Ugandans Who Mix Traditional Beliefs With Religion Now More Open About Practice

Many Ugandans are becoming more open about their blending of traditional African religious practices with other religions, including Christianity and Islam, to maintain a connection to their ancestors. Decades ago, foreign missionaries branded the local beliefs as pagan, but some Ugandans have found a way to combine all their beliefs.

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Ugandans Who Mix Traditional Beliefs With Religion Now More Open About Practice

Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda

Ndugwa Katende left Christianity to practice his ancestral religion five years ago. “I was tired of living in self-denial,” he says. Here, he sits beneath a tree to consult with his ancestors. Experts say a growing number of Ugandans are openly practicing traditional religions.

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KAMPALA, UGANDA — Kato Lubwama is Catholic, but says it was his connection to his ancestors, a primary element of his traditional religion, that made it possible to win a recent parliamentary election.

“It wasn’t the church that won me this election,” the comedian-turned-politician says. “I had already received premonitions from my ancestors that I would win this election so it wasn’t shocking to me that I won.”

Lubwama is one of many Ugandans who practice both traditional African religions and other religions, including Christianity and Islam. Some, like Lubwama, are born to Christian families but take up a traditional religion later in life. Others convert to Christianity or Islam but still hold on to their traditional religions.

Regardless of how or when Ugandans are embracing traditional religions, experts say they’re doing so more than they have in the past.

That’s a major shift from the 1960s and 1970s, says Ssewaya Kiwanuka, secretary general of a traditional healers, herbalists and birth attendants association known locally as Uganda N’eddagala N’obuwangwa Bwafe. Traditional religions were considered to be witchcraft then, he says.

It wasn’t the church that won me this election. I had already received premonitions from my ancestors that I would win this election so it wasn’t shocking to me that I won.

Many Christian and Muslim leaders, and followers of those faiths, still regard traditional religions as pagan, or even satanic. Foreign missionaries who didn’t understand the African ways of worship branded traditional religions as such, says A.B.T Byaruhanga-Akiiki, a former head of the religious studies department at Makerere University.

Statistics on Uganda’s religious breakdown vary, but the U.S. State Department’s 2014 International Religious Freedom Report notes that the country is 85 percent Christian and 12 percent Muslim. The remaining 3 percent is a mix of religions, including “indigenous beliefs.”

Ugandans say the reality is different. Many practice traditional religions, whether openly or in secret. Some have shrines in their homes, and others visit traditional priests when they feel they have a need, such as physical healing, finding a spouse or winning an election.

Kiwanuka says his traditional healing business is open on Mondays and Thursdays and he sees at least 30 people each day. Four years ago, he says, he saw eight to 13 people each day.

Ronald Semanda, another traditional doctor, says he attends to 10 to 20 patients every day, up from between three and five each day three years ago.

Different communities in Uganda practice different traditional religions, but all of them acknowledge the existence of a supreme being, Byaruhanga says. For the Baganda, for example, the supreme being is Katonda, Byaruhanga says, while the Banyankole call that supreme being Ruhanga.

Still, some Ugandans grew up practicing traditional religions secretly because Christian or Muslim leaders don’t approve of them.

Lubwama, the recently elected parliamentarian, says his Catholic family hid traditional relics at the back of the house when he was a child.

“My family members would consult our ancestors on anything: wisdom, wealth, health and so much more,” he says. “That’s how I started practicing traditional religion though I was a baptized Catholic.”

There is a connection between Africans and their traditions that foreign religions cannot break, he says.

“It starts with a name,” he says. “Once you accept to be called by an African name, you’ve already established that connection because that name once belonged to an ancestor.”

People who have a leg here and another there tend to have practiced traditional religion since childhood. To have them fully convert to Christianity can be a challenge due to indecisiveness.

Justina Nantongo, an assistant at Jjaja Mukasa shrine in Wakiso district, which neighbors Kampala, says Christians and Muslims visit shrines because they want a direct connection with the spiritual world and they can’t get that in churches or mosques.

“Sometimes there is a need for people to communicate with their dead relatives. But the foreign religions don’t provide those services. In fact, they prohibit that, saying it’s satanic to communicate with ghosts,” Nantongo says. “The indigenous religions provide this service. We communicate to the dead, ask for guidance, and if need be, correct mistakes.”

Samwiri Serunkuma, an Anglican priest, says it is difficult for people who have practiced traditional religion to convert fully to Christianity.

“People who have a leg here and another there tend to have practiced traditional religion since childhood,” he says. “To have them fully convert to Christianity can be a challenge due to indecisiveness.”

Serunkuma says people who claim Christianity sometimes practice traditional religions because they want quick results to their prayers.

“They want things that work fast: quick wealth, quick success, quick fame, so they resort to satanic traditional religions hoping to get what they want at whatever cost,” Kaye says. “Allah has his own ways; he can’t be rushed. He delivers at his will, on his own time.”

Philomena Nabwere, a counselor and retired teacher who is a devoted Catholic, says people see little difference between the moral teachings of Christianity and indigenous religions, so they combine the two.

“As a Catholic, I follow the Ten Commandments. Now when you go back to history and the social settings of the African traditional society, parents would teach their children against stealing, killing, fornication among other things – the very moral teachings you will find in Christianity or Islam,” she says.

But Kaye says Islam doesn’t share any similarities with African religions.

“You are either for Allah or not,” he says. “Societies may have similar moral values, but religions differ.”

Lubwama says practicing both Catholicism and the Baganda religion makes his life fulfilling and helps him relate to people from different religions.

“We live in an integrated society and practicing both religions helps me build relationship with those around me, be it Christians, Muslims or traditionalists,” he says. “I could never have had that if I were only Catholic.”


Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Luganda.