One in every four Ugandans practices Traditional African religion, says a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Centre.
Because the 2002 Census found that Christians and Muslims made up 97.3 per cent of Ugandans, it becomes evident that many Ugandans practice Islam or Christianity, alongside traditional religion.
How is that even possible? Why do traditional practices persist, a century and more after foreign religions arrived here, and discredited it beyond disrepute?
It is all a reflection of foreign religions’ failure to penetrate the African heart, theologians say.
“Today, what we have is that Christianity is a kind of lotion; some people have said that it is one mile long, but one inch deep in Africa. Someone says it is like a veneer,” says Dr Paddy Musana, chairperson of the department of Religion and Peace Studies at Makerere University.
It is the missionaries who did the initial spread of foreign religions in Uganda that are to blame, theologians say; the missionaries failed to adjust Christianity to the cultures, norms and traditions of Africans.
And the result, theologians add, was that the spiritual needs of the African soul were not met in the church or mosque. So while Ugandans go to church on Sunday, they returned to the traditional shrine, which answered their spiritual needs.
This too, could be the reason why the Pentecostal movement has grown fast in Uganda; it is an awakening of the spiritual realities of the ordinary African.
Traditional religion’s resilience
A graph from data collected by Pew Research Centre, a religion think-tank, puts it better than words can. It runs from 1900 to 2010, and plots the reach of Christianity, Islam and Traditional religion in Africa, during that period.
In 1900, Traditional African religion’s prevalence stood at 76 per cent, compared to 14 per cent for Islam and nine per cent for Christianity. By the year 2000, the religions had swapped places. Christianity stood at 57 per cent, Islam at 28 per cent and Traditional religion at 13 per cent.
But something happens to the trajectory after the year 2000; it comes to a halt. The ascent by Christianity and Islam stops, and, so does the descent by Traditional religion. From 2000 to 2010, Christianity’s prevalence in Africa remained at 57 per cent, that by Islam rose one point to 29 per cent, but that by Traditional religion stayed at 13 per cent, even if it had been in a steady decline since 1900.
The graph tells us that although foreign religious systems have eroded traditional worship practices, they have now reached a point of limited returns. It can be deduced from the graph that more than a century later, foreign religions have failed to weed out traditional religion from Africa. And the Ugandan setting will even ground this even further.
As Douglas Mayanja, a curator at the witchcraft-themed St Luke Museum in Kiteredde, Rakai, says: “Christians today, go to church, pray to Jesus, then when they return home, they go under the bed, pull out the small shrine, and worship traditional gods.”
Traditional African religion, thus, has not only managed to resist a whitewash by foreign religions, but has managed to go out of its fold and influence the way foreign religions are practiced, enough to accommodate its practices.
Clash of worldviews
“Like (John S) Mbiti writes, in Africa, religion permeates all aspects of life; wherever an African is, there is his religion. He carries it to the garden. The moment he is starting to dig, there could be some utterances he makes. As he sets out to a hunting expedition, he will invoke the spiritual universe to work with him, because he is now going into the wilderness and he knows he has to establish a relationship with the owner of the wilderness,” Dr Musana says.
“African Traditional religion addresses all aspects of life. The act of marriage, birth, death, eating, and harvesting is elaborate in African settings. If you are to check in the African context, when (Christian) people are setting out to sow their seeds in the garden to farm, do they ever pray? Do they ever establish a relationship with the guardians of the soil, the controllers of the environment, the climate?
“This is the African world, and the African world becomes very real.
“If you compare African spirituality with Christianity, in the manifestation of kusoma Christianity, where we go to Church to read, and it becomes a one-day event on Sunday or Friday for that matter, and yet you find people with baskets under their beds, in touch with these (spiritual) realities, we are comparing things we should not compare.
“An African will go to church because they have another name. They do what the church requires them to do, and when they get back home, they put off this veneer, because they are now in touch with the reality, of their African spirituality. The problem is that the guy is not making money, the African world view will tell you the theory of causality, every effect has a cause; nothing happens by chance. So, the African understanding will be that maybe the elders, your ancestors, those who have gone ahead of you, are not happy. It could be that your parents are not happy, and the curse is on you.”
Citing the moment when former Vice President, Prof Gilbert Bukenya was photographed in a shrine, Dr Musana says, “You will hear indigenous practitioners say that most people got into offices with their help. Why? Because they have the African worldview; if you go to Reverend X or Priest X, he will come out with his theology, where he was taught that things are done in a liturgical manner, a very specific manner, which is out of touch with the reality on the ground.
“It is how you address life; life is not in those books; life is lived and experienced,” he adds.
This has played into the hands of new religious movements, especially the Pentecostal Movement in Africa. “That is why you see that some of these churches that are addressing things to do with curses, attract many more people,” Dr Musana says.
“The best you can compare, when it comes to African spirituality, and Christianity in current manifestation, are the different groups that believe in the Holy Spirit; recently, I have got the tendency to think that when you look at the prophets and pastors in most of these Pentecostal Churches, there is no difference between them and traditionalists for indigenous believers.
They are so much more aware of the spirit world; that is why they spend so much more time praying; you hear of experiences of people going to a place and before they even sit there, they have to exorcise spirits. They are aware. They are thinking in terms of the reality of the spirit.”
Rev Dr Olivia Nassaka Banja, the dean of the School of Divinity and Theology at Uganda Christian University, says this is because many Christians have not been fully taught about their faith. “The way some people in some of our Christian churches depend on the pastor, reflects the dependence on the traditional healer in the shrine.”
“You find that somehow, the traditional worldview has provided the framework for working in the Pentecostal movement, and in even in some Christian circles, some people cannot say a deliverance prayer for themselves. They do not believe or realise that the spirit of God can work through them, or in them, that they can pray for themselves and get healed,” Dr Banja says.
Dr Musana’s notes on the similarities between Christianity and African spirituality themselves paint a picture of Pentecostal doctrine. “The Old Testament has a lot in common with Christianity as experienced by Africa. If you are going to look at polygamy, sickness and disease, why people suffer, the Old Testament is full of such explanations,” he says.