MUD AND MOSAICS

Chapter 18

UGANDA


WE SET off for Uganda, with a picnic lunch kindly prepared by the White Sisters. We left the Congo at Kasini and ten minutes later we entered Uganda at Mpondwe. The Frontier Officer was an African. In the Congo the Officers were all Belgians but just after I had carefully pointed this out to my Belgian companion he was triumphant to find ,behind the Customs' Office three quite separate little buildings marked "W.C.", one for Europeans, one for Indians and one for Africans!

The Officer warned us that a car had been completely wrecked further down the road by hippos. Evening was almost upon us and he warned: "If you run into them, put out your lights, switch off the engine, and sit still." I assured him we would obey to the letter! We got to Virika mission in the dark: a foolish but sometimes unavoidable thing to do. We had warthog meat for supper, killed by Brother David Mubende, an African from Rubaga.

Even the name Virika sounds refreshing; it means “the snows” — our Lady of the Snows, Bikira Maria ya Virika. Away to the west one could see the lovely Ruwenzori mountains, snow-capped in spite of the fact that they are on the Equator.

There must be a square mile of buildings, all pulsing with life at Virika. I started the "working" day by a long walk with Father Blanc, who is eighty years old. He came out in 1905 and has been back to Europe only once since then. I got the early history from him and realised a little what an experience it must be to witness the work of the Church, and to see it transform a whole people before your eyes from start to finish.

Not far from the church, we found Mother Peter-Michael, a White Sister, with her twenty-one smiling novices. The African Sisters always seem to me to be on the point of bursting into laughter. I often wondered what remarks were passed afterwards about our strange behaviour as we got them to perform their daily chores, while Leo climbed up on chairs and tables to get his high-angle shots, or poked his camera right into their faces. These African Sisters are called the Daughters of St. Theresa — the Banyatereza. I photographed them with their Mistress of Novices under the little statue of the Carmelite Patron of the Missions.

At St. Leo's Senior School, run by the Brothers of Christian Instruction, there were two hundred and fifty Junior and Senior boys; the junior section was under Brother Edward, an African. Nearby, the White Sisters had St. Ann's Secondary School for the girls.

In the hospital I found a volunteer German doctor who was very excited because his father and mother had come to visit him. There were some two hundred consultations a day here, and I am afraid my mind went sadly back to Dr. Goarnisson, Upper Volta. He had to cope with up to one thousand some days without any wards or operating theatre. How he would envy the set-up of Virika, where Sister Maurice of the White Sisters, with forty-five years of service to her name, is still going strong.

Rubaga is the starting point of Catholic mission history in this land and I went straight on twenty miles to Entebbe, and down to the shore of Lake Victoria where the inscription on a monument reads:

ON THIS SPOT LANDED THE FIRST
CATHOLIC MISSIONARIES OF UGANDA
ON 17TH DAY OF FEBRUARY 1879
FATHER SIMON LOURDEL AND BROTHER AMANS
OF
THE SOCIETY OF THE WHITE FATHERS

Was it a providential omen that one was a priest and the other a Brother? I closed my eyes and tried to picture the scene: the exhausted men, the dug-out canoe which had taken a month to cross the lake from Tanganyika. Away in the distance through the Bush was Rubaga the court of the King. I opened my eyes: in front of me was the airfield with a huge plane coming in like a bird; on the shore were dugout canoes the same as those used by the first missionaries but many were now fitted with an outboard motor. Up at Rubaga there is no pagan court but a vast cathedral.

Seven miles from Entebbe at Kisubi the Sisters of Peter Claver have one of the most modern printing presses in East Africa. They produce a Catholic paper twice a week. It was a surprise to see a nun sitting at a complicated looking machine. Her hands passed quickly and expertly over the keys and the machine set up the corresponding printing type. The Brothers of Christian Instruction have the large Secondary School here. I spoke to the older pupils in the afternoon and did my best to answer an avalanche of questions about life in Europe.

"What did I think of Uganda?" "Truly a jewel of a country," I could answer, thinking of the deserts and the swamps I had seen elsewhere.

There is everything in Kisubi from a kindergarten upwards. Trained craftsmen all over Uganda go out from the technical school and, most important, there is a teachers' training college with a hundred and sixty students in residence.

I met the charming and humble Brother Mbaga, Superior General of the African Brothers of Blessed Charles Lwanga, the Muganda martyr. He directs one hundred and thirty-six of the Banakaroli Brothers. There are now 4,500 African Catholic teachers of various grades in Uganda, but it is not nearly enough, for the largest denomination of the whole country is Catholic — thirty-six per cent, (1,700,000 according to the official figures I saw). The Protestant Missions follow closely with twenty-seven per cent of the population. I noticed, however, a surprising lack of Catholics in local Government and Administration. Is it because we are behind with our schools? Up to 1924 education was entirely in the hands of the missions, but since then the Uganda Government has taken a good hand.

A great step forward was the introduction of Attached Staff, whereby the Missions could get the services of first-class European teachers, who are paid by the Government as Government servants, and work in the mission schools. I had not found this Government "generosity" anywhere else so far, except in the Congo; but perhaps others could not afford it. I had noticed very generous terms of service for Doctors in Ghana and no doubt similar schemes to attract teachers would follow there.

Women are gradually coming into their own, following better education for girls. But there is still much to be done. One urgent need is for the Religious teaching Orders to come and take over what is their special work, leaving the missionaries free to be missionaries, as they will have to be for many years yet. There are missions here of sixteen to twenty thousand souls with only three or four priests to look after them. (Note: Since writing two Teaching Orders, the Canonesses of St. Augustine and the Ladies of Mary, have gone to Uganda to release Missionary Sisters.)

Rubaga Cathedral is a monument to faith. It stands not far from the site of the ancient court of King Mutesa. In the early days of the mission Brother Cyprian, built it in Roman style to hold five thousand people! At that time it was an enormous undertaking. The millions ofbricks had to be made by hand and everything had to be found on the spot. The result is a splendid achievement. As I said Mass in it, I had the feeling of the Church being now established: the pioneer stage being now over; the Church was founded . . . for the parish priest was an African.

I looked at the large notice board outside the mission of Rubaga - it was more like a town plan. There were instructions for finding the Cathedral (hardly necessary for it dominated everything) the Education Secretary, the Archbishop, the Grail hospital, the White Sisters' School, the Maternity and Clinic, the school and catechumenate run by the African Sisters and the Little Sisters of Charles de Foucauld. The convent of these last named stands on the spot where the Baganda martyrs came in secret at night to the missionaries for instruction, and finally for baptism.

We left Rubaga for Villa Maria and Katigondo senior seminary. The seminary was practically empty: the ninety students were all on holiday. It is a well-built seminary with a gem of a chapel. Since its foundation it has turned out two-hundred priests and two bishops. I wondered if all seminary staffs spend their holidays painting up their buildings. I remembered it back home and here the same thing was going on. "Getting the place done up for the students, Father," said the Superior.

Father Arthur Prentice, the first English White Father, taught at Katigondo for many years and I continually met African priests who remembered him and asked after him and Father Howell who was also here.

Father Victor Wamala, one of the first African priests, was at Katigondo. He told me that not long ago he went to warn a local renegade, turned witch-doctor, that he would die shortly. The man laughed at him, but in fact, he did die a few days later in the middle of his incantations. Father Victor rushed down to him but the man was dead among his ju-jus when he arrived.

I went over the road to the Junior Seminary of Bukalasa hoping to find Father Brankin. I had known him as a student. He was away in Kenya, broadening his mind by a visit to the Kikuyu, but I met old Father Buffard. I am sure he will not mind my calling him "old", for he is ninety years of age, and was one of the first to come from the coast by rail and boat; his predecessors had walked the five hundred odd miles. He came with Father Prentice over fifty years ago and has only been back to Europe once.

We walked a mile down the hill to Villa Maria, one of the first missions of Uganda. As I stood outside the mission, two venerable old catechists came over with a few catechumens and knelt down to ask my blessing. What a treasure these catechists are to the missions.

About the year 1894 bubonic plague broke out in this Buddu district of Uganda and people died in great numbers. Led by the missionaries, the Christians had recourse to Our Blessed Lady, and the Superior of the mission of Villa Maria ordered a great procession to be made in her honour. It was to be preceded by three days of prayer and fasting, and in the name of the priests and people, he made a vow that if no more people died of the epidemic, he would build a Lady Chapel to which a procession would go each year to commemorate Our Lady's special protection. The spread of the epidemic stopped at once and those who were ill recovered. The vow has been kept, and every year, on the Feast of the Assumption, the great procession takes place at Villa Maria now in the diocese of Masaka under the African Bishop, Joseph Kiwanuka.

The parish church of the Immaculate Conception was founded in 1892, six years after the burning of the Martyrs of Uganda. I was there for the feast of the Assumption and the church was packed to the doors — and to the windows. There were masses of people gathered, all anxious to honour Our Lady and thank her in accordance with the vow, for the miraculous cessation of the plague. After Solemn High Mass, the crowds seemed to burst out of the doors into the brilliant sunshine. I have rarely seen a more colourful sight: the women in their coloured robes of every hue, the men, most of them in long white robes, the African nuns; there were hundreds of them who had been gathered together for the Annual Retreat together with the novices and postulants, the White Sisters, African priests in large numbers, the White Fathers and the boys and young men from the seminaries not far away.

They fell into an orderly procession and, singing hymns to Our Lady, made their way through a valley of trees and up the hill to the little chapel of Our Lady a mile away. It was a stiff climb under the blazing sun, but never, I am sure, has penance been more gladly done. An African priest spoke to the crowd of the glories of Mary, Consoler of the Afflicted and Health of the Sick. Then the colourful mass of people sang a hymn to their Queen of Africa.

Bwanda nearby is the Mother House of the Bannabikira, the largest congregation of African nuns in Uganda, and the first to reach the full independence of Papal Status.

Our visit to Bwanda was a remarkable experience. First we went to the White Sisters to pick up old Sister Estella, over eighty years of age. She came out here in 1910 and has been in Bwanda ever since. She saw the foundation of the Bannabikira, and today she has the joy of seeing them raised to the status of a Pontifical Congregation with their own Mother General. Somebody took Sister Estella recently for her first sight of a lake boat! She was much more thrilled to be taken back to spend a few hours with her beloved Bannabikira. It was lovely to see them swarming round her, kneeling to kiss her hands, chatting excitedly. The convent was alive with two hundred and twenty nuns; for the annual Retreat was about to begin and they had come in from all over Uganda.

I was introduced to Mother General Antonetta and the members of her Council. She told me that their Congregation now had 438 members who work in some fifty mission stations. Over one hundred of them are qualified teachers. I took a photograph of one Sister at her blackboard. I liked her name: Sister Maria Mugagga — Sister Mary the Rich. Rich indeed, but not with the riches of the world.

There were eighty novices and postulants, so one can imagine how spick and span everything was. They all beamed with happiness! I shall never forget the lovely smiles on the faces of African nuns, wherever I met them.

I took a photograph of the former Mother General, Mother Ursula, together with Sister Estella and Mother Antonetta, the present General, all linking arms. It was a touching picture of the old White Sister who could now rejoice to see the completion of this great work, started fifty years ago under Bishop Streicher, who always lavished a special love on this growing congregation of African nuns.

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