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Saturday, April 5, 2008

We have always been friends

By Rev. Amos Kasibante

My family were Christians, but our neighbour, Asani (Hassan) Mukasa and his family were Muslim. At the celebration of Id el Fitri, Asani used to send us rice and meat and we would reciprocate at Christmas.

Asani’s family used to commend us as we dressed for Church on Christmas day. ‘Nga muwoomye!’ (You look really glamorous), they used to say. And we said similar things to them at Muslim functions.

Asani attended the service in the Cathedral when I was ordained and when I became a priest. When my mother passed away, his sons did the built up the grave. At the post-funeral rites (Oluumbe) we invited a Muslim friend to slaughter the cow to be eaten at the ceremony. Many of those present were Muslims and would not eat meat not slaughtered according to Muslim regulations.

The experience I have recounted can be repeated several times over in Uganda. We live as a community of Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, and African religionists. And while we have puritanical (word not meant as a value judgement) groups within each religion – for example Muslims who do not perform traditional post-funeral rites or ‘born-again’ Christians who do not perform certain African traditional rites related to birth and initiation, the Christian and Muslim faiths in Uganda are indigenised and syncretistic.

Syncretism refers to mixing of new ideas and practices to a religion as it accommodates itself within a culture. Although syncretism is often used in a negative sense, especially when religions stress their authenticity or pure form, there is no religious faith that has not experienced a degree of cultural accommodation. This takes place consciously or unconsciously.
The memorable statement from Pope Paul IV during his visit to Uganda in 1969 can illustrate the case of conscious accommodation. He said, “You can and must have an African Christianity”.

With this encouragement, the Catholic Church in Africa embarked on a fruitful process called ‘inculturation’, especially in the area of the language and practice of worship and in the composition of music.

Whereas before Catholic Church music could be described as ‘weary and dreary’, it radically changed and reached the state when its melody and inspiration surpassed that in the Church of Uganda.
Another illustration of positive accommodation came in the form of studying African traditional or indigenous religions in order to find ‘points of contact’ between them and Christianity.

Before, African religious beliefs were summarily dismissed as ignorant superstition – a theme that occurs in many African novels and poetry.

Professor Ali Mazrui once remarked that of the three main African religions, namely Christianity, Islam, and African Tradition Religion (ATR), the latter is the most tolerant. He meant that ATR moderated the two religions.

That is ironical because one would have expected such influence to come from Christianity and Islam, both of which assert that ‘peace’ is central to their teaching.

Against the climate of Islamophobia in Europe, Muslim leaders stress that Islam is a religion of peace. In Uganda, African traditional beliefs sustain social and community cohesion and bring together friends, relatives, and others to participate in communal events such as deaths, baptisms, weddings, post-funeral rites, and so on.

In Buganda and not only there, there is no religiously homogeneous clan. Through our clans we celebrate both unity and diversity. In intolerant societies that do not celebrate diversity, ‘the other’ is demonised and becomes an object on which the society projects its failures.

As the psychologist C.J. Jung says, that is the psychological and sociological cause of scapegoats and of manipulation in politics and religion. We are so threatened by ‘the other’ that we strive to convert him or her into replicas of ourselves or at least relegate them to an inferior status politically, culturally, economically, and religiously.

What I have written is not meant to be an idealised picture of inter-faith relations in Uganda. I am not oblivious either to the injustices to which some, such as Muslims, have suffered. However, we stand to lose what harmony we have as members of different faiths if Uganda Muslims adopted the model of Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi.

Rev. Kasibante is co-ordinating chaplain, University of Leicester, UK
amos.kasibante@virgin.net

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