The Pope,the Pearl and the Power

I arrived in Uganda a day after Pope Francis.

As I began the 39 km journey from Entebbe Airport to Kampala City, on what is mostly a single carriageway road, my driver informed me that 24 hours earlier the whole route was lined with tens of thousands of enthusiastic fans. 

No such fanfare for me. I slipped into the country unnoticed and had a perfectly legitimate $100 US bill challenged at immigration as I paid for my visa on arrival. I think the officer wanted a newer, crisper one, but I held my ground.

The road was back to ‘normal’, clogged with motor bikes and with taxis held together by chicken wire and chewing gum and belching black smoke with every acceleration. The road’s verges were adorned by small shops and businesses and cluttered with every conceivable household and business item. Carpenters and welders were working hard at the point of sale. It was like Harvey Norman, Bunnings and Officeworks rolled together into 39km of roadside aisles.

The Pope

I’ve never been much of a ‘pope-fan’, but Francis, with ‘pope-star’ status, is winning hearts everywhere, and now in Uganda. The closest I ever got to a pope was when I was given a Christmas present of a cake of soap shaped like a pope. It was attached to a rope. It was called . . . .? 

But if there was ever a pope to like, the Argentinian is our man. He has the media on a string, or a rope; or else the media has him on one. There’s an age old debate not to rehash! But therein may lie Francis’ problem. Is he on a rope? Not the medias, but the Vatican’s?

However down-to-earth his demeanour, reformist his rhetoric, revolutionary his rallying cries for justice, he knows that he answers to the the Big House back in Rome and he only has so much rope. Or have I just read too many Morris West novels?

But here he was, in Uganda; the pope of hope, the feel-good Francis, the pontiff of popularity, spreading his brand of justice and catholic gospel.

The Pearl

Uganda, the Pearl of Africa, is a country of great natural beauty and fertile farming land. But it was ravaged by two devastating forces - Idi Amin and HIV/AIDS.

Amin’s reign of terror (1971-1979) plunged The Pearl into desperate poverty. This ‘Last King of Scotland’ expelled the 300,000 Indians residents. With them went almost the entire entrepreneurial capital of the country, crippling its economy.

Then came AIDS. At the height of the crisis over 30% of the adult population was HIV+. A significant part of a generation was wiped out. Through an aggressive educational campaign promoting abstinence, monogamy and condoms the infection rate was lowered to 7% within 20 years.

Today, 77% of Uganda’s population is under 30 and, alarmingly, there is a rapid increase in HIV among young people aged 15 to 22. The fight to educate a new generation continues. And aid agencies advocating patient purity ahead of protected promiscuity are being marginalised.

The Power

There were banners and billboards aplenty on my journey into Kampala - most of them advertising the papal visit and welcoming the pope himself. But ‘His Holiness’ had hard competition. Other billboards were advertising the latest black and white prosperity preachers who were poised to inflict their ‘gospel’ on ordinary Ugandans.

Spiritual smorgasbords on super-sized billboards. Designer Christianity. Take your pick. Sacraments on steroids. Prosperity promises. Both offering power. Both destined to disappoint. Both denying the power of the gospel to justify sinners by grace through faith alone.

Where does power for Ugandans lie? 

I have fresh in my mind a seminar on ‘Empowerment’ by Dr Wendy LeMarquand from my few days, just the week before, in Gambella, in the south west of Ethiopia.

Wendy told a simple story of two brothers. One gave his son everything he asked for and they both remained in grinding poverty. The other invited his son to partner him in cultivating his land, sowing and harvesting, storing and sharing; shepherding, guarding and breeding flock and herd. They provided for their families with ever increasing wealth.

It was a simple lesson in social and economic development, personal and communal responsibility and a story close to my heart as I am now in Uganda evaluating Anglican Aid projects. 

We partner with the Anglican Church of Uganda in health, food and income security projects. My heart sings as I meet rural families who have multiplied their income many times over through the implementation of simple agricultural principles as they take responsibility for their own welfare and development.

Rather than relying on hand-outs from The West through, for example, some paternalistic child sponsorship programs, parents are able to take personal responsibility for family health, housing and education. The fulfillment and dignity this gives them as they now have the financial capacity to make their own decisions about income saving for the education and health of their children is so much healthier than the perpetuation of a welfare mentality associated with some models of aid delivery.

My visit has also taken me to The Uganda Christian University (UCU) where Anglican Aid provides bursaries for Ugandan and other African students. The training of a new generation of men and women aspiring to Christian leadership, rightly handling the word of truth, is at the very core of Anglican Aid’s commitment. 

For Uganda needs not only economic empowerment. Above all, it needs spiritual power. It faces dangerous forces in the strident advances of Islam and empty promises of prosperity peddlers and even in the popular rhetoric of a populist pope.

It needs the true gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. It needs the message of grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone according to God’s Word alone. 

This gospel, the power of God, will produce its fruit as people take this magnificent message to their neighbours, and take responsibility for their personal, family and community welfare. 

Then they will care for the most vulnerable in Ugandan society.


Feature photo: weesam