Uganda then and now
Any first-time visitor to Uganda’ s capital city, Kampala, would find roads crammed with mini-buses, street vendors, motorbike taxis (boda-bodas), bicycles and people. The congestion inevitably bottlenecks at Kampala’s notorious Clock Tower roundabout. As vehicles jockey for position the confusion takes on a surreal quality when a perspiring street evangelist screams wildly to you through your car window.
Pacing, waving and pounding their Bibles these ranting street preachers take advantage of the crawling traffic to shout both the love and damnation of God above the noise of the diesel-smoking vehicles. Welcome to African Christianity – Ugandan style!
How did it all begin? Pioneer mission by the Church Missionary Society (CMS) began in Uganda when eight missionaries were sent there in 1876. Before they reached Lake Victoria, one of them had died of fever. Three others were forced to turn back due to poor health, and within a few months another died of malaria. Eight were down to three.
Physical conditions were dangerous, but so were the African chiefs. The missionaries found them arrogant and unpredictable. Eleven months after arriving, two more missionaries died. Both were killed by King Lkonge, chief of a neighbouring kingdom.
The Europeans’ primary contact was the shrewd kabaka (king) of Buganda, Mutesa. He held unimaginable power over his people. Hardly a day seemed to pass when he did not summarily execute one of his subjects. Nevertheless, he was tolerant of the newcomers, but perplexed by the conflicting claims of Protestant Anglicans, French Catholics and Arab Muslims.
He said, in exasperation, ‘Every nation of white men have their own religion. How can I know what is right and what is false?’
Mutesa’s death in 1884 and the succession of his eighteen-year-old son, Mwanga, marked the beginning of severe persecution. A year after becoming king, the ruthless young chief lashed out violently against Christians. He burned 32 believers to death and ordered all Christians to be annihilated.
On 28 October 1885, the day that Alexander Mackay (one of the early missionaries) completed his translation of Matthew’s Gospel into Luganda, the newly appointed bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa, Bishop Hannington, was speared through at Mwanga’s orders.
Rather like the kabakas, Idi Amin forced his way to power in 1972, proclaiming himself the last King of Scotland and conqueror of the British Empire in Africa. He ruled that there would be only three churches in Uganda – the Anglicans, Catholics and Greek Orthodox. He was insecure and paranoid.
In late 1976 the churches formed an alliance to protect themselves against Amin’s abductions, torture and murder. The Anglican Archbishop Luwum was elected chairman. Amin was suspicious, and after an assassination attempt in 1977 ordered the ransacking of Luwum’s home. Within two weeks Luwum was accused of treason and executed.
However ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’ and the harvest in Uganda has been two-fold – first, the vigorous, evangelical, Anglican-based Church of Uganda (COU); and secondly, the mushrooming (and largely Charismatic) African independent churches (AICs).
The AICs have been attracting large numbers since the early 1990s – in some areas larger than their COU counterparts by 10 to 1.
These new churches have give Christianity a high profile in Uganda.
In a recent article a lecturer at Kyambogo University, a member of the COU, chastised his denomination for not working harder to meet the needs of the country’s young people. He fears the loss of almost a whole generation to AIC congregations.
The danger of the AICs lies not in their exuberant style of worship but in their message and theology – or lack of it. It might be unfair to put them all in one category, but most have a single dynamic leader, are independent of denominational ties, preach a message that encourages entrepreneurship, and have marathon Sunday morning worship services that include healing and often last 5-6 hours.
The names of the AICs are as varied as the ‘gospels’ they preach: Rubaga Miracle Centre; Prayer Palace Christian Centre; The Church on the Rock; Abundant Life Church; and so on.
Most of the larger AICs are led by ‘driven’ but well-educated men, often from Ghana or Nigeria. Many smaller AICs are pastored by leaders with little education and no theological training. As a rule, these are unashamedly charismatic and booming in numbers.
To ignore the Charismatic movement in Uganda would be a mistake. The question evangelical Christians must ask is: how do we respond to it all? Like those first missionaries, we need to be dedicated to sowing the Word of God among all, in courageous expectation of a renewed spiritual harvest.
African Bible College, Uganda