Tuesday, October 19, 2010

god complex

Religion seems to be at the center of just about everything in Uganda. Meetings, the apparent national pastime, regardless of their purpose or lack of religious affiliation, always begin and end with a prayer,“God’s will” is credited for most things good and all things bad, and anyone can tell you that the only way to make something official, be it a speech, a letter or a business proposal, is to signoff with the national motto, “For God and my country”.

While not as diverse as America, there are a handful of different sects prevalent throughout my community with the largest constituencies being Catholics, Protestants (the term locally applies only to Anglicans), Muslims, and “Born-agains” (I’m not sure to which church these actually belong). Indian and Chinese families, both present in my area, have their Hindu, Buddhist, and Siek beliefs. There is also a small smattering of other Protestant faiths, several Jewish families, and probably the most intriguing, the traditionalists or the “witches”. The only people glaringly absent are non-believers. I have yet to meet a local who subscribes to, or even respects the concept of non-theism.

While the least populous groups tend to keep their faiths to themselves, the larger groups, perhaps emboldened by their numbers, are not content to live and let live. Every day seems an epic struggle to win as many souls as possible, and that struggle begins early. If you are familiar with Islamic tradition, you probably know that the Muslim call to prayer begins at around 5:30 every day and is repeated another 4 times throughout the day. If it’s done at a respectable volume and by someone with a good voice the tradition can actually be quite soothing even to a sleeping outsider, and, in defense of the local Muslim population, they have done just that the few times I have been able to hear them. This is a battle, though, and the reason I have only heard the mosque (which is about ½ km away from my house) a few times is because they are not the only faith who knows how to use a public address system.

About 1 km away from my humble home lie the “Born-agains”. The “Born-agains”, by far the smallest of the big four faiths of Kisoga are also by far the loudest, most in-your-face of them all. They are led by a pastor whom, according to him, grew tired of having another religion inflicted upon him and his people every morning about six months ago, and without any sense of irony he devised a plan to rectify the situation. His idea was to buy a bigger, better PA system than the one being used at the mosque and to give a daily sermon to the town starting at 5:25 AM, just before the Muslim call to prayer. The deafening roar drowns out any competing sounds throughout the town. Margaret, my counterpart who lives at least 3 km away from the source, has even told me that her family is woken by him every day. While his incessant shouting can’t quite match the musical quality of the Islamic call to prayer, he does outdo his rivals by upping the few minutes that they spend by a modest two and a half hours. I was sure things couldn’t get any worse until today when some competing sect of Christianity joined in on the fun and began playing hymnals from their own crackly PA system. I am not sure who is behind this, and I was never exactly thrilled with the situation to begin with, but I am far from pleased about this latest development.

While the worst is always over by 8 AM, the battle does not stop there. Inevitably, at various points throughout the day, I will be asked about my religion. Despite my most cunning of schemes to dodge the topic and steer the conversation in other directions, I am usually thwarted. Regardless of how I’ve answered and how unenthused I appear about the topic, it is then my privilege to listen to a diatribe on the merits of their personal beliefs. One such speech turned into a near brawl in a restaurant where I was eating. While two men were arguing over which religion was better and which I should devote my life to I walked out of the restaurant. I am not sure they even noticed. The tone of these little speeches may range from friendly to angry, but the length of the speech is always the same; however long I allow it to go on before kicking them off my porch or walking away and asking them not to follow me. Interestingly enough, the only people who don’t pry into my personal beliefs are the Catholic priests and nuns whom I work with on almost a daily basis.

If you have been keeping up with this blog, you might remember that I promised to write more about the practice of witchcraft in my community. Before I get started I will issue a disclaimer. The accounts here are all based solely on things I have seen and heard during my time in Kisoga. The facts of what I am telling you are true; however their association with witchcraft is speculation, not just by me, but nearly all townspeople as well. Additionally, I am using the words “witchcraft” and “traditionalism” interchangeably. I guess this may be considered offensive to some, but it is the language the locals use, and being that most of their practices are underground, the acts that do surface tend to be deserving of the title.

I will start by explaining that over the years, traditionalist African ideologies have been denounced (at least publicly) by all but the most devoted of followers in favor of what I would call Western religions, most notably Christianity and Islam. Despite this, there remains a small contingency of avid traditionalist, especially in my district of Mukono – considered by many to be the witchcraft capitol of Uganda. It is my theory that because the common, everyday traditionalists have moved on to other faiths, those that remain tend to be the more radical “witch doctors”. They keep their practices under wraps, not because their beliefs are unacceptable to the people of Uganda, but because of the acts that are attributed to at least some of the followers. These acts include such atrocities as child sacrifice, cannibalism, possessions, and placing human heads in building foundations. According to friends and neighbors, each form of murder serves a different function, be it for health, prosperity, or any number of reasons. Upon first hearing these claims, I was typically skeptical. I assumed that the stories were simply that. Just stories. After just a few months here, however, headless and/or filleted bodies have turned up, children have gone missing, and suspects have been lynched by mobs.

One specific incident recently caused quite a stir. A local business owner fled town right before a lynch mob could seek their vengeance. Over the course of the last two years, six headless bodies have found in the woods surrounding my town. The evidence was as follows:

-The business owner had erected six new buildings over the last two years which matched the six headless bodies.
-Two of the bodies found were former employees of the business owner which had gone missing.
-The business owner had been questioned by local authorities when each of his employees went missing (before the bodies had turned up, and had stated that each employee had quit to return to their home village.

Whether the evidence would have held up in a court of law was never in question. Assuming the man, who had been told of his imminent arrest, had not decided to skip town, the mob which trashed his properties would certainly have killed him before any such trial could be held. The riot happened just a few minutes walk from my house, and a few of the shops wrecked were businesses which I had patronized.

Religion. It’s definitely a focal point of life here. Whether you are a witch doctor, a pastor with a vendetta, or a foreign volunteer just trying to get some sleep it seems impossible to avoid. I do want to say, though, that despite the pressure I feel from some people and the violence that admittedly has occurred in my town, I feel safe here. I live near the center of town, and I have worked to cultivate relationships with as many people as I can. Despite their confusion that, after having point blank asked me on numerous occasions, they are still completely clueless about my religion, I feel like they have my back. Some think I look Indian and must be Hindu, some think I look Arab and am probably Muslim, some know I am American and think I have to be Christian, and others hear my name and think I could be Jewish. I might humor their guesses, but I always keep my silence on the issue.

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