'God has called upon Uganda to replace Israel'
Raymond Katende says that when he was five years old his four brothers and sisters were killed by his father on the urging of a sorcerer who promised him riches in exchange for a sacrifice.
“God saw to it that I survived,” he says.
Now the 14-year-old spreads the word of God on Kampala’s streets on weekdays “because he called upon me”.
He says he doesn’t have the money to pay school fees and lives in a church shelter. On Saturdays he preaches the gospel in hospitals and prisons.
“The Bible is the way and the truth,” he intones.
Challenging Catholicism and Anglicanism
Raymond is one of many foot soldiers in a rapidly growing army of evangelistic street preachers in Uganda’s capital.
In urban Kampala, no conviction is as present in word and gesture as evangelicalism is.
The relatively new evangelical presence increasingly challenges Catholicism and Anglicanism, which dominated Uganda’s religious landscape from the late 19th century and remain popular in rural Uganda.
The street preachers are everywhere – at congested traffic junctions and roundabouts, on the crumbling sidewalks, on muddy gravel roads, in the city centre and in the slums – loyally and frantically waving their Bibles as they proclaim their gospel and in roaring voices urge shoppers to repent of their sins.
Simon Odoi, a street preacher in Kampala.
It’s impossible to know the exact number of street preachers or evangelical churches in Kampala. There is no law that compels them to register.
But Uganda’s National Fellowship of Born Again Pentecostal Churches, an umbrella network of churches, claims to represent more than 22?000 churches and Christian organisations that participate in social welfare.
The pastor at the Embassy of God church that Katende attends estimates that Kampala alone is home to more than 30?000 evangelical churches.
That is a large number for Kampala’s population of about 1.7-million, and whether it’s correct or not does not change one clear fact: the evangelical movement has gathered momentum.
The names are enough to draw interest: Redemption City Church, Healing Arena Worship Centre, Deliverance Church Ministries and Victory Christian Centre.
The street preachers say they draw mixed reactions from passers-by.
“Sometimes people provoke me but I just continue”, says Isaac Mwesigwa, a 20-year-old street preacher who often recites verses from the Biblical books of Luke and John.
“There are also those who appreciate what I do.
Sometimes someone gives me 1?000 shillings [R4].”
“It is not easy to become a senior pastor,” says Mwesigwa, a qualified primary school teacher who, because of a poor salary, is now selling charcoal and “winning souls” on the city’s streets. “It takes time to understand God but I hope I succeed.”
Mwesigwa’s Bible is well-thumbed and its cover has come off. He has replaced it with a page from a local newspaper that carries a picture of Manchester United’s striker Robin van Persie.
Katende says: “Sometimes people say, ‘Go and do something useful.’ They usually belong to another religion. But other people thank me for what I do and give me a bit of money.”
Many churches, such as the Embassy of God, are skeletal constructions made of iron sheeting and wooden poles.
But they are not uniform in their poverty. Some are well off.
In May, Pastor Imelda Namutebi of Liberty Worship Centre International opened a 15?000-seater, three-storey church building on seven hectares of land in Kampala’s Lugala suburb at a ceremony attended by President Yoweri Museveni.
It reportedly cost seven billion Ugandan shillings (about R28-million) to build and it is believed to be Uganda’s biggest Pentecostal church.
Namutebi can perform miracles, according to her followers.
She accepts only banknotes as “offerings” or donations during church services and is known for driving Hummers and Mercedes Benzes.
In her younger years, she was a member of the Miracle Centre Cathedral of Robert Kayanja, another well-known pastor who lives in a huge mansion on the shores of Lake Victoria.
Jackline Mbabazi, a street preacher.
Television stations in Uganda routinely air healing and miracle sessions. Ecstatic pastors claim to make the blind regain their eyesight and the crippled to walk again.
The national soccer grounds, Mandela Stadium near Kampala, are sometimes hired out for crusades, with tens of thousands in attendance.
This is the hope of street preachers: that one day they, too, will have their own flock congregate in a church.
For now they try to convince church leaders that they have a special talent and should be taken on board. Preaching on the streets is not a prerequisite but church leaders encourage it.
No special qualifications needed
There are no special qualifications for a person to take to the streets. Ultimately, anyone who believes that God has selected him or her – and who does not have stage fright – can start spreading the gospel.
Another preacher, David Balugambe (56), who says he has been a Bible teacher and a church pastor for many years, insists he is on the streets because of sheer zeal.
“I surrendered my life to Jesus Christ”, says Balugambe, who travels from Kasengejje on the outskirts of Kampala to the heart of the capital five days a week to preach from 4.30 in the afternoon to 8pm.
Standing in front of the head office of Uganda’s postal services on Kampala Road, the city’s main thoroughfare, Balugambe says: “The devil is always at work but God will bring us victory.”
Freedom of worship
Ugandans have not always been free to worship on the streets. In the 1970s during the reign of Idi Amin, himself Muslim, evangelical churches were banned.
The country suffered through civil war until 1986 when the bush fighter Museveni came to power. His reign has seen the return of freedom of worship.
Evangelicalism profited from a sense of disappointment among Christian Ugandans who came to associate the Catholic and Anglican churches with the politics that they held responsible for much of the chaos that had consumed Uganda after independence in 1962.
Evangelicalism, with its individual loyalty to God, offered a promising alternative to the established, hierarchical churches that had increasingly come to be viewed as unaccountable, according to British academic Paul Gifford in his 1997 study, African Christianity: Its Public Role in Uganda and Other African Countries.
In a way, born-again Christianity contained a spiritual parallel to the political “rebirth” of Uganda.
Gifford also highlights the role of faith-based, Western nongovernmental organisations in the spread of evangelicalism in Uganda.
After becoming president, Museveni put Uganda on the path of economic liberalisation and privatisation as prescribed by the Bretton Woods institutions. The vacuum left by the state was filled by foreign NGOs which, over time, became a sort of shadow government, providing basic services and jobs and education to the population. Some of them spread the Christian gospel.
Evangelicalism also attracts followers because of the prosperity it promises.
“Poverty and population growth drive more and more people to the evangelical churches where they pay the little money they have in the false hope of a miracle”, says a 31-year-old self-employed businessperson in Kampala who asked not to be named. She says she has gradually withdrawn from evangelicalism.
Popularity of evangelicalism
She also offers a more everyday explanation for the popularity of evangelicalism, one that is voiced more often in Kampala.
“Their worshipping services swing, you can let your emotions run free. The services are not as boring as those of other churches, especially the Catholic one.”
Regardless of all this, the street preachers have their own explanation for the rapid spread of evangelicalism.
“God has called upon Uganda to replace Israel,” says Katende. “We bring the faith to all other nations of the world – like how Uganda is also the source of the Nile, the world’s longest river.”
Ugandans sometimes proudly refer to their country as “the pearl of Africa”. In variance on this nickname, Katende refers to Uganda as “the pearl of the Lord”.
Pieces of yellow paper decorate the walls of Katende’s rickety church building in Kampala’s slum area of Ndeeba. Written on them are the names of dozens of countries for which the congregation prays. Among them is South Africa.
Evangelical backers from the United States have frequently been associated with the much-debated anti-gay campaign in Uganda that recently culminated in a new, tougher law against homosexual activities, although that law was annulled by the Constitutional Court because of a procedural technicality.
In 2009, Kapya Kaoma, an Anglican priest from Zambia, published a report in which he argued that the “culture wars” in the US, between religious conservatives and atheist liberals over issues such as same-sex relationships, were being extended to countries such as Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria, where local pro- and anti-gay campaigners alike receive financial support from the respective US camps.
Like many Ugandans, street preachers in Kampala often reject homosexuality, referring to God’s anger over the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
But public messages about killing or banishing gay and lesbian people are not the norm.
“Jesus loves everybody,” says Juliet Asiimwe (28), who usually preaches in front of the large Watoto Church near the city centre. “I pray for homosexuals to be cured,” she says, “just like how I pray for atheists.”
In the past few years, Kampala has been witnessing a push by the local authorities to enforce regulations against illegal constructions and noise pollution.
The clampdown seems to be directed more at bars and street vendors than at churches. In November 2012, authorities confiscated equipment from the Living Word Assembly Church in the upmarket neighbourhood of Nakasero for making a noise.
But countless other churches in less affluent residential areas are left alone, as are individual preachers.
“Why are the lumpen witch-like street preachers operating freely?” asked Allan Tacca, a sociopolitical commentator, in October in the local newspaper Daily Monitor. “What do tourists, serious donors and our beloved investors think of our society and its spiritual life?”
In his eyes, street preachers “can be both offensive, because of their nauseating self-righteousness, and literally abusive, branding and verbally charging strangers who are quietly going about their business through the city”.
A resident of the Kampala neighbourhood of Naalya, who recently woke up to the sight of an evangelical church housed in a large white plastic tent right in front of his house, believes that “the people in charge” don’t take enough action because they themselves often belong to evangelical churches.
Jackline Mbabazi (18), another street preacher, uses a megaphone when she goes on the streets to preach. Other preachers use hands-free sets.
Is that to reinforce the message about God?
“And to save my voice”, says Mbabazi. “Unfortunately, batteries for a megaphone do cost money.”
Simon Odoi (40) preaches next to one of the busiest traffic junctions in Kampala. He no longer uses a megaphone.
“The Electoral Commission of Uganda complained about the volume,” says Odoi while pointing to the commission’s premises near the junction. And “the rich who wait for the traffic lights sometimes wind up their car windows when they see me”.
But Odoi is not discouraged. “God’s word goes straight through the windows and the spirit follows.”
Catholicism in decline
Uganda has no up-to-date and official figures on the number of citizens who belong to evangelistic churches.
In 2013 the Uganda Bureau of Statistics put the total number of Ugandans at 35.4-million but the annual Statistical Abstract did not assess the population according to religious affiliation.
In August and September, Uganda conducted a population and housing census that recognises Pentecostalism as an independent variable under religious affiliation, but the results of this census have yet to be released. Previous censuses showed Pentecostalism as being on the rise and Catholicism and Anglicanism as being in relative decline, a trend that is expected to continue.
According to the national census from 2002, people who belonged to the Pentecostal faith represented 4.6% of the total population that then stood at 24-million.
In that same year, Roman Catholics represented 41.9% and Anglicans 35.9% of the population. This constituted a decrease compared with 1991, when Catholics still represented 44.5% and Anglicans 39.2% of the population.
In 1991 Pentecostalism was not yet recognised as a separate affiliation on formal data collection forms. – Mark Schenkel