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.
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:
• UCU, owned by the Anglican Church and with a main campus 16 miles east of Kampala, is the first private university in Uganda to receive a government charter. It now has a beautiful campus with a mix of old buildings that would be at home in Britain, and new ones—including a library cleverly designed to keep students cool without resort to air conditioning. It’s growing rapidly: 8,000 students now choose from among dozens of majors. Law, education, science and technology, health, and other disciplines all have seats at the table.
UCU now faces challenges not unlike those hitting American Christian colleges. Some are financial, with leaders deeply involved in fundraising and building programs. Some are theological: To its credit, UCU is guarding against the drift that can readily occur when professors with a personal faith but training in secular universities worship on Sundays but on Mondays approach their subjects with materialist presuppositions. UCU has a new Institute of Faith, Learning and Service chartered “to assure the Christian identity of the University.” Some challenges concern job placement: As hiring opportunities emerge, will employers prefer graduates committed to honesty in the knowledge that God is watching them?
UCU has impressive graduates who know that finding a job will be hard, so they emphasize their willingness to work hard. Daisy Nakiwala Nsangi: “I made sure I maximized every moment I got to read.” Rose Adede, daughter of a single mom: “I worked hard to excel.” Mollen Ainembabazi: “Many people wondered why I spent so much time reading. … I woke up at weird hours to read.” Linnet Namanya: “I credit God for all my success.”
• The much-smaller African Bible University (ABU) is assuring its Christian identity by having its 113 students major in biblical studies and minor in business, communication, or education. They go deep into principles of biblical interpretation, books of the Bible, Christian ethics, history, and other topics. Students also hear excellent preaching from Vice Chancellor Palmer Robertson (disclosure—I sat under his teaching for two years when he was a pastor in Maryland) in a beautiful chapel funded by a St. Louis PCA church. A bell that was once on a plantation in Texas, where it tolled for slaves, now summons students to freedom.
ABU graduates are also aware of the Islamic threat, since the university sits on Lobowa Hill seven miles south of Kampala, opposite a big mosque on an adjacent hill. On a peaceful afternoon Robertson, while sitting on a porch swing with one of his young sons, was asking what the Sixth Commandment teaches. He got the right answer—“Thou shalt not kill”—as a rant blared through a mosque loudspeaker. The ABU radio station responds by airing music and theological programming to reach Muslim listeners who would risk their lives by entering a church but can and do communicate with one DJ by text messaging.
• The Transforming Nations Alliance works without classrooms, dorms, or libraries. It looks for Christians beyond college age whose pastors say they have leadership ability, and Susan and I sat in on a training session that featured eight such earnest men and two women. They sat in the sort of inexpensive chairs that are ubiquitous throughout Africa and South America at tables that formed a U. No bells and whistles in this ordinary room pocked with stained beige walls and barred windows.
But what they planned was extraordinary: Instead of discussing the usual notion of waiting for Western aid, they debated past and future “seed projects.” Young members of Nakalama Rapha Deliverance Church were starting a brick-making project. Women of the church wanted land to grow more vegetables. Church members in Kikubamutwe, a Kampala slum area, planned a neighborhood cleanup. Others spoke of cleaning litter from drainage ditches or building a shelter for the elderly.
Training session participants were unimpressed by a government-organized literary project and a United Nations child-feeding project: They’ve seen big talk and poor results many times. Participants stressed the need to accomplish tasks in one day, so onlookers can quickly see tangible results. They broke down tasks into basic steps: threshing the area around a well; erecting a fence to keep animals out; removing mud so the well can hold more water from the infrequent rains; and creating and clearing trenches so rainwater flows into the well.
Trainer Judith Murungi emphasized the importance of avoiding dependency, developing local resources, and understanding that Christianity is more than praying and attending church. Many Ugandans profess to be Christians but also believe that evil spirits and curses control their lives. Murungi spoke about how God has given Ugandans creativity and energy that will allow them to change their communities and defeat poverty. They can dig latrines, wash hands before eating, and use mosquito nets to keep out malarial mosquitoes: small, doable projects.
Seed projects demonstrate to Ugandans that God can use meager local resources to bless a community. The projects demonstrate that Ugandans don’t have to wait for outsiders to come and fix problems, and that God cares about the physical well-being of His children, not just the spiritual.
• The fourth approach is straightforward evangelism: We watched 40 Anglican youth and student coordinators learn about street evangelism and then head out in a bus, in a van, and by foot to go door-to-door. Evangelist John Nicholas Okwalinga and retired Covenant College professor Henry Krabbendam stopped at one cement-walled, metal-roofed house lingering amid hard-packed red clay and mango, avocado, and banana trees. They knocked on the door and a young mother, Maria, opened it, as a runny-nosed toddler in a T-shirt and beaded bracelets on both wrists tugged on her dress. Maria set down two empty plastic jerry cans for water, and her little girl started climbing on them.
Okwalinga and Krabbendam didn’t mince words: Citing biblical references, they told Maria that she has a cobra heart (Psalm 58:3-4), a past filled with excrement (Isaiah 64:6), and a destructive life (Romans 3:12-16). They told her about a crucified Jesus who eradicates the cobra heart, purges the excrement past, and changes the toxic life. They said through His resurrection Jesus supplies a new heart, new righteousness, new holiness. The woman listened, then welcomed the Bible they gave her and their pledge to return and see how she’s doing.
ALL FOUR OF THESE CHRISTIAN EFFORTS fight a prevalent fatalism—the idea that Ugandans are born poor and will die poor, throughout their lives controlled by curses and witchcraft. For eons hunger and grinding poverty—consequences of this worldview dominated by the need to avoid upsetting evil spirits—have plagued Uganda. British control from the late 19th century to 1962 brought missionaries but also European materialism. Now, the Chinese government is buying up mineral rights throughout Africa, while Muslims, who once enslaved many in East Africa, seek to enslave their posterity in a works-based religion that persecutes other faiths.
Islamists offer dollars and a promised land of dolls to young men willing to give their lives to kill Christians and Jews. Other Muslims purchase wives from nominally Christian Ugandan fathers who are willing—if there’s enough money in it— to have their daughters become Muslims. Some Ugandans would rather be employed Muslims than unemployed Christians. A variety of quasi-Christian ministries have fought back by offering their own rewards through a prosperity gospel. Faith healers have found a market: When Benny Hinn came to Kampala, some Ugandans arrived six hours early to get a place.
In Uganda now, rapidly increasing cohabitation is undermining marriage. Alcohol consumption is massive. Old superstitions, such as gaining a feeling of security by carrying the skin or hair of a lion, remain. Muslims say they revere marriage so much that every woman must be in one, along with up to three other wives. Muslims say they throw out bottles and superstition. Christians need to demonstrate the ability to demolish vicious cycles of apathy, corruption, poverty, disease, and degeneration.
Some believe Uganda can escape eventual Muslim dictatorship by developing secular, materialist institutions such as Makerere University, the Harvard of Uganda—but it is the type of institution that generates liberal opposition to Islamic revolutions and then goes under when the tide rises. Soft secular faiths have not competed well against Islam’s scimitar-edged ferocity, particularly when they provide occasional circuses but insufficient amounts of bread.
That’s particularly true when politicians who claim the mantle of Christ offer honeyed words but corrupt practices. In December an international NGO, Transparency International, released its 2013 Corruption Perception Index: Uganda dropped from a miserable 130th place to an even worse 140th. Also in December, the African Development Bank noted that Uganda has an external debt of $5.5 billion, but from 2002 to 2011 more than $7 billion obtained by individuals through corrupt means flowed into bank accounts and tax havens outside of Uganda.
The Transforming Nations Alliance contends that “[Ugandan] Christians are still very shallow in their understanding of Scripture and still have a mindset locked in the animistic worldview that is fatalistic … hence the poverty, social instability, domestic violence, and other social problems that bedevil the nation. The level of corruption is so high that the stability of the nation is seriously threatened.” ABU student Garnet Kibombwe wrote thoughtfully about the problem and asked, “What does Christ think when he sees us giving and taking bribes, cheating, abusing people …?”
South of the Sahara, the number of Muslim adherents has gone from 11 million in 1900 to 234 million in 2010, and the number of those professing Christ during that time period has soared from 7 million to 470 million. Yet, TNA reports that “while many Sub-Saharan African countries boast of large Christian populations, their impact or influence is hardly seen or noticed in the real world. The Church in these nations has largely lost credibility and is accused of being totally irrelevant in society.”
If those 470 million Christians are educated and energized, they can avoid falling under Muslim enslavement—and that is the latest “if” in a long struggle. Ishmael and Isaac were at odds 4,000 years ago, Muslims and Christians fought often during the millennium that began in Muhammad’s time 1,400 years ago, and the war, sometimes cold and sometimes hot, goes on today.
Listen via podcast or radio to The World and Everything in It segments on Uganda by Susan Olasky during the weeks of Jan. 26 and Feb. 2.