Many will argue that Rome is the City of Seven Hills, but I beg to differ. After just under two weeks buzzing around Kampala, I have come to learn that this city in the heart of Africa has its own set of seven hills, making it a Holy City in its own way. Faith fills the air here just as much as road dust off of a busy street, and I have had the pleasure of breathing it all in.
With about one half of the Kampala population practicing Catholicism, one fourth Protestantism, one fifth Islam, and the remaining popoulation practicing other religions (Hindu, Baha’i, etc.) there is great religious diversity within the city bounds. Due to the general culture of openness here, Kampala displays its vibrant religiousness: taxis often feature Bible quotes and Psalm verses, vendors will dedicate their store names to God, and every other street sign advertises places of worship or prayer groups.
The locals, too, tend to be very comfortable outwardly expressing their inward beliefs: I have had many Muslim taxi drivers that wear a Shalwar Kameez (tradition Islamic dress) and I have found myself in lengthy conversations with boda boda drivers and waitresses about Kampalan Protestantism. From what I can observe, people here have found a great balance between public displays of faith and acceptance of different faith systems. This of course is not to say that Kampala is a utopia of religious coexistence; at least, relatively to the Christian-centric (and sometimes islamophobia) undertone of the Western World, Kampala seems to hold itself together by its faith diversity.
Zooming out of the religious framework, Uganda itself holds incredible multiculturalism. Similar to Frankfurt, it is rare that I encounter a local that doesn’t speak at least three languages. After its British colonization in the early 20th Century, Uganda took English as an official language. Most every local Kampalan also speaks Luganda, Swahili, and one or more of the 50+ tribal languages found within the Ugandan borders. I have found most people here are eager to share about the Ugandan region from which they originate, their unique tribal culture, their mother tongue, and their life journey that brought them to the city of Kampala (most often for work). For example, Ezra lit up to explain to me the five languages he speaks, his origins in the Ankole Kingdom, and his eventual journey to Kampala to pursue a degree in arts at Makerere University (one of the most prestigious universities in Africa).
About two weeks ago, my host brother Syrus and his friend Sydney brought me to Ndere Culture Center, where I was DELIGHTED to witness a three-hour dance and musical performance that accurately displayed the cultural traditions from the various Ugandan tribes. Some of the highlights included Buganda drummers, the tribal love rituals from the in which men will court women by chasing them and proving their strength in a wrestling match, the circumcision rituals from Teso in which teenage boys must circumcise themselves in front of the village to prove their manhood. This monumental night of culture concluded with a full-audience invitation to the stage, where everyone danced together to traditional Uganda beats. It was electric and I totally experienced the participatory approach to art that is characteristic of African culture.
With its religious and cultural diversity and its geographic centrality, it is no wonder why Uganda was selected as the home for the African Continental Baha’i House of Worship. Unlike the North American Baha’i Temple, which is situated on the quaint, suburban streets of Wilmette, or the European Baha’i Temple, which is softly tucked into the wheat fields of Langenhain, the African Baha’i Temple was placed on top of a hill. It has been such a pleasant surprise to see the top of the temple peaking out on the horizon of my every drive back to the compound, and the experience of climbing up to the House of Worship feels like a magnificent spiritual ascent as well.
Unlike the past two Houses of Worship to which I have been, the African Continental House of Worship is (quite refreshingly) not white! Rather, it boasts light shades of orange-red and green, which happen to dominate the color palate of the Kampalan landscape between the dirt roads and the vibrant greenery. Architecturally, it was designed to appear like the huts that African farmers have been erecting and taking shelter in for millennia. Again, we can see an instance where the House of Worship becomes expressive of the culture of the continent on which it is placed, while still abiding by the unifying Baha’i architectural tropes for a House of Worship: nine-sides, surrounded by gardens, circular, chairs facing Haifa, etc. Analyzing the temple’s devotional choral music as the “voice” of the House of Worship, we will later discuss this same principle, where the musical component of temple devotion is both rooted in the local musical style, while also globally framed in it’s connection to Baha’i teachings.
So far, I have found the music sung by the African Temple Choir to be fascinating in its rhythmic expression of local drum music, use of various languages common to the area (English, Luganda, Kiswahili, French, Lugisu), and method of presentation. Some songs will feature syncopated and disjoint bass lines which add a great local flair to the universalist text being sung. Similar to the European Temple choir, the variation of languages is a helpful tool in creating globalism within the sonic environment of the devotional service. Unlike the other Temple choirs, the African Temple Choir sings from the center seats of the House of Worship, just underneath the center of the dome. It is quite contrary to the audience-performer spatial orientation of the European Temple Choir and–in my opinion–is very reflective of the participatory approach to music-making that is characteristic of the local style. Given the immersed placement of the choir, a devotional attendee may feel more physically part of the production of devotional music than an attendee that watches a choir that stands in front of them.
The entire hill that leads up to the House of Worship is clothed in gardens of Ugandan flora, making the fenced-in hill area a peaceful space, especially when coming from the chaotic Kampalan roads. The choir meets for a pre-devotional rehearsal on a lawn just next to the House of Worship, so the practice of devotional music-making always has this sacred space in its backdrop.
Continuing, the hill itself provides the setting for the Baha’i National Center, dormitories for volunteers, the housing for the Temple Director and his family, and places for childrens’ groups and devotional gathers. I was fortunate enough to catch the Kampalan Baha’i community during a Holy Day (Martyrdom of the Bab) and a Baha’i Wedding, during which I sang with the choir.
For me, the Baha’i Temple hill has proven to have some significant mystical powers. Here, I ran into and sang with a woman named Dawn, who I would come to learn had attended Northwestern University some sixty years ago. Considering the number of universities in the world and the relatively small Kampalan Baha’i population (roughly 700) and the fact that I managed to overlap with Dawn’s two months of visiting Uganda, I found this somewhat of a mindblowing meeting.
The universe also delighted me with what I will deem a Baha’i miracle on this hill. After singing with the choir during the Sunday devotional service on July 14th, I was reflecting in my seat in the House of Worship. Out of nowhere, I felt a tap on my shoulder and I looked up to see my Northwestern friend, Leana. I was surely hallucinating. Why was Leana in Africa? Was I still in Africa? I looked up to see an entire group of Northwestern students walking about the House of Worship grounds. They were participating in non-profit work in a town called Jinja (about a three-hours drive from Kampala) and had been visiting Kampala for the day and happened to be touring the House of Worship at the exact time that I was on the hill. Miraculous!
I was enchanted. And this enchantment only continued as their guides allowed me to come on their (heavily religious) tour of Kampala. We visited the central Mosque, various street markets, and ended our day at Namugongo, which has a beautiful church dedicated to that location’s history of martyrdom that three popes and (our darling) Mother Teresa have visited.
Kampala has great intrigue for a young, strapping scholar of religious studies of my likeness. With its atmosphere of different faiths and cultures, its geographic centrality in Africa, and overall open approach to humanity, Kampala seems to be an excellent home for the African Baha’i Continental House of Worship. I am looking forward to telling you more of the surprises that I have found walking the seven hills of this Holy City.