Monday, June 21, 2010

I’ve arrived in Nairobi already, but there are still some things I want to make sure I cover about Uganda before I move on to Kenya. Below I’ve reprinted in full an amazing article from yesterday’s edition of the Ugandan government-run New Vision newspaper, the most widely read daily paper in the country:

Kampala — President Yoweri Museveni has declared today a national repentance today. The main function will be held at Kololo Independence Grounds beginning from 9:00am to 5:00pm in the evening.
The decision to declare a national day of repentance, according to the organisers, was reached after several prophets approached the president with prophetic warnings of bloodshed, death of political and church leaders, famine, and many other calamities that would befall Uganda as the consequences of her evil deeds.
"These and other acts, which have been or are being committed, have not pleased God. We risk losing out on God's blessings for this nation if we choose to disobey Him," President Yoweri Museveni warned in a press statement.
"Accordingly, I have declared that on Sunday June 20, 2010, at 9:00am at Kololo Independence Ground, we shall gather together for a special day of prayer and repentance. This is so that together we may thank God and seek his mercy and forgiveness for this great and chosen nation," the president said.
According to a programme released by the planning committee chaired by Ethics minister Dr. James Nsaba Buturo, the list of sins Ugandans will repent of includes corruption, tribalism, Idolatry, Bloodshed, political injustices (election malpractices, violence, abuse of human rights), unholy priesthood, selfishness, pride, sexual perversion, witchcraft, ancestral worship among many others.
The President called on Ugandans who may not be able to come to Kololo to gather in convenient places within their locations to hold prayer and repentance services today on behalf of the nation.
Religious leaders from across denominations and political leaders from various political parties are expected to attend the service.
The Government has volunteered to transport seven people from each district to participate in the national repentance service. The theme of the service is, "Oh Uganda, humble yourself and return to God."
America became a blessed and prosperous country built on godly values after its former President Abraham Lincoln on March 30, 1863 appointed Thursday 30th April 1863 as a National Day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer for the pardoning of their national sins.

I found this article fascinating on several levels. Before even considering the substance, I found the style to be curious, since, as it is basically the propaganda arm of the ruling NRM party, the paper’s stories on non-World Cup issues are more or less spoon fed by the President and his government (although considering the New York Times’ coverage of US politics in 2009 I’m not sure why this form of “journalism” seemed so foreign to me). But what the message reveals is really remarkable. First, the President’s act not only demonstrates how intensely devout nearly all Ugandans are (along with most other Africans), but also highlights the prominence of faith in the public sphere in a way that seems to go beyond even what happens in the still very religious USA of today. Secondly, I was astounded at the oddly placed reminder of the example set by America in the Civil War. I happen to agree that the USA is “a blessed and prosperous country built on godly values” but I never would have made the same connection to an obscure decree by Abraham Lincoln that I am sure no one in America today, even obsessive Civil War buffs like Chris Magoon, has ever heard of. What this offhand statement, almost added as an afterthought, reveals about the way Ugandans view America I don’t know that I can say for sure, but it strikes me as the beginning of a fascinating study into a mentality that I’m only beginning to appreciate. Thirdly, I was struck by the arresting similarities between the President’s message and my current reading during my trip, the Old Testament. The language used—“prophetic warnings, chosen nation”—and indeed the whole concept of national atonement in order to avoid incurring the wrath of God come straight from the Hebrew Bible. Truly, the condemnation of the specific evils of “idolatry…, unholy priesthood, selfishness, pride, sexual perversion, withcraft,” instantly conjures up the stern warnings of Moses, Samuel, and Elijah—which I had been immersed in the whole previous week.

But the final reason for my curiosity was the notion that Uganda as a whole is in desperate need of immediate repentance. America in 1863 makes sense—we were in the midst of a brutal Civil War brought on by the iniquity of chattel slavery. But why now, in Uganda of all places? Uganda under Museveni since the 90s has enjoyed a serious of amazing successes: rebuilding its economy, civil society, and national coherence after the hellish years of the dictators Idi Amin and Milton Obote; stemming the tide of AIDS; and becoming a stable nation on the way to democracy in the very troubled neighborhood of East-Central Africa. The list of crimes to atone for provided in the article indeed all characterize Uganda to some extent, but to me seemed more like a peculiar splicing of traditional sins of everyday people, like selfishness, pride, and idolatry, with a laundry list of unseemly government practices like “corruption” and “election malpractices,” which while certainly sordid have never struck me in the grand scheme of things as horrible evils that would incur divine wrath, with jargony, nebulous terms like “tribalism” also thrown into the mix. All in all, I saw no clear descent into iniquity relative to other countries nearby or even to Uganda’s own recent history. To my immense confusion, there was no obvious reason to hold this very grave and solemn event under the auspices of the President and all the country’s political and religious leaders.

Intrigued by this beguiling and rather bizarre-sounding event I decided to go myself to see what it was all about. After a pretty funny episode in which I refused to let go of my camera, which was not allowed in the event without a press pass, and—in the process of arguing with a variety of policemen, secret service officers, and military personnel—ended up meeting and befriending the Chief of Presidential Security, I made it to the service at Kololo, which featured a huge grass cargo airfield with giant white tents and thousands of lawn chairs set up. I showed up around midday as it was just getting into full swing. Though many chairs were still empty, there were already a good several thousand people there, and more kept trickling in while I sat and listened. President Museveni was indeed sitting up front, along with the Speaker of Parliament and many MPs, several members of the Supreme Court, and a dizzying array of Ugandan religious leaders from nearly every sect imaginable—except, of course, for the pagan proponents of the “idolatry” and “ancestral worship” that the event was designed to combat. In between spirited renditions of Christian hymns by various youth choirs, dozens of Catholic, mainline Protestant, Pentacostal, Orthodox, Muslim, and even Bahai and Hindu figureheads and pontiffs stood at the mic with their backs to the audience and raised fervent prayers for God’s mercy on sinful Uganda. The Catholic and Anglican (now Church of Uganda) bishops spoke eloquently of the blessings God has shown Uganda and of good Christians’ duty to quietly seek the path of righteousness to an attentive crowd who offered them polite applause. But when the heads of the born-again churches spoke, or rather roared, against the iniquity of Uganda, the veritable whore of Babylon, while waving Bibles in the air and pounding on the podium, the crowd went absolutely nuts, rising to its feet and bursting into rapturous applause every couple lines, especially the really harsh ones.

One thing that I noticed over time was how every single religious leader who came up prefaced his lamentation for Uganda with a prayer of thanksgiving for having a leader as good and wise as President Museveni. My growing suspicions after first seeing the news story in the Government paper were immediately confirmed; this was in essence a political stunt by Museveni and his NRM party to shore up his religious credentials, as well as pandering in a sense to the huge and politically active organized religious groups, and to showcase his concern about the corruption which plagues his government and to allay worries of election fraud—all this as part of the run-up to the big Presidential election next year, in which Museveni is expected to face his first real electoral challenge since becoming president in 1986. Suddenly, it all made sense—the seemingly odd timing for an impromptu day of repentance was really perfectly timed for the beginning of campaign season. The guys hawking NRM flags and Museveni pins that I had to wade through outside made it all even clearer.

However, on further contemplation I began to temper my initial skepticism. As I mentioned above and hope to write about in greater detail later, Ugandans are sincerely devout people who are relatively new to Christianity (and, in the case of one tenth of Ugandans, Islam) and take it really seriously. This event was genuinely popular and served to help address a dire need felt by Ugandans to stamp out the ills that hold back their country, which holds so much promise. On another note, many if not a huge majority of Ugandans actually do have profound gratitude and admiration for Museveni, who despite his corrupt underlings and worrying moves to control the press and harass opposition candidates in the last election and, some fear, this upcoming vote, has brought stable rule, prosperity, and real peace to a country plagued for so long by the nightmarish, Orwellian regime of Idi Amin and his KGB-esque State Research Bureau. Despite his lack of personal charisma, Museveni has manufactured a small cult of personality, based around his reputation for relatively responsible governance. Museveni seems to many Ugandans to be a veritable gift from God, and the President himself seems to not wish to discourage anyone from that sentiment.

I have to get to work now to prepare for my meetings in Nairobi, but stay tuned for more!

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