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Orthodox Africa

Orthodoxy finds fertile ground in Uganda

by Andrew Rice
photographs by Tugela Ridley


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Kampala is a city of clamor. Uganda’s capital, a metropolis of 1.2 million, lies in the rolling highlands surrounding Lake Victoria. The acoustics of the place are such that sounds rise to wash over its green hills like a gentle tide. Climb one of them any Sunday and listen, and up will waft Uganda in all its varied devotion: a muezzin’s call to prayer, an Anglican hymn, the gravelly bark of a born-again preacher – “Ha-lle-luiah!”The Church of St. Nicholas stands atop a hill called Namungoona on the outskirts of Kampala, up a winding dirt road from an open-air evangelical congregation and a Catholic church shaped like a pagoda. St. Nicholas’s is prim and yellow, with a peaked roof and windows of brightly colored stained glass.

On a recent soggy Sunday, worshipers filed inside to the clank of a bell, taking care as they entered to kiss a gold-bound copy of the Gospels that lay on a pedestal near the door. At the front of the church, before icons of Jesus, Mary and the congregation’s patron saint, stood a gray-bearded man bedecked in white vestments and a jeweled crown. He was Jonah Lwanga, Metropolitan of Kampala and All Uganda, and crammed into the rows of wooden pews before him, singing heartily in the local language, Luganda, was one of the most unlikely congregations in a nation renowned for its religious diversity. They were African followers of the Orthodox Church.

Orthodox Christianity is not new to Africa. According to tradition, the Evangelist Mark arrived on the continent around A.D. 43, and founded the Church of Alexandria and, by extension, all Africa. But “all Africa,” for most of the church’s history, effectively ended at the Sahara. Orthodox missionaries sat out the 19th century’s “scramble for Africa,” when European Catholics and Protestants fanned out across the continent to save souls and build colonies. The story of how the Alexandrian Church came to have an affiliate in faraway Uganda, a country with no previous connection to the Orthodox world, is therefore not a tale of white men bearing the message of God to a dark continent. Rather, the Ugandan church traces its roots to two Africans who, rebelling against colonial rule, fled to a religion they felt was pure and politically uncompromised. This makes Uganda’s small community of 60,000 Orthodox Christians nearly unique within their home country. They found their faith on their own.

Metropolitan Jonah, 62, whose rank in the Orthodox hierarchy is roughly equivalent to a Roman Catholic archbishop’s, is currently the only black African member of the synod of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, which is dominated by men of Greek descent. The grandson of one of the church’s founders, he exemplifies the divided nature of his community. Equally comfortable speaking Greek as he is English or any number of African languages – he studied at a seminary on Crete and at the University of Athens – the metropolitan, nonetheless, says he has encountered “great, great difficulties” in convincing some Orthodox that his church really belongs to their tradition. But he believes that somehow, over 80 years of struggle in a country where life is hard, his church has managed to become something both fully African and authentically Eastern.

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