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Okusinza mu Luganda #4: from tiny plant to leafy bush

by Shanon Shah

The Waterloo Festival’s support for Okusinza mu Luganda’s 30th anniversary celebrations spanning 2020 and 2021 continues today with the final part of our interview with co-founder Dorothy Mukasa. In this final part, she tells Shanon Shah her favourite things about Okusinza and her hopes for the congregation. We hope you’re enjoying these moving life stories of Okusinza – coming up, we’ll be featuring an email interview with the talented Michaiah Mukiibi, music director for Okusinza and organist for St John’s Waterloo.

Okusinza choir (courtesy of Stephen Kafeero)

SS: What are your favourite things about Okusinza?

DM: It’s been a cradle for so many people in so many ways. People who would not have the confidence to go to other people’s houses to visit, they have confidence enough to come to church. People who thought they would feel like outsiders have felt they belong. Several people with mental health conditions come very regularly and feel perfectly at home. There was a guy who had mental health problems, and when he had collapsed and couldn’t remember who he was or where he was, he talked about St John’s Waterloo. Police officers came to St John’s Waterloo, and the church said “Yes we know Thomas, he’s a regular member of the congregation.”

The choir has been absolutely marvellous throughout. It is interesting that the choir remains with a significant number of people we started with thirty years ago. Social capital has been built such that people, if they are organising a wedding, and would like the event in Luganda, they have a place to go. It’s similar, say, if they want a child baptised.

Okusinza service at St John's Waterloo (courtesy of Stephen Kafeero)

Okusinza mu Luganda has mushroomed. We started the only regular Okusinza Mu Luganda service at Forest Gate, then we moved to Waterloo. Now there is a group in Greenwich, Finsbury Park, and Manchester is growing, too. The branch in Stockholm, Sweden, is only about three years young but they understand where they’re headed.

Like house plants, you get this tiny thing from the supermarket and then over five years, it turns into this big bush and you need a huge pot to contain it. It’s that sort of thing. It’s grown and it’s beautiful. When my father visits the UK, it’s very easy for him to engage with Okusinza, because it retains processes of the established church. Having acquired its Bishop’s Mission Order, it is very much part of the Church of England. We haven’t felt a need to turn Pentecostal to be effective, to attract our membership. We are comfortable in the Church of England.

SS: That was going to be one of my final questions, but I think you’ve answered it. I was going to ask what your hopes are for Okusinza.

DM: I just want it to continue to grow, to expand. It is God’s will that it has progressed and lasted this long, really. For anything to continue successfully for thirty years, I think there’s another force, apart from our own will, supporting it. I hope God supports it for another thirty years.

I want the membership of Okusinza to become more involved in the Church of England. Beyond the Bishop’s Mission Order, maybe we can take on some responsibility in the General Synod. Apart from people having ordinary careers, perhaps through the Church of England, other things can be achieved.

SS: That’s interesting, because Ugandan communities in London are different compared to Afro-Caribbean or West African communities, aren’t they? Those communities often go out and set up their own Pentecostal, independent churches, am I correct? But a lot of Ugandans are much more embedded in, as you say, the traditional structures. They make the parish churches their homes and they become part of the communities. To me, Okusinza is special in that it’s its own thing but it’s also so strongly linked to the parish churches. Would you say that’s a fair observation?

DM: I think it’s a fair observation. Some Pentecostal churches are rock solid but there are those where charismatic leaders become opportunistic and prey on people’s vulnerabilities, especially regarding ethnicity, poverty, deprivation, and long-term health conditions. It is unfortunate that many Pentecostal churches lack established formal structures to act as safeguards against poor or unfair practices. Pastors have been known to be involved in controversial practices, where people’s savings go to the church, leaving them destitute because of certain miracles that are promised.

SS: It’s reminding me of Greenleaf. It’s a TV series about this black charismatic megachurch in Memphis, Tennessee with its own internal controversies. Often these involve other black churches, too. Some churches are better than others, but because they’re all independent and they have their own structures, a few are very corrupt and buried in malpractices. Sometimes they find ways to hold each other accountable – but it gets very ugly, because of that kind of independence that they all have.

DM: But that’s not independence! That’s just a licence to manipulate the vulnerable. I remember a guy called Pastor Deya. Infertile or post-menopausal women who attended the Gilbert Deya Ministries Church in Peckham, south-east London, were promised “miracle” babies if they had faith and these poor women believed him. He flew women from London to Nairobi, to some hospital there. The women would be put to sleep and on waking would find a baby by their side. And that baby would be the miracle baby God promised them.

Well! It was such a scam!

They would return to London with these babies. One GP said to one of the women, “I’ve told you you’re infertile, you do not have a womb, you can’t have had a baby. So where did you get that baby from?” She said, “I had that baby because I believe in God, blah blah blah.” Of course, the police were called in, DNA tests were done and so on, it went in the papers. It was this big thing. Pastor Deya ended up in prison! The story has it that the babies were from poor young 14- or 15-year-old girls in Nairobi who had unplanned pregnancies. Somehow, a syndicate of women identified the girls and “helped” them till their pregnancies were at term. When these teenagers delivered their babies, the babies would be taken away and given to infertile women seeking miracle babies. Deya was extradited to Kenya in 2017 to face charges of stealing five children between 1999 and 2004, which he denies. You know, I’m a human rights activist and student of medical ethics, and I have seen pastors try and get away with so much.

Okusinza choir (courtesy of Stephen Kafeero)

SS: That’s horrible. But what amazes me now is also the number of things you have achieved and experienced in your life, Dorothy. From your perspective, what would you think is the biggest challenge you’ve faced?

DM: Raising my daughter. I didn’t know how to do that and there isn’t a manual. There’s this baby, and it grows, and thinks you’re wonderful and that you can do everything. Actually, you’re just getting by, by the skin of your teeth (laughs). You think, “I could never ever do this.” And then suddenly you find you’ve got the capacity in you. It’s not easy, but nothing’s ever easy anyway.

SS: (Laughs.) I think that’s a good place to end. Thank you so much, Dorothy.

Our next featured interview is with Michaiah Mukiibi, organist for St John’s Waterloo and Okusinza.

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