Saturday, October 8, 2016

Reconciling Religious and Traditional Pieties: Buganda Way of Taking in Christianity without Diluting and Losing Their Social Identity

“The great-grandfather of the current King is probably the most honored one of all the recent kings of Buganda,” the smiling young man kindly showing the author around the great halls of the Buganda Parliament proudly noted as they passed under a gigantic portrait of the young-looking king sitting on his throne at the turn of the 20th century.  “After all, he is the one who wrote a letter of Queen Elizabeth, asking her to specifically send Christian missionaries to the Buganda Kingdom so that the people can be taught of the great religion.”  He was quick to add as explanation.

And then, when passing under the portrait of the next king, or the previous king’s son (or the current king’s grandfather), the young tour guide was a little more critical.  “This king killed 22 Christian converts, who we honor as martyrs now,” underneath his perpetual friendly politeness was slight tone of sorrow as these words were uttered.  But he was quick to correct himself, “but the king did not do wrong; he was just confused.  He just thought the missionaries were going to bring a new king to take over his kingdom.  His son corrected his mistake and friendly relations with the Christians are quickly restored.”

Others echo this tour guide’s sentiment that the king can do no wrong.  At the royal tombs of the Buganda kings, another young man noted to the author, “The clans of the Buganda Kingdom exist to please the king.  Because the king is powerful; he has full control of all the people in the Kingdom.  If he is unhappy, he can kill anyone he wants at a whim.  So to make sure we have peace, our job is to make sure the king is always happy.”  What is the most surprising for the author was just how matter-of-fact the young man thought of the king having absolute power over his subjects.

Every young Buganda man working the various historical sites of the Buganda Kingdom spoke of the king’s absolute power as a matter of tradition, not of tyranny.  They spoke approvingly of the king’s ability to take multiple wives (the father of the current one reportedly having 84) as a sign of “royal strength,” and each clan’s hereditary jobs within the kingdom (similar to Hindu castes without the social hierarchy bit) as providing needed organization within the kingdom to prevent conflicts.  They spoke of the need to keep the traditions alive, especially as many Buganda youth drift into modern lifestyles.

While ironic, it makes sense that the Buganda’s enthusiasm for maintaining traditions is transposed upon their enthusiasm for Christian religiosity.  Despite Christianity being a “non-traditional” element introduced in the last century or so (compared to 700 plus years of Buganda history), Christian values (as they are perceived in Uganda) tend to match traditional social structures centered on the royal family.  Obedience to authority figures that manifest themselves as higher beings that are superhuman and require constant appeasement for blissing is present in both Buganda traditions and Christianity.

It perhaps helps explain how Christianity was so quickly adopted by the local populace here and continue to be taken with gusto.  Dozens of locally found Christian denominations carry out their competing missionary activities, hoping to attract more following with exaggerated names such “Streams of Life” or even just “Church of Miracles.”  Sometimes their houses of worship sit right next to some of the most sacred sites for the royal families.  It is simply amazing that there is little conflict between the two, with the royal sites staying free of Christian influence despite royals being Christians.

The ability of the Buganda to embrace a completely foreign concept like Christianity while keeping traditions alive is admirable.  Yes, for both their traditions and Christianity, they may have taken a rather ultra-conservative interpretation based on submission of the individual to higher powers without checks and balances to authority, but that does not take away from the fact that Buganda is able to quickly find common ground between the modern concept and traditional practices, accepting both wholeheartedly while keeping both distinct without any sort of conflict. 

Looking around more developed societies, this ability to reconcile different cultures and their values is something that is glaringly lacking.  People are convinced that their identities are singular and exclusive.  This leads to beliefs that meeting of two ideologies from different geographies and traditions will fundamentally be “zero-sum games” where greater influence of one will definitely take away from the influence of the other.  The Buganda, through their admirations for both their royal family and Christian authorities, is showing the world that a single individual can hold different identities and identities in peace.

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