Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Uganda Reflections; Nairobi

I’ve remarked earlier on how intensely devout I found Ugandans to be. In Kampala and the countryside alike, religious expression runs rampant, exuberant in its freedom (in deliberate contrast, I bet, to the repressive Idi Amin years). Everywhere you look there are visible signs of faith. Muslim girls wear colorful headscarves, Muslim men wear the distinctive brimless kufi hat, Christians wear the cross or crucifix. Village grocery stores are nearly all named something like “Divine Grace Supermarket” or “God’s Love Grocery.” Mini-bus taxis, which crowd the city streets and routinely pack 24 passengers in vehicles designed for 11, almost always have slogans writ large on their windshields, like “The Lord Is Able,” “I Love Jesus,” or “Allah Is Good.” People often paint similar mottoes on their houses or above their doorways. One of the most evocative that I saw was in an impoverished hill town near the Congolese border, where the black lettering on a humble hut pleaded “Emmanuel, Come to Kichwamba.”

Truly, organized religion has exploded in Uganda over the past 100 or so years, in a dazzling success for the missionary movement. What was not long ago a thoroughly pagan society is now 85% Christian (half Catholic, half Protestant, including lots of Pentecostals and evangelicals) and 10% Muslim, out of a total population of 32 million. (These groups seem pretty well spread out and not concentrated in certain tribes; interfaith relations appear just as unproblematic as in the States) Churches are everywhere, many named after Vatican-approved Ugandan saints, and when there is service going on they are invariably packed to bursting. I tried to go to midday Sunday Mass at the church near Parliament, which serves mainly well-to-do Ugandans, and found that the congregation had spilled not only out of the doors but into the courtyard and down the block, where a P.A. loudspeaker was set up for their benefit. I came back again at 5, making sure to show up early, and by the time Mass had started there was a standing-room-only crowd. The rafters shook as the well-heeled congregation danced in the pews, belted out the hymns , and enthusiastically applauded the Consecration during a regular, English-language service that because of all the singing and a long, spirited homily (punctuated by more singing) lasted a full two hours. It felt like half an hour to me, the only mzungu (whitey) in the room.

When every time one gets on a Ugandan road and encounters another driver he has a near-death experience, it is no wonder that one’s thoughts turn quickly to the afterlife. Jokes aside there really was something I found about Uganda that constantly directed me to reflect on God on His goodness. Part of it was the lush and tropical landscape, where with only the most miserable resources and tools people could coax beautiful, verdant gardens out of the swampy wilderness. Part of it was the demeanor of the people themselves, who despite grinding poverty and hard lives seemed eternally optimistic, with big families and bigger smiles. Part was the history I had been learning, of the emotional struggle against cruel dictatorship that had finally succeeded. Part, I suspect, might be that so much seemed to mirror the premodern pastoral and agrarian setting of the Bible. The pre-teen goatherd I met making do with a rock for a hackysack while I was on a swamp-hike looking for baboons could have been young David practicing with his sling. One of the many farmers whose plots of wild-looking corn grew right up to the dirt “highway” could have been the sower in Jesus’ parable who tossed his seeds indiscriminately on field and road and rocks. The complicated tribal politics and occasional lapses from belief not into European-style atheism but into Old Testament idolatry, witchcraft, and human sacrifice ( evoke a world that our technological society sometimes seems increasingly alienated from.

There are few times when I’ve felt closer to God than I did while lying awake in the cool night while villagers on the mountainside far below my safari lodge banged pots and sang songs to scare marauding elephants away from their crops. Not many experiences I’ve had compare to the divinely beautiful moment on a safari cruise in Lake Edward, when, with the low sun streaming through the clouds, my craft was joined by dozens of little boats from the fishing village we passed—casting nets not much different than the ones Peter used in Galilee—as flocks of strange birds skimmed the lake’s surface and elephants and buffalo came to the water’s edge to drink with the splashing hippos. I haven’t often had to hold back tears of joy as I did while joining with hundreds of strangers in expressing my love for God and life and everything in it during that beautiful church service in Kampala last Sunday. I’ve come away from Uganda feeling that for all its malaria, corruption, and poor road safety record, it is truly blessed among God’s creation.

Nearby hippo and buffaloes

My spiritual mood has extended these past couple days in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, where I’ve been since Monday continuing my research. I’m staying at the compound of the Catholic Bishop of a large chunk of Sudan, including the home of the Dinka tribe of Washington Bullets great Manute Bol (R.I.P. Initially exiled here by the Islamic fundamentalist government of Sudan, the Bishop has decided to base here as a logistics hub in order to better coordinate all the needs of his massive diocese, which has been ravaged by war for decades and lacks the most basic infrastructure and governance. The Bishop, a close friend of my family through my mother’s work, is in the USA now raising money to build schools and hospitals, but I have been very well taken care of by his wonderfully kind and enthusiastic staff here. Every day at the small compound begins in the little chapel to Saint Josephine Bakhita, the first Sudanese woman to be canonized, with Mass led by Father Boffelli, the octogenarian Italian priest who lives across the hall from the room I’m staying in and spent 50 years as a missionary in Sudan. The compound features a leafy, well-maintained garden courtyard guarded by three enormous and playful German shepherds that love stealing my shoes while I’m wearing them. It’s a welcome respite from Nairobi (nicknamed Nairobbery for the large number of people that love stealing your car while you’re driving it), which as far as I’ve seen consists of a small, bustling downtown surrounded by sprawling, crime-ridden slums and some suburbs like the one I’m in that are nicer but not by that much. It’s a big contrast to Kampala, where when it came to violent crime the people seemed naïve and carefree by comparison. The US Embassy here is some ways outside the city center, and is probably the safest place on US sovereign territory worldwide as a result of measures designed to prevent another attack like the 1998 Al Qaida bombings. My meetings there and elsewhere in the city went great, but all in all I’m excited to be moving on tomorrow to Mombasa on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast, where I’ll have nothing to do except hang out with Yale kids including Zach and Wossen!

Next post, I’ll be on the beach and the Wizards will have drafted John Wall with their #1 pick!
Also go USA that Algeria game was awesome

Below, St. Josephine Bakhita

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