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Pope Francis, The Saints and Native Spirituality Held Hostage

Pope Francis’ recent tour through the African countries of Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic has provided many Africans with the opportunity to learn about those who experienced their story before they did.

His Holiness did all the right things: speaking up for the poor, condemning corruption and war, and also promoting peace between Islamic and Christian communities by visiting the mosque of an embattled Muslim community in the strife-torn city of Bangui.

The public reaction everywhere was huge, welcoming and enthusiastic.

Pope Francis’ message was one of peace. Being the custodian of the organization that has historically done more than most to create the modern world. It is perhaps natural that he should expect this to be achieved in a way not detrimental to the continuing interests of the dominant Christian-rooted world order.

In reality, this really means creating a truce between its past and its present, as far as the native peoples of Africa and America are concerned.

This relates directly to the dilemma he showed during the elevation of 18th century Spanish missionary priest and architect of cultural genocide, Junipero Serra, to full sainthood in California, during his September 2015 tour of the United States.

The Pope was to display less ambivalence while in Uganda, at a place called Namugongo a few miles east of Kampala, the capital.

From its early beginnings as an execution site for those sentenced to death by the government of the native kings, Namugongo has been transformed into complex of Christian shrines to its last inmates: some forty-four Catholic and Anglican African converts put to death by their king in 1888 for defying his authority. It was an event that would directly lead to the European conquest of this kingdom at the heart of Africa.

No African event claimed by Christianity has quite been leveraged for its proselyting value as this, since. Every 3rd June, pilgrims from all over the East Africa region descend on this place –some having walked hundreds of miles on foot- to commemorate a Christian triumph over “heathen” authority.

Naturally enough, the native king in question, and by extension the native culture he was seeking to protect, become the villain of the piece. With heads of state in attendance, speeches are often peppered with a lingering rebuke of nativism, and exhortations to adhere to the “modernizing “ values of the conquest.

The Pontiff did not disappoint, calling King Mwanga out by name, and speaking of how his actions were ultimately futile.

This is in echo of comments made during a late 2015 visit to eastern Uganda by the deputy head of the Anglican Church. There, the same King Mwanga’s court ordered the 1885 execution of one Bishop James Hannington whom the British church had dispatched to the kingdom as the first Bishop of its newly declared diocese.

The visiting Archbishop declared that while Hannington is remembered for having died for his faith, those who had him killed have been “forgotten”.

These events were significant, and have remained so for the European imagining of Africa. Uganda was the sole destination of the first ever Papal visit to Africa. Pope Francis is now the third pontiff to make an official visit to this small east African country, the first being by Paul XI in 1969. Since then, only John Paul I who occupied the throne for only 68 days has been the only Pope never to see Namugongo.

Uganda today sits right at the heart of the crossroads facing the people of the entire sub-Saharan region. Should they continue trying to advance further into the near-saturation of a value system imposed by European power? Or do they face up to the crisis of the European imagination of Africa–best symbolized by the failure of all the states Europe planted on the African continent- and find their own direction?

This resonates totally with the long-standing warning Native America has offered a tone-deaf United States: how sustainable is the system you brought from Europe, and what plan do you have for when it fails?

Much of the answer to that conundrum will be determined by a settlement of the spiritual question. As with native America, indigenous African religious belief tends to be family and clan-based, inspired by nature, consultative not commanding, independent of political authority, and female-led.

The colonial banishment of African clans and their totems from public life, as well as the physical occupation of shrine locations by the Catholic Church mission stations in particular, has brought on a long spiritual suffocation of the native that has increasingly stifled productive thinking, and freedom of action.

The Churches acquired physical and metaphorical real estate in the land and minds of Africa thereby serving as the midwife to the world of enslavement and modernity we know today. An essential difference is that Africa gifted the churches with a few martyrs who were happy to die for their new faith, while Father Serra, on the other hand was happy to see others suffer and even die for his.

Despite contact with Imperial Europe almost as early as what was to become known as the Americas, the conquest of Africa’s interior was only fully concluded by the early 20th century.

One complicating factor was of course the lesser-mentioned imperial ambitions of the Arab emirates and sultanates on the Arabian peninsula, that had long sought to make all of Africa their domain. The roots of the current “clash of civilizations”, or “islamophobia” mindsets are partly the propaganda remnants of the huge land and sea wars fought between these Arab powers and the early European superpowers of Spain and Portugal over who would control the trade routes to Africa. Their respective religions served then as a major mobilizational tool.

Given the continued feuding among these Abrahamic faiths though, little mention is usually made of the seventy or so Arab courtiers and their own African converts who were also executed at Namugongo during the reign of King Mwanga’s predecessor Muteesa I, in 1876, for also trying to foment political dissension at Court. In fact, the last and only commemoration to those martyrs is a now somewhat run-down mosque erected during the reign of the then Ugandan dictator (and the only non-Christian head of state Uganda has ever had) General Idi Amin, in the 1970s.

The Papal travels and travails are the most logical way of keeping the natives on board the ship of modernity. But for that to happen, native spirituality must remain hostage to the fortunes of this sinking project.

Kalundi Serumaga (pictured) is a cultural activist agitating through theatre, journalism and creative writing. He lives in Kampala, Uganda. He has been engaged also in a long-standing case before the Ugandan courts, challenging a ban on his radio work placed on him by the Ugandan government.

David Wandira has worked as a community organiser and educator in eastern Uganda for over three decades now. He is currently helping communities along the River Nile resist widespread land-grabbing by elites and regime cronies. He prefers not to have photos of himself published.