Friday, 27 September 2013

The Ugandan Adventures: Part X: Nine Ways in Which St John's College, Durham, prepared me for Uganda

For those of you who don’t know, St John’s College Durham is a curious mixture of a theological seminary for Anglican and Methodist ministers-in-training, and autonomous college as part of Durham University. It thus manages to combine elements both of secular and religious culture in interesting and eclectic ways. One the one hand you have people who are dedicating their lives to religious service; on the other hand you could have a passionately atheist undergraduate or postgraduate who is only interested in living the student life (I am still unaware of any passionately atheist trainee priests… but who knows?). I myself am a priest-in-training at St John’s, and thought I might share nine ways in which the college has prepared me for this Ugandan Adventure.

1) Climate

I live on D-Floor, in the Cranmer Hall wing of St John’s College. For those of you who don’t know, D-Floor is the hottest singular area upon the surface of Planet Earth. This is because the heat of A, B, and C Floors (which is considerable in itself) rises and conglomerates around my room. Therefore, though it be coldest winter, my window is generally open; and though it be hottest summer, the radiator - even though off - is still hot. This has prepared me well for the African climate: whilst the Ugandans around me my complain that ’Today is a hot day’, I say to them, ‘Nonsense! You should come to the North of England! That’s where you’ll find real heat!’

2) Food.

The food in St John’s College, though diverse, is bound by one substance: starch. Chips and pasta may be eaten on the same plate; vegetables are in short supply. Also, a strangely eclectic combination may be found on the same plate. Ever wanted chips and carrots? Well, come to St John’s! How about a cauliflower quiche? Why don’t you try it? Therefore, when I arrived in Uganda to discover that one could have pasta, rice, potatoes, sweet potato mash and bread on one singular plate, I did not think anything of it. Nor the idea of dipping potato chips into tea, nor the combination of peanut sauce and spinach (which is actually very delicious).

3) Facilities

In my tap in St John’s College, water comes in two types: boiling hot, and freezing cold. Much can be said for the first few days of my showering in Uganda. In both areas, the water from the tap is undrinkable, unless thoroughly boiled before use (though only in Uganda has it the potential to kill you… or was that St John’s?). In both St John’s and Uganda there is a surprising lack of WiFi, though if I’m honest, the developing nation of Uganda does beat the venerable college of St John’s on this account.

4) Culture

In St John’s College, everyone seems to know each other. You cannot walk down the corridor without saying ‘hello’ to someone. Little is different in Uganda; the possible difference is that in Uganda they may say hello, but they might not actually know you. Furthermore, there is a strange mix of cultures in both, in particular the blend of old and new. For instance, in Uganda everyone has the latest technology, though few people have access to decent water and food. St John’s is somewhat similar. In St John’s people dress up in funny clothes for special occasions (academic gowns). In Uganda they also do the same (tribal gowns). In St John’s, if you do anything at all, soon the whole college knows what has happened; the same may be applied in Uganda (hence why in both John’s and Uganda, one must be careful of what one says for fear of offending someone). In St John’s College, it is frequent for older undergraduates to attempt to seduce younger ones, called ‘Freshers’. They name this practice, ‘Sharking’. In Uganda, this is called arrange marriage.

5) Church

Both St John’s College and Uganda are passionately and openly Evangelical. Nevertheless, there are a surprising amount of Roman Catholics in both. St John’s College Communions tends to mix together a bizarre amalgam of disparate styles, including old hymns, modern worship, choir-based anthems, Taize and folk. In Uganda, they also like to combine old and new, brazenly and boldly not attempting to stylistically link them. Both in St John’s and Uganda the services go on for far too long, preachers go beyond their allotted time limit, and the liturgical structures of service in both places are, to say the least, eccentric.

6) Infrastructure

St John’s is arrived at through laboriously travelling across a difficult, narrow and bumpy road. Uganda, it seems, is no different, though this is due to potholes, rather than the city of Durham’s old cobbled streets. St John’s College is based on the arbitrary collusion of several terraced houses merged into one structure. In Uganda, the previous sentence may remain the same as long as the phrase ‘terraced houses’ is replaced by ‘tribes and provinces’. In both St John’s and Uganda there are far too many people crammed in one place for decent living space and, furthermore, both have rapidly expanding populations without adequate housing facilities. Finally, though facilities break down as quickly in both St John’s and Uganda, it tends to be the case that they are fixed with twice the speed in Uganda.

7) Politics

Both St John’s and Uganda have well-publicised democratic bodies which in reality hold little legislative power. In Uganda, this body is called ‘parliament’ - all real power is held by the President. In St John’s, this is called the John’s Common Room (JCR), which is the student representative body.

8) History

Both St John’s and Uganda are prone to outbreaks of civil war in unexpected places. In Uganda, this is a costly and nation-destroying process often between tribes and regions that must be ironed out with the passage of time. In St John’s, this is between the various sectors of the college, as the occasional long-term scrap is often to be found in the break-outs between undergraduates and trainee priests, undergraduates and postgraduates, postgraduates and trainee priests, undergraduates and administration, trainee priests and administration… (the list goes on).

9) Economy.

Both St John’s College and Uganda are nominally self-reliant. St John’s is proudly and happily an autonomous college as part of Durham University; Uganda has been proudly independent since the British Protectorate was withdrawn in the 60s. Nevertheless, in reality, both are heavily reliant on outsider’s donations: in Uganda, this is through aid and investment; in St John’s this is from college alumni and a bigger organisation called ‘Durham University’.


Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Ugandan Adventures: Part IX: Walking a Pig, and Involving Myself in Ugandan Politics

This Ugandan Adventure has brought a few surprises, not least the fact that I am in Uganda, as originally I was supposed to be in Nigeria. Although a few friends might not put it past me, I did not happen to get on the wrong plane at Birmingham Airport and, finding myself in the wrong country, hastily organised a new placement. No, instead, Nigeria proved itself to be too dangerous for the time being; plus, the Anglican Church of Nigeria was not currently happy with the Church of England, and so decided to cut off links with its English friends. So, instead, through chance, luck, or I as a Christian may put it, providential grace, I found myself in the flatlands of Soroti.

One surprise happened a little while ago. I was happily walking the grounds around the Guest House (commonly called ‘The White House’ by the locals, which I feel gives me a Presidential air that resonates with my experience of being given homage…), when I noticed my neighbour’s pigs happily grazing the ground. ‘Ah!’, thought I, ‘the rustic air! The simple life!’ Seeing as he was the Prison Chaplain, my neighbour’s rural idyll gave me notions of how I could be in my own ministry a few years hence. Suddenly, though, one of the pigs looked up at me. Whether it was from murderous instinct or fear of my overwhelming demeanour, the pig made a charge at me. ‘Ha!’ thought I, ‘You shall not touch me! Your leash, you see, binds you to your ground, whilst I am free to roam and wander!’ Unfortunately, however, murder/fear proved the better of the leash, and the pig pulled it up from its sticking place. But rather than attack, the pig rushed passed me, towards the road. I dashed after it, clutching its straggling lead before a motorbike came whizzing past. To be sure, the pig was strong. I had to drag it at first, before it finally attuned itself to me. And within a few moments, there I was, walking a pig down the road as if it were a dog. I finally managed to get hold of the Prison Chaplain, and together we tied the leash into its sticking place a little firmer, this time.

Another surprise happened this Sunday. After a very bad night’s sleep, I had to awake at 5am so as to arrive at the Cathedral in Soroti for its 6am Holy Communion Service. I had been told that I would have to arrive early, as it would be difficult to get a seat. ‘A slight exaggeration, methinks’ thought I, confident that no one in their right mind would want to be up so early, especially considering that most would have to walk a few hours to get to the Cathedral. ‘A few dedicated souls shall be there, and we shall sleepily share in the sacrament of Eucharist together, wearily sharing the peace, and quietly singing.’

I was wrong. Revd David, the Vicar of the Cathedral, picked me up on his motorbike at 5.50am. It’s the first time I have happened to travel to church via motorbike, though it was made very special by witnessing a ravishingly red-orange-purple sunrise. As we arrived at the Cathedral, the sun was still breaking its red streams through the windows. Inside, however, it was already bustling and crowded, distinguishing it from the sleepy serenity in the outside natural world. A seat had been reserved for me, though I noticed I would be having ushers sitting all around. Considering that the Cathedral can comfortably seat two-three thousand, the fact that people were standing in the aisles, at the sides and clogging the doorways is astonishing. Furthermore, that people had walked miles to get here in the early morning darkness puts shame to those (including occasionally myself) who in the UK complain that a 10am service is too early.

The service, furthermore, was lively and exciting. Even as people received the Eucharist, rather than English reflective (quasi-mournful) style, the music was dominated by energetic and joyful hymns of praise. I rather like the idea: instead of the manifestation of eternal mystery, it evokes an image of the raucous eschatological banquet. When I was asked to give the reading (Romans 12) I even got applause! The subsequent sermon was excellent. Revd Sam, who co-ordinates the diocesan Educational Policy, preached on Paul’s command to ‘be transformed by the renewing of your minds’, emphasising that school education must inculcate values rather than simply imparting knowledge. ‘All education without God produces is clever devils’ he wittily said (debate to your heart’s content…). When he directly criticised the government’s nonchalant approach towards the striking teachers, the massive congregation burst out in applause and shouts of agreement.

As it happens, I was sitting next to a man who I later discovered to be the Ugandan Minister of Government for disaster relief, Musa Ecweru. He himself got up to speak toward the end of the service, an heartily agreed with Revd Sam’s sermon, and distanced himself from his governmental colleagues. (Ah… politics…). Afterwards, I got chatting to him. Which produced another surprise: who would have thought, when I was a simple musical composer before I had had a calling to be an Anglican priest, that in a few years time I would be discussing economic policy and swapping contact details at 9am in the morning with a Ugandan Minister, in the heart of Africa? Life (or providential grace…) produces some fascinating surprises.

Friday, 20 September 2013

The Ugandan Adventures: Part VIII: Mzungu Heroically Beholds the Jaws of Death

When I went to bed, I had a slight itch upon my midriff and in my inner biceps. I thought, ‘Insect bite, probably’, and put some cream on it. During the night, the itching got worse, maddeningly so. Then morning came: my waist, arms and inner thighs were covered with a lumpy, blotchy rash. And the itching was even worse. I showed George my housekeeper, and he said that we would go to the medical centre when it opened.

In the meantime, I was fairly Stoically endowed. Whatever it was, I could cope. Then, out of curiosity, I thought, ‘Why don’t I check that most reliable source of information, the internet, to find out what this rash may be?’ So, after initially attempting to check the NHS symptoms website - only to discover that they only address British diseases… bigoted nationalists… - I typed in the immortal words, ‘Uganda skin rash’. After a few minutes browsing, I discovered that I had Ebola, a HIV rash, German measles, meningitis, and skin parasites (that would leave me dead in about eight hours). As one very helpful website put it: ‘Go the nearest Westernised hospital; there is a good chance that if you don’t hurry, you may be dead or paralysed within the next twenty four hours’. So… Ebola, measles, death, meningitis, death, death, skin parasites, death, Death, DEATH!

Thanks internet.
George, my housekeeper was rather optimistically inclined considering the circumstances (‘The doctor give you tablets… you be fine…’). As we walked to the medical centre, I showed the best of English stoicism: ‘Best keep your head up high, eh George? Whatever will be, will be, eh George? Eh? What oh! Eh, George? Nothing to worry about, eh George? …eh?…George…?’ Inwardly, however, I was beginning to make the arrangements for my dead body’s return to Blighty. Robert Browning’s poem, ‘Oh, to be in England’ came to mind, as did Rupert Brooke’s,

‘If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England.’

But as I was preparing for Brooke’s ‘English heaven’ (considering I’m a Welshman, this should cause some pause of reflection…), and fearing my long, painful death in a mud hut in Soroti or a hospital bed in Kampala, I arrived at the medical centre. I was not, I must admit, filled with the greatest of confidence. Although it was clean, it was very dark, with dust everywhere, with cracks in the walls and floors, and an old rickety wooden desk and chairs. As I waited for the pharmacist, I read a big poster all about the symptoms of Ebola:

Rash: check.

Headache: do I have a headache? I think I do, yes, yes, I have a headache! I’m certain of it!

Dizziness: now I come to think of it, I am feeling a little dizzy…

Bloodshot eyes: I have no mirror, but my eyes do sting a little…

The list goes on, and by the end, I was certain of my impending death. Then the pharmacist arrived. He looked at my rash, asked if I wanted an injection (the UK government information on Uganda screamed at me from the deeper recesses of my subconscious: DO NOT HAVE INJECTIONS OUTSIDE OF KAMPALA), to which I politely refused. He then gave me tablets, including pirotin for the itching, and told me it was probably a allergic reaction. I subsequently sent a Facebook message to my Auntie Jenn, who calmly reminded me of the amount of medicine I had been taking in order to survive Uganda. Allergic reactions are somewhat common…
Hero of the day: the optimistically minded George

My medicine, in the packaging given
to me at the pharmacist
And, once the tablets were taken, the itching began to stop, and the lumpy rash began to dissipate. Despite being somewhat drowsy the rest of the day because of taking my pirotin tablet, I was healthy. Nevertheless, this very morning, in the middle of a conversation over breakfast with a Pentecostal Pastor staying at the Guest House, I accidentally took two of the very strong pirotin tablets instead of the recommended one. And just as he was telling me about the institutional structure of Ugandan Pentecostalism in relation to other Ugandan NGOs, I fell fast asleep to the extent that I was afterwards told I was snoring within a few seconds. At which point, George woke me up and helped me into my bed (realising what had happened). For two subsequent hours I slept.

I’m sure the Pentecostal Pastor will now think twice now before deciding to talk about institutional structures over breakfast.

I was one of the lucky ones. The tablets I took cost me 4000 Ugandan shillings (about £1, or $1.30 roundabouts). It would stop me scratching, and thus mean that I was unlikely to be infected by anything worse. I thought it was remarkably cheap. By Ugandan standards, however, it is not. For many, that might have been a week’s pay. For others, it might have been a month’s. Let me give you an example: in one of the village churches I had visited, the gathered weekly tithes and offerings of a congregation of over three hundred would be about 1000 shillings (about 25p, or 40c). This was not the type of giving you expect from a Church of England country parish where elderly ladies may give 25p because when they were told to give as much when they were little girls (currency revaluation and fifty years of inflation not withstanding). Instead, this is all these people can afford to give. The Ugandan teachers are currently on strike in that they are paid so little that they cannot afford to send their children to school (irony not withstanding). In that context, my 4000 shillings is a fortune. Or let’s put it another way: if my pirotin and prednisolone costs so much to the average Ugandan, how should my dear Ugandan friend cope, whose wife has got severe cancer with basic treatment costing £1,500, and whose daughter has got typhoid with treatment costing a further £200?

Sorry to get political, but privatising medicine can only work if the average citizen can pay for it. Otherwise, you get poorly invested hospitals and sick citizens, which, once considered, is a moebius strip of a problem.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Ugandan Adventure: Part VII: Mzungu and his band of followers

I happened to be reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. In this novel, there’s a character called ‘Mad-Eye Moody’ who has a magical eye that can see almost anything. And so, whilst I’m reading about this character, I get the sensation I’m being watched. You know that feeling, when the hairs on your back and arms seem to lift? I thought, ‘It’s my imagination, nothing else - of course Mad-Eye Moody isn’t watching me.’ Nevertheless, the feeling continued.

And so I looked up.

The ever-staring eyes
And before me were about twenty-five children. And they were simply staring at me. Nothing more, nothing less. They were standing there, bewildered by this strange phenomenon in front of me. Many of these were younger children, from a village in the Palissa district. They had heard of ‘Mzungu’, white people, but they had never seen them face-to-face, nor by television. And when I reached my hand up to wave and smile, a few even shrank back. One brave child walked over to me and poked my arm. She was fascinated: for some reason, my browning skin would turn even white when she touched it. She laughed and showed her friends. Next thing I knew, I had a dozen children poking and pinching me to see the reaction of my skin. Their skin, on the other hand, dogmatically remained the same shade.

There is no escape from the
staring eyes...
Playing cards on my porch
I’m used to this by now. I will sometimes be writing this blog, and notice about ten children peering through my window, looking for me. I will often walk down the street and children simply stop and stare. They sheepishly raise their hands to wave, and when I wave back they run away in fits of giggles. If I’m riding a boda-boda (Ugandan taxi service… via bicycle), I will hear delighted squeals of ‘Mzungu! Mzungu!’ It does elevate one’s opinion of oneself somewhat to be an automatic celebrity. Occasionally, I will be simply standing still, and I will feel a tiny little hand tentatively grasp my own; when I look down, I see a little child beaming at me, as if holding my hand was the most wonderful thing that can be conceived (mind you, a good case can be made to say that it really is…).

'The most wonderful thing
 in the world...'

The children here love bubbles - they will happily spend hours chasing after them. I’ve never heard search a mass of delighted high-pitched squeals and giggles. The older boys, however, have found their love in football. I bought a ball in Soroti so that they could play, and at first I happily joined in with the game. After all, they were only six and seven and eight. They were very good as well; when I wasn’t concentrating they could make a swift tackle and get the ball from me. I didn’t mind, and could only laugh.

And then some of the older boys joined (nine, ten, eleven, twelve). They, you could say, were just a little bit better. Indeed, they even got the upper hand of a fantastic football player like myself… at about every encounter, tackle and pass. For some strange and mysterious reason, I decided at that point that what the game needed most was a referee, and that I would be more than happy to take up that role. By the time the teenagers were involved, I had no chance. A depressing thought: nine year olds were considerably better than myself at the beautiful game…

I’m often given toddlers and babies to hold. I’m still not used to being passed one after they had been publicly breast-fed, but nevertheless, it is wonderful to be surrounded by all these beautiful children. I was given a toddler to hold yesterday. He was waddling about like a little penguin, excited by almost everything. On my lap, he poking me in the face (what is it with all the poking???), and making gurgling sounds.

And then I realised that he had a growth protruding in his stomach about as big as both my fists put together.

And then, the other day, I was passed a newborn girl so utterly tiny, weak and fragile that I was suspicious that she would not last the month.

And then I hear of yet another burial of a child, this one of a four-year-old; on another occasion that of a newborn.

The infant mortality rate in Uganda is 62.47/1000 (in the UK it is 4.5/1000; in the USA 5.9/1000. Information from Whilst the annual number of births is 1,545000; the average mortality rate for those children under five is 131,000. (Compare that to the UK’s 761,000/5000, or the USA’s 4,322,000/32,000. Information from

There is a sickening feeling that overcomes me on occasions when I realise that many of the younger children I see and play with will not survive beyond their fifth birthday. It is something I cannot escape as I stay here: not a day has gone by since I have arrived in Uganda in which I haven’t heard of a bereaved parent, or a very ill child, or yet another child’s burial. There is a sombre sense of pathos to those bubbles.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The Ugandan Adventure: Part VI: Meeting Nicholas Cage and Receiving Homage

One of the stranger things to happen to me of late was a discovery of a time portal, through which I (and a few friends) could travel to any point in history. Furthermore, it allowed us to communicate across the eras. One friend travelled through to the 19th Century, at which point he walked into a shop to buy a sandwich, only to discover that the menu did not have any prices on. When the sandwich arrived, it lacked any bread (it was, essentially, a pile of chicken pieces) and cost £20. I, on the other hand, went to Ancient Rome where I encountered the Hollywood actor Nicholas Cage, who was a traffic warden. Furthermore, he was also a traffic warden in the 19th Century, and the present day. He had gone for a career change to become the Doctor Who of road traffic.

‘I knew this would happen’ I hear you say. ‘Your great learning has driven you insane, Josh’ the distant voices cry. No, as it happens. This was yet another malaria-tablet-induced dream. Despite what the naysayer may say, I am completely sane, or at least my good friend the King of Assyria tells me so.

To move onto more sensible climbs, I will tell you about religion. Ugandan style. You see, when I first arrived in Uganda (at my hotel with a view of a million dollars in Kampala), I noticed there was a picture on the wall. Who was it of? Not the Pope, nor the Ugandan President, but rather the Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Uganda. For those who are used to the nice, cosy image of Anglicanism in the Church of England (where it would be rather unusual to find pictures of our dear Archbishop Justin Welby hanging around in the leading hotels in the country), Anglicanism in Uganda is a different kettle of fish. For one thing it is thriving. And I don’t mean ‘The-church-has-a-nice-new-young-couple’ type of thriving, but rather, ‘the-church-has-a-nice-new-large-village-of-two-thousand’ type of thriving. Although Roman Catholicism is still the largest denomination, Anglicanism is not too far behind.

I realised this when I went to a village in a Kuman region (a district near Soroti) for a Confirmation Service (for children and young people - and a few older ones as well - who are being confirmed into the Anglican denomination). Not only was the whole village present for the Confirmation (the church was packed to overflowing - it would make many a British ‘mega-church’ blush), but I also discovered that the local school was Anglican, its political representatives were Anglican, and I think even the animals were the ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ type of Anglican as well. This is not the type of liberal incense and candles Anglicanism that you would find in the American Episcopalian Church, or the quiet little Matins Service in an English Country Parish. Instead, this is full-blooded African Anglicanism: a service can easily last five hours (with a two hour sermon), with a strange combination of a translated version of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer and hypnotic traditional African music (repetitive, with call-and-response, dominated by voices, drums and African harps). Even though the bishop was garbed like his European Medieval predecessors, his faith is full-throttle Conservative Evangelicalism. He preaches with an astonishing passion and energy and without notes. Sometimes he is so loud, the microphones start screeching. Once again, in contrast to much Western Christianity, his is a typically African sermon of death, judgment, and hope in Jesus Christ. A two hour sermon is quite usual for him.

The whole village processes to church

Indeed, with the village churches packed, the Cathedral in Soroti packed (easily over a thousand in each of its four Sunday services), and a total of 276 schools in the Soroti district alone, it appears that the author of the book ‘The New Christendom’, Philip Jenkins, is right: Christendom is no longer found in Europe or North America, but in Africa and South America (and increasingly in China and the Far East). Whilst religion in Europe has taken three centuries of battering by an increasingly confident secularism, introducing public secularism into somewhere like Uganda would probably cause the country (or at least the educational system) to collapse. The ancient tribal religions have mostly fled into the shadows of the country; Islam is a minority. Secularism is nowhere to be found. Christianity is culturally, socially and politically dominant.

I got a taste of how much things have changed. To a certain extent figures like bishops have taken on the traditional role of the tribal elders. Roles can take a long time to change in cultures; the gestures may remain the same even if the type of person in a social role has changed. In this village in the Kuman region, the whole church gathered into a line to shake the bishop’s hand. But where this differed from a Church of England model is that the bishop stayed seated at the front, and the church processed to greet him there. And when they did shake his hand, they would kneel before him, as if he were a tribal elder: not just the women - as is the custom of the Kumi - but the men as well. I also was greeted thus: people would walk up to my chair and kneel before me as they shook my hand. In a sense, I was paid homage.

This is a pleasant experience to have, despite my egalitarian principles, and I have decided to introduce this gesture as soon as I head back to the UK.

Tune in tomorrow to see more fun, sun and adventures in Penduck of Life’s Ugandan Adventures. Tomorrow we’ll be encountering the children of Uganda, and how Ugandan six-year-olds are better than me at football, and have an interested habit of staring at me… endlessly…

Monday, 16 September 2013

The Ugandan Adventure: Part V: A Tale of Two Weddings (Chapter Two: How I Almost Got Married)

Yesterday I referred you to a Ugandan church wedding in which I committed the unforgivable sin of taking numerous photos of the bride as she processed up the aisle. Today is quite different: a traditional Eteso wedding. Indeed, it is has given me a few ideas for my own wedding (which may have taken place a lot sooner than I had intended it…)

Wedding 2: Cows, goats, and mistaken identities
It took about three hours of travelling across pothole-ridden roads to arrive at a small village in the district of Palissa. Along the way, we merrily discussed my own status as ‘bachelor’; ‘What would your parents think if you brought home a black wife?’ I was asked. ‘I think they would have more questions over me bringing home a wife in the first place’ was my response. We all laughed. It was a witty little joke with witty little consequence.

Or so I thought. Or so I thought.

But first, the wedding. In an Eteso wedding, it is the groom who comes to the bride’s village, rather than the other way round (as in some other cultures I have been to, such as South India). The groom enters the village ‘square’ with his whole family (essentially most of his village); after cutting a ribbon, nearly a hundred people streamed through a little archway. What is more, there was a bubble machine. (I say this was a ‘traditional’ wedding: it had a traditionalist ritual and was next to a few mud-huts. Other than that, it had a DJ blasting out Ugandan Christian RnB Afro-pop - which is quite an interesting concept, to say the least). Nevertheless, it turns out the groom was late; accordingly, the Master of Ceremonies called for him to pay a fine to compensate the guests, which I think is an excellent idea. In Western weddings, brides so often turn up late that I think it is high time they gave financial compensation to us the poor and miserable waiting guests.

Once the groom was seated (hidden in the crowd of his family - we’ll see why in a bit), the bridal procession began. Sorry, did I say ‘procession’? I meant ‘processions’. You see, at an Eteso wedding, there is not one, nor two, but five bridal processions. And the bride only turns up in the last one. To explain: in the first procession, the bridesmaids (who effectively act as servants throughout the whole service) processed up, and knelt before the groom’s family. To the sound of Afro-pop, the groom’s aunts then got up and circled round the bridesmaids, looking for the bride (it felt akin to a marital version of pass-the-parcel). When they finally realised she was not there, aunts decided upon whether the bridesmaids themselves should be the bride. (I like this idea of having alternative brides in case the bride doesn’t turn up. Perhaps I shall include it in my wedding liturgy). Nevertheless, the gathering wholeheartedly said, ‘No’, after which the bridesmaids responded, ‘We shall go look for the bride, but we need money for transport!’ The groom proceeded to give them money.

Is the bride amongst these
young girls?
This was all good fun. And it happened another four more times. And each time, the aunts would circle round, looking for the bride, and each time the group who had processed in would ask the group for money for transport. Considering that it was obvious that the bride was in one of the nearest huts, I thought this was a bit harsh on the groom, who had already paid a fine for being late. Nevertheless, in the words of Sean Connery in the film, The Man Who Would Be King, ‘Different cultures, different customs’. The second procession consisted of young girls from the village; the aunts thought this would not be a good match as it would be ‘defilement’ (i.e. paedophilia - never expected that mentioned at a wedding liturgy). After the young girls had left, the elderly ladies of the village processed in; once again, the same ritual followed.

Is the bride amongst these
elderly ladies?
After this, the bride’s distant cousins processed in. It was here that I almost got myself into a bout of trouble and, were it not for my cowardly nature and the good graces of the Lord, I may have been writing this as a married man now. You see, some of the bride’s cousins were exceptionally beautiful - one, in particular. I turned to my guide and translator from the village, and jokingly asked him,

‘Who is that girl there?’ said I. ‘She is very beautiful! Is she married?’

He laughed. ‘Ah, no, no, no, she is not.’

He was then silent for a while.

In an alternative universe, this girl
is now my wife.
‘Would you like to talk to her afterwards?’ said he.

‘Well… maybe…’ said I, still naively flirtatious.
‘Ok…’ he said, more serious and sombre previously. ‘Shall I ask for her parents to be brought as well?’

I was confused. ‘But why should you bring her par-’ And then I realised. In the Ugandan cultures, if you are considering marrying a girl, you would meet her parents at the same time. ‘Er…’ said I, ‘probably not! We do marriage a little differently in England…and my parents would be somewhat upset…’ I added hastily. He seemed disappointed. For my thought, it was a very close call.

The bride is found
It was in the final procession with all the groups combined that the bride was present. Once found, she proceeded to search for the groom. And upon finding him, everyone started singing a song called, ‘Mr Handsome’, as he was presented to the gathering. For my future wife, if you happen to be reading this, know that this is the song I want played for me at my wedding.

The song I want sung at my wedding, as I enter the church [the song begins after one minute, though the music video is objectively the greatest ever made):
The groom subsequently discussed the dowry with his father-in-law (once again, unlike in other cultures, here the groom, not the bride, pays the dowry), which added up to a total of nine cows, nine goats and three million Ugandan shillings (just less than a thousand pounds). ‘Why nine cows and not eight?’ I hear the full multitude of you cry (for you are well acquainted with Eteso culture). Well, it because the groom had had a baby with the bride without the bride’s parents permission, and thus had to pay for the dishonour. Naughty boy.

The price of impatience: an extra
cow for the dowry
You're getting engaged?
Congratulations! Have a lollipop
Finally, the couple got engaged (yes, not married yet, but engaged). They presented each other with rings, and then sat down together. At that point, they were officially married, though not technically: that would happen later in the evening (if you get what I mean…). Presents were brought en masse to bride and groom (the usual: suitcases, chairs, fruit, lots and lots and lots of coca-cola). Finally, seven hours after it had begun, we all feasted.

And that, ladies and gentlemen (in an unusually long entry for my Ugandan blog) is an Eteso wedding. It is also the story of how I narrowly missed getting hitched myself. What does tomorrow’s entry have in stall? Let’s just say it involves dozens of people paying me homage whilst I sit upon a throne…

'Different cultures, different customs'
Coca Cola as a wedding gift

Sunday, 15 September 2013

The Ugandan Adventure: Part IV: A Tale of Two Weddings (Chapter One: The Day I Brought Shame Upon Myself)

It appears that across the Christian world (which includes post-Christian to those who are sensitive about these things…) that Saturday is still the preferred day of choice for weddings in that, for my last two Saturdays I have been in attendance for festivities. Last week was a church wedding; this week, a traditional Eteso ceremony. In which case, for your entertainment, amusement and interest, I shall regale you with the finer details.

Wedding 1: When Thomas Cranmer met Afro-Pop Wagner


The Procession of the Groom
Sometimes, cultural accommodation can take a step too far. One often finds this among those who have spent far too long in an alien culture: upon returning to their mother culture, they have feelings of shame, guilt and regret over some of the friends they may have made, spouses they may have taken, or activities they may have participated in. My dear readers, I now share this shame. ‘Why?’, you may ask. ‘What possible, horrific thing could you have done that makes you feel in such a way?’ Others may ask, ‘Have you taken on a Ugandan wife? Have you taken part in some ancient sacrificial ritual?’ No, neither of these. But, in order to justify myself in what I have done, the story needs to be told.

The beginnings of the bridal
I had been invited to a wedding in St Peter’s Cathedral, Soroti, by Bishop George. Whilst waiting for the service to start, I happened to meet two German girls who are here in Soroti for a year doing charity work with Soroti Diocese (when you encounter fellow Europeans in Africa, you always have the urge to talk to them). Furthermore, I was being given honoured greetings by everyone (a sure pull towards the failings of pride). And then, everyone told me, ‘Remember to take pictures!’ A certain rebellious spirit arose in me - ‘unlike in churches back home’, thought I, ‘pictures shall be taken of this wedding! And during the service as well!’ And so I did: whence the groom processed up the aisle (for yes, in Uganda both bride and groom get processions!), I took photographs from the side of the church. Yes reader, I was not an official photographer, but I still snapped away. I beheld the simple Afro-pop melody with the older ladies dancing around the groom as he processed, shrieking their pulsating falsetto (which is a sign of joy), and I happily took more and more pictures.

Yes, dear reader, I processed in front
of the bride...
Perhaps I was trying to impress the German girls (‘Look at me! I can be incultural too!’); perhaps it was the rising heat that caused evil thoughts to emerge in the chambers of my mind; perhaps it was a sheer sense of fallen rebelliousness that drove my vaulting ambitions. But oh! I went too far! The ushers said to me that when the bride comes I was allowed to stand in front of the procession. I could process in front of the bride. And so I, callous and unthinking of my dear ones back at home, followed their advice. Whence the bride processed up the aisle - to the sound of an Afro-Pop version of Wagner’s ‘Here comes the bride’ - I gradually walked backwards ahead of her, taking pictures and even a video. Yes, I broke that ancient unwritten English law: I blocked people’s view of the bride. I took their attention. In doing so, I became an Other to myself. I now realise the wretch that I am.

The rest of the service was a curious mixture of Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer (1662 version), translated into Eteso, with Afro-pop hymns (and a long, long, long sermon from Bishop George: he sure can preach!). One of my favourite points of the wedding was hearing a young lady reading the scriptures in a 1950s Church of England style, but in a strong African accent. At the point at which each of the couple said, ‘I do’, the whole of the congregation would cheer (including whistles, vuvuzelas, horns, and pulsating falsetto shrieks). Everyone had a tendency to wave flags over the couple as well. And after only two hours, it was over.

This was in mighty contrast to the second, traditional Eteso wedding…

But that, I’m afraid, will have to wait until tomorrow. Be sure that it contains many elements I now want included in my own wedding (including a song sung about me plus the presentation of alternative brides) and a few things I don’t want (myself having to pay a dowry plus the paying of fines if I am late).