Though Catholic missionaries arrived in Uganda only in 1879, just after the arrival of Islam and Protestant Christianity, Catholicism is a vibrant force in Ugandan life, and Catholics comprise about 45% of the population. While Ugandans are the first to point to ways that all these religions' adherents can fail to live up to their creeds, the real taboo in Ugandan culture is non-belief.
The Catholic Church plays an important role in Ugandan life not only for the large number of adherents, but also as a provider of educational and health services. Church affairs are covered in secular newspapers to a degree that would surprise most Catholics from elsewhere in the world.
Uganda is an ethnically pluralistic country, still struggling to unite diverse peoples — 30 ethnic groups in all, with a variety of languages, cultural practices, traditions and historic forms of governance. Uganda has a market-style economy and a strong small-scale entrepreneurial culture, but is still a primarily rural country, with its population concentrated in the southern parts of the country. Several brutal regimes ruled for much of Uganda’s post-colonial period. The current government, while bringing stability and moderate economic growth following the chaos and civil conflict of the 1970s and ’80s, is also marred by systemic corruption that frustrates many ordinary Ugandans. President Museveni, who began a sixth term of office in 2021, is known for harassing opposition figures and for silencing dissent.
Research on Uganda for Catholic & Cultures is currently focused on the metropolitan area of Kampala, the capital.1 A relatively small city with 1.2 million people, its inhabitants include transnational elites and middle class families who live in its hills, and slum dwellers who live in the valleys. In the Kampala area, the majority of people are ethnic Baganda — speakers of Luganda and English, and followers of Kabaka (King) Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II, a powerful figure who draws as much loyalty there as President Museveni. Kampala is fairly cosmopolitan, drawing in Bantu and some Nilotic2 peoples from all over Uganda, as well as a smattering of Indians.3
Humility and respect are highly valued in Ugandan culture; Ugandans often smile and are very quick to laugh and joke while aggressive behavior is unusual and frowned upon. Politeness is the way to get anything done. In the central region especially, Ugandans have a sense of hierarchy and deference to those above them. In the Buganda kingdom of Kampala, women and children often kneel to honor a visitor or other person of higher rank than them.
Catholics in Uganda interviewed for this project tended to be unusually proud of their faith, believing that the experience of the Ugandan martyrs defines them, making Catholicism something deeply rooted in their land. They spoke about a number of values they saw as characteristic of themselves.
When asked about Ugandan values, interviewees often appealed to communalist qualities of generosity, willingness to share and help others, and respect for elders. Humility, though especially expected of women and children, was another important social value that was reported. Women often spoke about the importance of humility in approaching God. Although generosity and fairness were their main values, the frame shifted slightly when they were asked about the sort of sin that concerned them the most; sexual issues like adultery, crimes like murder and theft and the appeal to witchcraft were most concerning to them, rather than selfishness, although they often expressed worry about the corrosive effect of corruption in their country.
Catholics, Anglicans and Muslims
French Catholic and British Anglican missionaries arrived in the late 19th century, competing for converts and for power. (Islam also arrived in the 1850s, but by many accounts the Muslims who arrived were more interested in trade than conversion). Both churches, now led entirely by Ugandan clergy, competed through much of the 20th century. In terms of political and economic power, the Protestant Anglicans won, having been favored for opportunities and appointments under British protectorate. The British installed Anglican Ugandans — a Baganda elite — to power. Under the British, Catholics had a second class status, and the political party system eventually developed with essentially Catholic (Democratic) and Anglican (Uganda People’s Congress) parties, though the religious affiliations have diminished in recent years.
For a century, as traditional religions were eclipsed, Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Islam have been the primary religions in Uganda. For a time, these were the only religions whose practice was allowed in Uganda. This changed by the mid 1980s, and today Catholics and Anglicans face intense competition from an array of Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, many of which have strong American ties.4 These churches range from well-financed, very American-style entities like the Watoto church to the remarkable number of small Pentecostal churches in family compounds along the lanes of the Kampala exurb.
The Catholic Church still has a small number of missionaries, but in most places is entirely run by Ugandans. Although some Ugandan priests have become missionaries in Europe and North America, the ratio of priests to lay people is still much lower than in those other parts of the world. To help mitigate that discrepancy in Uganda, officially designated lay catechists serve important roles in parishes both in cities and countryside, leading religious education and confirmation preparation, and often presiding at burials. A system of parishes, sub-parishes and small Christian communities speaks to the growth of Catholicism as parishes grow and are eventually divide. Priests and Legion of Mary members visit households in the area to pray with families and to encourage them to baptize children and to receive the sacraments. In the rural areas, visits from a priest for sacramental purposes may be far less frequent. Catholic schools are said to be highly desired for their academic quality and discipline.
While there has been stronger competition among Muslims, Anglicans and other Christians in the past, relationships are fairly good today. All live in some fear, however, of the infiltration of forces like al-Shabaab, the Somali militant group that is trying to spread in East Africa, and security is strong in the city as a result. Interviewees readily give examples of people switching allegiances between faiths.
There are few Ugandans who would define themselves today solely or primarily as practitioners of traditional indigenous religions. Religious conversion, and not only natural births, seems to have brought about some growth in the number of Catholics. Of Ugandans surveyed by the Pew Forum, 38% said they were raised Catholic, while 45% said they were currently Catholic. This shift stands out in marked contrast to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa in that survey, where Protestantism was showing gains.
- 1. The information in the materials on Uganda is based primarily on site visits in the greater Kampala area and on interviews, conducted in English (the national language) and Luganda, with 15 people in January 2014.
- 2. The terms Bantu and Nilotic refer to broad linguistic and cultural groupings that transcend Uganda’s boarders. The north of the country, far from Kampala, is comprised of Nilotic peoples. Each of these groups – Bantu and Nilotic – speak many related languages, including Luganda, the Bantu native language of Kampala’s Baganda people. Ugandans typically refer to the ethnic groups as tribes, but here we use the phrase “ethnic groups” to avoid some of the other associations that non-Ugandan readers may have with term “tribe.”
- 3. The Indians came to Uganda to build the railroad and became very successful until Idi Amin expelled them and expropriated their businesses in 1972. Among them was a group of Catholics from Goa who built Christ the King Church in Kampala. Some returned when President Museveni invited them back after civil war.
- 4. See Ronald Kassimir, “The Politics of Popular Catholicism in Uganda” in East African Expressions of Christianity ed. Thomas Spear and Isaria Kimambo (Oxford: James Currey Ltd., 1999) 248-274.
Updated: April 12, 2021 - 8:54am