POLITICS AUGUST 4, 2004
KAMPALA, UGANDA--On a steamy Sunday morning, several hundred students are dancing in the aisles of a dilapidated college lecture hall. Dressed in shabby, secondhand sport coats, the men pivot their hips, flinging their elbows back and forth to a lively gospel tune. The women's cornrows bounce up and down. With a showman's sense of timing, Pastor Martin Ssempa sidles slowly onto the stage, grooving to the beat. "Thank you, God!" shouts the bespectacled, 36-year-old evangelist. He has unbuttoned the top button of his natty, cream-colored shirt, and his blue tie hangs loose. "Can you feel it? Oh yeah! Oh yeah!" "Oh my God--it's working!" screams a young woman up front. A row ahead of me, another student, a man, raises his arms heavenward and moves his lips in ecstatic prayer. The pastor sinks to his knees, his eyes closed. A beatific grin spreads across his face.
Ssempa's performance, with its Jimmy Swaggart rhetoric and its Mick Jagger swagger, could easily be unfolding inside a clapboard church in Virginia or under a Baptist revival tent in Mississippi. But then the pastor opens his mouth and begins delivering his sermon in a honey-smooth African accent, and it immediately becomes apparent where we are: thousands of miles from American evangelicals, in Kampala, the capital of Uganda.
"Sitting in this church today is the potential to transform not only Uganda but the world," Ssempa tells his congregation, mostly students from Kampala's elite Makerere University. "I am telling you now that God is on the move. God has raised us up. Now God has a job for us." The audience erupts, and Ssempa is forced to shout over the trilling sound of ululating women as he announces that evangelism is on the move. "It's gonna go national! It's gonna go global! America, here we come! Asia, here we come! Australia, sons of sailors and prisoners, here we come! Africa, here we come!"
Actually, in Uganda, a fertile country the size of Oregon, the evangelical movement has already arrived. By most measures, Uganda is now one of the most devout nations on earth. Local church leaders claim that anywhere from five to ten million Ugandans have been "saved" in recent years. (Even the lower estimate would represent one-fifth of the country's 26 million people.) And signs of evangelical influence are everywhere. Uganda's countryside is dotted with hand-painted signs for churches with names like True Life Holy Ghost Fire Church. In bustling Kampala, the backs of many cars are adorned with JESUS SAVES bumper stickers. Born-again First Lady Janet Museveni regularly welcomes American evangelists into the presidential palace.
It's the same story all over Africa: The continent today is in the throes of its own Great Awakening. From the thatch-roofed churches of desolate central Mozambique to densely urban Nigeria (another country with evangelical leaders), where hundreds of thousands flee Lagos every weekend to attend outdoor church revivals, to the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Congolese crowd storefront congregations, Africans who used to attend mainline Protestant and Catholic churches--and even mosques--are flocking to hear evangelical preachers like Ssempa. Back in 1970, 17 million Africans attended Pentecostal churches, according to the World Christian Encyclopedia. Today, more than 125 million do--roughly 19 percent of the continent's population. Add the many millions more who profess other varieties of evangelical Christianity, or who still attend mainline churches but nonetheless call themselves "born again," and you have perhaps the most important social movement to hit Africa since postcolonial independence. "[T]he center of gravity of the Christian world," Philip Jenkins writes in The Next Christendom, "has shifted inexorably southward." There are 360 million Christians in Africa today, and demographers predict that the continent's Christian population will nearly double by 2025 to 633 million. By then, African Christians will far outnumber those in Europe and North America. So, as the born-again movement gathers momentum across the continent, it may not simply represent the future of Christianity in Africa. It may represent the future of Christianity itself.
This could be good news for the United States. For years, American evangelical missionaries have been coming to Africa, making connections with local populations and doing charitable works in places where few other aid groups dare go. Now, at a time when the United States finds itself losing friends in the developing world, Africa's evangelicals may be one of the strongest pro-American blocs in the world. Grateful for years of patronage by their American brethren, bound by a sense of fellowship to the nation where the contemporary evangelical movement was formed, and respectful of born-again President Bush, these Africans represent a growing constituency of friends. In 2002, the Pew Global Attitudes Project conducted a public opinion poll of 38,000 people in 44 countries including Uganda. It found that nearly three in four Ugandans had favorable opinions of the United States and that 67 percent supported the war on terrorism. The numbers were even higher in Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria--all countries that have experienced religious revivals similar to Uganda's--and they were, collectively, far higher than those in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. And, despite the divisive Iraq war, anecdotal evidence suggests that born-again African Christians still embrace the United States. In fact, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has proudly made Uganda a member of America's "coalition of the willing" in Iraq, knowing he can count on Ugandan evangelicals' powerful support for his decision.
But the born-again movement may cause serious problems as well. Libya, Saudi Arabia, and several Persian Gulf monarchies are pouring money into Africa to promote Islam. "Nobody really knows anything exact" about the amount of funding coming in, says Paul Marshall, an expert on Islam in Africa at Freedom House, but the investment is huge. Its tangible impact includes an upsurge in fundamentalist mosques and religious schools across the continent. Combined with the skyrocketing growth of evangelical Christianity--like Islam, a proselytizing faith--this has created a dangerous cocktail. Countries like Nigeria and Tanzania, with populations evenly split between evangelical Christianity and Islam, have witnessed an increase in tension and, in Nigeria's case, horrific religious violence. Indeed, across the continent, religious fervor is reviving old rivalries and creating new ones. And, as religious tension grows, many born-again Africans have begun to see America's wars as extensions of their own struggles at home. Increasingly, Africans like Ssempa support the United States not only because of their ties to American evangelicals or because they believe Washington is fighting terrorism and promoting democracy, but for a baser reason: the United States is killing Muslims. "Guess who supports America, the coalition forces? It's those people who are saved," Brian Ourien, a 25-year-old member of Ssempa's congregation, told me. "And those who are against America are undoubtedly Muslims."
A few days after I saw Ssempa preach, I visited him at the headquarters of his Makerere Community Church, located in a building just off campus that Ssempa has dubbed, with characteristic immodesty, the White House. The White House looks out onto a stately old mango tree and contains shelves lined with books on sociology and counseling, as well as one well-thumbed volume titled Exorcism. On one door, the pastor had hung a large watercolor portrait of himself. When I arrived, Ssempa was in a meeting, so I waited outside on the porch, where Ourien and other students were hanging out on a long wicker couch. Frank Kabya, a large man in sandals and a colorful shirt, came by. "Have you ever hugged an African?" he asked, before embracing me.
There are many reasons evangelical Christianity has made inroads in Africa. For one, Africans have always been zealous converts. Though missionaries got the job started a century ago, it was largely black converts--not white visitors--who did the arduous work of carrying the gospel to Africa's hinterlands. And the recent eclipse of established churches in Africa mirrors a global trend also seen in Latin America and Asia, where older churches have become less innovative than younger competitors. But, clearly, the greatest attraction of evangelical churches is the sense of community fostered within congregations. When you're born again, you're no longer a member of a tribe or a social class, traditional African hierarchies that can divide and limit people. You're part of a fellowship of believers and of an institution that caters to material needs, such as medical care, that African governments cannot adequately provide. Ssempa's White House, for instance, also functions as an HIV counseling center, a practice area for choirs and dance groups, and a place for evangelical students to socialize between classes.
Converts also are attracted by the evangelical movement's vision of a personal relationship with a miracle-working God. "It's not hope in the future," says Dr. Joseph Serwadda, a former street preacher who now heads one of Uganda's largest evangelical congregations. "It's faith now." It's no coincidence that the movement first caught on in Uganda in the 1980s, as the country sank into civil war and the first throes of the AIDS crisis. In desperation, people gravitated to makeshift churches to speak directly to God in hopes of healing their problems. The association with the United States helps attract followers, too. Young Ugandans, who have grown up watching sharply dressed American preachers on television--many Ugandans watch a TV network that broadcasts Pat Robertson's "The 700 Club" every night--believe being born again is a route to American-style material wealth or at least into a social network that will give them access to jobs, which have historically been doled out based on family and tribal bonds. In fact, under Museveni, evangelical Christianity and its American preachers have become fashionable in Uganda. When Joyce Meyer, an American televangelist whose show airs in Uganda, recently visited the country, she drew tens of thousands to a Kampala soccer stadium. On Sundays, the parking lot outside the tony Kampala Pentecostal Church swells with the BMWs and Land Rovers of the governing elite. Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ recently showed to weeks of packed houses in Kampala, even though the price of a movie ticket, about $5, is beyond the means of most Ugandans.
U.S. churches strongly promote this positive image of the United States. It is impossible to determine how much money American church groups pump into Africa. But, in hardscrabble villages across the continent, missionaries build churches, teach in Christian schools, and run rudimentary health clinics. Christian non-governmental organizations, such as World Vision and Franklin Graham's Samaritan's Purse, spend millions of dollars every year on projects that range from educating Angolans about the dangers of land mines to helping farmers grow sorghum in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. "I would say that ninety-nine percent of our support comes from the U.S.," Ssempa told me. When he recently needed $60,000 to buy the White House from his landlord, he got it from a church in Columbia, Maryland, where, he claims, one couple mortgaged their own house to help.
The Sunday I attended Ssempa's church, after he finished his sermon, the pastor told his audience that he had a special guest to introduce, a visitor from the United States. All eyes fixed on a stocky white man with a thick moustache who wore a gray safari suit. He introduced himself as Dr. Peter Waldron of Wyoming. Waldron told the congregation that he had once been a military man and that he used to travel around Africa a lot in the 1960s. He was vague about the nature of his work. ("I'm not at liberty to say," he later told me.) But he claimed that, on one occasion, it resulted in some good people getting executed by a firing squad. After that, he contemplated suicide, he told the audience. Then he found Jesus. "When you were born again, you became a new person. You left your tribe," Waldron said. Now, he said, they were all bound together by their common love of God. The audience reacted enthusiastically, warmly welcoming Waldron's speech. When Waldron launched into a story about how he'd recently been invited to the real White House in the company of religious rapper MC Hammer, the audience was wowed.
Several days later, I met Waldron at a Kampala hotel. He told me more of his story. At different times in his career, he said, he'd been a syndicated talk-radio host, a lobbyist, and a Republican political consultant. More recently, he had run sports programs for underprivileged youths in Tampa, Florida. Now, he was in Uganda, trying to sell computer software to government ministries while preaching on the weekends. "They embrace Americans here," he said enthusiastically. Indeed, as we sat together, a steady stream of young admirers who had seen Waldron in church came up to greet him. They made complicated handshakes, the way Ugandans do, and Waldron boasted to me that he had met privately with President Museveni and his born-again wife. It struck me that, for many Americans of faith, Uganda--a country where homosexuality and abortion are outlawed, where politicians freely mix church and state, and where outward displays of religious devotion are the norm--represents a kind of haven. The United States may have a born-again president, but it is far too diverse to ever fully be, as conservatives call it, "a Christian nation." But Uganda is on its way to becoming one.
Ssempa claims his church, though it is just eight years old, has more than 5,000 members. "These are going to be the future lawyers, these are going to be the future corporate leaders, these are going to be the future writers," he said. And the pastor believes it is his mission to save the souls of this budding elite from godlessness or, just as bad, from Islam: For evangelical preachers like Ssempa, Islam is the enemy. "For the last two hundred years, Uganda has been the decisive battleground. It has been the roadblock against the spread of Islam from Egypt through Sudan," he said. Ssempa sees himself as a leader in that fight, which he says is of a piece with America's invasion of Iraq. "By and large, the Muslim tendency is to go by what their leader says to them, and their leaders are radical," Ssempa said. "When their leader gives the order, they will go march in the streets chanting, 'Allahu akbar!' [Muslims] will kill, they will stone, they will do whatever is necessary to finish the job. They will kill police. They are known as zealots."
Many African Christians share Ssempa's views. And some evangelicals link the U.S. fight against Islamic radicalism with their own past experiences with repression. When Bush spoke about liberating Iraqis from the oppression of Saddam Hussein, evangelical Ugandans here told me they thought back to the reign of their own brutal dictator, Idi Amin. Amin, a member of the country's Muslim minority, ruled for eight bloody years in the 1970s and became known for killing and even eating opponents. He declared Uganda an "Islamic nation," outlawed evangelical churches, and had born-again Christians imprisoned or worse. Many Ugandans still cite the example of their only Muslim president as evidence of "the violent nature of Islam," as Ssempa put it. In fact, few cared whether Saddam really possessed weapons of mass destruction or whether the United States genuinely wanted to promote democracy in the Middle East. "In the case of Iraq," Jenkins says, support among African evangelicals stems from "the feeling of 'my enemy's enemy.'"
Evangelicals are hardly persecuted in Uganda today--if anything, under Museveni, evangelical Christianity has a governmental imprimatur. But resentments dating back to the Amin era still fester, and they are exacerbated by the growth of Islam in Africa. Ssempa and other evangelicals frequently complained to me about how Middle Eastern Muslim states are pumping money into African proselytizing. Though Muslims comprise only 16 percent of the Ugandan population, foreign largesse gives Muslim students an edge when it comes to education, Ssempa claimed. What he's doing, he said, is trying to right the balance. "There is a race," he said angrily. "Islam is also racing for the soul and mind of the Africans."
Just across campus, Sam Ahmad Ssentongo was also fuming. The imam of the Makerere University Mosque, a slight, soft-spoken man with a scraggly beard, told me he was fed up with preachers like Ssempa. "It is one thing to have a discussion relating to our feelings regarding the Koran and the Bible, to search for the truth," the imam said. "It is another thing to take the Koran and tread on it with his shoes and [for evangelical preachers to] make all these [defamatory] allegations about the Prophet Mohammed. That is the thing that is breeding the friction." What's more, he is infuriated by the proselytizing of evangelicals, who are much more committed to spreading their faith than older churches in Africa were.
In Uganda and elsewhere in Africa, this anger has spawned sectarian violence. Nigeria has seen intermittent rioting since twelve state governments in its largely Muslim north declared that they would enforce sharia, or Islamic law. Fighting between Christians and Muslims in the Nigerian city of Kaduna alone claimed more than 1,000 lives in 2000. More recently, over 200 Nigerians died in riots sparked when a newspaper columnist wrote that Mohammed might have approved of scantily clad ladies at the Miss World competition, which was to be hosted by Nigeria. Meanwhile, during a recent soccer match between Muslim Sudan and heavily evangelical Zambia, whose born-again president declared it a "Christian nation" in 1991, officials from the visiting Sudanese side took to the field at halftime to kneel and pray toward Mecca. Zambian fans took that as a provocation and rioted. In Kenya, church leaders are suing to outlaw special Islamic courts set up decades ago to arbitrate marriage and inheritance disputes among Muslims. Kenyan Muslim leaders have accused the U.S. Embassy of organizing Christians to march against the courts, and they have threatened that Muslim areas may try to secede from the country if they are not allowed to introduce sharia. Similar calls for sharia have arisen in Tanzania, where the Muslim-dominated island of Zanzibar is perennially threatening to secede from the country and where a recent spate of bombings has hurt tourism on Zanzibar's stunning beaches. Even sleepy Malawi is not immune. When police arrested five suspected terrorists last summer, apparently at America's request, Muslims rioted, burning down churches and attacking clergymen in the town of Mangoci.
And, in Africa, where there is too much poverty and too many guns, these disputes can quickly turn big. In Côte d'Ivoire, Laurent Gbagbo, a Christian politician from the country's south, won election to the presidency in 2000. Rebel movements popped up in the Muslim north of the country, led by men who disdained Gbagbo's open faith--Gbagbo surrounded himself with evangelical preachers--and his thuggishness, and a bloody civil war broke out. In Uganda, in the late '90s, a fundamentalist Muslim group called the tabliqs rioted in Kampala, and a Muslim-led rebel army launched a war against the government.
Though the rebels have been crushed, across Uganda Muslims and evangelical Christians still skirmish, portending potentially worse violence. Muslims constantly complain that Christian radio stations spread lies about Islam and say Arabic-speaking evangelists are stirring up trouble in Muslim neighborhoods. In the countryside, evangelical revivals sometimes lead to brawls between born-again Christians and their Muslim neighbors. When one evangelist recently exhorted his followers to challenge Muslims' informal monopoly over the butcher trade in Uganda, a prominent imam called for jihad against the Christian population.
Since September 11, rhetoric has become harsher, nerves rawer, and tempers shorter in Uganda. "There has [already] been this radicalization on both sides, and the flashpoint has lowered dramatically," says Jenkins. Indeed, after the attacks on New York and Washington, Kampala street vendors did a brisk business in Osama bin Laden posters, and Muslim callers jammed the lines of local radio stations to lambaste the United States. "We are heading--you can see it--toward a clash," said Immam Kasozi, another local Muslim leader. As we sat in his cramped printing shop in downtown Kampala, he jabbed his finger at the cover of a magazine sitting on his desk that bore the infamous image of an Iraqi prisoner, cloaked, hooded, and hooked to electrodes. "If I see this, I will tell my people to prepare for it, because, sooner or later, it will come to you," he said. "[The United States] will never stop fighting you until you turn away from your religion." In fact, to many Muslims, local Christian evangelism is one more piece of a growing conspiracy against Islam. "There is so much money coming from America to support the born-again movement," Ssentongo said. Evangelists like Ssempa, they believe, are using U.S. money to lure Muslim youth away from their faith with promises of academic scholarships and other goodies. "I know they are targeting us," Kasozi said. And by "they," he also means the United States.
Andrew Rice lived in Uganda for two years.