All God’s children

2014-04-13 15:00

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It’s Easter in Uganda, land of many churches, anti-miniskirt laws and aggressive homophobia. Phiona Okumu makes a faith tour of the capital to try to understand the conservatism of her country

My mother’s house is tucked in the red-hued hills of an upcoming residential area called Seguku, 10km outside of Uganda’s capital city, Kampala.

One day on my way up there, I came across two young boys, barely teenagers, in a bushy enclose hidden from the view of passers-by on the dirt roads.

They took turns to coach each other on sermon delivery. While the one critiqued, the other wielded a bible, pacing the breadth of their pretend pulpit and smacking the holy book for effect as he barked doctrine to a stand-in ­congregation of one.

They were doing church. No doubt re-enacting the spirited performance aspect of whichever service they attended weekly, more than likely more than once.

The suburb of ­Seguku is renowned for its landmark “prayer mountain”, which a daily stream of believers from various denominations ascend and descend ceaselessly to conduct long hours of loud praise and worship.

Kampala itself is built on several hills, but seven prominent ones host some of the country’s most sacred monuments.

According to a 2002 census, the head count for the Christian demographic of the population stood at 80%. It feels somewhat metaphoric the way these monuments loom over the capital.

Namirembe Hill, rising 1 260m above sea level, is where St Paul’s Cathedral, the main place of worship of the Anglican church of Uganda, can be found.

At the moment its majestic red-brick structure, visible from every corner of Kampala, is but a shell. The church has been emptied for much-needed restoration, a first since construction between 1915 to 1919.

Its lawns fringed with coconut trees remain untarnished and still bestow on Namirembe the serenity to which it owes its name – “the place of peace”. The Anglican faith and Buganda monarchy have been most intimately intertwined since the end of the religious wars of the 1890s. The kings of Buganda are buried in the royal Kasubi tombs at the foot of the hill.

Sunday best

When my family returned from the UK to Uganda in the 1980s, we went from a decidedly secular existence in England to one where religion confronts you literally on every corner.

It must have looked like we had no spiritual identity, ­especially to my maternal family, whose upbringing was steeped in a combination of hyperconservative traditional ­African and church values.

I was 10 when I was baptised into the Anglican church – a far sight older than most who are consecrated as infants – yet still completely clueless that starting with this symbolic sprinkling of water on my forehead, everything I believed to be true of the world was taking shape.

Living as an extended family of meagre means, the church relieved our parents of the obligation to entertain. It’s just as well that we loved our Sunday school choir and stage productions because that was all the extra curricular activity we could afford. Life was simple.

Besides academic excellence, the only other thing encouraged in our large household was church ­participation.

My favourite aunt sowed the seed of charismatic faith in our family, which she had picked up as a teenager from her then high school at the time. My mind was blown the day my cousins and I visited her church for the first time.

Compared with the brick-and-stone reserve of our chapel, this modest papyrus structure was a hive of spontaneous activity.

Balokole (the saved ones), as the Christian Pentecostals were called, were mushrooming churches everywhere with a ­renewed vigour, recruiting their flock primarily from mainstream churches, having previously been banned, along with 26 other religious organisations in the late 1970s by Uganda’s then president, Idi Amin Dada.

I witnessed speaking in tongues here for the first time and prayed with all the might a child could muster for this gift. I didn’t quite know its purpose, but I wanted to know what it felt like to have all inhibition (and learnt speech) leave you as the Holy Spirit filled you with this language that only God and his angels discern, I thought.

It never happened. So for the rest of the days I spent juggling a traditional and charismatic dogma, it haunted me that I didn’t possess this badge of ­redemptive honour.

When we eventually got home after both church services, we sat down to our Sunday meals transfixed by the day’s television programming on the nation’s only TV station in those days.

First came 700 Club, a flagship magazine programme fronted by American Christian media mogul Pat Robertson. Then it was time for the adventure-style anime cartoon Super Book, based on biblical stories. After that, we watched megapastor Jimmy Swaggart win more souls for the Lord.

Game of thrones

For the grandest perspective of Kampala, one must mount the winding medieval-style staircase inside the imposing minaret of Uganda’s National Mosque.

If you’re lucky, you will have a passionate and knowledgeable guide named Asharaf, who will lead you up to the top of the 308 steps where your reward – a 360-degree view of the entire city – awaits you.

The mosque, the second biggest in Africa with a seating capacity of 15 000, sits in the city’s very centre, like an atrium with all the major roads leading the faithful and nonbelievers alike to and from its heart.

“Old Kampala”, where it is situated, is about 2km away from Namirembe Hill. It’s the former administrative seat of British colonial rule and the current headquarters for the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council, the governing body of the Islamic 12% of the population.

Previously, it was named after former Libyan president ­Muammar Gaddafi. He financed its construction upon a ­foundation which Idi Amin had laid in 1972, but left to fall to ruin during his eight-year tenure.

(The leaders struck up a friendship and when Amin’s government was toppled in ­Uganda, Gaddafi ­offered him and his family asylum until they relocated to Saudi Arabia where Amin died in 2003.)

The mosque reclaimed its original name shortly after Gaddafi fell from power. The current Libyan government, apparently responsible for the cost of maintaining the opulent structure, demanded that his name be dropped.

You’re allowed to enter the main premises of worship – ­female visitors are given hijabs and wraps, and everyone must remove their shoes as soon as they reach the veranda. Inside the mosque the walls, which were once decorated with ­Gaddafi’s images, are now stripped bare.

Incidentally, Muammar Gaddafi Road, formerly Makerere Hill, which leads to the mosque, still commemorates the deceased Libyan leader.

We all stand together

It’s just as well that Pope Francis won’t be taking up Ugandan Catholic Archbishop Cyprian Lwanga’s invitation to visit the country this year.

You see 2014 marks the golden jubilee of the canonising of the first African Christian martyrs slain by the Buganda King Lwanda, among them 22 Catholic pageboys from his courts.

The king, a polygamist with 11 children and 16 wives, is said to have been partial to homosexual practice. Depending on who you ask, the slaughtered saints either rejected the king’s sexual advances or spoke against him in light of their new-found faith, which condemned same-sex intercourse.

Last year, as many as 3 million undertook the pilgrimage to the shrine at Namugongo, a steel-domed structure on the outskirts of Kampala, whose wall paintings recollect the killings that took place in 1885. The hope was that the new pope would preside over Martyrs’ Day, a national holiday celebrated ­annually in Uganda on June 3.

Things would probably get very awkward very quickly as the pontiff’s well-publicised answer to a question posed last year about how he would respond to gay clergymen was this: “Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord? You can’t marginalise these people.”

As Uganda continues to occupy centre stage for its controversial attempt to stamp out homosexuality, it’s unsurprising that the factions on either side of the anti-gay debate co-opt this piece of colonial history to drive their argument.

Gay rights activists say it proves that homosexuality, often renounced as un-African, predates colonial intervention.

The supporters of the law, which among other penalties proposes life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality”, point to the example of the martyrs to illustrate the lengths to which they will go to protect their beliefs from pollution by the West.

I can’t think of one sentiment that has united so many ­different Ugandan faith bodies quite the way this collective righteous anger has.

Be gentle

When growing up, I completely missed the quieter assertions of the Baha’i faith against the din of the louder religions. I only vaguely became aware of Baha’i principles as a teenager.

One particularly speaks to my questions about the afterlife and the present one, and whether the two are indeed mutually exclusive: “Heaven is nearness to God; hell is separation from God.”

Now in my mid-thirties and without the simplistic single-mindedness of childhood, I’ve been revisiting all my personal tenets of truth. Some questions lead me up Kikaya Hill, where Kampala’s Baha’i house of worship, the only one on the continent, stands. It’s a beautiful building that looks like a traditional African hut with a porch all around it.

My guides, two ­uniformed twentysomething men, tell me that the first service ever held here in January 1961 brought to the temple 1 500 people, with only one-third being Baha’is. Interdenominational harmony and removal of all prejudice are just some of the basic principles they talk me through as we take the winding road to the top of the hill where the temple is perched.

Later on Edward, my photographer, joins me and I attempt several awkward poses, hoping the next one will magically turn out to be the million-dollar cover shot. A maintenance man strolls over to us and after asking what we are doing says: “Be gentle.” He reads the confusion on my face before he reiterates more directly: “Don’t stand like that.”

I hop off the veranda and make my way towards Edward, who is now dismantling his gear and placing it back in his bag. Even here, in a place of liberal dogma, there’s a strict moral code.

Okumu is the editor of Afripop Mag

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