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.
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.
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.