Charles Onyango Obbo

The Sunday pickpockets hold secret key to Christianity’s future in Uganda

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, January 22  2014 at  02:00
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Three Ugandan stories:
Every other time I attend a church event in Uganda, the warnings to look out for pickpockets and all manner of thieves who come to steal from worshippers grow louder and louder.

And indeed, I gather, it is fairly common after – and sometimes during prayer – for a thief to be caught, taken outside, and whacked on holy grounds.
Most commentators who look at the bigger picture, argue that this is a measure of desperate economic times in Uganda (and indeed other countries like Kenya where the target is usually the Sunday collection itself).

The other big story, although it is no longer so hot in Uganda, is how much the old traditional Catholic and Protestant churches are losing flock to the newer Pentecostal churches that are hip, have great music, offer miracles, and where the “money-minded” pastors often pray for their flock to find love.
The third story is about the radicalisation of the Muslim youth, with a few even joining the Somali militant group al-Shabaab. The old Muslim leadership, we are told, is losing influence.

I revisited these stories after looking at some data on religion in Uganda in a piece of research. At first I had missed their significance, then I looked closely.

It was data from the 2002 Population Census on the distribution of religions in Uganda. First, though Catholics remain the largest religious group in Uganda, and the Protestants second, they are declining as a percentage of the population (although numerically they are growing)!
And they are the only two groups in decline, so to speak. In 1991, 44.5 per cent of Ugandans were Catholics, and 39.2 per cent were Protestants. In 2002, the percentage of Catholics had declined to 41.9 per cent and Protestants to 35.9 per cent.

Muslims meanwhile grew from 10.5 per cent in 1991 to 12.1 per cent in 2002. The Seventh Day Adventists grew from 1.1 per cent to 1.5 per cent. The good Orthodox grew from 0.0 per cent (there were 4,738 of them in 1991), to 0.1 per cent in 2002 (when they were 35,505). There are no numbers for the Bahai in 1991, but in 2002 they were 0.1 per cent (18,614). Thus if you had held a rally of all the Orthodox and Bahai in Uganda in 2002 in Namboole, they would not have filled the stadium.

And, yes, the Pentecostals. The census didn’t give a number for them in 1991, but in 2002 they were 1,129,647 – 4.6 per cent of the population.
For all the talk about Pentecostals killing off the old churches, this number is quite small and suggests the alternative/independent church phenomenon has been over-exaggerated in Uganda. Here then is the most intriguing number in that census. There is a group called “Other Non-Christian”. In 1991 they were a good 658,987 (4.0 per cent). In 2002 they had almost “disappeared” down to 159,259 (just 0.7 per cent, a remarkable drop).
It is nearly 13 years later, and these numbers surely have changed. The trend, though, is unlikely to have shifted.

So what might these figures be telling us, and what do they have to do with the invasion of churches by pickpockets?
My sense is that the Pentecostals, while “stealing” members from the Catholic and Protestant (or better Anglican) churches, are not the threat they are made out to be these old institutions. Most of their recruits could be from that disappearing “Non-Christian” category. The real story of the Pentecostal churches in Uganda then is that they have grown the overall Christian market in the country by mostly recruiting “pagans” and expired Christians into their ranks.

So if the Pentecostal churches are not taking lots of flock away from the Catholics and Anglicans, yet the growth rate of these latter two is shrinking, where are all the people who would have kept their numbers steady going?
I am inclined to speculate that these “missing” Catholics and Protestants are caught in a middle kingdom called enlightened secularism. Though not exactly atheist, they are also not beholden to Church and have taken a more rational and questioning position on religion. The census data is not structured to capture this secularist trend.

So the Catholics and Anglicans actually have a bigger problem. They are losing members not because they don’t have loud music or deliver miracles like the Pentecostals, but possibly because a number of their followers have been freed from institutional taboos and rituals and are looking up for a morally and socially more superior church.
Their temples, therefore, are no longer so hallowed. Therefore, beyond the economic desperation, they no longer have the aura that frightens away thieves. It is not Caesar and the Pentecostals that threaten the Catholics and Anglicans. That they can cope with. It is its members who are looking for a God higher and more scientific than the current God.

cobbo@ke.nationmedia.com & twitter:cobbo3