Prime Time in Kampala
A close encounter of the evangelical kind can occur almost anywhere in the Ugandan capital, even at the nation’s automobile association.
Mable Muwonge, a customer-service representative and a devout Pentecostal, displayed her deep faith by listing “firstname.lastname@example.org” as her personal email address on her business card. Then she sold me an international driving permit, while praising the Lord for free.
“I love Jesus,” she told me, and she assumed I did, too. Muwonge thought I was a fellow evangelical or “savedee”, as in one who is saved. It was not too surprising: There are hundreds, if not thousands, of mzungu (white) missionaries in Uganda, many of them Americans, spreading the good word across this country. Only once did I see many of them gathered in one place, and that was at Entebbe Airport in July 2003 as they came to welcome the arrival of President George W. Bush.
On that occasion, the masses of missionaries did not go unnoticed by the two foreign reporters who had the misfortune to be stationed under the intense equatorial sun, myself and Thilo Thielke of Der Spiegel. “These Americans are so religious,” my German colleague said.
But that was not the only reason the automobile-association employee mistook me for a fellow savedee. I had entered Muwonge’s office carrying the printed propaganda of Reverend Franklin Graham’s group, Samaritan Purse, the West’s leading evangelical aid organization. Its monthly reports, which I receive because I was put on the mailing list after hitching a ride with the organization into Sudan in December, usually boast of how they’ve managed to help a few suffering souls in a developing country by giving them essential services and, at the same time, introducing them to the power of Jesus.
I gave Muwonge the leaflet, and she probably found the stories of faith and deliverance far more inspiring than I ever could. Not that she required the extra inspiration. Unlike her Catholic counterparts, as a Pentecostal she enjoyed a direct connection to God.
Yet Mable Muwonge is merely a footsoldier of faith amongst Uganda’s evangelicals, one believer of millions. They move around Kampala in cars and shared taxis that bear tasteful bumper stickers such as “I’m covered under the blood of Jesus.”
Pastor Martin Ssempa, however, is the Jesus-praising, Satan-bashing, American-accented general of the savedees.
A born-again Baptist, his goal is to catapult Ugandan evangelism into the 21st century through what he euphemistically describes as “social marketing,” putting biblical ideas into the marketplace. A less devout soul might suggest he’s applying a fancy new gloss to Christian fundamentalism.
I first met Pastor Ssempa on a Saturday night at the Makerere University swimming pool where he is the ringleader-in-chief of a weekly abstinence rally known as “Prime Time,” now in its fifth year.
The overpowering smell of chlorine failed to deter thousands of university students from squeezing into the narrow aisles in order to absorb the evening’s message: Love Jesus, and don’t have sex until marriage because condoms are untrustworthy. The sign on the stage declared “Just Wait,” while actors and musicians cranked out a pro-abstinence, pro-Christ message in their dramas and their songs.
The artistic zenith of the evening arrived when the musicians on stage belted out an infectious number with a chorus that told us “it’s time to praise the Lord, sing out everyone.” Then Pastor Ssempa, capable of breathing fire-and-brimstone in English and Luganda, delivered his weekly harangue to the assembled students.
“I heard about this young lady who had been a satanic worshipper, a young lady,” he told the crowd. “They don’t believe that sitting among you right now are people who touch you, and you go to sleep. And some of you young ladies, let me tell you, some of you find yourself following a guy, and you don’t know why you’re following him. Those of you who don’t have divine protection, I’m telling you on this one, a condom doesn’t help you. Tell your neighbor there are some things a condom can’t protect.”
No one in the Prime Time hordes needed a reminder to keep their libido in check. The event was more successful than a frigid shower for purging all thoughts of lust. It had to be the most chaste environment in Uganda, and that was the primary attraction.
“It is an abstinence rally, and there is one thing that drives us,” a 23 year-old born-again virgin named Simon-Peter Onaba told me. “For me as an individual, and many of the people you see here at Prime Time, the guiding principle that motivates them to abstain is a commitment they’ve made to God. A fear of God. Recognizing that pre-marital sex is not pleasing to God. God does not deserve for me to begin to get into sex now, outside of marriage.”
Yet even Onaba admitted he frequently had to smite his personal demons to sustain his abstinence.
“I am a man, and I will not say that abstaining is easy, but many people want to make us believe that it is impossible. It is not,” he said. “I can’t begin fooling around with just any woman. I know this is the time that everybody else is doing it, it doesn’t mean I should do it, no.”
The fervor of Uganda’s evangelicals, spurred on by preachers like Ssempa, is remarkable for its rigidity in a country where flexibility is the norm. Here, money keeps things fluid. It is the essential lubricant of business, human, and political relations. Yet protestations of faith trumped the lure of dollar signs at Ssempa’s Makerere Community Church, just a few minutes walk from the campus swimming pool.
“We don’t have passports. We don’t have visas. We don’t have bank accounts. We don’t have foundations, but we have Jesus,” Ssempa preached, sounding not a little like an African-American minister from the southern U.S. “Jesus, you’re better than money. You’re better than a good passport and every visa. You are better than money and foundations. You are better than buildings.”
A vociferous congregant or a member of the church’s “prayer team” bellowed “yes” after Ssempa made each point. All the while, live musical accompaniment and the “prayer team” singers successfully encouraged the congregants to throw in praises and claps of their own.
My favorite number, in Luganda, featured alternating sections of slow burn and intense fury that brought the crowd to its feet and had them dancing in the aisles. It boasted a chorus of “Hallelujah, amen, They will ask where the savedees got to after they’re gone…”
No one required the punchline to that prayer, but Ssempa delivered it anyway, to take his flock higher: “Jesus, you are everything that we love. May we never lose you. May we never forget you. May we always raise you up,” he preached. “You are the reason for our existence. You created the heavens and the earth. We exist to worship you, O God. We were created to love you. We were created to magnify you.”
Lately he’s been magnifying others as well. When Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ made its way to Uganda earlier this year, Ssempa called on friends and associates to give him enough bankroll so that he could hand out free tickets to the movie to tastemakers and the media.
In a city where a movie costs about $5 and a good monthly salary reaches about $500, Ssempa enabled thousands of non-skeptical moviegoers to absorb the largest passion play the world has ever known. In fact, The Passion shattered box-office records in Kampala by selling out for three consecutive weeks, which probably wouldn’t have happened without the pastor’s zealous promotion.
“Why would I want people to watch it? It’s my business. It’s my business as an evangelist and a preacher of Jesus Christ to let people know, ‘Hey, this is Jesus. Make an informed decision,'” Ssempa told me at his base of evangelical operations, the White House, a drop-in ministry center. “They do not know who he is, what he did, how he did it, the pain he went through. They make a decision to reject Christ ignorantly. Mel Gibson gave us good information through a multimedia presentation. Thank God, we live in the day and age of pictures and cinema to show this.”
Not surprisingly, the reviews of The Passion at the White House, where everyone I met had accepted Jesus, were unanimous in their praise.
“I believe that it was the Holy Spirit, God himself, inspiring Mel Gibson,” Douglas Aliro, 30, told me. He also believed that the lessons from Christ’s death applied to his abstinence-life today. “To me, you can only resist sexual advances, which are improper, by dying to self,” he explained. “The Passion really, really showed me that all these things, your sinful nature, you have to take it to the cross and nail it there. And let it die and be buried so that a new person, the new you could come out.”
If you can’t take your own sins to the cross and nail it there, the White House staff might be willing to do it for you. The building houses a room for the performance of exorcisms, which are the subject of a rather thick book on one of the shelves in Ssempa’s office.
During my visit, a woman in the room kept shrieking, these horrific screams, the exorcist or his assistant kept bringing in buckets of water, and no one but me seemed to find the proceedings incredibly surreal. Then again, no one seemed willing to discuss the exorcism in great detail. Instead, they wanted to know more about me.
“Are you born again,” Aliro asked outside the White House.
I was tempted to tell him that I’m descended from a long line of alleged Christ killers, but I didn’t think that would be wise.
“Not yet, but I’m working on it,” I replied. “How is your journey with the Lord?”
“Sweet and wonderful,” Aliro answered.
He then asked for my phone number in an unsubtle effort, thinking he’d call me, maybe we’d go for lunch and he’d then persuade me about the necessity of embracing Christ and abstinence unless I wanted to be damned to hell for eternity.
I gave him a wrong number, and I haven’t heard from him since.