All writing has been in conjunction with local sources on the ground in Uganda. They are satisfied with the result and it has been anonymised at their request.

The centre of Kampala elicits an overwhelming air of jamais vu; the shopping malls, billboards, even traffic lights are all familiar. There is disconnect in how they are used. The malls are dirty and dilapidated, packed, overfilled with vendors and little sense of regime. Constructed with no real idea of what to do with them. They stand as grubby cousins to the banks; façades vaguely colonial or neon splendour. It is strange to see a Barclays with bored armed guards and metal detectors. Invariably you set them off and you are waved through anyway, wondering what the point of it all was. There is a restaurant celebrating Ramadan with a sundown offer: buy one meal get one free. Also free Wi-Fi. Above it a billboard. “Save the blind today…Donate to fund braille bibles!” Onchocerciasis prevention in full swing.

“I love Ramadan,” my Basoga friend says, “you can always get a good deal”.

He is a Catholic. A bargain’s a bargain though.

“Yeah I liked Ramadan as a kid,” my other Basoga companion says, “meant I had a reason to be hungry that weren’t just being poor”

He is a Muslim.

“Year-long Ramadan in our house”

We all laugh.

Members of the same tribe often celebrate different religions. If we view religion as a tool for creating meaning and cultural norms by which to live, then this may be surprising. Why would differing ideology function harmoniously within cultural homogeny? It is certainly due to the primacy of the tribe on the habitus, but also to the syncretic nature of religion in Uganda.

Both Islam and Christianity have merged with each tribal tradition they encountered, leaving denominations subtly different throughout the landscape. Religion oft used to reinforce culture. Polygamy in the Koran and Old Testament retroactively justifying a practice extant before eithers arrival. Technically illegal in modern Uganda, one marriage is legal and the others well, just cohabitation, if officials ask. They rarely do. Whilst amongst the devout there is always the profession of strictly adhering to doctrine; in practice where it matters, there is flexibility.

My friend fasts and performs Salah daily. He also has a cheeky snifter of Waragi at sundown. The twin strands of religious and tribal identity in action; Waragi will always have a special place in Ugandan hearts. There is relative harmony between the faiths. Tempting to ascribe Abrahamic traditions having more in common than divides them, but it must be the dominance of the tribal identity that enforces this. It is crucial that religion is relegated. If the most important cultural capital you possess is your tribe then it is also for those you meet. A Catholic Basoga working with a Muslim Basoga have a stronger bond than two Catholics from different tribes. None of this is to imply a nebbish attitude towards religion, rather, tribes are the family and the family is king. Your fellow members are siblings. Your fellow religious adherents? Very, very good friends.

“There may be dangerous whisperings of a darker fundamentalism laying down roots, but the canary is not yet dead”

All this is not to say that tensions do not exist. Ugandan involvement in peace making in Somalia has catalysed Islamic extremism. Most notably, most noxiously, in the form of the July 2010 suicide bombings in Kampala that killed 74 people enjoying the World Cup. Mosques were closed under suspicion of terrorist links but there has not been an overt kickback against Islam. President Museveni cannot risk alienating and disenfranchising 13.7% of the population (at the 2014 census). Indeed, the great crisis facing Islam is the internecine turf war engulfing the Tabligh sect. Sheik Bahiga, a prominent cleric – is dead – gunned down in the street. In itself, this is of concern to the tribal leaders and a graphic demonstration of how religious groups may be usurping their place. It is not solely confined to Islam. Whilst not violent, evangelical fundamentalist Christian groups are on the upswing. Both advocate the primacy of religious identity; both mark a growing tendency towards the extreme fringes of the spiritual fabric. Still, they each support the rampant homophobia sweeping the nation. Not so different after all.

Tribal traditional beliefs should not be neglected within this religious cocktail. The curious belief in the erstwhile presence of the Night Dancer bogeymen still holds sway. My Catholic Basoga colleague tells me you will find more in common at the Pentecostal revivalist services with the old ways than with his beloved church.

“All the possessed by the Holy Spirit stuff they do?” he says “Totally the same as when people used to be possessed by their ancestors”

“They didn’t even change the script!” my Muslim friend laughs, “Peddling the same old tricks”

Not that they are denigrating traditional beliefs. They too talk of the Night Dancers getting you in, well, the night. Funny how everyone knows that one cousin who has a mate, who knows for definite, that they got a child in the village down the road but cannot remember the name of it. It is tragic, really, how for many Ugandans, traditional beliefs are neglected and placed amongst the myths and rumours of those phantoms. Christianity and Islam would rather downplay the roles of indigenous spirituality in their own practice.

Still, Uganda is a place of relative religious harmony. There may be dangerous whisperings of a darker fundamentalism laying down roots, but the canary is not yet dead.

“Ramadan special for dinner?” my friends ask.

I reply. “So long as you don’t stick me with the bill again”

Julius L. Geertz

Image: ‘Religion’ by Clare Clarke


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *