Cover Story
Lindy Walker

Africa's hinge

Uganda | Four out of five residents of fast-growing, 37-million-strong Uganda identify with Christianity. Most Ugandans glowingly welcome evangelical visitors and side with Christian conservatives on many social issues. But beneath the surface, Uganda faces enormous challenges.

Issue: "The Battle for Africa," Feb. 8, 2014

KAMPALA, LUBOWA, and MUKONO, Uganda—At Uganda Christian University (UCU) in November, graduation day for 1,668 students—43 percent of them business majors—was sunny and hot, as it is on most days in a country sitting on the equator. White tents decked with purple and pink bunting lined two sides of a large, manicured green. Students played African drums as female dancers shook hips covered in goat hair. Graduates in caps and gowns sat on one side and proud parents—men in suits, women in Victorian-style long dresses with puffed sleeves and wide sashes—on the other. 

After Scripture reading, speeches, and prayers, students stepped forward one by one to receive their degrees. Some mothers didn’t let elaborate clothing stifle their enthusiasm. When they heard their children’s names, they jumped up from molded white plastic chairs and ran to the edges of the lawn, joyfully ululating and dancing, like David 3,000 years ago before the ark. They see the academic degrees as economic guarantees in a country still facing massive poverty and unemployment. With half of the nation’s people younger than 15—the average Ugandan woman has six children—demographic pressures are intense. 

The problem, though, is that college graduates want white-collar jobs and there aren’t enough. Those with less education have worse prospects. Uganda has seen economic improvement over the past two decades, but the hundreds of young men sitting around on every main street may soon be joined by thousands more. Many women seem to work harder as they try to sweep dust from the front of tiny shops made of metal and cardboard, but that’s a labor only a Sisyphus would love. Some young people sell their family’s land to move to Kampala, buy a boda-boda (a motorcycle), and then have nothing to fall back on. 

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Meanwhile, the mayor of Kampala is a Muslim, the number of mosques is increasing, and at least 15 percent of Ugandans pledge allegiance to Islam. Many Muslims say that Sharia law and Islamic interest-free economics would create a stronger society. The key question for Uganda, and for Americans who love it: Will Christians there show their countrymen that Christianity has answers to the country’s problems? Uganda has also been very much in the news recently because of its legislation against homosexuality, which many U.S. and European officials have lambasted: My column ("Problem or solution?") in this issue discusses that.

In the short run those problems—and many other African countries have similar ones—are more severe than the long-run threat of Islam, but Ugandan Muslims appear increasingly aggressive. Newspapers have run stories of Islamists throwing acid in the face of one convert to Christianity, and of a father almost starving to death his teenage daughter after she professed faith in Christ. A Pew Foundation survey, “Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa,” found at least 45 percent of professing Christians in Uganda consider Muslims to be violent.

Historically, when Muslim populations exceed 10 percent—call that a critical mass—Islamists start pursuing opportunities to make others accede to their demands. Uganda itself has experience of Muslim minorities dictating to the whole nation. In the 19th century, for example, Kings Ssuuna II and Mutesa I fell under Islamic influence, and Muslims battled Christians in 1888. From 1971 to 1979 Major General Idi Amin, a Muslim, ruled Uganda: A corrupt dictator, he murdered between 100,000 and 500,000 Ugandans, according to international observers and human-rights groups. 

And the question is: Will Africa go as Uganda goes? The map to the left (and on the cover) shows that Uganda is an African hinge. Countries in green are majority Muslim: They typically have little liberty of any kind, particularly religious. Countries in red are less than 10 percent Muslim and have little if any Islamic agitation. The front-line nations in yellow are 10-50 percent Muslim and have maintained largely secular legal systems, although at least nine Nigerian states have imposed Sharia law.

A deep Christianity can readily deal with Islamic threats, but Christian leaders acknowledge that continent-wide belief is often only a centimeter deep. Many store signs in Uganda show a desire to proclaim belief: God Is Able Beauty Shop. God’s Mercy Computation Center. Billboards, though, reflect massive health problems—“HIV testing is good and normal”—and materialist beliefs: “A man is called a man only if he has a home.” Anglican leader Onesimus Asiimwe notes that two out of three Sunday worshippers are under 25 years of age, and nominal Christians far outnumber mature ones. “Our Christianity lacks depth.” 

MY WIFE AND I (you can hear Susan’s coverage of the UCU graduation and other Uganda experiences on World Radio) visited four projects in the Kampala area—Uganda Christian University, African Bible University, Transforming Nations Alliance training, and Anglican evangelism training—each with different approaches: 

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