Easter in Uganda

NileMy short stay in Uganda, with a few such paradoxes, was my preface to Easter. At a Good Friday service in Santa Barbara, as the Passion was read, I was still seeing the red dust on storefronts, the pots of rice set on firewood, the oversized billboards and the untethered oxen along the road. I thought about the mix of palms, eucalyptus, and limba trees, and the slow whirlpool at the spot where the Nile River flows out of Lake Victoria, three months from its release into the Mediterranean. To symbolize hope and rebirth, we usually fill Easter with emblems of nature’s regeneration, and Uganda has its own array: flowering vines on the brick walls, the sugarcane in urban corridors, and the stray saplings on an unsheltered savannah.

This year, as I consider the promises of Easter, I think of Uganda’s compound of faith and poverty. Uganda is one of the most densely Christian nations in the world. Nearly nine in ten identify themselves as followers of Christ, with a slight edge for the Catholics over the Anglicans, and the Pentecostals rising. Churches fill on Sundays, some blending tribal ways with European rites, others preaching a prosperity gospel, several citing T.D. Jakes. Uganda is also one of the poorest places on earth. Nearly four in ten fall below the international poverty line ($1.25 a day), notably less than a decade ago, but still double the rate of the Sudan, the Philippines or Honduras. For many Ugandan families, subsistence is a trial. Almost half a million Ugandan children have lost both parents, many of them to AIDS. At one social work site—a home with several orphans—the teachers had stenciled a verse from Psalm 27: “Even if my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will hold me close.”

Since I was there to help assess a study-abroad program for American students, I had to wrestle with their common questions about compassion and paternalism. How are we present, as sojourners, as outsiders, as common bearers of the hope of the Resurrection? How do we respond to suffering and still respect the Ugandan culture and strategies for addressing their own ills? In our short time there for our review, we caught fragments of that debate. Students read Henri Nouwen's meditations on compassion, as well as books from theologians and scholars warning about how helping can hurt by reinforcing patterns of superiority and dependence. They listened to African scholars like Kamuguisha argue that foreign investment would only fuel despots if nations lacked policies to protect property rights and to promote exports. But they also heard appeals that the people of faith, from the wealthy and former colonizing world, not abandon a new generation that needs the best medicines as well as solid nourishment for microfinance.

On one occasion we discussed the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, lingering on his remark that “charity . . . is the opium of the privileged." Born to Christian parents, Achebe lamented the legacy of missionaries in his landmark novel Things Fall Apart—a fierce counterpoint to the African stories of Joseph Conrad and Joyce Cary, written before he was thirty years of age. But he also lived through the tragedies and failure of the Biafra Independence movement in Nigeria, which he had supported. He acknowledged the difficult task of "doing our good works" without forgetting "that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary.” I will remember that conversation all the more since six days later Achebe would die in a Boston hospital. In the wake of his passing, editorial tributes have not only celebrated his own fiction but also his later role as general editor of the African Writers Series, responsible for introducing scores of new African authors to the West.

I came home more challenged and perplexed by major economic questions, but also with more interest in reading these works. Africa now figures powerfully in the North American Christian imagination. Relief agencies, nonprofits, and many Christian colleges, including Westmont, sponsor short-term service and ministry projects throughout the continent. According to the United Nations, if you were to set aside Russia, there are now more Christians in sub-Sahara Africa than in Europe. With that in mind, I think it is increasingly important that a Christian liberal arts education, especially one with a “global plank,” prompt students to read and listen to the African voices, especially those with an acute ear for the history and sorrows of their countries, their own rival ideas about economic and spiritual development, and with their own strategies and visions for restoration. This is not simply about enlarging a literary canon; it is about pursuing global citizenship and understanding the global church.

We kept so busy during our stay that it was dificult to schedule moments for reflection. But jet lag can actually force some unforeseen hours of contemplation. Set on a steep, lush hill overlooking the town of Mukono, the campus is serene but seldom silent. Larks cycle boisterously in the evenings, and the vuvuzelas from local futbol games can be heard until dusk. From the streets of Mukono below, the trucks and motorbikes and the electronic beat of the canteens and bars usually echoed until after midnight. So, as in most places of the world, the quietest hours come just before dawn, after the tropical showers subside. Sometimes, with my head in another time zone, I sat outside waiting for the first light, even as the hornbills from the overhanging trees shook off the rain and braved our porch. On one morning, about 5:30 A.M., the tranquility was broken by sudden shouts, highly amplified, and gradually swelling. The cries were in the Luganda language, and I had no idea what had erupted until the low, background hum of women’s voices emerged into a choral “Hosanna.” It was, I would learn, a mid-week Lenten service, the gospel proclaimed boldly before dawn. Someone was telling it on the mountain.