Okusinza mu Luganda #7: “The only church I know here”

by Shanon Shah

The second and final part of our interview with Sara Kwagala delves into her experiences as youth leader of Okusinza mu Luganda (Worship in Luganda).

A fun night out in Peckham after a youth forum (Photo:Sara Kwagala)

Shanon: Could you please tell me about your experiences with Okusinza, Sara?

Sara: It’s the only church I know here. When I started living with my parents, they were already going there, so I started when I came here from Uganda. And I used to help with the Sunday school at some point, when I started going.

Shanon: I’ve heard many good things about how much you contributed to the Sunday school.

Sara: Shanon, actually I want to thank St John’s Waterloo, for the support they give us and for giving us this space to come and pray in our own language. It’s so important. See, when I started helping out in the Sunday school, the children who were coming in were very young and hadn’t been exposed to the language, to our mother tongue. It was always in English – even at home, parents tend to speak to their children in English. So, in the Sunday school, you would try to speak in English and Luganda, and somehow, the children would pick this up. You’d get parents saying, “Oh, thank you! My daughter was saying ‘how are you’ in Luganda!” They would go back home and say, “Oh mum, I know how to say this.” Of course, they were not big classes. The children and youths who attended wouldn’t have received so much input because it was only once a month. But the little they did get their parents really appreciated.

I stepped down as youth leader in September 2019, but the things that we had done with the youth were incredible. We used to have youth forums where we used to talk about knife crime and more general topics like our parents, our upbringing, and the different cultures around us. We used to talk about belonging. These were things that the youths in our congregation used to love to hear and couldn’t get from anywhere else. So, thank you so much for the support and space that St John’s gives us, because if it wasn’t for St John’s, I don’t think all of these things would happen.

Sara presented with flowers by the Okusinza youth after a service in 2015 (courtesy of Sara Kwagala)

And the work is still going forward. We have other churches coming up. Okusinza mu Luganda in Waterloo is like the mother church to all these other churches in Thornton Heath and Greenwich, just to name a few.

Shanon: I also remember coming to a carols service one year where the Manchester church joined.

Sara: Yes, Manchester! And guess what? We’re going even further. There’s an Okusinza church in Canada now, and Sweden, and Boston in the US.

Shanon: It’s so thoughtful of you to thank St John's, Sara, but it works the other way around too, doesn’t it? St John’s as a church wouldn’t be what it is without the involvement of the Ugandan congregation. People like your mum (Alice Mwanje), who was such an excellent churchwarden, and others like Reverend Godfrey Kaziro, Esther Kawoya (our Reader), Ida Serunjogi (our SPA), Michaiah Mukiibi (our organist), James Mulondo (our server) and so many other Ugandan members of the congregation – they are such a central part of St John’s as well.

Sara: Thank you!

Giles and Alice Mwanje (Sara's mum) (courtesy of Shanon Shah)

Shanon: So, do your children speak Luganda?

Sara: They do understand it a lot. There’s nothing I speak in Luganda that they won’t understand.

Shanon: What’s the best way to learn Luganda, you think? Especially if you want to learn as an adult?

Sara: I’m not sure because I’ve always spoken it, but I do have a few tips. One, my sister Melba learnt from listening to Ugandan music. She’d ask me, “Sara, what does this mean?” I’d tell her and she’d pick it up that way. And then you have online Luganda dictionaries, you can learn from those. I think you already do know some Luganda, don’t you? I notice that when you come to our Ugandan services. Giles knows how to greet in Luganda, too – I’ve heard him say oli otya. I think it’s easy once you learn the basics.

Shanon: Yeah, and I think it’s quite easy to follow the service sheet, actually. Because it seems like the words are pronounced as they’re written.

Sara: Yes, and that’s what makes it really easy.

Shanon: The thing I need to remember is that the “k” sound sometimes sounds like a “ch” sound, doesn’t it? Like in the names “Kibuuka” or “Kintu”, for example?

Sara: Yes, there’s a few things to remember. Like when we’re speaking, there’s a few letters that are different in English, like the “r” and the “l”. So, when I’m speaking English, you might find me using an “l” when I need to use an “r”. (Laughs.)

Shanon: What are your favourite things about Okusinza?

Sara: My favourite things are the support that I get from it. If Okusinza wasn’t there, I don’t know, I’d still be something, but with Okusinza there we can share happiness and sadness. We’ve lost people, and we’re able to come together and pray for them in our language. Families are able to mourn their loved ones in their language. Weddings, too. Parties. Like the other time I had Kaia’s birthday party there, you know? Coming together the first Sunday of the month to pray in my language here in the UK is so important to me. And like I said it’s important to the younger generation to come and socialise with other Ugandan people. You don’t see Ugandans every day. You go to work, come back from work, you’re not mixing with them. It’s quite important to us. I could go on and on (laughs). It’s like therapy, really.

Shanon: Yes, Dorothy Mukasa was saying something very similar to me. All those years ago when she was involved in setting it up, she said it was about language, and sharing the language helped people to grieve together – people dying after the civil war, people dying because of AIDS. The ability to pray together in Luganda was so important.

Sara: Yes. And there’s something else that’s important. Eating my own food! I look forward to lots of Ugandan snacks. The Ugandan doughnut, the pilau rice, the grilled chicken, they all bring us together. (Laughs.)

Okusinza Nativity Play – courtesy of Stephen Kafeero

Shanon: Yes, I look forward to that, too (laughs.) I love coming to Martyr’s Day and I love coming to the carols service, because I know there will be even more food than usual. Also, the choir is one of my favourite things about Okusinza. Which brings me to my final question. What are your hopes for Okusinza?

Sara: Well, there’s lots of the younger generation coming up. I hope we can manage to lead in our parents’ footsteps and let the church grow bigger. I pray we continue our good relationship with St John’s. I hope lots more Okusinza churches open up.

Shanon: Do you think anything needs to change? I mean, the language is so much more alive with the first generations who came from Uganda but, as you say, your kids now, they’re born in the UK, they’ve grown up here, they go to school here. How do you keep the language alive for them? It’s so different for them now, isn’t it?

Sara: Yes. At one time when I was the youth leader, I was thinking, “We have a Sunday school, but we don’t have a service for the youths.” So, we end up somehow losing them. When they’re younger, when they’re coming to Sunday school, their parents will bring them. When they become teenagers and they can start making their own decisions, there are these other churches that are livelier, and because they speak in English there, and our young people don’t understand Luganda here, they’ll go to those churches.

By the way, that’s the other thing the Luganda service did. Now we have an English translation for the Luganda service sheets so that everyone is catered for.

Anyway, when I was youth leader, I was thinking, should we ask for some space during the Luganda service for us to just have the youths in that space, to have their own fellowship? But then would they be missing out on the main service itself? How could we incorporate this space for youths with the main service itself? Because if they have their own space, they will come and talk about other things, too. We used to achieve so much when we had the youth forums. People who wouldn’t tell their parents their problems would pour their hearts out to each other. They’d share things like, “I’m so proud my mum has done this or that”, or “I’m not happy because this or that happened”, and so on. It would be nice to have that space. I don’t know how we would go around it.

Christmas Carol Service, conducted by Samuel Kimuli (courtesy of Shanon Shah)

Shanon: Music is a very good way to do it, too, isn’t it? I remember going to an Okusinza service once and the young people were giving me these flyers for concerts by Ugandan artists and other African artists in London. What you’re suggesting is great, because if something like this could happen, the rest of the St John’s congregation would probably find it very interesting and want to support it, too.

Sara: Yes, and they like to be involved. Remember when we had the barbecue [in 2019 for ReIGNITE]? It was the best! The Ugandan young people and the St John’s congregation were so involved. They love concerts, they love things like that.

The first part of this interview is here.

Next up: Our three-part interview with Stephen Kafeero, Okusinza mu Luganda’s behind-the-scenes wizard.