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Okusinza mu Luganda #10: “We are all disciples”

by Shanon Shah

In this third and final part of our interview with Stephen Kafeero, he and Shanon Shah explore the challenges in balancing multiple identities as migrants in contemporary London. This discussion brings them to the profound way that Okusinza mu Luganda ties together the strands of prayer, community and belonging by forging a caring, inclusive congregation.

Shanon: Stephen, yesterday we talked about your journey back into church after a moment you said you “lost” in your 20s and 30s. Could you describe to me the first time you attended an Okusinza service?

Stephen: When I came and found this large group of Ugandans in one room, it was exciting. Some of them I knew because of my uncles and aunties, whom you never find anywhere else except in Okusinza. And up to today, that’s the excitement I get. Because that’s the one day in a month I look forward to – it’s when I get to see them all in one place. Some of them come from as far as Brentwood, or Harrow, and you will never get to see them otherwise. That one day is my opportunity to experience my own people. So up to today, I always look forward to that one day a month.

Shanon: To me it feels special, too, because it seems like it’s the one day when everything comes together – the language, the worship, people dressing up, the food, and the wonderful music.

Stephen: Everything! I don’t know if it’s true but they say that if you think in your native language, you speak to your soul. There’s something about speaking your own language. At home we speak English, me and Irene – some Luganda but mainly English. With the boys, English. Outside, English. At church, the other Sundays at Liberty, English. This one day is when you really dive in (laughs).

Music is an important part of Okusinza (courtesy of Stephen Kafeero)

Shanon: Something that’s coming across in all my interviews is that the language was central to the aims of the founders, too, like Dorothy Mukasa.

Stephen: Dorothy is very passionate!

Shanon: For her the language was so important to bring the community together. But like you say, it’s getting harder to transmit it now especially to your children and the younger generation, because they’re speaking English all the time. Do you think this is a problem or is this just a natural development?

Stephen: It’s a problem in that, like I said, when our children, especially Black children, but maybe also White children, Indians, Chinese, these children are losing their identity. They’re trying to find themselves, where they fit. And I think that’s a challenge. I teach Sunday school, and I meet a lot of youth and young people – it’s that lack of knowing who they are. It’s causing all these issues around our community, like guns and knife crime.

I believe that, say if they could speak their language, for example, and they knew, “This is where I come from,” it will create some kind of identity. Because in our culture there are certain things you can’t do. Like when you are greeting somebody, you can’t greet while standing. You can’t interrupt an elder when they are speaking. There are certain values our culture has. If these children knew them, they’d know, “Wow, I belong to this culture. These are the norms and values we have.” I think it would do a lot of good.

So yes, it’s becoming a problem. Because now parents want their children to adapt to the Western lifestyle. That’s fine, but in that process, we can’t afford to lose our own identity, our culture, and our traditions. When you are taking someone from one culture to the next, it would be nice if they understood the process more deeply so that they can assimilate themselves into the new culture, but moulding it around their own culture. I think that’s the challenge now. Our boys are still young. But when they start school, we will be with them maybe 30 per cent of the time – 70 per cent of the time they’ll be with their peers. We need to maximise that 30 per cent. How do you that? Should we just speak Luganda throughout? Teach them Luganda? Which is hard. I have no answers for how to overcome it. We’ll just try our best.

Courtesy of Stephen Kafeero

Shanon: That’s the other reason why I wanted to do this project. Because perhaps by capturing these conversations and revisiting them, it can be an additional resource for the members of Okusinza who are already trying to figure out a way forward. My sense is that it’s almost like the younger generation will go to the sorts of churches where they can find a Black identity and speak English. However, what people like Dorothy and a lot of others in Okusinza would like is for their children to recognise that, “My language is Luganda, and Luganda is not Yoruba, and if I hear it, I will know the difference between Luganda and other African languages.” And that’s the challenge isn’t it? How do you maintain this specific identity when so many younger people are finding a stronger overarching Black identity in multiracial Black churches, where they meet Nigerians, West Africans, West Indians, and so on?

Stephen: Yes, absolutely! But it’s also an issue with some parents. Back in Uganda, there’s that respect for your parents, your elders. And your parents used to pass on what they learned from their parents, the grandparents. But now it feels like the children are the ones leading us. I feel that is not right. Because the parents are not educating themselves. For example, I’m in England. As a parent, I should know what is right or wrong in England. But it’s the child who comes to most parents and says, no the teacher says this is right or wrong. And the parents are helpless, and they just go along with this. I feel the parents are not educating themselves.

Parents are not assimilating themselves in this new environment, so they don’t know how to deal with these children who are growing up in this environment. There’s that clash of personalities. And that’s where you find, they often give up. “OK, you do what you want.” Which is wrong. Because parents need to assimilate themselves in the culture, too. It wouldn’t be right to keep going to an Okusinza service week after week – one Sunday at St John’s, the next Sunday at another church, and not do anything else. It’s important, for example, to also attend the services at St John’s church in the morning, to get to know the people there. I think we should embrace the cultures around us, too, and assimilate what we know into the new culture and then move on. I’m still trying to think about answers.

Have you ever been to party where there are people of different races but they all remain in their own clique? You never find them crossing and talking to each other. If I find a Ugandan, I’ll pull him aside and talk to him throughout the whole evening. But you’ve come to a party – why not integrate, speak to people around the room and circulate? People should not be scared to talk to someone of a different race or tribe. So, I think sometimes parents are also to blame.

Shanon: It’s a balancing act, isn’t it? You want to be able to mix with others, but also to be secure and know, “OK, this is my identity.”

Stephen: That’s the thing, they don’t know their identity. If I know who I am, me talking to you, being your friend, doesn’t mean I’m losing my identity. Because I’m confident in who I am. Now I can go out and talk to anybody. “Hello, I’m Stephen and I’m originally from Uganda.” But then those who don’t know who they are, they are scared to lose it. So, I think it’s about edifying oneself, saying no, it’s OK, you will not lose your identity.

Shanon: What are your favourite things about Okusinza?

Stephen: My favourite thing is at the end of the service, when people come and say, “Thank you for the wonderful work you’ve done.” Because I set up the sound equipment, I do the preparation of the food after the service – I help Alice Mwanje prepare. I make sure the service is functioning as it should.

Okusinza's online Martyr's Day service in June 2020 was produced and edited by Stephen and music director Samuel Kimuli.

Shanon: And now I’ve learnt you take all the pictures too!

Stephen: Like I told you, my desire now is to serve people. When people come and thank me afterwards, it feels very special. I’m even one of those who locks the church at night after everyone has left. I will come at noon and leave at 8 at night. But to me that one day is so satisfying because of the love I get from the people. That is all, Shanon, that is all. So being someone who serves and when others appreciate my service – that’s very fulfilling.

Shanon: I always saw you doing the sound system, I didn’t know you did all these other things, too.

Stephen: Yes, I also do the website, our Facebook updates. I’m self-motivated. If I feel if there’s something missing, I’ll say let’s do this. I didn’t know how to design websites, but I went online and learnt how to design and I created one. And they’re good, nice people, in Okusinza. They don’t take things for granted as a congregation.

Shanon: I think this is a good place for my final question. What are your hopes for Okusinza mu Luganda?

A: The more I do all these things, I’m hoping I can transfer this love of service to other people as well. That’s the way our church can grow. That is my greatest hope. That what I do can be transmitted to the others to join and we can lift up our community together in love.

These questions you are asking me, I’ve never asked myself. You’re making me ask these questions to myself and I’m discovering, “Whoa, that’s how I feel.” Thank you – this has been good for me, too.

My hope is that what I’m giving, others can also give back. People need someone to talk to, somebody to love them, someone to give them hope, someone to tell them that everything is going to be OK. People are missing them, people are hurting. It is our responsibility to say, “It’s OK. God loves you. We are well. See you next month.” I think my greatest hope is that we can all get to that place.

Shanon: And from what I see also, it is happening already. Like when you do the sound system, you’ve got younger people helping you.

Stephen: Absolutely! I grab them and say, please do this. I never get tired of doing these tasks, but I also want to influence the people around me. We all need to learn to delegate. We need to go to the people who are doing certain tasks and say, “Where can we help you?” The more we grow that team, the more we will influence more people who will spread out in the community and do the same. Like what you are doing now. You are also spreading your qualities, your gifts and your calling. You are helping us to celebrate our achievements. We appreciate that. We are all one, Shanon.

Shanon: And the way churches thrive is by doing that – making sure everyone’s involved.

Stephen: It’s discipleship. We are disciples, aren’t we? That’s how we spread the good news. The good news is not just meant to be spoken. We should offer our souls and bodies as sacrifices. I think that’s what it is, isn’t it?

Shanon: Absolutely. Preach it! (Laughs.)

Stephen: I’m game! (Laughs.)

Shanon: Thank you so much, Stephen.

Stephen: And thank you for helping me to discover myself even more.

Coming up on Wednesday: Shanon Shah reflects on what he has learnt from conducting these interviews for Okusinza mu Luganda and the Waterloo Festival.

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