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Okusinza mu Luganda #1: A unifying and inclusive Ugandan congregation

by Shanon Shah

Interior of St John's Waterloo (Drawing: David Bassadone)

The Waterloo Festival is honoured this year to feature the experiences of Okusinza mu Luganda (Worship in Luganda), the Ugandan congregation linked historically with St John’s Waterloo.

Okusinza mu Luganda commemorates its 30th anniversary next year and, before the Covid-19 global lockdown, had already planned several celebrations and worship services spanning 2020 and 2021. Whilst these plans are still being adjusted in the light of recent developments, we are thrilled to be able to include Okusinza in our digital festival this year. In the meantime, Okusinza has also adapted its services on the first Sunday of each month online.

Over the coming weeks, we will be featuring interviews with some key members of the Okusinza congregation carried out by Waterloo Festival Programme Committee member Shanon Shah. These interviews were already in the pipeline before the lockdown and we hope that they continue to enrich the already strong relationship between Okusinza, St John’s and the Waterloo Festival.

The timing of these interviews – published here throughout June 2020, traditionally when the Waterloo Festival is launched – is symbolic of these links. Every year, Okusinza holds a rousing late-spring service on the first Sunday this month in St John’s church to commemorate Martyr’s Day, which falls on 3 June and is a public holiday in Uganda. Martyr’s Day commemorates the 23 Anglican and 22 Catholic converts to Christianity in the historical kingdom of Buganda, now part of Uganda, who were executed between 1885 and 1887. Their martyrdom was instrumental in forging a modern Ugandan Christian identity in the 20th century for the country’s Catholics and Anglicans.

Roof of the Shrine at Namugongo

Basilica Church of the Uganda Martyrs, Namugongo

Martyr’s Day celebrations are colossal, drawing in large crowds of pilgrims and worshippers from within and outside the country to Namugongo. The affair will be scaled down considerably this year, in keeping with the pandemic-related movement restrictions. At St John’s Waterloo, Martyr’s Day has traditionally been one of the highlights of Okusinza’s calendar, bringing together a feast of prayer, music, food, drink, dress, fellowship and sunshine.

Photo: Stephen Kafeero

We kick off this series with an email interview with Reverend Godfrey Kaziro, Okusinza’s pastor who is also part of the clergy team at St John’s Waterloo.

SS: Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview, Godfrey. Where were you born?

GK: I was born in Kampala, Uganda, Eastern Africa and that’s where I spent my childhood.

Bodaboda riders held by traffic at a city junction in downtown Kampala, Uganda (2019)

SS: What are the memories that stand out from your childhood?

GK: My childhood memories which I cherish today include the set-up of the political map of Uganda, with all hereditary rulers having their political autonomy according to their geographical boundaries. But all this was changed after Uganda’s independence, in 1962, and sadly Uganda will never be the same again.

SS: What stories did you hear when you were growing up that continue to inspire you?

GK: The stories I was most inspired by were told to me by my aunt and parents about the history of colonialism and pan-Africanism – how they shaped the political system in East Africa, which includes Uganda.

Photo: Stephen Kafeero

SS: What do you do now?

GK: I am now part-time practising as a specialist in maxillofacial surgery privately as well as a part-time priest in charge of Okusinza mu Luganda in London and Sweden.

SS: Tell me about your involvement with Okusinza.

GK: I was one of the founders of Okusinza in the 1990s. It started as a small worshiping community as well as a social and cultural gathering of the Ugandan community. Okusinza encouraged Ugandans to meet together in the midst of the political divisions spilling into the Ugandan community from back home at the time. Okusinza helped to bring people together irrespective of political, religious, cultural, tribal and sexual differences. Ever since it started it has become a unifying factor, not only for Ugandans in UK – we also support non-Ugandans here. Here I include our dear Christian sisters and brothers from the English-language congregation who worship at St John’s Church, for which I am part of the clergy team.

SS: The aftermath of the civil war was huge, wasn’t it? I’m wondering if any other factors shaped Okusinza. For example, during that period, there was the AIDS epidemic in London and in so many other parts of the word, too. Was that a factor?

GK: It would be too strong to say that AIDS was equally important as a factor in the founding of Okusinza, compared with other social and economic problems which we had at that time. I think all Ugandans at that time looked at our prevalent political, social and economic problems from their own local area and experiences. In general, the economy, education institutions, the infrastructure of the country and overall social life of the population were to me a big factor affecting not only Okusinza but all other Ugandans at that time.

At the same time, AIDS was a problem – but not in all parts of Uganda. It mainly hit the big cities. The rural areas were relatively spared the big spread of AIDS. Okusinza mu Luganda was based in London, hence we saw many more cases of AIDS amongst the Ugandan community based here. There was initially a lack of knowledge about the epidemiology of AIDS, but this was later addressed in our church by inviting knowledgeable speakers on this topic to address the problem.

SS: What are the things that make you proudest about Okusinza?

GK: From its base at St John’s, Okusinza has helped other Okusinza churches to spring up in other British cities and now in Sweden, too. We have definitely become bigger than when we first started.

L-R – Canon Giles Goddard (Vicar of St John’s Waterloo), Godfrey, the Venerable Simon Gates (Archdeacon of Lambeth) and Dr Sam Banyikidde (Okusinza co-founder and member of St John’s Church Waterloo), picture courtesy of Stephen Kafeero.

SS: What are your hopes for Okusinza?

GK: My main wish is to have men and women joining ordained ministry, so that there are people ready to pass on the baton and to maintain the church so that it does not die out. This is not easy because you need sacrifice, resilience, determination and academic qualification to join ordained ministry, and you need at least to have a recognised formal education. Age also matters – you won’t be accepted to join ordination training if you are over 55 years old, unless in exceptional circumstances.

Our young people in the Ugandan community are fully committed to their formal education to pursue a formal career and earn a living. To join ordained ministry, even if the Southwark Diocese can help finance the training, you need at least some earning capacity to maintain your living and family, if you are married or have children. I experienced this when I was training.

Lastly our Okusinza church needs women to join the ordained ministry so that we have meaningful gender balance in these roles. The interest is gradually growing, but some women who are interested have exceeded the age limit to be accepted for training, unless they join the ministry as SPAs [Southwark Pastoral Auxiliaries] or readers. If this is the case, they can at least lead a service in the absence of a priest, as long as there is no eucharist.

Click here for our three-part interview with Okusinza co-founder Dorothy Mukasa.

Read more about Okusinza mu Luganda here.

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