the performance

Rs Riddle status: 1 = won, 2 = lost, 3 = false start, 4 = uncertainty

The length of a riddle act {Lr} is determined by or dependent on the context of performance {Cp} and the riddle status {Rs}. This means that the riddle act can be as long as it takes to unriddle the precedent if at all the riddle has had a start and there is no doubt about it. In cases where the audience-participants {Ap} and the riddle event {Re} are fixed and therefore a constant, for instance, in the solicited and confined performances during contests such as the Nsinze seed secondary school riddle event.[19] Riddle status {Rs} is dependent on the proficiency and identity of the riddler of the main precedent {p} and the diligence and identity of the performer of the preferred answer through unravelling or declamation {u/d}.

In the cases where the audience-participants {Ap} and riddle event {Re} are unpredictable, for instance, in open unsolicited social events and functions, like in the case of Diikuula’s Love Riddle,[20] the riddle status {Rs} is dependent on the context of performance {Cp}, the proficiency and identity of the riddler of the main precedent {p}, and the themes featured in the precedent {Pt}. This means that riddle events where the audience has no clear rights to full active participation by virtue of their not being assigned roles to perform, the riddling is dependent on the context, theme of the event and the main performer of the precedents. This is true of traditional wedding ceremonies and public rallies.

The themes featured in either the preferred answer or the declamation {Dt} are dependent on the themes in the precedent {Pt}, the identity of the riddler of the main precedent {Ip}, and the context of the performance { Cp}. For example, the theme of the body in the precedent, “what is a person?” yields the following answers: ‘animal,’ ‘creation of God,’ ‘legs,’ and ‘foot marks.’[21] The present context of the performance is responsible for the answer ‘creation of God’ because it was the subject of discussion just before Azaalwa propounded the riddle. Therefore, the thematic pattern {Tp} is dependent on the themes in the precedent {Pt}, themes in either the preferred answer or the declamation {Dt}, the context of the performance {Cp}, the length of the riddle {Lr}, and the riddle status {Rs}.

This means that the riddle is a dialogue between people who communicate using allegorical language with the purpose of isolating certain members of the audience without physically excluding them; while at the same time entertaining the entire audience. Literary forms that adhere to this description would qualify to be termed as riddles including narrative, song and poetic verse forms.[22] In applying this theory, I have observed that the question-and-answer formula is represented mostly in Pattern 7 and 8, where the precedent and the unravelling are the main verbal components of the performance. Given that riddling seeks to exclude and include at the same time, the precedent is like the theme running through the act and guiding the performance. It may be brief and concise or muddled and extended, meaning that the riddle as such goes beyond the precedent. In the next section, I will describe some of the characteristics of the seven moves of the riddle act.

Description of the seven moves of the riddle act

The antecedent

The term antecedent has been used by other scholars including Harries.[23] It is the forerunner or the opening structure that gives an audience an indication that there is a riddle in performance to which the audience is invited to participate. In Lusoga, the riddle proponent or protagonist says: kikoiko (riddle) and the audience as opponent or antagonist replies: kiidhe (let it come). This invitation normally comes in the form of a challenge and proposal at the same time, that is why the punctuation mark I have used both the rhetorical and exclamatory marks [?!] at the end of kikoiko; meaning that it is between a question and exclamation remark. The tone of the antecedent may be threatening, casual, ornamented or rapid as the protagonist may choose best suits their purpose and event. The reply is usually an affirmative response and would normally take on a period [.] meaning that the audience agrees to participate in the performance before it continues.

Riddling in Lusoga may also be initiated with antecedents in other forms that are not necessarily the traditional ones above, for example;

The greeting:

Ki mwana? Ndi agho! Ntyama na ndwaire.[24]

What child? I am there! Seated with sickness.

Olyotya?[oliyo otya] Ndya nga mira!

How are you there? I eat as I swallow!

Agafa eyo? Bagakunhira nsaasira.[25]

What [dies] happens there? We suppress it using the mercy plant.

Amaghuliro? Tugagula mu katale.

What about News? We buy it in the market.

These antecedents allow the performer of the precedent and the audience to establish the necessary rapport for a riddle discourse to come alive. Not all times will these antecedents result into riddling but they are clear indications that the proposal for a riddle conversation has been initiated. This is because they have been transformed from ordinary greetings to figurative forms of the common greeting. The next move after the antecedent is the precedent of the riddle.

The precedent

What is commonly known as ‘the riddle’ in many riddle collections is in fact the precedent of the riddle. It is the problem statement within the performance and it is also presents in various forms. Precedents can be in the form of a single word, sound, phrase, statement, paragraph, epigraph, logogriph, shapes, analogy, narrative, puzzle, song, action or gesture. And a combination of all these is possible in a single riddle precedent. Often the audience echoes whole or part of the precedent to perceive its embedded and embodied meanings. For example, in riddle K.81 of Nsinze seed school riddle event, the precedent “Toola bukutu ote ku bukutu ofune bukutu [Na]”, capitalises on the word bukutu which in Lusoga carries no meaning as a word but, it sound like the popular Kisoga drum beat, “bukutubukutubukutu” in the traditional courtship dance known as otamenhaibuga which literary means ‘do not break the guard.’ Therefore, interpreting the meaning of “Take bukutu put on bukutu you get bukutu,” is helped by the knowledge of the background to the otamenhaibuga dance rhythm and its meaning as a courtship dance.

In other cases, the precedent may be a poetic line or a couple of lines; and in others it may be an elaborate narrative or drama as shown in Diikuula’s Love riddle.[26] Word sounds, onomatopoeia, and word-play are commonly used in riddling to communicate meanings at different levels. What the precedent does is to give the premise of the riddle and sometimes, it is a build up on elements in a previous riddle act or a reflection on the context and audience present during the event. When the audience as participant searches for meanings and answers, they bear in mind the present situations that could have inspired the riddler to perform the particular riddle precedent in a particular way. This process is the preoccupation of the next move which I have called the unravelling.

The unravelling

Unravelling is the process that plays the riddle precedent between the protagonist and the antagonists who have to think very quickly and broadly to fix the desired interpretation of the riddler. At this stage, the quick witted usually takes the first opportunity to break and “kill” the riddle. Unravelling consists of unriddlers proposing answers intended to break and kill the riddle set in the precedent. The riddler rejects each proposed answer that fails to meet his or her expectation; or concedes defeat when a ‘true’ answer is given. On the other hand, the unriddlers may feel defeated and they throw in the towel.

This part of the riddle act is critical to the riddle as a whole because in the build-up of tensions within the audience, the very notion of the art of riddling is realised. The state of unravelling reflects the combined capacities of an audience to wittingly or unwittingly riddle their opponents out of the powerful position of social protagonist. The variety of answers proposed may make riddling appear like a guessing game with questions that have no specific answers. However, the answers are usually of significance to the prevailing context of the performance. Although most of the answers may be dismissed by the riddler as ‘untrue,’ some of them are usually synonymous and while others are riddle precedents in themselves. Some of the answers may be rejected for being overt or covert, and for the shear principle of the performance and riddler’s preconceived choice of an answer.

When the riddler’s desired response is given, the riddler may concede defeat by stating that the riddle has been ‘killed’ or, the riddler may further complicate the riddle by rejecting the popular answer in search of a different one that suits the context of the performance. An example of unravelling is shown in line 4--37 in riddle K.9 below:

K.23 Katonda mu kikebe

1. Kikoiko?! [Na]

2. Kiidhe [lu]

3. Katonda mu kikebe [Na]

4. <>

5. Katonda [Gu]

6. hm [Na]

7. oba Katonga [Na]

8. Amazi [ ]

9. Mpirya]

10. amatama [Jo]

11. Mpirya [Na]

12. Elinino [Hu]

13. mpirya [Na]

14. hm hm hm. E liiso [ ]

15. mpirya eh eh! [Na]

16. ate kiseka [Jo]

17. Katonda mu kikebe? [Gu]

18. mu kikebe [Ba]

19. emamba emamba ensenkule [Gu]

20. mpirya eh! Eriyo emamba ensekule? (.) mpirya. [Na]

21. <> <><> Kiboneka (.) owa Sabaani [Ja]

22. Mpirya [ Na]

23. Yogera bintu biri nakyo. Kabiri iwe oli kuleeta. [Na]

24. Katonda mu kikebe eh ! Kaale! [Ja]

25. Katonda mu kikebe [Na]

26. Obulemu mu ibeele [Ba]

27. mpirya [Na]

28. Amata mu ibeeleee [Ba]

29. Mpirya [Na]

30. Eigi [Ja]

31. Mpirya [Na]

32. Enhira mu nhindo [Hu]

33. mpirya [Na]

34. eh, Katonda mu kikebe, obwongo mu kawanga [Ja]

35. Mpirya [Na]

36. ]Soda mu cupa [Ba]

37. Mpirya [Na]

38. <> (..)mpirya

39. [Na]

40. [Ja]

41. <>, sign, emamba eyomu musawo akakoko mu Igi [Ba]

42. Mpirya. etya [Na]

43. Katonda mu kikebe(.) Enkudu mu kikalakamba [Jo]

44. Mpirya [Na]

45. (.) Katonda mu kikebe(.) Tukughe omwami [Ja]

46. mumpe [Na]

47. Tukuwaire ekitabo [Ja]

48. Ekitabo ekyo kyonakyoona tikinsobola aya nze nkisobola, nakakuba enume eya ekigwo nakivuma nti kikoiko Katonda mu kikebe, enfunza mu kigere. [Na]

K.23 God in a tin

1. Riddle!? [Na]

2. Let it come. [chorus]

3. God in a tin. [Na]

4. <>

5. God? [Gu]

6. Hmm. [Na]

7. Or Katonga? [Na]

8. Human dung. [Ju]

9. No. [Na]

10. Cheeks. [Jo]

11. No. [Na]

12. ‘A running nose.’ [Hu]

13. No. [Na]

14. Hmm hmm hmm. The eye. [Ja]

15. No. eh eh! [Na]

16. And it is laughing. [Jo]

17. God in a tin? [Gu]

18. in a tin [Ba]

19. Meat, meat which is grounded. [Gu]

20. No, eh! <> is there meat which is pounded? [Na]

21. Eeeh. Ok! It is like Sabaan’s [Ja]

22. ,laughter> No. [Ja]

23. Speak these are natural things, again you you are bringing [Na]

24. God in a tin. Eh! Ok. [Ja]

25. God in a tin [Na]

26. Lameness in a breast. [Ba]

27. No. [Na]

28. Milk in a breast [Ba]

29. No [Na]

30. An agg [Ja]

31. No [Na]

32. Mucous in the nose. [Hu]

33. No. [Na]

34. Eh. God in a tin, brain in the skull. [Ja]

35. No. [Na]

36. <> Soda in a bottle. [ Ba]

37. No. [Na]

38. <>

39. No. [Na]

40. . [Ja]

41. . [Na and Ja]

42. No [Na]

43. A tortoise (.) in a shell [Jo]

44. No [Na]

45. (.) God in a tin (.) we give you a chief? [Ja]

46. Give me give me [Na]

47. We have given you a book. [Ja]

48. <> that book, the whole of it. It can’t manage me yet I can manage it. I throw it in a male wrestle and I abuse it that riddle. God in a tin, a jigger in the foot. [Na]

Expressing defeat could be verbal or implied as in the case above, where Jacqueline in L. 47 says: We have given you a book. [Ja].” Other ways include use of words like okiise and okaise (you have killed it), ontoilemu (you have removed me), ofunie chance (you have got a chance), ni kyo ekyo (that is it), and okabise (you have passed it). On the other hand when the unriddlers give ‘objectionable’ answers the riddler may say, mpiriita (I snore, am bored, not at all), mpirya (I disagree, I charge), nfuluuta (I snore, I sleep), mbe (I say no), bee (nooo). Each of these responses is performed in unique ways to suit the mood of the riddle act and the audience. Most importantly, it is meant to prepare the audience for the revelation of the preferred answer.

Unlike in the previous move, unravelling is a spiralling from entanglement to clarity. As such, the audience has to agree to a give and take situation through dialogue and consensus building. Whoever emerges as the victor, winner or ‘killer’ of the riddle usually performs the next riddle act. If that person has no riddles off the cuff they may pass on their chance to someone else either of their choice or one selected by the group. Following a precedent’s null unravelling, that is, when the riddler is also the victor, the performance moves to the next stage of exaltation whereby the protagonist asks for a ‘crown’ or is asked to be bought out with a crown before giving the answer and I have called this the crowning stage.

The crowning

When it comes to buying out, exalting or awarding the prize to the unchallenged riddler for a riddle unriddled, phrases like: Mumpe omwami. [You give me a chief], Oyenda omwami [Do you want a chief?] are made. Depending on the constitution of the audience one or all of the meanings may prevail as in word-play. The term mwami is used to refer to the prize of honour, the all powerful enigma who is challenged and beaten hands down by the riddle performer is also suggestive of husband and nurturer. There are instances when mwami will mean ‘chief’ and others when it means ‘husband’ and others when it means ‘nurturer’, ‘appeaser’, ‘relished’ and honourable. To my understanding, mwami is given as the crown or award for a riddle unriddled because every village needed a chief and every home needed a husband, and the riddler represented either a village or a home and not their individual self. If they riddled as individual entities they would not be genuine to articulate matters pertinent to the whole community[27]. Attempts are sometimes made to give rewards of omukyala or wife to the males but that is not popular.

Statements of crowning include: Tukuwaire... [We have given you ...] and Nkwewaire. [I give myself to you], and the riddler is free to reject or accept the honoured prize as in the case of riddle K.81 L.37 – 41 below shows.

37. Kale tukobere [Ja]

38. Koodhi mumpe omwaami! [Na]

39. Tukughaire ekitabo. [Bon.]

40. Mbe naire [Na]

41. Hm! Tukughaire Saire. [Ba]

37. Then tell us [Ja]

38. Perhaps give me a chief! [Na]

39. We have given you a book [Chorus]

40. Not at all [Na]

41. Hm! We have given you Saile [Ba]

On the other hand, when the unriddlers ‘kill’ the riddle, no prize is demanded or given except that for this achievement the reward is for the unriddler to become the riddler and in a way the main subject of the proceeding performance cycle as shown in riddle K.24 L. 1—8 below:


1. Kikoiko!? [Na]

2. Kiidhe. [lu]

3. Kasaadha kampi kampi kavaire kooti ekoma ghano [Na]

4. Kuufulu [Ja]

5. Ni ekyo [Na]

6. Hm [Ja]

7. Ni ekyo! [Na]

8. Hmm, kale nfunie kyansi. [Ja]

1. Riddle!? [Na]

2. Let it come. [chorus]

3. A little short short man wearing a coat that reaches here. [Na]

4. Padlock. [Ja]

5. That is it. [Na]

6. Hmm. [Ja]

7. That’s it. [Na]

8. Hmm. I have got the chance[?]

In the Bukutu riddle, Nabirye is given a book which she rejects and she is given Saile, the Chairperson of Namutumba district, whom she accepts with pomp and relish. Saile is the only award obtained from outside of the physical room; otherwise all other awards were generated from within vicinity. The mwami does not have to be a human being but anything considered by the audience as valuable or even demeaning. Apart from the human beings, some of the ‘buy out’ objects which the unriddlers gave during the performances included e nthupa (a bottle), e kitabo (a book), e meeza (a table), a kadankala (a bottle top), ‘ako’ (that thing – referring to the cassette recorder). This business-like negotiation is characterized by haggling and sometimes making high stakes to get the best deal. This riddle experience renders the audience’s power of negotiation not only real during the performance but alive in the society where the performers are nurtured.

The declamation

The riddler’s declamation varies in length, diction, and structure. The riddler engages in proclamations of self-praise to justify personal acceptance (or rejection) of the mwami. By reciting his or her personal abilities and inabilities, prowess and weakness to challenge the given reward of honour, the riddler performs the ritual of unriddling the riddle that is, untying the knot by restating the riddle and furnishing the answer in a manner as if the prize they have been given is being battered to pieces. Declamations in Lusoga riddles are similar to what used to happen in Roman educational history as Mendelson explains that:

declamation stood at the apex of a very sophisticated language curriculum. Only after students had progressed through the highly systematized and remarkably thorough curricular sequence known as the progymnasmata were they ready to confront the challenge of declamatory exercises, exercises that required students to adopt all the components of a balanced rhetorical stance: i.e., student declaimers would analyze an historical or legal problem and develop a pragmatic argument in response to that problem, they would adapt this argument to a specific audience with a definite need to know, and they would invoke an identifiable character to impersonate during the delivery of their fictional oration. Declamation, therefore, was that point in the Roman language curriculum where the theory and technique practiced in years of training with the grammaticus and rhetor were translated into a functional knowledge of how to create original discourse appropriate to specific situations[28].

The declamation to riddle K.23 is in Line 38 and it goes as follows:

<> Ekitabo ekyo kyonakyoona. Tikinsobola ate nga nze nkisobola. Nakikuba enume ya ekigwo nakivuma ekikoiko nti Katonda mu kikebe enfunza mu kigere. [Na]

<> That book, the whole of it. It can’t manage me yet I can manage it. I throw it in a male wrestle and I abuse it that riddle, God in a tin, a jigger in the foot [Na].

Similarly, the declamation in riddle K.81 Toola Bukutu ote ku Bukutu ofune Bukutu (Take Bukutu put on Bukutu to get Bukutu) (L.41) [29] goes like this:

Saile? Aha! Saile! Yenayeena tansobola zeena timusobola. Namulagira nti tyama ghansi namukunika mu kaina aka enunga namugha akakopo ka kyaayi kamulema okumalamu namukoba ekikoiko nti toola bukutu ote ku bukutu ofune bukutu toola omusaadha ote ku mukazi ofune omwana. [Na]

Saile? Aha! Saile! The whole of him he can’t manage me and I can’t manage him. I order him that sit down and I thrust him into the hole of an ant and I give him some tea and it defeats him to finish and I tell him that riddle take Bukutu you put on Bukutu to get Bukutu; take a man, you put on a woman to get a child [Na].

The statement, “I thrust him into the hole of an ant and I give him some tea to drink and it defeats him to finish and I tell him that riddle” is a frequent declamation used in these performances and yet in this particular performance it take a new erotic meaning. Individual riddlers have to vary their declamation in order to validate the identity and propriety of the crown or prize awarded. After the declamation stage, the accepted answer undergoes a process of affirmation before a final agreement is reached.

The affirmation

After the preferred answer has been provided, requests for justification are usually made and a discussion which is sometimes healthy and informative and other times heated, prolonged and inconclusive is held. In riddle K.23 L.39—52 goes as follows:

39. Hmm hmm hmm. [Gu]

40. Hu hu hu! [Ja]

41. e enfunza! Enfunza mu kigere, eba etya Katonda? Katonda ni enfunza? [Na]

42. Hmm? [Gu]

43. Mu kigere [Na]

44. Hmm Hmm [Gu]

45. Hu huh u. [Ja]

46. Ekyo (.) mbe. [Na]

47. [Ja]

48. <> nsagho ya mmamba, nkoko na igi! [Ba]

49. Mbe. [Na]

50. Katonda mu kikebe (.) enkudu mu kigalagamba. [Jo]

51. Mbe. [Na]

52. nfunza. Nfunza mu kigere efuuka etya Katonda? [Gu]

39. Hmm hmm hmm. [Gu]

40. Hu hu hu! [Ja]

41. It a jigger! Jigger in foot, how is it God? God is the jigger? [Na]

42. Hmm? [Gu]

43. In the leg??Foot. [Na]

44. Hmm hmm. [Gu]

45. Hu hu hu. [Ja]

46. It (.)No . [Na]

47. < Laughs loud>. [Ja]

48. << Whispers>> Meat of the pocket, a chicken and egg! [Ba]

49. No. [Na]

50. God in a tin (.) a tortoise in a shell. [Jo]

51. No. [Na]

52. jigger. Jigger in a foot how does it become God? [Gu]

This interaction keeps the group actively involved in the performance as their individual contributions and assessment of the performance are made. But also individual temperaments, coping capacities and wit are displayed. In the affirmation stage to riddle K.81 L. 43—61, the following dialogue is performed:

43. a a a Cissy you are deceiving you [Ja]

44. e e e Babirye is that not there? [Na]

45. You go and do what and do what and do what? [Ba]

46. May I get this one and I put on you then we see? [Jo]

47. Take! [Na]

48. No, they take at night what does it do? [Ja]

49. take a man put on a woman [Jo]

50. <> you put on a woman [Gu]

51. this one

52. to get a child [all]

53. to get a child [Gu]

54. yaah [Ja]

55. Hm! So now, of the man and the woman who is Bukutu? [Gu]

56. Who is Bukutu? [Ja]

57. you get the other Bukutu, you put on the other Bukutu, you get out the other Bukutu [Na]

58. ha ha ha! [all laugh]

59. You get Bukusu or you get Bukutu? [Ba]

60. Bukutu [Ch]

61. all of them are the Bukutu [Na]

Once the affirmation is done the performance moves to the next stage which I have called the agreement stage.

The agreement

At this stage the agreement is premised on disagreements as a process of consensus building. The preferred answer may not always be accepted since the riddle answer is the prerogative of the riddler of the precedent. Regardless of whether there is a conventional answer to the riddle and audience thinks the answer given by the riddler is not ‘conventional’ the riddler’s answer is taken as ‘the answer.’ But the rejection of other answers does not stop these answers from working on the audience’s psyche. This is in line with the social interaction theory that words have the power to do things. Riddling allows for creativity and reproduction of the performance in many ways that the riddlers find advantageous to their performance. A less creative performer may take a riddle from history or previous performance without modifying it. The reward of such rote learned performance is a quick unriddling that leaves the riddler empty and ashamed for not being witty enough to challenge the opponents in the audience.

Riddle K.23 L. 53 – 60 has the following discourse at the agreement stage:

53. Katonda ni enfunza. [Na]

54. Hmm. [Gu]

55. Mu kigere ni mu kikebe. [Na]

56. Ekigere mu kikebe. [Jo]

57. Enfunza ekulembera ekigere. [Gu]

58. Meee

59. Eh eh![Na]

60. Kale gya mu maiso. [Gu]

39. God is the jigger. [Na]

40. Hmm. [Gu]

41. In a foot and a tin. [Na]

42. A foot a tin. [Jo]

43. A jigger leads the foot. [Gu]

44. Meeee

45. Eh eh! [Na]

46. Ok go ahead. [Gu]

In K. 81 the agreement is by acclamation as shown in the following lines:

62. e ee e supiisiisi!

63. < alaga nti aikiriiza bwe atengesa omutwe mpolampola eluuyi ni eluuyi bwe amwenha> a haa! [Ba]

62. e ee e species! [Gu]

63. a haa! [Ba]

The audience uses sounds and signs to indicate their agreement and once this is done, the performance is set to move ahead. This stage determines whether the entire group continues to the next riddling phase or they break up and do something else. Enormous energy is usually spent from unravelling to agreement. Denouement at the agreement stage helps to cool down tempers that may have flared during the agreement stage. The issuing debate arising from the declamation sometimes gets heated with individual unriddlers defending their own answers against that preferred by the riddler. When some audience members find the answer is not satisfactory they yield but may still express their dissatisfaction. When a participant is dissatisfied with the answer the choice is to go with the decision of the majority. There is an experience of power relations where age is not necessarily wisdom or the deciding factor for correct answers or unchallengeable precedents; and this is what makes the riddling exercise popular among children and certain circles of society who may feel vulnerable.

In riddling each riddler has acquires power to decide the destiny of the performance and status to control and direct the affairs of society however microcosmic. I have also had examples where the audience asks the riddler to translate their statements into English for better clarity. This reveals how the mentality of the English language as a source of answers has entrenched in the people’s daily interactions to the extent that code switching is considered normal.

Disagreements exist and they are handled differentially during different performances. They impose significant influence on the social interactions where riddling is used to communicate. The right to disagree has some consequence to the performance and where strong disagreements occur, and they usually do, the process of consensus building is made longer but sometimes the power of the declaimer rules. Disagreements as such are considered part of the agreement stage. The riddling process involves giving and taking which makes the affirmation stage a reciprocation of the audience to agreement by consensus. The majority of the participants agree to the preferred answer while others may remain in doubt but such disagreements are usually ignored.

However, it should be understood that an agreeable answer during one performance does not automatically constitute an agreeable answer in another performance event. This is because the meaning and meaning making process will probably have changed with audience, context and event. Nonetheless, the outer structure of the riddle will most likely remain the same exhibiting at least three to seven moves of the performance moves in every riddle act.


In this essay, I have described the performance structure of the riddle and provided twelve patterns of the riddle acts in Lusoga language and culture. My analysis is centered on how the audience-participants interact to make their interactions socially entertaining, culturally meaningful and intellectually rewarding.

I therefore conclude that, the structure of the riddle act in Lusoga language is multifaceted with up to seven distinctive moves namely: antecedent, precedent, unravelling, and crowning, declamation, affirmation and agreement. The audience as participants and individual participants as audience are the authors and prime movers of the riddle acts performed during a specific event and occasion. The audience, event and context play a critical role in enabling the performance to happen. These three elements collectively influence and determine the quantity and quality of the riddles performed during a particular occasion. The ascribed meanings and inferred meanings are developed through an intellectually engaging social interaction within the performing group and audience present.

The primary source for the interpretation of a particular riddle text is the event when that particular riddle is performed. Traditional answers may be accepted but other underlying meanings are usually communicated through responses like silences, gestures, inference, suspense, movement, attitude, and accent. The ‘safe’ answers are mostly used in instances where the performers are casually jogging their memories about events and stories. Intelligent riddling mostly transforms the common riddle from the ordinary chit chat to allegorical discourse that addresses a multiplicity of thoughts, ideas and feelings at the same time and using the same set of images in varying contexts.

Works Cited

Alan Dundes and Ved Prakash Vatuk. “Some Characteristic Meters of Hindi Riddle Prosody.” Asian Folklore Studies, 33.1(1974):85-153 (Published by: Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture.) URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1177505) “Accessed: 17 December 2009”

Archer Taylor. “The Riddle.” California Folklore Quarterly, 2.2 (Apr., 1943) (Published by: Western States Folklore Society. URL:http://www.jstor.org/stable/1495557): 129-147 Accessed: 17 December 2009

Dan Ben-Amos. “ ‘Context’ in Context, Theorizing. Folklore: Toward New Perspectives on the Politics of Culture.” Western Folklore, 52.2/4 (Apr. - Oct., 1993): 209--226 (Published by: Western States Folklore Society URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1500087) “Accessed: 17 December 2009”

Elli Kongas Maranda."Theory and Practice of Riddle Analysis." The Journal of American Folklore 84(331) (1971):51-61. (Published by: American Folklore Society URL: http://www.jstor.org/journals/folk.html) “Accessed: 3 December 2007”

Jack Glazier and Phyllis.Gorfain Glazier. "Ambiguity and exchange: The Double Dimension of Mbeere Riddles."The Journal of American Folklore 89(No. 354) (1976):189-238.

John Miles Foley. “Word-Power, Performance, and Tradition,” The Journal of American Folklore, 105.417(1992): 275--301 (Published by: American Folklore Society URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/541757. “Accessed: 17 December 2009”

Kwesi Yankah.“Risks in Verbal Art Performance.” Journal of Folklore Research. 22.2/3 Folklore and Semiotics.(1985):133--153 (Indiana University Press URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3814389 “Accessed: 17 December 2009

Lyndon Harries. “The Riddle in Africa” The Journal of American Folklore, 84.334 (Oct. - Dec., 1971):377-393 (Published by: University of Illinois Press on behalf of American Folklore Society URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/539632) “Accessed: 11 November 2008”

Marilyn Merritt."On Questions following Questions in Service Encounters." Language in Society 5.3 (Dec., 1976):315-357. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org, “Accessed: 12 November 2008”

Michael D. Lieber. “Riddles, Cultural Categories, and World Views.” The Journal of American Folklore, 89.352 Riddles and riddling. (Apr. – June, 1976):255--265 URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1500087) “Accessed: 5 December 2007”

Michael Mendelson. "Declamation, Context, and Controversiality" Rhetoric Review 13.1 (1994): 92-107: (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Taylor & Francis Group) URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/465781 “Accessed: 17 December 2009”

Okumba Miruka. Encounter with Oral Literature (1994) (Nairobi, East African Educational Publishers).

Pius A Katunzi. “Two Riddle Poems.” Women Writing Africa: The Eastern Region. Ed. A. Lihamba, F. L. Moyo, M. M. Mulokozi, N. L. Shitemi and S. Yahya-Othman. (2007):395-397. (New York, The Feminist Press 3.

Polska Akademia, U. t. c., Pi\0141Sudski, B. a., & Rozwadowski, J. M. (1912). Materials for the Study of the Ainu Language and Folklore. Collected and prepared for publication by Bronis\0142aw Pi\0142sudski. Edited under the supervision of J. Rozwadowski. [Ainu texts, with translations, notes and an introduction.]: pp. xxvi. 242. Cracow.

Thomas A. Burns. "Riddling: Occasion to Act." The Journal of American Folklore, 89.352. (Apr. - Jun., 1976): 139-165 (Published by: American Folklore Society, URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/539687) “Accessed: 25 November 2009”

[1] This essay forms part of my findings in an on-going doctoral research I am carrying out in Uganda on the topic, “Riddling as everyday discourse: analysis of context, event and audience”. The study is fully sponsored by The Mak-NUFU Folklore linkage project (2007-2011) and a first draft of this paper was read at its third work in progress workshop in January 23—24, 2010 at Makerere University in Kampala. I am indebted to all the performers, academic supervisors and faculty for their input in this work. I am also grateful to all the sponsors, including the African Humanities Programme (AHP) of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) for facilitating me to complete this study.

[2] Michael D. Lieber Riddles, Cultural Categories, and World Views. The Journal of American Folklore, 89.352, Riddles and riddling, (1976):255. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1500087) “Accessed: 5 December 2007”

[3] Elli Kongas Maranda."Theory and Practice of Riddle Analysis." The Journal of American Folklore 84.331: (1971):51. URL: http://www.jstor.org “Accessed: 11 November 2008”

[4] Lyndon Harries. The Riddle in Africa: The Journal of American Folklore, 84.334 (1971):379 (University of Illinois Press on behalf of American Folklore Society URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/539632) “Accessed: 11 November 2008”

[5] Dan Ben-Amos (Apr. - Oct., 1993)."Context" in Context: Western Folklore, Vol. 52, No. 2/4, Theorizing Folklore: Toward New Perspectives on the Politics of Culture,( Published by: Western States Folklore Society Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1500087): 215 “Accessed: 17/12/2009 13:50”

[6] Kwesi Yankah.“Risks in Verbal Art Performance.” Journal of Folklore Research. 22.2/3 Folklore and Semiotics.(1985):134 (Indiana University Press URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3814389 “Accessed: 17 December 2009 “

[7] John Miles Foley. Word-Power, Performance, and Tradition The Journal of American Folklore, 105.417, (1992): 283 (American Folklore Society Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/541757 “Accessed: 17 December 2009”

[8] Foley, Word-Power, Performance, and Tradition, 275

[9] Dan Ben-Amos (Apr. - Oct., 1993)."Context" in Context: Western Folklore, Vol. 52, No. 2/4, Theorizing Folklore: Toward New Perspectives on the Politics of Culture,(Published by: Western States Folklore Society Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1500087): 216 “Accessed: 17/12/2009 13:50”

[10] Okumba Miruka. Encounter with Oral Literature. (Nairobi, East African Educational Publishers) (1994):11--13

[11] Thomas A. Burns. "Riddling: Occasion to Act." The Journal of American Folklore 89.352: (1976):147.

[12] Glazier, "Ambiguity and exchange: The Double Dimension of Mbeere Riddles," 205.

[13] Jack Glazier and Phyllis.Gorfain Glazier. "Ambiguity and exchange: The Double Dimension of Mbeere Riddles." The Journal of American Folklore 89.354 (1976): 204--206.

[14] Lyndon Harries. The Riddle in Africa: The Journal of American Folklore, 84.334, (Published by: University of Illinois Press on behalf of American Folklore Society URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/539632) (1971):379--380 “Accessed: 11 November 2008”

[15] Thomas A. Burns. "Riddling: Occasion to Act." The Journal of American Folklore 89.352 (1976): 154.

[16] There is need for “extensive investigation of riddle metrics, for it has long been recognized that riddles share many formal features with poetry “as espoused by Archer Taylor, "Riddles and Poetry", Southern Folklore Quarterly 11 (1947): 245-247.

[17] Archer Taylor. The Riddle California Folklore Quarterly, 2.2, (Published by: Western States Folklore Society URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1495557) (1943): 145 “Accessed:17 December 2009”

[18] Burns, 156.

[19] I held this event on 21 August 2009 at Mpolyabigere Community library with an audience of ten participants. The event was solicited and rules of the game agreed upon in advance and modified during the performance.

[20] Diikuula’s love riddle is performed by Diikuula at Iganga bus back in Iganga town on January 04 2008. I participated in the performance like many other people. It was unsolicited in the sense that Diikuula the person paraded himself through the town in his characteristic ways and as always an audience gathered to listen to this comical performance.

[21] Riddle K.1 ‘God in a tin’ of the Nsinze seed school riddle event, 21 August 2009.

[22] Pius A. Katunzi. “Two Riddle Poems.” in Women Writing Africa: The Eastern Region. Ed. A. Lihamba, F. L. Moyo, M. M. Mulokozi, N. L. Shitemi and S. Yahya-Othman. (The Feminist Press: New York) 3: (2007):395-397.

[23] Lyndon Harries. “The Riddle in Africa” The Journal of American Folklore, 84.334, (Published by: University of Illinois Press on behalf of American Folklore Society Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/539632) (1971):379 “Accessed: 11 November 2008”

[24] A quick go at this phrase Ntyamanandwaire means I fear sick vaginas.

[25] This can be used when one intends or is actually asking for mercy

[26] Diikuula’s Love riddle was performed on January 4 2008 in Iganga town by one of the street clowns known by the stage name Diikuula.

[27] This explanation was given by Mzee Erizaafaani P. Baamugha during Nsinze Seed school riddle event

[28] Michael Mendelson. "Declamation, Context, and Controversiality" Rhetoric Review 13.1 (1994): 92-107.

[29] Extracted from unsolicited riddles performed at Nsinze on 21 August 2009

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