Easter in Uganda

Easter is one of the biggest holidays in Uganda. It is a chance to see family and relax. But as is so often the case in Uganda, it is the religious element that is most visible.


The Good Friday procession

It was that religious element that I first witnessed. I walked into town on Good Friday to pick up some cake and I wandered into the middle of a vast procession. There were quite literally thousands of people marching to drums and singing. In fact, my initial hopes of letting the procession pass were dashed when, after a few minutes of waiting, the end was nowhere in sight.

At the front were men wearing vestments each carrying a wooden cross. Almost all of the marchers also carried wooden crosses, each clearly made at home. I learnt afterwards that this is a traditional Catholic procession. But for the first time, Catholics and Protestants marched together this year.

As I could not wait for the procession to end, I had to effectively join it. But as the only white person, carrying a bag of cake instead of a cross, I felt slightly out of place.

Easter Sunday is a day for visiting family. Lilian asked me to join her family in the neighbouring district, Rukungiri, so I went along. We left early on Sunday morning and after driving for a couple of hours we arrived at her village. Her mother lives with a live-in helper, Gift, Lilian’s brother and Lilian’s four adoptive children. After the early start I was pleased to drink the African tea with extra coffee.

Lilian’s children are called Kevin, James, Blair and Obama. Ugandans are imaginative with names, but this is the first time I have met children named after Western politicians. It’s strange to think that there are probably children in Africa called Cameron. Though I doubt there are many called Clegg.

It’s a special day so Lilian is giving a goat to her church. We bundle the poor goat into the back of the car, and after Blair has finished giving it a tear-filled farewell, we are off.

I am a fan of the Ugandan trend for building churches on hills. It sets them apart from the rest of the village as something to look up to. It also means that on every Sunday, the people of the village snake upwards towards their church.

We arrive slightly late, and the first hymn has already started. This is a small rural church so there are no frills. The only accompaniment to the singing is the steady beat of an animal skin-lined drum and rhythmic clapping. One lady in the third or fourth row starts off each hymn for everyone else to come in.

The service was held in Rukiga, English speakers are a distinct minority in rural areas. People who do not speak Rukiga were an even smaller minority: one. Lilian brought her Rukiga hymnbook so I mimed along at the right times. Amusingly, some of the regular worshippers approached me afterwards impressed that I knew the words to every hymn. Admittedly, the sermon seemed to drag on a little longer than usual, and I needed prompting when I was pointed out to the congregation. But I also expanded by small Rukiga vocabulary with a few additional phrases, such as ‘Thanks be to God,’ (‘Kamusiime’).

The collection was slightly more eventful than back home. In addition to Lilian’s goat, people donated sugar cane, corn, potatoes, eggs and even a bottle of soda. These were then sold to the congregation in a well rehearsed auction. Sadly, no one bought Lilian’s goat so she bought it herself. Blair, if nobody else, was at least happy to see it come back home.

This was an Anglican Church of Uganda service and it is noteworthy that the parish has a woman priest, who led today’s service. Her sermon seemed to go down well, although I have almost no idea what she said. It is a reminder that not all parts of Africa are ultra-conservative. Though it is perhaps more of a reflection on Rukungiri than Uganda. Rukungiri is a stronghold of the country’s liberal Forum for Democratic Change and the main opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, is from Rukungiri.

The Church of Uganda, predictably, is on African time and it is almost 2pm by the time we get away. With the goat back in the car, we head back to Lilian’s family home.

Lilian has big ideas for her village. It is a beautiful part of Uganda, and well situated near national parks (Bwindi and Queen Elizabeth) and Lake Bunyonyi. It has good transport links to Kabale and Mbarara in the south and Kasese to the north. With her enthusiasm for tourism, there is no reason why she could not persuade travellers to stop here en route to the national parks to relax and walk over the gradually undulating hills.

The scenery is noticeably different from Kabale. There are no steep terraced hills cut away to cultivate crops. Instead, the people of Rukungiri are more likely to be pastoralists. Their land is still hilly but it is sparsely populated. The grassy slopes are separated by straight hedgerows into fields for grazing cattle and goats.

We drove back to Kabale in the evening, with Obama and Blair joining us. It occurred to me that Obama, who is five, has about the same level of English as I have Rukiga. Though the lack of conversation was more than compensated by his sheer fascination with my hair, face and fingers.

I notice an interesting rock face on the way back and Lilian insists that we stop to investigate. An enormous rock seemed to be balancing precariously on another. At the top, there are a group of young boys hanging around. It emerges after talking to them that the rocks are part of local mythology, they are thought to house the Bakwezi, a group of demi-gods in local beliefs. The local people live offerings of food, money and clothes at the rocks which, of course, the boys take for themselves.


Interesting rocks…

It is a reminder that though Christianity and Islam appear on the surface to be all-powerful, Uganda’s traditional spiritual beliefs and superstitions are never far away. Though these traditional beliefs are heavily stigmatised, people leave their offerings at the rocks under the cover of night when they will not be spotted by their neighbours. But it is remarkable that traditional beliefs have survived the stigmatism and still live on.

Even Ugandans who are entirely Christian can sometimes have a remarkably superstitious outlook. Bad luck is rarely merely bad luck; it is a sign that somehow you have annoyed the wrong person. Traditional healers still have an important role in calming the spirit world after a band omen; lightning strikes, leopard sightings and almost anything involving pregnant women are bad signs.

The Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński explains it well in his writings on Africa. To the African mind, he says, Western explanations of accidents are entirely unsatisfactory. Why did John’s car crash? Because there was a brake failure. But why did specifically John’s brakes fail? Because he forgot to get them tested. Yes, but why did John forget to get his brakes tested when so many people routinely remember?

It’s an oversimplification but I think it helps to explain a major difference between the way that most Americans and Europeans think, and the way that most Africans think.

Looking around the rock face today, I was reminded of an article in the newspaper a few weeks ago. The article argued that, despite their success, neither Western Christianity nor Islam had managed to satisfy this African urge for spiritual answers. The solution was Pentecostalism, a Christian movement which has swept over Africa with startling success in recent decades.

By borrowing the ideas of spiritual healing and a strait forward belief in miracles from American Baptist Churches, Pentecostalism has been able to revive some of those elements of traditional African beliefs.

It is a potent, heady mix and it has been enormously successful. So successful in fact, that the Anglican church has had to change the style of its services to stem the flow of worshippers to Pentecostal churches.

Religion is not a side show in Africa. In the UK, church politics is a quaint distraction from the issues that really affect most people’s lives. But African churches still have the power and influence to dictate to politicians. Understanding church life in Uganda is essential to understanding the country’s culture, society and politics.


Over the last hundred years or so, a handful of white Europeans (mostly from Britain) have settled in Kabale. Often they came as missionaries or teachers or both, and ended up staying in Kabale for the rest of their lives. Over time they become local celebrities, well loved by Ugandans and an invaluable source of advice and information for travellers and volunteers.

Constance Hornby is perhaps the best known of these. She first came to Kabale in the 1920s and became an enormously well respected teacher. She opened two schools which are still in operation. She is buried between those schools, the cathedral and Bishop Barham University.

Today I had the chance to meet another of these settlers. Joan Hall, like Constance Hornby, came as a teacher and missionary. She arrived in Uganda in 1953 after three week journey from Britain. In those days aeroplanes were prohibitively expensive, so she travelled for 17 days by boat to Mombassa via Suez and then by train to Kampala. The journey from Kampala to Kabale alone took two days with an overnight stay in Mbarara.

I reflect on my three day journey with a hint of envy. If there had been a cheaper option involving two weeks on a ship, I’d have taken it without a second thought.

She is an elderly lady now though she gets around quickly with the aid of a walking frame. She insists on giving me and Lilian cake and tea. The cake is as good as any back in the UK. She asks eagerly about my activities here; what have I been doing, where have I visited. We talk about the national parks and I share some photos of tree-climbing lions. “They haven’t changed a bit since the 1950s,” she remarks without a hint of nostalgia.

Despite the warmth and openness, I sense that Joan comes from a breed of formidable women. It would take a particular level of bravery for her to travel alone to the middle of Africa in the 1950s. She talks warmly about her Ugandan friends from those days, who looked after her and welcomed her into their families. One such friend was Lilian’s grandfather.

Joan is renowned in Kabale for being one of the few Europeans to have mastered Rukiga. I ask her how she learned the language. I suppose she had a couple of major advantages over me. Firstly, there were far fewer Americans and Europeans in Kabale in the 1950s (not that there are many now). Secondly, that fewer Ugandans could speak English.

The result is that she would have been forced to a far greater extent that I have been to engage with Ugandans in Rukiga. Her advice is to get stuck in. To listen intently to conversations and participate whenever possible. She suggested paying close attention to verbs; once you start to recognise them you can understand sentences. “Listen to the accent,” she cautioned, “you won’t learn that in a book.”

Later I meet with Prof. Muranga, the Principal of Bishop Barham University College and a close friend of Joan. Our conversation turns to Joan and those other Europeans who have settled in Kabale. He comments that Joan’s mastery of Rukiga really is perfect.

He turns to me and, smiling, says; “we’re very keen on these people who have stayed with us, not all of them of course, but most of them.”

On the radio

Radio is big news in Uganda. Newspapers are too expensive for most people, and the country’s infrastructure would struggle to deliver them on time. Television is even more expensive and large swathes of Uganda have no electricity.

Me, Matthias and King James

By contrast, radio requires minimal infrastructure. With the explosion of wind up and solar powered radios in Africa, it does not require an electricity connection. In addition, it is a lot cheaper to buy a radio than a television. This is why it is estimated that 96% of Ugandans listen to the radio at least every week, and over 80% have a household radio. This is more than double the number of people who watch television or buy a newspaper.

The popularity of radio in Africa has turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. International donors, keen to exploit the level of access offered by radio, have funded studios and broadcasting equipment. At the forefront of this movement has been the international evangelical movement, which is supplementing traditional church services by delivering its message over the radio. Kabale, with its strong community of Pentecostal churches, is one beneficiary of this trend.

Hope Radio is one example. Connected to the local Pentecostal church, it is a popular radio station and the Ugandan family with whom I am staying frequently listen to it. It is broadcast in over 10 districts which, using figures from the 2002 census, have a combined population of around 2.5 million people. Though these figures are fairly out of date; the national population has grown by almost 50% since 2002.

So when it was suggested that we talk about the Youth Media Centre on Hope Radio, we jumped at the chance. It was a simple format, an interview with the three leaders of the Youth Media Centre; Ronald, King James and Pastor Matthias, and me. It turns out that radio stations use African time. The show was supposed to last from 7pm to 9pm, but in practice ran from 7:30 to after 10:00pm.

We also took a few call-in questions from our audience. There is so much interest in film and media amongst young people in Uganda, and it is a tragedy to see so much of it go to waste through a lack of skills. Media skills are also highly transferable; any employer values people who can use a computer and communicate effectively.

I was surprised by the number of people who called in, but in hindsight I should not have been. After all, radio is popular here. This morning, I discovered that my friends Patricia and Lillian had independently and unexpectedly ended up listening to us.

Lessons in research

At least the views are nice...

At least the views are nice…

Doing research in Uganda, as I have learnt, is very different from back home.

One of my main research projects is on tracking public expenditure. The point of this project is to look at how well (or badly) public money is used by local authorities in this part of Uganda. The main concern is obviously corruption, huge sums of money are siphoned off by officials at every level of government. But there is also room for waste and mismanagement.

We are concerned with a notorious programme called the National Agriculture Advisory Service (NAADS). The idea is to support farmers by using public money to fund seeds or livestock. In practice, it is notoriously ineffective and ridden with corruption.

We started yesterday by heading out to our first sub-county, these are the government bodies that administer the NAADS programme.

The first problem was, predictably, that none of the officials had turned up to work yet by the time we arrived at 10:30. ‘African time’, as it is known here, is that laid back attitude towards time keeping that is so common across the continent. I’ve come to expect it and, frankly, my own time keeping has become a disaster over the last few months.

We eventually rounded up a few officials, some not as senior as we had hoped, and happened upon our second problem. They didn’t know very much about the NAADS programme, or indeed the general state of the sub-county. The Sub-County Chief (I have no idea what this job entails, but it sounds important in its league), had no idea about the size of the sub-county’s budget. Let alone how much of that goes towards NAADS.

When we finally extracted a list of beneficiaries out of the NAADS Coordinator, we hit our third problem. Only a tiny number of people had benefited so far this year, and finding those beneficiaries was next to impossible. One had disappeared and another was already drunk.

I suppose doing research in Africa was always going to involve a learning curve. Though already we have some interesting findings here, and perhaps some reasons why the NAADS programme has got such a bad reputation.

Next week we will be moving our research into other sub-counties. We might have to change our strategy.



Running water is one of those things that I had always taken for granted back in the UK. Without fail, whenever I turned the tap, clean drinking water would come out.

I knew that the tap water in Uganda would not be drinkable. But I did not expect even the undrinkable tap water would be so unreliable. Yet it’s now more than five days since we had running water.

The explanation this time is that there are some road works in Kabale, and somehow (either intentionally or not) the water supply was disconnected. But the official explanation is hardly relevant. The water supply cuts out frequently. Normally it’s just for a day or two, but occasionally there are longer spells.

As Geoffrey once said to me, it’s during times when there is no water or electricity that you get the slightest glimpse of life in the world’s poorest countries. People have to walk miles to the nearest water source bringing back jerry cans filled with water. Offices grind to a halt, laptops slowly discharge and in the evenings, there is nothing to do but sit around talking in candlelight.

At first it all seems quite romantic. But that is soon overtaken by the sheer tedious boredom of having nothing to do. You can’t even read a book in the dark. And after a week without showering even I am starting to feel a bit filthy. The toilet gradually requires a Chernobyl-style exclusion zone.

You also realise that the unreliability of water and electricity in Uganda has had a huge impact on the country’s development. It makes no sense to invest in washing machines or dishwashers when they will be unusable for weeks at a time. So the women of Uganda, and it is only the women, spend hours each week washing clothes by hand. Even in the houses of wealthy, urban Ugandans the cooking is done on wood burning stoves.

Some of the wealthier businesses might have their own electricity generator. So the White Horse Inn, one of Kabale’s few colonial bastions, has a generator. Some hospitals and clinics will have a generator, which will be turned on occasionally and unpredictably. But round the clock electricity is a privilege exclusively for the rich, and most commonly for rich foreigners.

For everyone else, you just get used to economising. You charge up your phone whenever there is power. Typically, enterprising Ugandans have made an opportunity out of a problem. Kabale’s main road is full of generators attached to innumerable phone chargers which anyone can use for a fee.

Then, as unexpectedly as it went off, the water is on again. The lights suddenly switch on and my bleary eyes make out the face of whoever I’ve been talking to for the last hour. I take a warm shower and feel instantly refreshed.

Meanwhile, just a few miles away, people in rural villages carry on without power or running water, not realising that anything has changed.

Local brew

It has taken me a long time to get my head around Ugandans’ relationship with alcohol. I still don’t fully understand it, but today I got a bit closer.


Lake Bunyonyi from the southern side

Urban Ugandans seem to drink infrequently and reluctantly. Alcohol perhaps takes the place of champagne in Western countries; it is drunk only at very special occasions, such as a wedding. This is partly explained through cost, it is expensive to drink. I suspect that the fact that Ugandans tend to be quite religious also affects their attitudes to alcohol.

It is also possible that urban Ugandans are reacting against a very different attitude towards alcohol that is found in rural communities.

People, and especially men, in rural communities drink a lot. They make a local brew made out of sorghum and honey. It is cheap and strong.

The reason that men seem to drink more is, frankly, because the men have a lot of free time. The relationship between men and women in Uganda is inequitable, at least in rural areas. The women keep the home, cultivate crops and look after children. The men do the manual work and they might also look after livestock, but there is a lot of time for hanging around. This hanging around quickly gets filled up by heavy drinking.

It is not unusual to walk through a town in the morning and find heavily drunk men. At first it’s slightly annoying, then funny and then the tragedy of the situation hits you. These people, some of the poorest in the world, are under the thumb of alcoholism.

One of the great things about collecting folk stories is that I have gone into some very remote, rural areas. These are places where the storytelling tradition is strongest.

Today, I went to the village of Kashasha. It is very close to the Rwandan border and one of the most remote places that I have ever been. There is no road that goes to Kashasha. To get there, you travel across Lake Bunyonyi for one hour and then travel 5km through dirt tracks. We arranged yesterday for Boda Bodas (motorcycle taxis) to pick us up this morning from the lakeside.

It’s a long way, and travelling here is expensive. So Lillian and I grouped together with the owner of a local resort, the Colobus Lodge, Kato. He was born in Kashasha and was visiting his old school with his wife, Irene, and Jan, a Dutch filmmaker who is making promotional videos for charities and other good causes across Uganda.

So the five of us set out on the boat. We didn’t get off to a great start; Kato had accidentally bought petrol and the boats diesel engine wheezed to a halt in the middle of the lake. But after rowing back to land and getting a new boat, we were off. The Boda journey from the lakeside to the school was a little bit edgy at times. I was trying to stop myself, my notebook and a bag of bananas from falling off.

My Boda Boda driver was clearly a bit of a character. Kato would not let him go in front in case he sped off ahead. So we were relegated to the back of the group. Occasionally he would go to overtake the person in front, and then the ominous words mpora mpora (slowly slowly) would put him back in his place.

Not long after hearing our first stories, Kato’s dad came up to greet us. He was drunk. But he was old, as retired as anyone in Uganda is, so why not sit around drinking on a Monday morning?

Then we heard some stories from the school children. I even greeted the assembly in Rukiga. The head teacher came up to me to introduce himself. He stumbled slighty. When he opened his mouth, the stench of alcohol hit me. Then I realised that some of the other teachers were drunk too.

Further down the hill, we walked into the main town. By this time school had finished, so the track running through the middle of the town (a high street, perhaps?) was full of school children. But it was also full of the men of Kashasha who presumably have nowhere else to go on a weekday. The arrival of two white guys was clearly the most eventful thing to happen in Kashasha for some time. I suspect most of the children had never seen white people before.

Yet the thing I remember most about the town, apart from the hundreds of children staring at me in amazement, was the stench of alcohol. The stench was everywhere. The crowd of people stunk of alcohol, the huts lining the track all had the same lingering smell. At one point, a dishevelled man stumbled towards me with what was presumably once a shirt hanging loosely off his scrawny frame. He grinned, showing off a handful of crooked teeth. Slurring, he introduced himself as the chairman of the local council.

It felt like I had arrived in some dystopian world, where brutal poverty mixed with boredom drives everyone (literally everyone) to alcohol and where the entrenched alcoholism keeps everyone locked in brutal poverty. A world where even teachers and government officials are in a drunken, semi-permanent stupor.

I was fairly happy to leave Kashasha without waiting around for too long. I saw the Boda Boda driver, the same one who brought me into the town, and jumped on. He recognised me, and he seemed a bit more talkative than he was this morning.

The thick stench of alcohol filled the air of the town, and I was looking forward to getting away. But to my surprise, as we left Kashasha, the alcohol smell stayed with us. Suddenly all of the pieces fell into place: a bit of a character, more talkative than this morning, the lingering smell of alcohol. Oh God, I thought, the Boda Boda driver is drunk.

I held on more tightly than usual on the ride back. I was painfully aware that falling off a motorbike in such a remote place would be bad news. My imagination kept conjuring up unwelcome images of my unconscious, broken body being taken across the lake to some drab government hospital.

But, needlesstosay, we made it. In fact, I even struck up a rapport with my Boda driver. He was impressed by my limited grasp of Rukiga (Cale, Tugende! OK, we go!). I was impressed by his ability to drive a motorcycle while drunk.

When we were safely in the boat (that’s right; an unstable, wooden canoe felt like relative safety), I excitedly told Lillian about my Boda Boda driver. The surprising thing is that Lillian was even more shocked than I was.

There is no single take on alcohol in Uganda. To some, particularly the rural poor, drinking is quite literally a way of life. But the comparatively better off, urban Ugandans have a very different take on alcohol.

Kigezi Youth Media Centre

I have blogged before about the Youth Media Centre. It is the brainchild of Ronald, a very good friend of mind here in Uganda.

He was amazed at how many young people, including graduates, did not have basic computer skills. It is a real problem for Uganda’s development. If a large business were considering investing in Kabale, for example putting their offices here, they would need a skilled population. If people do not even know how to use Microsoft Word, then that business is likely to open their office elsewhere.

The opportunities are real. Ronald and his friend, whose name is King James (!), are collaborating on a film. They have the financial backing and it looks set for commercial release later this year. They are making it in Kabale and could employ scores of young people. But those people need to have relevant skills.

So Ronald set up the Youth Media Centre to get more people engaged in media and IT. When the project is up and running, the centre itself will be a place that young people can drop in to practice using computers, cameras and recording equipment. It will also be an organisation that actively finds work for young people, for example as wedding photographers (big business here).

On Friday, we held a training session looking at film skills. I’m no expert, but I roughly know my way around the camera and I have some experience of video editing software. So I gave a short presentation on that. King James, who amongst other things is a scriptwriter, went through some of the key points of writing for film.

It was an interesting session, and I am constantly amazed by the optimism of people here. One lad who turned up had dropped out of school and had no education above primary school. He was working as a porter at local building sites, essentially moving wheelbarrows of rubble. He wanted something better and knew that the key to it was to get IT skills.

So we will be running a workshop on basic computer skills next week, and I hope he and others can come along.