COMMENT: By Joseph Were
Why people who practice traditional ancestral worship openly should be praised not condemned
People who have worked closely with Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga say she is a very tactful person. But she is also very stubborn. So when journalists asked her why she went up a hill (Nhenda in Iganga, Busoga), the answer she gave first is the one she possibly should have given second.
Her first was that she had gone to thank her ancestral spirits for enabling her to retain her job. It sparked a moralisation uproar. So she gave a second answer; that she was promoting the shrines as a tourist site. The first answer was her stubborn self, and the second her tactical one.
The Kadaga saga has come at a really great time; when Christians are readying for the June 3 Martyrs Day celebrations in Namugongo. Some among the 22 Uganda martyrs, like Musoke Gyavira Mayanja, were sons of renowned ancestral diviners and initially dabbled in syncretism. One of them, Gonzaga Gonza was born and executed just outside Kadaga’s hometown, Kamuli. His shrine, Bagonza Martyrs’ Shrine, is 4kms along Kaliro-Kamuli Road.
Kadaga, who is the patron of the Busoga Tourism Initiative, lists numerous such ancestral shrines as tourist sites. Nhenda Hill has historical significance in the confluence between Busoga culture and western Christian. From the 14th century, it was the headquarters of the powerful Baise Igaga clan which maintained the Nkuni (main shrine) there.
When European Christians arrived in Busoga in the 19th century, they often congregated there to interact with Busoga royalty. In fact, Busoga wants it listed as a UNESCO heritage site in the same way as the Masiro tombs of Buganda at Kasubi. So Kadaga possibly has a point when she says she went up Nhenda Hill as a tourist.
Despite Kadaga’s explanation, her action is being described as a `coming-out’; that is, revealing herself for who she really is – an ancestral spirits worshipper. She is being condemned for claiming to have embraced the Christian god while still winking at her ancestral god. Her religiosity is being judged to be without piety, a plurality without purity, and an action without conviction. Fortunately (or unfortunately), Kadaga, of course, does not take ancestral worship seriously.
No woman who does would dare approach a shrine wearing the blue jeans, Nike trainers, and pink-flower-patterned long-sleeved chiffon top with a deep v-cleavage that Kadaga wore to the shrines.
But somebody who has studied and written about it told me that first, it is dumb to deny that African ancestral worship is real. Many Africans routinely go up similar hills, albeit in secrecy, to ask protection against evil, seek luck, vengeance, healing, or fertility, or to celebrate birth of twins.
There is, however, a lot of duplicity among some of its adherents; they visit an ancestral shrine at night and attend holy mass in the morning. Some people, like Kadaga’s Christian Church of Uganda congregation leader, Archbishop Ntagali, who are condemning her, should be familiar with reports on Ugandan worship practices claiming that although only 1% of Ugandans describe themselves primarily as practitioners of traditional local religions, many confessed Christians and Muslims visit their “small god” shrines.
Of course the level of misinformation and ignorance spewed since the Kadaga incident reveals that the claim might not fully be true. If many Ugandans were dabbling in ancestral spirit worship, the reactions to Kadaga would have exposed more knowledge of the practice. For example, an attempt to openly straddle both African ancestral religion and mainstream beliefs would not be judged harshly. In fact, an expert told me that secrecy is biggest problem here.
According to him, Kagada’s action should be seen as a welcome trend of a coming out of traditional cultural practictioners. Major figures that have gone to shrines openly include former Vice President Gilbert Bukenya.
Recently, outgoing Minister for Youth, Evelyn Anite, publicly dabbled in it. Most traditional rulers are, these days also publicly installed by diviners in shrines and crowned by bishops in churches. Kabaka Muwenda Mutebi of Buganda regularly visits his ancestral shrines.
Some people might not approve but such mixing of traditional religion with either Christianity or Islam is not seen as phony.
Herbs previously dispensed by diviners in shrines are now displayed on shop shelves. Individuals, like Mama Fina and Bujagali, openly identify as mediums of African spirituality and engage in okusamira (worship) of their deities. Some call themwizards (abalogo) but nobody accuses them of hypocrisy or duplicity.
As increasing openness demystifies traditional spirit worship practices, its ugly attendants –child sacrifice, rape, and extortion, might recede. Greater understanding of religious practice, whether in an ancestral shrine, temple, mosque, or church, might emerge. People might ask why Kadaga’s ancestors are powerful enough to give her a job, but those of her deputy, Jacob Oulanyah – who wanted to kick her out, are not? Should he climb a hill too – and kick his ancestral spirits for being weak instead? Possibly not.
On the other hand, why are Kadaga’s powerful gods letting her get whipped so badly? Could it be that when she went up the hill to thank them, her ancestral spirits were away on holiday and her words of gratitude fell on the hard rock of Nhenda? The rock, of course, could not bless Kadaga because it is does not have ability to do that. It is a rock.
In an ironical twist, however, knowing Kadaga’s rock to be a rock, has not stopped Archbishop Ntagali and others from condemning her for worshiping at a rock.
The holier-than thou tones are the latest proof of Hans Christian Andersen short story about a king who got new clothes that were invisible to all except the wisest and most qualified palace officials. When the king marched before his subjects in his new clothes, they all saw that he was naked – but none dared say so, lest they are seen to be stupid, incompetent, and unqualified. It is only a child in the crowd who went “wow! The emperor is naked”.
Kagada’s open embrace of African spirituality exposed the naked reality of religious phoniness. Many people became agitated because it mirrors exactly the political dishonesty of our naked emperors; be they political or religious.
Kadaga’s critics now need to answer one question; do they think Kadaga takes either her Christian god or her ancestral god, seriously? If she does, what do her gods say about two-timing disciples or syncretism?