A smiling woman with short curly braids wearing a brightly patterned dress stood facing backwards towards the congregation, carefully directing the choir in the two pews in front of her. Women sat in the front row, while men sat in the back row singing the bass part. The melody sounded familiar, a variation on one of the hymns that I used to sing in school assembly, but the arrangement was unusual and complex, almost like a round, but not quite. There was certainly something African in there. It may have been Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or something different entirely. I wasn’t sure. It was the first time I had been inside a Baha’I House of Worship.
Lorna and I sat at the rear of the tall nine-sided hall, the only room in the Baha’i House in Kampala. The walls were painted a light pastel green, with small square blue, green, and amber stained-glass windows refracting the morning light onto the opposing walls below a white circular dome. At the base of each of the nine walls, a set of double doors remained symbolically open, yielding views of long tropical lawns and the bustle of Kampala beyond. Prehistoric silhouettes marabou storks circled in the cloud dappled bright blue sky beyond.
The congregation was a mix of Ugandans of various ethnicities, expats, and mzungus. Curiously passive, the worshippers sat quietly listening to readings from the Koran, the Torah, the Bible, and the Bahá’u’lláh from a series of orators drawn from the congregation. I looked around the hall at the still attentive faces listening to the readings in both English and Lugandan. A three-year-old girl with thick dreadlocks tottered down the aisle and hid from her father behind our pew. As open and inclusive as the Baha’I faith purports to be, I felt a familiar stirring discomfort and creeping hypocrisy that a person of no faith, of an entirely irreligious worldview feels when attending a religious ceremony.
The last week has been a tumult of internal strategy meetings, programme meetings at donor organisations, and debates about budgets in-between social events at plush expat houses, a whiskey tasting, my inaugural boxing training session with a Ugandan champion, and the realisation that pervasive noise pollution from preachers of mobile churches and roadside bars is the least of Uganda’s problems. That’s just scratching the surface. This blog could survive off of stories I have heard in the last fortnight alone. I’ll catch up soon, I promise. I feel like an infant. Everyday I am learning new things. I learnt the phrase ‘Africa Wins Again’. Despite our travels through the continent last year, I have only begun to understand the difficulty and perversity of everyday life and of conducting business amongst the easy-going and often overly deferential Ugandans. But there’s also a frenetic vitality of existence here that is often missing in the West. Colour is turned up to full saturation.
I walked outside onto the serene lawns surrounding the temple on top of Kikaaya Hill and breathed the humid air in the quiet above city. I tried to feel spiritual, but it was too hot for that.