Thursday, June 13, 2013

Midwesterners Talk about Weather: Religion in Uganda


Midwesterners Talk about Weather
Religion in Uganda

Written by Cara Lutes

Midwesterners talk about the weather—a lot. Ugandans don’t talk about the weather—at all. Midwesterners use the weather as conversation starters. “Wow, isn’t is (insert weather adjective here) outside?” We use them as conversation fillers. “So…ummm...How ‘bout that weather?” And we use them as conversation conclusions. “Enjoy the sunny day!” or “Look out for those snowy roads.” We often use weather as small talk. We often avoid conversations with acquaintances about politics and religion. I have found this not to be true here. (Ugandans don’t need to talk about the weather because it is always glorious and warm, so our MUBS friends make fun of us for making many comments about the weather :) ) 

One of our first days in Uganda, we were on the good ‘ole “Big Blue” bus, and one of my MUBS colleagues turned to be and out of the blue asked, “What’s your religion?” That has been a fairly common occurrence throughout this trip- the conversation starter about inquiring about religious beliefs and background. Usually when I am home, I find myself on the topic of religion after onion layers have been peeled off and I have had time to share my personality, my life, and myself. Later on in friendships, I explain my beliefs and views. Even though it is my foundation of how I desire to live my life, I am cautious when and how I bring up the tact. The very astounding fact it is a cultural norm for Ugandans to bring up religion like a Midwesterner brings up the weather. I think it was an adjustment for us Americans, but it is fascinating to engage in a culture where religion is discussed frequently.  Over the past few weeks, it has been a noteworthy endeavor in taking and processing the influence of religion in the Ugandan culture. Religion is more integrated and more present in the culture than it seems to be in America. Religious messages are written on the taxis. Religious schools are nearly more common than governmentally funded schools. Many stores hold religiously based names. Nearly every speaker has mentioned his or her beliefs in the presentations. Many non-profit organizations are faith-based. Ugandans talk about their beliefs more and ask about others’ religion more than the typical American. 

Religion is obviously a very complex entity with endless influences and factors. The following explanations are the understanding I have come to through conversations, presentations, and observation through the course of the trip. I know that I don’t have the entirety of understanding of the religious landscape of the Pearl of Africa, but this is what I have gathered.

  One thing I have really learned is that religion is very associated with how one grows up. One normally adopts his or her father’s religion because of cultural ties and respect. For example, a MUBS friend asked one of my fellow Drake students, “What is your religion?” She replied, “Oh I’m not very religious.” The MUBS student inquired, “What is your father’s religion?” She responded, “My dad was born Catholic.” “Oh, then you’re Catholic,” the MUBS statement stated.  This contrasts much of American culture in the fact that most individuals choose or come to various religious conclusions.

Traditional African history has had a large and long history since ancient times. In a 2002 census, 1% of the Ugandan population adhered to only following traditional religions. Usually now these beliefs are combined with other religious beliefs. In a survey taking place in 2010, it stated that about 27% of Ugandans believe that ancestors and spirits will protect them from harm through the offering of sacrifices. Very integrated within this culture is a focus upon calling on ancestors’ spirits. The influence of these spirits is often called African Chemistry in today’s Ugandan culture. From what I understand from conversations with the MUBS students, the power of the ancestors is said to heal diseases, bring success, and/or bring curse. Spells can be cast on others to create friction or distress. These influences are rooted in African culture and are some of the first religious influences in the area. This throughout is deeply rooted in beliefs and thinking of many Ugandans, so matter what stage of life they are in. A random side note—I find it very interesting that many MUBS students are very skeptical and frightened of cats due to the African Chemistry beliefs. Other Drake students have told me about advertisements for African Chemistry they have seen at various times throughout the trip.

            Islam was brought to Ugandan culture from the East in the 1860s. There was many converts but this also contradicted their culture because Islam claimed there was one God, which apposed the polytheism that was prevalent in African beliefs. As of 2002, about 12% of the population aligns themselves with being Muslim. While driving on “Big Blue,” I have been able to identify various communities where there are stronger Muslim ties. Muslim schools clearly have the Muslim symbol displayed on their signs, and one can see pupils and students throughout the schools’ courtyard. In addition, men, adolescents, and boys wearing kufi caps congregate together throughout village hubs. Many taxis hold messages such as “Allah Reigns.” At Savannah Coffee Bean Processing Center, there was an official mosque area that was open for employees to participate in prayer throughout the day.
            
                Catholicism is another influential faith in the Ugandan culture. French missionaries brought this influence in 1877. 41.9% of the population adheres to the Catholic faith as of 2002. Having the chance to visit the Namugongo Catholic Martyrs Shrine was an informative experience about Catholic influence. This shrine was constructed to remember and pay respect to the twenty four  Catholic martyrs who were put to death under Kabaka Mwanga of Buganda in the South of Uganda during the years of 1885- 1887. The martyrs would not recant their faith, so many died under the flame. We also were in country for the remembrance and national holiday of Martyrs Day. Over a million people travel as far as the Congo and Kenya (often by foot) to come to the Shrine for the remembrance, for mass, for prayer, and for the community support. We visited Reach Out, a catholic non- profit organization that provides HIV/AID education and care as well as a microfinance program. It is their Catholic convictions and beliefs that drive their mission and partnership. There are many other Catholic charities and organizations that have similar backgrounds, visions, and practices that Reach Out has.

Catholics travel on foot from afar to remember Martyrs Day at the Namugongo Catholic Martyrs Shrine 
            Anglican influence also plays a strong role in religion within Uganda. This Anglican influence came from England throughout colonialism.  In a 2002 census, 35.9% of Ugandans aligned with the Anglican faith. There were also eight Anglican martyrs who died in the killings from 1885- 1887. Now though, Martyr’s Day is more prevalent among Catholics than Anglicans.  The village health clinic in Kiewkaanda is being built in partnership with the community as well as Dr. Santeza’s father’s church—which is an Anglican church. Along with Anglican influence, there is protestant influence as a whole. Within the protestant influence, Anglican plus other protestant denominations make up 43.3% of the populations.  There are many other protestant organizations that are established within Uganda—from children homes, to AIDS clinics, to women empowering organizations. Fellow Drake elementary education major Leah and I had the opportunity to visit and teach preschool at Amani Baby Cottage in Jinja. This is a faith-based children’s home for ages newborn through six. There are many organizations that spread love and care for those in need. Even organizations or schools who are not necessarily Christian based, often carry a Christian message our group has observed. For example, when we visited Sure Prospects School and City Secondary School, which are not officially religiously affiliated, there were still Christian messages portrayed and taught. When with children at Sure Prospects, I asked them to teach me songs. It was a joy to share a gift of music with these pupils. All songs that they sang were Christian songs, and they all seemed to know and be familiar with them, so I concluded they probably learned them at school.

         Secularism and Atheism is also becoming more common in Uganda now up to above 4%. I think that many younger citizens are becoming more independent in thought, opposed to just adopting what their father believed or practiced. I have not observed much of this thought, but I have had a few conversations with MUBS students about the increasing number of people who affiliate with no religion or align themselves culturally with a religion but not belief-wise.

        Obvious religion and belief in any place is multi-faceted and more complex than I can explain in a blog post. I have seen religion incredibly more integrated throughout culture and daily life than what I have observed in the United States. I know another surprising factor that our group has experienced is speakers who we assumed not to bring up religion did bring up religion with comments like biblical references or assumptions that everyone held their same religious perspective. Though at times we do not look at the world in the same manner, this has been an amazing experience to hear various perspectives and immerse in a culture and see and live a different way of life. Yet the beauty is, we all have many similarities despite our different ways of life. We are all brothers and sisters.


A few questions for my Drake students: Does religious freedom help sustainable development? Why or Why not? How is religion integrated in culture different than what you expected it to be/what you are used to? 

6 comments:

  1. Hey, what a great post, Cara! I think the variability in religion aids in Ugandan's sustainable development. One reoccurring theme we've seen since day one is the unity of Ugandan cultures from different regions. I think the unity of different religions adds to the overall unity and synergy of the nation. It was very interesting to me to talk to one of my MUBS friends, who is Muslim by heritage, but not a very active practicing Muslim. It took me till the last day to find out that fact. He didn't eat pork, and he didn't drink or smoke, but when i was with him when we heard the Muslim call to prayer, he didn't leave to go to mosque. I think it is very interesting how the culture of religion is different than the practicing of religion. People are very open about there religion, and they see it very differently than we do; they integrate it deeply into their society. I think it definitely aids in sustainable development.

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  2. I think that religious freedom is a very important part of any developing nation as it contributes greatly to social sustainability. Religious freedom is an interesting right since it allows not only for individuals to practice their religion freely, but also to refrain from practicing any religion at all. Other rights, such as freedom of press or assembly, often apply only to those who choose to exercise those rights whereas religious freedom protects everyone.
    Empirically, nations that do not allow for religious freedom experience social discontent that has led to immigration, protest, or even war. When a nation allows religion to be a personal matter instead of a state-mandated one, it allows individuals to put religion aside and cooperate as citizens to achieve greater economic, social, and environmental sustainability.
    I agree with Charlie in that many Ugandans I spoke with were open about their religious beliefs - and many I met were determined to adhere to these beliefs, but nobody I met allowed their own beliefs to cause conflict with others who believed differently.

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  3. Cara, nice post! I really enjoy your comparison of Ugandans : religion :: Midwesterners : weather. Weather is a conversation filler for us, I totally agree. I was definitely a bit taken aback when asked about my religion by a MUBS student, for the same reasons that you stated, the topic is usually avoided in our lives until you really know a person. But I thought it was kind of cool that the MUBS students use it as a way of getting to know us. I think it is a rarity in our culture because people are afraid of judgment, harassment, or offending someone, but if you truly want to get to know someone, talking about beliefs is a great way of doing so. I think this is safe so long as differences are acknowledged. I agree with Lisa, although religion was talked about often, I never witnessed conflict because of differing religions.
    Socially, religious freedom helps make a country more sustainable because it allows for choice. No one is being persecuted or oppressed. Although if you just follow in the religious footsteps as your father, it doesn’t seem like much of a choice to me, but as Cara cited, there is an increasing number of people that are not aligned or have changed paths. Religion is a way of unifying people and working together. I think that so long as there aren’t religious clashes or conflicts, there can be unity with religions which would promote sustainability.
    With an education background, it was definitely interesting to be in schools that are not religiously affiliated but clearly have religion integrated. Many schools mission statements, mottos, and songs had God included. This was very different for me, but maybe I just do not realize the Christian things that are integrated in our school lives, like our Pledge of Allegiance. This makes me wonder how this makes children feel who are not religiously affiliated or who aren’t of a Christian religion. They have to be accommodating of others’ beliefs, but do others do this for them? This issue occurs in both of our countries.

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