Dispatch from Kasese by Charlie King
Kasese is the district seat, as well as the capital of the Bakonzo people (who make up our students here). The compound of their traditional leader, which they call the Omasinga, is here also. The Bakonzo have inhabited the Rwenzori mountain region from at least the time of colonization, since coming from Congo as part of the millennium long Bantu migration. They inhabit both sides of the mountain range, which means that the tribe is transnational, as the border of Congo DRC and Uganda runs down the divide of the range. Historically, it has also been an oppressed tribe, as best I can tell, with a long history of violent struggle. (In preparing to teach the 6th Commandment (quick, which one is that!), I learned that they do not even have a word for pacifism in their language. Indeed, when I described the concept to our friends here, the initial thought was that such a person must be a coward. And that is not true…a pacifist is mistaken about the gospel, but not a coward.) Anyway, until late in the 20th Century, the tribe was not recognized as such, and was under the authority of a tribe to the north, the Batoro. In the 70s and 80s there was an insurrection against that Kingdom, which given the general instability in Uganda at the time (Amin’s oppression, invasion of Uganda by the Tanzanians, and various civil insurrections) made it a time that no one wishes to recall. I think I mentioned that the church in which I preached last Sunday had been burned twice during that period. At some point in the 90s, stability began to return, and by 2001 the Bakonzo were recognized as a separate tribe, at least within the traditional governance of Uganda. The Federal government in Kampala, however, has a different view and to date has not officially recognized the Bakonzo or their Omasinga. Perhaps because of its transnational nature, or for some other reason that is opaque to me, there has been significant hostility between the Bakonzo and the Federal government (which may explain why the roads are so terrible in this neck of the woods). In any event, two years ago there was a violent response by the government against the Omasinga here in Kasese. It was the day after Pastor Pete left Kasese following our initial TBI class in early September 2016. The government attacked the Omasinga’s compound here and hundreds died. The official report was 50 dead, and all of them supposed combatants, but local folks tell me that the number was in the hundreds, with many women and children included. Indeed, I am told that we have a number of students in this class who were widowed on that day. Today, the Omasinga lives in Kampala under house arrest awaiting trial for treason, charges for which he may never be tried, but which may never be dropped either. Like so many things in Africa, the truth is guarded. And also, as with so many other tragedies in Africa, people move on and look forward. Their sufferings are real, but they don’t romanticize them. Dwelling on past sufferings, and indulging in the ensuing pain, is a luxury that only the West enjoys. One more reason I like Africa.
People a lot smarter than me have pointed out that Africans have an ability to relate quickly to the Old Testament as well as the stories of the New because, well, their society in many ways is more akin to that time than it is to what we think of as contemporary. And this isn’t a slam… For example, several times I have discussed the matter of calling and putting on our new identity in Christ, using Matthew 4:22as a text (Jesus calls James and John and “they left their boat and their father and followed him.” Every time, the audience gets it immediately. In this culture, you just don’t leave your father and your family livelihood for “a career break,” or a “gap year” or some other self-actualization program. Such a break as recorded here would be catastrophic. It is indeed a claim to being a new man, in a new family. This passage hits home here in a way that we have difficulty grasping. And when it comes to trusting providence for their “competent portion” aka our daily bread, when the folks we teach say that, it is indeed a matter of urgency. The crop they plant is the food they will eat. Giving of the first fruits is not an idle challenge, but one that requires real sacrifice. They have no checks in the mail, no social safety net beyond their family, and no certainty that tomorrow will even happen. The concerns of the churches in the west – loneliness, existential angst, boredom, self-esteem, gender dysphoria, etc., these things are incomprehensible to our students. Their pain is real, and it is based on things we can only imagine. It is not surprising that Uganda has one of the highest suicide rates in Africa. And it’s not surprising that the gospel message rings loudly here.
For those who recall pictures from earlier classes here, you will note that we have moved. We left behind the mud and dust of the old rail yard, and are renting pretty good digs. This compound, picture below, is the Catholic diocese social hall. We are bunking over a hundred folks from the villages, and feeding 150 for lunch. The class is delighted! It rained last night, and this time, they did not get wet. It is more expensive however…
Perhaps because of our public presence (this compound is in downtown Kasese) we are drawing more attention. On Monday we had two reporters show up – both journalists for local radio station. They interviewed us in three different languages… only in Africa. I have no idea what my partners said, as they were each speaking a different tongue. When it came to me, the journalists asked pretty pointed questions about our organization and our source of funds. I think they were attempting to ferret out whether we were what is known as a “briefcase NGO.” That, by the way, is not a compliment, but a term used to describe opportunistic foreigners of any sort who descend on the gullible. I reviewed for him our credentials (registered NGO, incorporated, and headquartered in Kapchorwa). We also explained that we were not looking for donations from our attendees, as is the case with the health and welfare aka “prosperity gospel” crowd. (We do charge a small school fee, about a dollar and a half… but that’s just to gain commitment). I missed the broadcast, but was told by those who heard it that it was positive.
For my fellow coffee addicts out there, here are some pictures of where the good stuff comes from. I am a chauvinist however, and favor Kapchorwa coffee. Getting a good cup of coffee is tough, though. That’s another of the mysteries of Uganda; where does all the good coffee go? At our hotel in Gulu, they served instant coffee from Brazil. Go figure.
Cheers and blessings,