Saturday, December 17, 2011

Mount Elgon, its people and traditions

One of the 'perks' of doing our kind of work is that it involves travelling around Uganda and learning about its varied and rich culture and traditions. One of our trips gave us the chance to visit the Sipi Falls on Mount Elgon, not far from the Kenyan border.  Parts of Mount Elgon are disputed territory.  The government has claimed a good bit of the land for a national park, but the local clans, understandably perhaps, feel aggrieved about being moved off their ancestral territory.  However, the land is poor and rocky, and deforestation is leading to major degradation, hastening climate change and resulting in catastrophic landslides. The most recent major landslide, in May 2010, claimed three hundred and fifty lives,while scores of people have died in smaller landslips since then.  Every so often we read in the newspapers about clashes between locals and the army as the former tear down fences and try to re-enter their land.  However, we were not foolhardy enough to visit the really tricky areas (family, please note!).

Local village near the Falls

Where we were, the national park has made an agreement with the clan, part of the Masai people who also live in Kenya and Tanzania. The entrance fees paid by tourists now support local schools and provide health care.  
Growing coffee near Sipi falls
Drying coffee berries

We didn’t have time to visit all four of the falls.  The main Sipi waterfall, however, was dramatic, falling 99 metres down a sheer cliff face.  The rich colours of the water-loving plants and the lush vegetation made this a magical place.
Part of the Sipi Falls
Walking back down the hill

As we drove back from the Falls, we suddenly came across twenty or thirty young men, with a few female supporters, chanting rhythmically as they jogged down the road, brandishing long leafy green branches.  The next day marked their coming of age.   They were undergoing various preparatory rites before being circumcised, when they would be accepted as full clan members. 

Young women in eastern Uganda used to undergo a similar coming-of-age ritual: female genital mutilation.  Mutilation was banned this time last year and has never been practised within most of Uganda.  However, the new law remains controversial because Uganda’s constitution also protects the cultural traditions of its various tribes and clans.

In autumn 2010, newspapers reported that 100 Ugandan girls from the Sabiny clan on Mount Elgon had been smuggled out of their villages in the middle of the night, some across to Kenya, in order to undergo the procedure.  A hundred girls, and not one police officer noticed….  During the operation the clitoris is cut out, without the use of any anaesthetic.  Indeed, the girls are not allowed to show pain or cry out.  The same unsterilised knife or razor blade is used on several girls, risking the spread of HIV.  The ‘operation’ is even more dangerous when carried out at night.  The girls suffer major blood loss and unbearable pain.   A few may die immediately, others later on.

Mutilation results in very high levels of death in childbirth, neonatal death and long term physical damage, including fistulas which lead to incontinence and, as a result, exclusion from the community.  Mutilation might be illegal, but people still do it and sometimes young women request it.  Women who have not undergone mutilation are not allowed to enter the communal millet stores, draw water or milk cows, at least alongside other women, and sometimes not at all.  Some of them reach the stage where they can no longer tolerate this ostracism from the life of the family and the clan, and volunteer for the procedure.   One of the saddest things about mutilation is that it is other women who carry it out.

Mount Elgon is a beautiful part of a very beautiful country. Most of us would, I think, want local traditions to continue alongside technological development and improvements in education. However, westerners like us may also sometimes have a rather romantic view of age-old traditions, perhaps because so few of our own remain.  A volunteer we know sometimes says to her students, ‘The fact that something is your culture does not mean that it is good.’ 

Christian celebrations in Kampala, December 2010

Sadly, being in the UK just now, I am missing the run up to Christmas in Uganda. Such celebrations are far more low key than they are in Britain, though you do find the shops stocked with artificial snow and postcards depicting Victorian scenes complete with icicles, robins and children on sledges. The supermarkets play the same schmalzy Christmas music and stock tinsel and spicy German lebkuchan.

A year ago, December was a month of 'celebrations', of one sort or another, some of which we have written about elsewhere. It culminated in Christmas but included various other events as well. Among these was a wedding between two well-educated well-heeled young people from the Kampala ‘elite’.  We had missed the traditional Ugandan ‘introduction’, when the two families formally meet each other and the groom’s family hand over various gifts (the ‘bride price’).  However, we were delighted to receive an invitation to the church service and reception.  ‘It’s just like weddings in the UK,’ said our hostess.  Well, perhaps.

St Luke's Church, Ntinda
St Luke’s Church of Uganda is an impressive new building just round the corner from where we live.  Ritchies being Ritchies, we arrived in good time for the service at 11 o’clock.  Ugandans being Ugandans, we were the first people there.  Indeed, at five to eleven, they had just started to scrub the steps; at five past eleven, the flowers appeared; and at quarter past they laid the ‘carpet’ leading to the altar. Eventually, at twenty five past eleven, the service began and at a quarter to twelve the bride’s mother appeared.  By the time she had arrived, eight slender bridesmaids had already sashayed down the aisle, followed by two delightful flower girls and the beautiful bride herself.  Indeed, the vows were already in progress.  But yes, apart from the time-keeping, or lack of it, the overall occasion appeared quite British. 

Dressed in our best
There were no British inhibitions about the ceremony, however, which, in true Ugandan fashion, bore only a passing resemblance to what was printed in the order of service.  Clapping punctuated every few words of the liturgy and the hymns were sung with gusto and a good bit of hip-swinging.  Unlike British weddings there was a sermon, in this case delivered by the bishop, resplendent in red.  He had already prayed for the bride’s womb to be opened and made fruitful – just to leave no doubt about the true purpose of marriage.  Then, to our surprise, the bishop launched into a passionate diatribe on homosexuality, slightly surprising given the clearly heterosexual nature of the event.

It is odd what different societies regard as crimes.  Here in Uganda, love between two consenting adult men is seen as abhorrent and requiring the most severe punishment. Some people - including influential politicians - are actually campaigning for the introduction of the death penalty, although this has been halted for now, thanks to European intervention. (In a nutshell, the diplomats threatened to stop aid if the law was passed.) In contrast to the furore about homosexuality, every week we learn of underage girls being ‘defiled’ (raped) by heterosexual adult males, with little sense in the media or the general population of the enormity of these crimes and the devastating psychological, social and physical impact on individual victims.  At least 50% of all Ugandan girls are sexually assaulted before they reach fifteen, most of them raped, and about 20% of all girls are actually raped at school, almost all by their teachers.  Given that 85% of Ugandans are church-going Christians, well…. you can work out the implications yourselves…..  The complacency with which most Ugandans appear to accept the widespread rape of young children and under-age girls may have something to do with the value placed on male sexual potency and early childbirth. Homosexuals don’t reproduce; they don’t keep the family going.  One could argue, of course, that neither do they contribute to Uganda’s rapidly increasing over-population. Still, that sermon was, for us, a bizarre episode in what was otherwise a conventional Christian celebration. We have heard since from other people that Ugandan weddings quite often include such outbursts.

Happy family, mother of the bride in magnificent red gomesi
Following his diatribe, the bishop continued in amiable if rather long-winded fashion.  Overall, the wedding was a most enjoyable occasion. There could be no doubting the genuine love between the couple, or the affection in which they were held by their families.

Two and a half hours after we arrived at the church, we were ready for the six hour reception. We didn’t make the mistake of arriving at three o’clock, as the invitation indicated.  Nevertheless, we waited a good hour for people to trickle in - a wonderful people-watching opportunity.  Everyone in Kampala seems to hail from a village ‘up-country’.  Our upper-middle class hosts were no exception.  The girl’s family came from the far east, near the Kenyan border, while the boy’s came from way over in the west.  So, not only was it a meeting of families, it was a meeting of clans.  The girl’s clan welcomed their new relatives with traditional singing and dancing, and then the bride was welcomed into her new clan.  Women from the village danced in front of the couple, ululating as they came.  Speeches were made, gifts presented and cows promised. We left just as the goats were being led in. What a wonderful day!

Bride's clan singing and dancing as they welcome their new relatives
Dances from the west, T shirts no doubt a modern addition
Newly-wed couple present gifts to their families and friends
in gratitude for their love and support
That only left one Christian festival before the New Year.   Although we were not around for Christmas itself, we did manage to go to church on the last Sunday in Advent.  St Luke’s has three morning services, all three attended by at least 300 people.  We went to the English service and were made very welcome indeed.  The hymns were all familiar and the singing energetic, though what the congregation made of some of the words, goodness only knows. One of the wedding hymns the day before had referred to ‘summer and winter and springtime and harvest’, another to ‘the cold wind in the winter, the pleasant summer sun’.  Winter?  In Uganda?  The Sunday service regaled us with ‘field and forest, vale and mountain, flowery meadow, flashing sea’.  Flowery meadow?  Flashing sea?  In landlocked Uganda?  It reminded me of one of my more bizarre Ugandan moments, sweating my way round Entebbe’s Botanical Gardens as the carol ‘In the bleak midwinter’ wafted through the trees.

These may be trivialities, but they reflect the extent to which mainstream Christianity, as represented by the Anglican/Episcopal Church of Uganda, reflects the traditions left behind by the missionaries, often derived from a very different culture.  It is strange that, unlike our Catholic friends, we have heard virtually no traditional Ugandan music in the churches we have visited. Nevertheless, in our Advent service, we did get a sense of a living religious faith, although rather more evangelical than we are used to.  The half hour sermon resulted in much note-taking as the preacher expounded on text after text.   Two young men were ‘saved’ and 'born again'.  The children gathered at the front while the congregation sang, ‘We are a family’.

Family and clan: ‘belonging’ is so important to Ugandans.  They cannot understand why British families apparently don’t care for their old people, as they see it.  ‘How can they die of cold?’ exclaimed my colleague, ‘when you’re all so rich?’  Even in urban settings, the clan provides enormous support: financial, spiritual and emotional. And in church, personal salvation lifts you out of loneliness and into the Christian family. 

Nevertheless, for us, something was missing from that Sunday celebration.  Where were the traditional Christmas references to the poor and needy?  Where was the Christ child laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn? Where were Uganda’s two and a half million Aids orphans, the internally displaced and refugees, the children from the slums and the defiled girls?  Certainly not in the prayers, certainly not in the hymns and very definitely not in church.