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The Gods Break Through in Uganda, The Nende Files

This is the complete original version, a few sentances were cut from the version that appeared in Lapis Magazine, Issue 4, Spring 1997.

I had been to Nsambya Hospital seven years earlier, to interview Sister Nelizinho Carvalho, a heroic nun who had started the first blood-screening program in AIDS-ravaged Kampala. This time I was looking for Father John Mary Waliggo, an expert on the traditional culture of the Baganda tribe. I found him having tea in the refectory with three fellow priests. They invited me to join them, and we got talking about the old Baganda gods.
“Our gods were people with special powers, like saints.” Father Waliggo explained. “Everybody who did something extraordinary was divined.”
Kibuuka, the god of war, for instance, had been a warlord during the time of the sixth kabaka, or king, of Buganda, around 1550. He is supposed to have made wings from animal skins so he could fly like a bat. A half-disintegrated reliquary containing his genitals and jawbone is on display in the National Museum. Nende was the god of “plague attacks”– sleeping sickness and rinderpest– although bubonic plague itself was the purview of another god, Kawimpule. “We would like a god of AIDS,” one of the other priests told me. Mukasa was the goddess of Lake Victoria and of procreation. If a couple had twins they were considered to be a blessing of Mukasa.

Each of these deified ancestors still has a shrine that is attended by hereditary keepers, usually old women belonging to the clan of the god’s spouse, and when someone comes to ask for help, the god speaks through one of the keepers, who becomes possessed with his or her spirit.
“Are the old gods really alive for the Baganda, now that most are devout Christians?” I asked, and Father Waliggo said, “How can they go ? Where can they go ? They are part and parcel of us. Each of us has a name that comes from an ancestor, and by that name the ancestor lives. The dead kabakas are very important because they are living. Our dead are never dead completely. We say they have migrated, but whenever something important is happening in the family, they are there. That is why some Baganda first pour a little of their beverage to the ground before drinking themselves, to remember the others they have buried.”

The priests had to get back to their patients. I thanked them for the tutorial in Baganda eschatology and walked out behind the church to my waiting taxi, passing a small cemetery with a few dozen white crosses. In a clearing beside the cemetery a dozen men and women were standing in a semi-circle, singing hymns in hauntingly beautiful acapella harmonies, probably rehearsing for Sunday. I stopped to listen. It was that time of day in the tropics, fifteen minutes or so before sunset, when the leaves become irridescent blue and everything, for an incandescent instant, glows softly. The phenomenon, as I understand it, is caused by the horizontal shafts of the sinking sun being filtered through surface vapor, which produces a sudden change in color temperature like alpenglow, except objects are illuminated by the cool instead of the hot end of the spectrum. I happened to be looking at the crosses just as the slipping light caught them. For about twenty seconds they were extremely white, like sun-dazzled snow. Then they returned to normal, and I was left wondering whether it had just been a trick of light that I had witnessed, or a stand of departed Baganda obliquely confirming the truth of Father Waliggo’s remarks, or their afterglow.