Dr. Ruby Dunlap's Uganda Fulbright Blog
What did I expect the most trusted and skilled exorcist in the Mukono area to look like? Perhaps a fierce intensity out of the eyes? Perhaps either wildly careless or flamboyant clothing? In any case, his speech should be full of emotionally charged religious utterances, something befitting regular contact with the world of demons and evil spirits. That world, which few Westerners are likely to take seriously, the world relegated to a tiny minority of secretive devotees in the West, is taken very seriously in Uganda and by the vast majority of Ugandans. When it is taken that seriously by the locals, expatriates do well to attend seriously to it as well. Here is a not unusual bit in another of Uganda’s English newspapers, the 9 November, 2009, issue of The Daily Monitor:
Masaka man accused of witchcraft
Residents of Kijjomanyi Village in Kalungu Sub-county in Masaka District on Friday burnt the house of a 72 year old man and killed his goats, accusing him of bewitching them. The residents accused Mr. Felix Ssali of using spirits to kill 15 people between June and August. The district police chief, Mr. Moses Mwanga, said investigations are ongoing.
A large and beautiful house sits on top of a wind-swept hill in Mukono, the residence of Canon Titus Baracka and his wife, whom he affectionately refers to as “The First Lady.” The house was built for them by friends of theirs from the West who not only built it in spite of the Canon’s protests but came and practically bodily moved him and his family into it when it was ready. A pack of monkeys also lives on top of that hill. They only raid the Canon’s garden.
Human adversaries, the witchdoctors and their friends, had threatened the Canon and his family with bodily harm by means of spells, poisonings, and fire. The Canon, greatly loved by many of his own friends, especially those of the Reformed Church in the Holland, Michigan area where he earned a master’s degree in theology and counseling, had insisted on building the house to increase the protection for Canon Titus Baracka and his family. Titus told us a group of witchdoctors and associates had come one night at his previous residence to do the family injury. “They said later that they could not approach the house because it was surrounded by shining beings,” he said softly. Shining beings or not, Titus’s friends wanted him in a location more easily secured against such threats.
Long-horned cattle and goats are everywhere in Uganda, similar to these who are lolling beside one of UCU’s basketball courts. What would it be like to live in an environment that was as full of malevolent spirits and spells as it was cows and goats? Would it feel like living in the world of Harry Potter, expecting to be met by a death-eater at any turn?
As my colleagues at Belmont’s school of nursing might guess, my jokes about computers being possessed and Respondus Lockdown have not once left my mouth since arriving in Uganda. They would not be taken as jokes here.
“How has the role of witchcraft changed since you’ve been in Uganda the past five years?” I asked one of the American professors here.
“It’s gotten much worse,” she said, “and Mukono is one of its centers. It’s not unusual to hear of ritual human killings related to witchcraft. It is most often done because the person requesting it wants to get rich.” Of course, such sacrifice is considered murder by the civil authorities and is illegal. She told the story of a witchdoctor who turned in a father to the police after the man requested that the witchdoctor sacrifice his daughter in order to make him wealthy.
In Peoples and Cultures of Uganda (1998), Nzita and Mbaga-Niwampa tell us that for most tribal groups in Uganda, there is no such thing as a natural death. Death is very much feared and has almost always been believed to be caused by an evil spirit, spell or curse. Some traditional groups even believe that the dead person can turn into an evil spirit and take precautions to make sure the dead do not work their malice on the living by elaborate rituals.
So what does one look like who routinely wrestles with, in the words of Luther’s hymn, “the prince of darkness grim?” Titus Baracka is a cheerful man who laughs easily. There is a calm, rational, matter-of-factness about him. He explained that most people who come to him for exorcism are actually “worried well.” “They are gripped with fear that they may have an evil spirit,” he said, “when what they have is much anxiety.” There is also a distinction between those with mental health problems and those with demon possession. On the other hand, demon possession can be manifested in either or both physical and mental illness. Titus employs no elaborate rites and rituals to exorcise; a simple command in the Name of Jesus is enough to liberate the possessed of what possesses.
(On right: picture of University Chapel)
Demon possession seems usually to be “caught” like a sort of infection with a malicious and sub-rational power by handling implements of witchcraft such as fetishes which abound in Uganda. The Vice-Chancellor of UCU, Steve Noll, has written a scholarly book entitled Angels of Light, Powers of Darkness, Thinking Biblically about Angels, Satan, & Principalities (1998). For him, while there are both Biblical and experiential grounds for believing the world of spirits to be very real, it is not the drama-filled possessions which are the primary threat to people but the battle for the mind, the war involving absolutizing and totalitarian ideas which are not God. It is these he identifies as “powers,” as spiritually real as unseen beings which prowl about the world.
It is one of many challenges I face together with my Ugandan nursing students. On the one hand, they routinely care for patients who believe that illness is caused by spells or curses. They themselves might feel the tug of such beliefs when pressed; well educated Ugandans with earned doctorates seek shamanistic interventions as well as the uneducated. Or so I have been told by Ugandans. On the other hand, utopia-promising ideologies abound that if only there were enough money or enough education or enough social equity, all manner of thing would be well. The powerful tug from ideologies such as these is imaginable to most of us.
My strategy has been to stay focused on teaching and modeling the transformational components of thought once they are in line with the reality of the Logos, the Word of God: the well-exercised, adjudicating reason acting upon a fertile and well-nourished imagination which together inform the will to act. A case in point is how my students may be tempted to view their graduate degree. On the one hand, the diploma may be viewed magically with no regard for the competencies it is intended to represent. It can be treated as a sort of fetish, a magical item which acquires for them powers and privileges.
On the other hand, education itself has a sort of utopian promise to it: if only everyone were sufficiently literate, sufficiently well-read, all would be well. One only has to think of a European nation in the middle of the 20th century as highly literate as they come to know that things might be less than well in spite of all that education can do. Ideas, it has been said, have consequences. The evidence seems ample.