Saturday, December 17, 2011

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. 

1 comment:

  1. Indeed! What gets me is the lack of depth of "theology" in Uganda, the repetitive cliches (& meaningless phrases - "God is Able") of the evangelical "Born Agains", the constant calls to God to pay attention to them (when he would probably prefer to be on the heavenly golf course), and the dearth of any social gospel or social conscience. Cf Matt 15:7 "Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, this people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.