The procession on the walkway makes its way slowly, those in the lead also finding a spot to kneel when they reach the front, as the wait for Owobusobozi Bisaka to reach the front.
He comes, sheltered under a large yellow umbrella .Still enough sun reaches him to reflect off his satin Kanzu’s surface. The reverence from his followers is palpable, not a sound. No one gets up from the hard ground until he makes it to the podium and indeed until they are asked to stand and sing the opening hymn.
It is the second day such a service is being held on the grounds of Faith of Unity headquarters in Kapyemi, Kibaale. The previous day, June 11 was the 85th birthday of the founder and leader of Faith of Unity Owobusobozi Bisaka. June 12, is one of the three days of worship for this faith, the others being the 2nd and 22nd.
For the believers, known as Abaikiriza, June 11 is more than Bisaka’s birthday. It is the day “God” came to earth. Although Owobusobozi Bisaka formerly known as Desteo Bisaka founded faith of unity in 1980 after he denounced his catholic faith, they believe his birth was the actual beginning of his work.
The celebrations which coincided with the opening of a palatial residence the followers have built for him had attracted the abaikiriza in numbers. The multitude trudged, pushed and shoved their way towards the gates of the place of worship, all bare feet and, laden with their babies and luggage to where the function would take place. They turned the grounds into a sea of white.
The very idea of God being in a nondescript village of Uganda may sound ridiculous to many, but to believers, it is the only truth they chose to know.
“He is not a servant of God, he is not just our God, he is God!” says Godfrey Kayiwa, a 28-year-old who takes it upon himself to act as a guide through the faith.
He was introduced to the faith at a young age when their parents converted and has grown into the faith. He, however, says he chose to keep the faith of his own volition.
Kayiwa tries to explain how Bisaka is God by referring me to a passage in the faith’s holy book, The Book of God of the Age of Oneness, that was written by Owobusobozi in 1987. The passage says, in God there are several spirits, one of which is contained in the person of Bisaka.
“We know he is old, that is what we see with our eyes, but we are also aware of what is in him, the power that resides in him,” continued Kayiwa.
Wonders of God
Ask any believer and they will tell you of all the amazing things Owobusobozi can do. And what you can achieve by praying to him. From instant recovery from debilitating conditions.
“I was very sick and had visited hospitals but I was not recovering”, is a line I heard more times that I can possibly recount. The miracles are also documented in the holy book, ranging from the blessing of a second wife, a new bicycle to deliverance from spells and witchcraft.
Byoleko, a middle-aged woman appears severally in the book. She was one of the first to follow Bisaka, joining barely a month from when he started. She told me she brought to him her sick son who was instantly healed and she believed. But believers know her as the lady to whom Owobusobozi has appeared to several times.
“When Owobusobozi comes, it is usually in broad daylight. He appears in his white kanzu and long white stick and a brightness all around him. He talks, but I cannot answer and then he disappears gradually,” explained the subsistence farmer who lives in a nearby village through a translator.
As Kayiwa put it, she is a very blessed lady, Owobusobozi does not just appear to anyone. As for verifying her claims, an elder called Businge who was one of those who translated the holy book to English says, he do not see a reason to doubt her story. “What would she be trying to achieve? Can you lie to God?” he asked.
The tall lean man does not hesitate to say why he is convinced Bisaka is God.
“He knows things from the past and those in the future. It is only God who can do that,” he says. Above all, the former protestant says he came to realise that other religions were one huge sham, full of inconsistencies.
I was soon to learn that while God was a few metres away, it is still a long way from a face-to-face interview. With me were other faithful, the sick and those accompanying them. Others just wanted to seek his advice on different life decisions. Most people kept their issues to themselves, huddled in small groups in the compound as the waiting turned from hours to a day and then to two three and four. Some reached out to the neighbours introducing themselves with their unique greeting. “Okwahukana? (Disunity?)” to which the other party replied, “Kuhoireho!(Has ended!) ”
A constant stream of people kept going inside and out. Mostly the faith elders known as Abakwenda here. Sometimes it was the critically ill. There was a baby with a swollen stomach, and a frail woman who could barely support herself. On some occasions Owobusobozi was driven out to see off some visitors. Once he took a group around the new villa. I followed and it turned out was the closest I would come to the deity of Kibaale.
Running into God
I ran into him as he hurried past leading a group. I did not fall on my knees fast enough as others with me did. I just waved and expected to be struck down by the wrath of God. He smiled and raised his hand.
Incredible things have been said about him including a star sometimes being visible above his head, (Businge swore on this one) and an aura that can stun you into silence. But the Bisaka I saw was an 85-year- old with a remarkably youthful gait, and a friendly fatherly countenance doing the very natural thing of taking guests on a tour of his modern house, pointing out the fittings in the house.
He seemed more than pleased with it. The followers are also oohing and aahing. With its size, pristine white walls, and en suite rooms, it is easily the grandest building for miles around.
The followers built it, with their money and hands. A makeshift camp where volunteers lived still stands behind the house. According to one Mukwenda, faithful would come and live there for a time volunteering
“It is our way of appreciating what he has done for us. He does so much without asking any money,” said Kayiwa.
Confession and rituals
The process to receive healing and blessings according to those sitting waiting with me involves confessing all your sins on a piece of paper which is then added to a bunch that will be later burnt.
As people waited, they also wrote down as much as they could remember. One girl who was too weak to walk or sit up was struggling to write, her mother nudging her to remember all of them. She reportedly had been bedridden for months despite efforts to seek treatment in hospital. By then the white boxes placed at strategic points around the compound were bursting with confessions.
Emphasis is placed on eschewing all sin, and repenting all committed as it is from Satan. And followers try their best to adhere, because they believe he can see right into their souls, to the hidden and forgotten sins.
“He checks us. He stands at the entrance on the day of worship and checks if we have indeed confessed and repented all our sins,” one told me. This supernatural power also comes in handy when the faithful want to marry as the names of the intended couple wherever they are sent to Kapyemi where he is said to look at them and see if the match is a good one. Many of such seem to come as a last resort.
I overheard a man with a grotesquely swollen foot saying he had been told the only medical solution is amputation. He would sit outside Owobusobozi’s house till late in the night, awaiting his turn. Fellow believers would encourage him with, “You will see him, and it will heal.”
I have no way of knowing if he did receive his healing as he was still waiting on the fourth day, when I left. On that last day, there was a girl who was dragged screaming into the house. “Do not take me to see that man,” she yelled. “That is Satan speaking through her,” my neighbour said.
Except for the dried tears on her cheeks and dishevelled hair, the woman was perfectly composed as she walked out. I left Kapyemi with questions for Bisaka still unanswered. One Mukwenda called Francis wanted me not to be disappointed. “He is very busy. Imagine he has to keep up with everything going on in the world over. He is omnipresent ensuring everything is fine. It is a huge task he has,” he said.
The faith of Unity
The faith of Unity was founded by Desteo Bisaka, a primary school teacher and catholic catechist. It is said he touched a person on February 22nd that year and they were instantly healed.
Before long Bisaka had developed a reputation as a healer and exorcist, casting out spirits and delivering people from spells in the superstition ridden corner of the country.
He had several run in’s with the law in those first days and was detained severally. That did not stop its growth however and according to one of the elders, Faith of Unity has a 5 million strong following with over 1000 places of worship in Uganda, Congo, South Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda.
While majority of the following seemed to be the rural small scale farmer, other walks of life are also represented. The faith does not believe in the bible, or Jesus and believe everything in Christianity is a farce. He also accused foreign religions namely Christianity and Islam of dividing “God’s” people. In 1987, the writings of Bisaka were condensed in an 84 page book, The Book Of God Of The Age of Oneness. It is the faith’s holy book.
Faith of unity has been called a cult and accused of discouraging members from seeking medical help and formal education, an accusation which the leadership of the faith denies.
Other peculiar traits of the faith besides believing the 85 year old Bisaka is God is that they do not believe in baptism, or fasting for any reason. The faith does not unite its members in holy matrimony by wedding bands.
They also do not believe in holding onto names whose meanings they do not understand and advocate for using non satanic African names. Thus many Abaikiriza drop their Christian names if they had one before and prefer to be addressed by their African names.
Polygamy is not frowned upon. Bisaka himself has three wives.