Sunday, November 11, 2012

Have you prayed this morning, Madame?

'Have you prayed this morning, Madame?'

This was the rather intrusive – not to say impertinent – question I was asked last week by the security guard at the hotel where I go for my Sunday morning swim. 

How did I answer?

Not, you'll be glad to know, with my kneejerk, ‘Mind your own business.’

Nor with my preferred response, tailored to our currently rather jaundiced view of life in Uganda, ‘No, I haven't prayed but neither have I stolen any money or raped a child.’

In fact, I lied through my teeth, looked him straight in the eye and said’ ‘Yes.’ (May God forgive me.)

And so I braved it out, while also considering, given my successful performance at the security point, that I could actually act as a gunrunner for Al Shabbab. After all, ostensibly the guard’s main responsibility was to keep terrorists out. Instead, he thought it proper to interrogate me about my personal beliefs and current activities.

Many Ugandans do that. You can be cheerfully passing your purchases through the supermarket checkout when the girl asks, ‘Are you saved?’.

The other day, the waitress suddenly asked,’ Are you born again?’ I glared at Stuart, daring him to make a flippant response. The trouble with saying ‘no’ is that you are then ripe for conversion. This process can take some time, with Stuart engaging in theological debate based on references to Bonhoeffer, Barth and Bultmann, the waitress’ eyes glazing over and my soup getting cold. If you say ‘yes’, then you have only the flimsiest of evidence to back it up when the inevitable interrogatives when, where and how wing their way in your direction. People tend to find ‘on the road to Damascus’ a less than convincing answer.

Today, also a Sunday, I was exercising hard in the gym of another hotel. I had noticed that it was rather grubbier than usual. The equipment was in disarray, a pair of trainers lay abandoned and the floor was covered with mud. (Ugandans don’t always possess gym-wear, so I am used to sharing the gym with young men wearing outdoor shoes, flipflops or, indeed, skin-tight boxer shorts. Removal of some outdoor clothing indicates at least a nod towards gym etiquette. The mud I'm not so sure of.)

I was nearing the end of my workout when in came the gym instructor, with whom I have a friendly if intermittent relationship.

‘Oh, sorry, sorry, sorry,’ he said. (Ugandans use repetition as emphasis.) ‘It isn’t clean.’ From my prone position, weights in hand, I grunted in recognition of that obvious fact.

The instructor went on,’I was praying.’

Now, I am not into sartorial prejudice, but an incongruous vision of the instructor’s colourful lycra outfit on its knees immediately flashed before my eyes.

‘Ah,’ I said. 

Then I recollected that most of my workout had been carried out to the accompaniment of dirge-like hymn-singing (preferred style, early nineteenth century British rather than early twenty first century Ugandan), fervent cries to God and rhythmic antiphonal responses. The prayer meeting appeared to have been taking place across the corridor from the gym.

Clearly, orare est laborare rather than laborare est orare was the hotel's motto. I wondered how many of the staff were neglecting their paid duties while sending in their requests for worldly goods and heavenly salvation to their Maker by means of the sacred prayer conveyor, a religious version of the little cans on wires whizzing through 1950s cooperative stores. At least you can delegate the turning of a Tibetan prayer wheel.

And requests the prayers certainly are. In our experience, and we hear prayers at the beginning of every meeting and sometimes in the middle and at the end as well, the supplicant usually starts off by softening God up: ‘Thank you for the day, thank you for our safe journeys, thank you for our food’ – that sort of thing (every Ugandan can do this at the drop of a hat). He or she then moves on to telling God what he should be doing that day. You must understand, in Uganda all work-related activity is carried out by God, not people. The people are asleep at their desks, at home or watching their wives and children dig the garden. So, God is beseeched to make the right decisions, bring about the right results and so on. It certainly saves any effort on the part of the employees.

Above all, prayer is about salvation, about whether you will go to heaven (generally the preferred option) or go to hell (a place usually reserved for bazungu and homosexuals).

To summarise then, prayers are about ’thanks for a job well done’, followed by a requisition for further work to be carried out. The supplicant is then rewarded for his or her exhortations (not actions) with a seat in the heavenly stadium. If you've prayed particularly convincingly, school fees, a four-by-four and a mansion may be thrown in as well. 

Salvation by faith, not by good works. God’s bounty is for me, me, me. It certainly isn’t for them, them, them or you, you, you.

Like Oxfam, UNICEF and Save the Children, the great Donor in the Sky will dispense his aid to you as long as you put in a properly formulated bid. And all you have to do is to keep sending in your project proposals because so many other people are also doing it and you want yours at the top of the pile.

Sadly, many potential recipients of God’s aid are too young, too weak and too needy to do the necessary praying themselves. Well, that’s just tough. No goodies for them, and you certainly aren’t going to give them any of yours.  You definitely aren't going to pray for them either. After all, they’re not from your clan, not from your village and not from (one of) your families. 

However, if their name is Lazarus (you remember, the one by the gate while Dives sat in his mansion. NOT the one who was raised from the dead. Were you really not listening in Sunday School?) and they are lucky enough to receive blessings from God (Count your blessings, name them one by one), it’ll be easy enough to divert them into your own account. If you have any difficulty doing this, ask the Office of the Prime Minister for help.

No, my friends, I didn't pray today, and neither will I tomorrow or the day after.

The Judgement of the Nations (Matthew 25, v34-40)

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: and before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was ahungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee ahungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was ahungered, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.

Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee ahungered, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?

Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.


  1. Hi Elisabeth, also looking forward (just a little) to go home? No kidding, I think it's quite brave to write a critical blog like this! And remember; we take home so many (good) memories and we've learned so much...and we achieved with the people (you did for sure) as well!

  2. We have good memories too, Linda, though what is happening in the country just now and the desperation of the people around us make it quite difficult to keep upbeat.

  3. I so enjoyed reading this. I laughed out loud too many times, and it's only me here...

    The points that you make are, in my mind, utterly valid.

    As far as I am concerned, you just keep it up.