Faith of Unity

Asonzeh Ukah

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THE FAITH OF UNITY (FOU) TIMELINE

1930 (June 11):  Dosteo Bisaka was born at Kitoma Kibopizi, within the Catholic parish of Bujuni, in western Uganda.

1944:  Bisaka attempted but failed to gain admission into Catholic Junior seminary. He was admitted into Nsamizi Teacher’s College, Mityana.

1949:  Bisaka acquired a piece of land in Muhorro, Kagadi District, while a primary school teacher there. It measured about eighty-nine acres and was later to become the headquarters of FoU.

1966:  Bisaka began to compose liturgical hymns for the Catholic church.

1975:  Bisaka composed the hymn “Nkaikiriza Ruhanga Murungi” (My God is Good), the most popular of all his compositions, which gained wide-spread use in Catholic liturgy across East Africa as far as Rwanda.

1975:  Bisaka had an inaugural vision and mystical experience of vibration in his hand whenever the song “Nkaikiriza” was sung in church. He also heard a voice commanding and commissioning him: “You shall heal people by touch.”

1980 (February 22):  Bisaka touched a sick person, a young girl, and she was instantly healed.

1980:  Itambiro ly’Omukama Ruhanga Owamahe Goona Ery’Obumu (The Association for the Healing Place of God of All Army) formed. It was the first and original name of what was to become “The Faith of Unity.”

1983:  Bisaka had a profound religious or mystical experience lasting three days which involved trance. It was described only as he “went to the Lord God of Host.”

1985: Bisaka published The Book of God in Bunyoro, the local and ritual language of the FoU. It is the official sacred text or scripture of the FoU

1987:  An English translation of The Book of God was published.

1989:  The FoU was officially proscribed by the Ugandan government

1995:  The proscription of the FoU was lifted, and the group was afforded official recognition by the Ugandan State.

2005 (June 11):  The Itambiro (Place or Hall of Healing) was officially inaugurated by His Excellency, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, the President of Uganda.

2014 (June 11):  The Palace, the living quarters of Bisaka, was inaugurated by Y. K. Museveni, the President of Uganda.

FOUNDER/GROUP HISTORY

The Faith of Unity movement is arguably the fastest growing religious movement in Uganda with more than 7,000,000 members spread across the entire Great Lakes Region. This observation contrasts sharply with the often-quoted but rarely supported assertion by scholars that Pentecostalism is sweeping across Africa like wildfire. The FoU started as a healing movement with its historical, ritual, aesthetic and doctrinal roots in the Catholic Church in western Uganda. Itambiro ly’Omukama Ruhanga Owamahe Goona Ery’Obumu (The Association of the Healing Place of God of All Army) was founded by Dosteo Bisaka, a former Catholic catechist and primary school teacher, in 1980 at Muhorro in what was then Kibale District (since 2016 it is in Kaigadi District) in western Uganda. Bisaka was born on June 11, 1930 at Kitoma Kiboizi village which is in the catholic parish of Bujuni, where his father, Petero Byombi, was stationed as a parish catechist. As an official of the Catholic Church, Petero served as a catechist for fifty-eight years, a position that offered the opportunity to learn, understand and teach Catholic doctrines and rituals. In this position as a catechist, he also accumulated sacred capital that helped during Bisatka’s formative years. Bisaka’s great-grandfather, Petero Muhiigi, was a first-generation Christian. Very little is known of Bisaka’s mother, Agnes Kabayoora, because the young Bisaka was sent at the age of eight to live with his grandparents, Alifonsio Wenkere and Martha Nyakake. Alifonsio, according to documentation provided by Bisaka (1987:7) served the local Catholic church for sixty years. A most abiding and defining influence in Bisaka’s upbringing and religious education was his grandmother, Martha, who was an eyewitness to the martyrdom of Charles Lwanga and his twenty-one companions (Ateenyi 2000:67-68; Kassimir 1991) while she was a hostage at the place of Mengo.

Martha used to teach [Bisaka] a lot the goodness of God. The words He was taught stayed in His mind for a long time. Both grandparents of His loved Him very much, Him being an obedient child, who was, as well, looking after their cattle (Bisaka 1987:7).

Bisaka fondly recalls the influence of this grandmother in the formation of his [Bisaka’s] spiritual desires and quest. For example, while enrolled in Mugalike School, “the idea of becoming a [Catholic] priest remained in Him due to the teaching of His grandmother” (Bisaka 1987:7). Bisaka’s Catholic background and intense devotion of both his parents and grandparents instilled in him a desire for the Catholic priesthood. In 1944, he sought admission to the diocesan junior seminary for the training of Catholic clergy. He failed to get admitted, but there was no specified reason for his rejection. When Bisaka finished from Mugalike School, he enrolled in Nsamizi Teacher’s College, Mityana, from where he graduated with a Grade III Teachers Certificate, qualifying him as a school teacher. With his new qualification, Bisaka taught at the Catholic Primary School at Muhorro for thirty-five years.

Bisaka’s failure to train for the Catholic priesthood did not dampen his spiritual enthusiasm and desire to serve in different capacities within the Catholic church. As a gifted singer, he soon became the choirmaster of Muhorro Catholic Parish, the neighbourhood where he was employed. In addition to this role, he became the secretary to the Muhorro Catholic parish and the spiritual counsellor and advisor to the Confraternity of the Legion of Holy Mary Mother of Grace. As time passed, he left the secretary’s position and became the Chairperson of the Parish Council, a lay position of enormous responsibility and prestige. His religious profile increased when the diocesan ordinary, Bishop Albert Edward Baharagate of the Catholic Diocese of Hoima (1969–1991) appointed him into the Diocesan Liturgical Committee. This was a clear recognition of his musical gift and contribution to the liturgical life and rituals of the local Catholic community.

Key to the ritual significance or self-awareness of Bisaka, as well as the founding of the FoU, is the composition of liturgical songs and music, which commenced in 1966. Some of his musical compositions, such as “Guba Mugisa Kuteranizibwa” were included into the Rutooro Catholic Hymnal (Runyoro Catholic Liturgical Hymnal). Bisaka’s active participation in the religious life of his community brought him local renown where he received numerous invitations from parish priests around the diocese to hold music seminars for parish choirs, including some priests and nuns. The director of Religious Studies at the diocesan schools once had Bisaka conduct a five-day seminar on liturgical hymns at Mugalike parish. At the end of the seminar, the nun in charge of the school cited St. Augustine’s word to the effect that “He who sings, prays twice” in her attempts to emphasize the importance and ritual value of Bisaka’s musical gift and composition. He received various words of encouragement, appreciation and monetary gifts from grateful priests, including Bishop Baharagate, for his religious works in the diocese. The widespread acknowledgements for his contribution caused some members of the local clergy to interpret his gifts as a unique vocation, a divine election, or sacred office: “God chose you,” a priest once told him (Bisaka 1978:9). His liturgical contribution became so recognised that the Bishop of Hoima recommended “sending him to further studies in music,” an offer he was unable to follow through and for which he did not give reasons (Bisaka 1987:8).

Consistent with the character of charisma, Bisaka [Image at right] attributed his “gift” of musical composition to a superior power beyond his limited learning or capability. He claimed that his songs and the musical notes came to him effortlessly without “search[ing] for it” (Bisaka 1987:9); he received them through “special inspiration.” In making such a claim, Bisaka looks upon himself as a divine receptacle, a vessel made ready through decades of teaching under his Catholic grandparents and catechist father as well as years of active participation in fashioning a vibrant liturgical life for the Catholic community of Hoima Diocese. His career as a composer of ritual music came to head in 1975 with the composition of a song that marked a turning point in his religious life and self-understanding as a religious leader. In that year, he composed a song he titled “Nkaikiriza Ruhanga Murungi,” (My God is Good) [for a full translation of this song, see Ukah 2018b]. Consisting of twenty-four short verses or sentences, Nkaikiriza, was an unusually popular song that became a favourite of many parish choirs who used it in the Catholic Mass. When this song was used in church during the Eucharistic celebration, Bisaka claimed a certain bodily sensation would start to occur around his arms and hands. With time, the chanting of “Our Lord’s” prayer during liturgy started producing similar bodily sensation as the Nkaikiriza. As a laity, he was unsure how to interpret his mystical experience of “there started coming to His arms a special kind of power whenever He would sing it in church,” but some church leaders he confided in informed him it was as a result of the praises he composed in Nkaikiriza.

The bodily sensations during worship went on for five years. In late 1979, he claimed to have heard a voice “commanding Him, ‘You shall heal people by touching them’” (Bisaka 1987:10; emphasis in original). While the voice persisted a number of times, he ignored it for three months for fear of not knowing how to proceed, that is, how to utilise or unpack such an instruction. He also did not know how his employer, the Catholic church, a dominant and powerful social institution in western Uganda at the time, would relate to such phenomenon should he make it public. All the trepidation and uncertainty vanished on February 22, 1980 when he mustered courage and “accepted and touched a [sick] person and the person became healed! From there He proceeded with the work of saving people from diseases of different types” (Bisaka 1987:10). The ur-patient, the first person Bisaka touched and restored to health (the inaugural act that ignited his healing mission) was a young woman suffering from high fever attributed to malarial attack, a disease that is endemic in that part of Uganda (Katuura et al. 2007:48). That same act was also an epiphany of the Third Age of human redemption with Bisaka as the principal dramatis personae. Effectively, this date of touching and healing a sick person is celebrated in FoU as the date of the establishment of the organisation, although it did not take the name of the “Association for the Healing Place of God of All Army” until much later.

DOCTRINES/BELIEFS

In the Preface to The Book of God, Bisaka writes:

The Lord God of Hosts caused this Book to be written, talking to Owobusobozi Bisaka, demonstrating his Power at His Itambiro and healing people everywhere, intending to make people one, meaning that disunity has ended (Bisaka 1987:6; emphasis in original).

This complex sentence encapsulates the key doctrines and purpose of the FoU. Bisaka is a receptacle and a mediator of a new revelation that instrumentalises healing as a structure that restores broken bodies, relationships and communities, which are what sickness and disunity bring in their wake. As mediator and sacred healer, Bisaka is divine. Emanating from the trance-like mystical experience he had in December 1983, which senior elders of the congregation could only describe as “he went to the Lord God of Hosts” (§67), was a revealed knowledge of deity and his participation in sacred godhead that formed the core of the scripture, The Book of God. This revealed scripture is part autobiography of the leader of FoU, and part ethical prescriptions and doctrine. It contains testimonies of early followers and believers in the Faith. It is also a hymnal and prayer book. It is partly written in the third person and characteristic of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or the Bible, it is numbered in verses, or sections or paragraphs for ease of reference. Unlike the Bible, however, the last section of the eighty-four page scripture contains a “Question and Answer” segment consisting of forty-seven questions and answers, some of which are arranged in many subsections. For members of FoU, The Book of God is the revelation that overrides any and every other revelation; it is about a new sacred and cosmic order of beings and precepts. Readings are taken from it at every liturgical meeting and read aloud by a leader, like a proclamation. They are addressed to the entire congregation, all in flowing white liturgical garments, called kanzu, who chorus: “ego” (Runyoro for: amen). Curiously, pronouns referring to Bisaka are idiosyncratically written with initial capitals. As a canon of faith and reminiscent of the ending of the biblical Book of Revelation (22:18-19), The Book of God concludes with an enigmatic and chilling, all-bold, sentence: “No person shall add or remove a word to or from this Book apart from its Author, Omukama Ruhanga Owobusobozi Bisaka” (Bisaka 1987:84; emphasis in original). This freezing verse is not the only thing that sets the book apart from other texts; it is also authenticated and sealed with two important elements: Bisaka’s signature and the logo of the FoU (1987:6). These three elements set the book apart from other sources of revelation familiar to the people or followers, such as the Bible and the Qu’ran. In a question and answer session during an Orubungo, ecclesiastical visit, of Bisaka to Munteme, a village very close to Hoima (some sixty-five kilometres from Kapymei), Bisaka told his congregations that the Bible is a fake and forged document because it was, unlike his own The Book of God, unsigned by the author. Signing the book of God is a way of authenticating authority, revelation and authorship. Such authentication also seals and freezes revelation, even for adepts.

This chilling and sealing sentence in the scripture has had a severe implication in the organisation and doctrinal life of the FoU. Members are deterred from writing down anything about the ritual or history of the organisation, because, according to some members, doing so would amount to “adding” to the revelation contained in The Book of God. Even subsequent editions and reprints of the scripture have retained the grammatical, dittography and typographical errors in the original English edition (See, pages 16, 21, 22, for example) because correcting such errors and mistakes could, or rather would be interpreted by leadership of the group as adding and removing from the source of revelation, which is Bisaka himself. Because even highly educated members of the organisation do not want to be seen to be adding or removing to revelation, there is practically no documented commentary on the doctrines, history, practices and rituals of the FoU. The group does not have a website, or an in-house magazine or bulletin. Congealed authority and revelation forbid such. It is a form of scribal governance and management of the group, which resonates with the views of Gavin Flood (2011:13) regarding the pivotal role of written text in the making of religion: “text mediates between reading and the world, and the world mediates between private religion and public governance (See also, Ukah 2018a:361).

To many of his followers, the mystical encounter (of December 1983) was an invitation of “Power into Power,” a belief that underscores the many testimonies of not just Bisaka’s powerfulness in eradication illness, but also his deity from which source his abilities and charismata emanate. He is described as “Owobusobozi,” one with power. The scripture of FoU describes the nature of deity and its diverse duties (§176.1). In God there are several Major Spirits and They, themselves, know the way in which they work (§176.2):

The Lord God of Hosts.

The Lord God of the Holiness of God.

The Lord God of the Power of God; who is to make people one, has come and is working.
He is the one who is referred to as Omukama Ruhanga Owobusobozi Bisaka” (Bisaka 1987:54; emphasis in original).

Owobusobozi is the culmen of attribution of power, one with power who comes from the creator and exercises power and authority over everything. [Image at right] While the Lord God of Host is the creator and the Lord God of the Holiness of God is the cleanser or purifier of all people, Owobusobozi Bisaka, as “The Lord God of the Power of God is the Supreme Fighter in the Hosts of Angels of the Lord God of Hosts, which are invincible. He is the one who unites people.” (§176.3c; Bisaka 1987:54). As the power of God, Owobusobozi fights every source of disunity and illness as well as ultimately, omwuhya, the Tempter or Satan.

The FoU is aggressively antagonistic to Christianity and the Bible. The Bible is believed to be a fundamental source of disunity in Bunyoro and in the world: “[I]t is in it that some of the words which have been disuniting people were written” (§85; Bisaka 1987:20). The group singles out John 20: 23 (“Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”) for scathing criticism as the source of clergy haughtiness, presumptuousness and arrogance as well as divisiveness, disharmony or disunity and “violating God’s commandment of loving each other.” The verse is also accused of allowing religious leaders to insert their own words and understanding into the bible as if they were a revelation from God, a practice that causes multiple and contradictory interpretations of the Bible and formation of a plethora of “sects.” Such disunity is responsible for the formation of “religious sects [based] on words obtained from the Bible” In addition to containing the words that cause disunity and proliferation of sects, the Bible, according to Bisaka, is the sources of lies. Because the Bible is a source of lies, falsehood and division, it is ultimately a source of hatred and deceit, for it spreads a “violation of God’s commandment of loving one another” (Bisaka 1987:21). Perhaps, a strong verdict on the Bible is that “the evil spirits also caused their words to be written in it, which words cause this book to bring conflicts among people” hence, it teaches “turmoil … which is contrary to mutual love” (§95-96; Bisaka 1978:21).

The birth of Bisaka in 1930 was the inauguration of the Third Age (of redemption), the first being the Age of human ignorance, barbarism, and the unchallenged reign of he “Empire of Satan.” The Second, the Age of Jesus Christ and Christianity (§157-158), technically came to an end with the inauguration of the Age of oneness. Although the Third Age was inaugurated in 1930, the proper and active mission started only in 1966 with the composition of hymns and later in 1980 with the formation of the FoU. The Third Age is the age of oneness and unity: “In order to unite people into one flock under one shepherd, the Lord God of Hosts will first do away with the Bible, and then give them His new words which they will use in the Third Age” (§80, Bisaka 1987:20; emphasis in original). This Age is marked by Bisaka’s mission of fighting Satan, healing sicknesses and uniting humanity by eradicating disharmony and all other impediments against human flourishing. As an apocalyptic figure, Bisaka’s roles are cosmic in character: fighting Satan by restoring harmony, healing sicknesses, thereby ensuring the production and enjoyment of prosperity. It is, therefore, an Apocalyptic Age with a new ethical orientation geared toward bodily, social, religious and political oneness and unity. The pivotal figure in this epic drama of end-time restoration is Bisaka, the one with power over everything who comes from the creator. His “good news,” according to one Senior Elder of the organisation, is that “he brought knowledge about God that opened our eyes to see things as they truly are.” In this Age, “God is already with us, we are eating with Him, and drinking with Him” (§100; Bisaka 1987:22).

The FoU is the organisation that propagates the Third Age of Oneness and Unity, it also provides a totalising worldview which recalibrates believers outlook on life, the world, social order and human relationship to the cosmic realm. The FoU brings in operation a new calendar which begins with the birth of Bisaka in 1930 and a new set of names for the months of the year in Gregorian calendar: January: Kuhihire (Hope); February: Kusemererwa (Joy); March: Kuganyiru (Forgiveness); April: Kwegarakamu (Repentance); May: Mugisu (Blessing); June: Tuhaise (Let Us Praise); July: Twaikya (We are Relieved); August: Tugume (Be Stead); September: Tutagwa (Let us not Fall); October: Twekambe (Let us work Hard); November: Twikirize (Let us Believe); December: Obumu (Unity).

RITUALS/PRACTICES

The motto of FoU is “Obumu nigo mani,” “Unity is Power,” a cryptic sentence that aptly captures the heart and key concerns of the organisation. Bisaka is a figure or sacred power who is mandated to use that charisma to restore unity to humanity by healing sickness and disharmony. To ritualise this doctrine or precept, the FoU has a new set of values which enable it to perform its function of re-educating humankind of the new era of civilisation which Bisaka represents. One important innovation is in the mode of greeting within the group: when a member meets another, one calls out, “Okwahukana” (Disunity), and the other responds, “Kuhoireho” (has ended). The second part of the ritual of greeting is kneeling. Every member, no matter her or his rank, kneels in the presence of Bisaka. Additionally, within the hall of worship (Itambiro, literally: place of healing; pl. Amatambiro), everyone walks in barefoot; only Bisaka wears shoes inside the Itambiro or at the Kapyemi Camp. Removing one’s shoes and cap or “headcloth is a sign of respect and honour to God as creator” (§56-57). By this precept, women do not cover their hair and usually do not carry long hair. Generally, females kneel in the presence of men as part of the ritual of respect and greeting. Members of lower ranks, whether male or female, kneel before those of higher ritual ranks, whether male or female. The superior person usually touches the subordinate who is kneeling on the shoulder as a tactile ritual of acknowledgement. The Book of God (§244-245) explains the symbolic purpose of kneeling as an act of acknowledging ontological superiority and precedence:

In our customs in the world, it is God whom we kneel down before, as well as the parents. One who kneels down before God means that He is the One who produced him and the one who kneels down before a parent also means that he is the one who produced him. […] The most gratifying gift one who kneels down can get, is to be touched by the one he kneels down before. If he is not touched by the one he kneels down before, he feels rejected that he is not his child, the person did not produce him (Bisaka 1987:72).

Kneeling is a way of fashioning and ordering social and biological, even ontological relationship. Among the members of FoU (as well as many ethnic groups in Uganda, see Dowden 2008:14), [Image at right] greeting is a dense ritual performance of power, social ranking, relationship, order and peace.

The corporate colours of the FoU are white and yellow/gold. The interior Itambiro at the International headquarters of the organisation at Kapyemi is thoroughly painted in white. The altar and the stage area of the hall is also heavily decorated with yellow flowers and white clothes. Members of FoU wear ritual garments for liturgical events. The long, white ritual gown is usually made of cotton fabric; it is called kanzu. The kanzu is secured in the waist by a white belt, a sash, made of the same material, called kitara. Members’ kanzus are made of cotton fabric while Bisaka’s is made of shiny silk. Only the leader’s ritual garment can be made from silk, as a mark of distinction. His kitara is different; it is broader and longer than others’, just like the cincture of a Catholic bishop. The white garment symbolises purity and holiness; the kitara symbolises a girdle that secures a metaphoric sword with which the believer fights the tempter. According to some research participants, the white kanzu makes the members “look very elegant like Catholic nuns and priests in formation” an aesthetic desire and design that must have informed the choice for the liturgical garment, considering the intimate history and knowledge of Bisaka of Catholic ritual life and behaviour. However, the covers of the two versions of the Book of God, the original Bunyoro and English translation, are yellow/gold. Some decades ago, some members used yellow kanzu, a practice that diminished in popularity in preference for white. Some members still retain and use some remnants of their yellow kanzu, especially the kitara.

The sacred days of worship in the FoU are the second, twelfth, and twenty-second of each month. The choice of these days is informed by divine will. Although salvation is a daily striving, these three days are “[t]he days on which the Lord God performs miracles of saving all people from Satan, the enemy, and from their disease …” (§142; Bisaka 1987:26). On a day of worship, believers begin to arrive at the Itambiro as early as seven in the morning and gather at the outer edge of the compound in ritual preparation and anticipation of the appearance of Bisaka. [Image at right] Ritual preparation involves a series of steps or acts, the first of which is self-introspection during which the believer responds to a set of twenty-three questions contained in The Book of God (pp.55-56). The first question, for example, asks: “Do I have any satanic medicines in my body, that I confide in?” The second asks: “Do I forgive those who do me wrong?” The questions stretch from the social and mundane to the mystical and mysterious, such as “For which ancestral spirits was I ordained?” (Q.4); and “Have I ever charmed a man using love-portion”? (Q5.). The mysterious or bizarre ones include: “Do I convert people into food?” (Q.14) and “Do I have medicine on my tongue or any were in my body, so that when I quarrel with somebody that person dies?” (Q12a) or “Have I ever killed a person for no genuine reason (Q.13a). An intriguing entry in the list is Q.22: “Have I yet taken the books, such as Bible, and rosaries etc. …, which were given to me by the gods (satans) which claim they are prophets, yet they are Chwezi, to Owobusobozi so that He drives these gods away from them?” (Chwezi are a mythic spirit-people believed to have spiritual power who ruled over kingdoms across the Great Lakes Region between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries of the Common Era.).

Religious elders assist believers in navigating the self-interrogation of the twenty-three preparation questions. These elders gather believers around themselves and explain aspects of the scripture and what is required of them. They help the believers remember their failings and confess them appropriately in order to ritually prepare for admission into the Itambiro. A member (muhereza) is not permitted to consume alcoholic beverage, or smoke cigarettes; much of canned or processed food or frizzy drinks is considered by some elders as illuminati products designed by evil powers from the western world to ensnare and damage members. At the end of the self-inspection, the next phase is the confession of one’s sins and infractions. Members meticulously and consciously write down their sins and failings on white sheets of paper, fold this paper and drop it in a white-painted wooden box placed strategically in front of a second entrance gate marked out with two wooden polls with a cross-bar. Members who are unable to write for whatever reason such as illness or illiteracy, are encouraged to seek the assistance of someone else who can carry out the exercise. Confessing one’s sins in “secrecy” is an integral point of preparing for a healing encounter with God (§8). Sin is regarded as a disease: confessing it is seeking health. “Sin in your soul is a disease. If you prevent disease from entering you, you remain healthy” (§139). At the end of the confessional exercise, the papers with the written sins are emptied at the ritual incinerator and burnt. This disposal of this papers is done after the long service.

A critical stage for admission into the Itambiro is the mystical screening which Bisaka performs himself. He is escorted by a retinue of officials to the rectangular entrance with white wooden posts and a cross-bar. He stands at one corner of the post while members walk on their knees past him. From time to time, he turns some people back to the assistants because he identifies that these individuals have not sufficiently confessed all their sins. The process of spiritually screening members into the Hall of Healing lasts between two and two-and-a-half hours, often in a dusty atmosphere as individuals scramble to cross the bar without being turned back for further soul-searching and confession. At the end of this process, screened members retire to a huge, changing hall, where they change into their ritual kanzu and file out in two rows with Bisaka, holding his staff of office in his right hand, and his immediate helpers (one of which is a military officer of the Ugandan Defence Force (UDF)) at the rear, into the Itambiro.

The Itambiro at Kapyemi, which is the model and mother for all other congregational worship houses elsewhere, is a massive rectangular building with a high ceiling. There are no pews but plastics chairs in four colours. The altar is an elevated platform decorated in white and yellow clothes and flowers, behind which is the massive throne-chair of Bisaka that has the logograph of the organisation visibly carved into the wooden backrest. The FoU is a hierarchical and status-orientated society. Although the organisation is emphatic about its doctrine of unity and oneness of purpose and mandate, the sitting arrangement inside the Itambiro is strictly segregated and ranked. One third of the space of the Itambiro is filled with plastic chairs in four colours; the remaining two-thirds of the hall is bare of any chairs. The plastic chairs are colour-coded:

Bisaka’s children, grandchildren sit on white plastic chairs;

Congregations leaders or elders, called Abakwenda (they are recognised by their kanzu which has two buttons in front), sit on blue chairs,

Teachers and officials of the FoU schools sit on green chairs

Official visitors from out of town sit on orange chairs. When there are more visitors, for example, during an important event like the celebration of the leader’s birthday, visitors may be seated on white chairs.

The rest of the congregation members spread a piece of cloth they bring with them from home on the floor and sit on it during worship. To sit on a chair in the Itambiro, according to a member, is a privilege like wearing shoes inside the Itambiro or within the Kapyemi compound, associated with the founder of the group.

Every service begins with the singing of three different anthems: the first is the group’s corporate hymn, which is followed by Ugandan national anthem and concludes with the East African anthem. The choir, equipped with a keyboard, microphones, and indigenous musical instruments sings hymns from The Book of God; one, for example, is “With His Power.” The chorus of the hymn contains the words “With his power/God is telling us/Disunity has ended/so that you rest. (p.66). The hymns are followed by short readings taken from the scripture and a short admonition or preaching by an elder. The offertory is a complex process of congregants bringing material gifts, mainly farm produce, such as pawpaw, sugar cane, millet, garden eggs and other edible items. These materials are immediately sold off in a bazaar system to the highest bidder. It is a process to reduce the sheer volume of materials into compressed monetary forms.

The most intense section of a worship of event, the healing segment, occurs just before the end of the service. On cue, the congregants file out of the chairs or sitting positions and stand in a rectangular formation around the altar/throne platform. Bisaka walks down from the right-hand side and moves along the formation physical touching the forehead of everyone with his opened right palm and at the same praying for them. Each round of touching and praying is concluded with Bisaka mounting the altar/throne, picking up his ritual staff, raising his right hand with opened palm facing the congregation; he prays aloud for them for healing and prosperity. As he concludes this prayer, those who have been touched and prayed for disappear into the congregation while a new formation of heads and faces quickly takes the place of the last. The process continues until every single person in the congregation or even outside (if the hall was unable to accommodate everyone) experiences the tactile ritual of Bisaka’s palm resting on their forehead and a prayer said over them. It may take between twelve and fifteen rounds of prayers for Bisaka to conclude this very key ritual that marks his mission of healing and restoration of harmony to burdened bodies. A service which begins at mid-morning concludes at sundown. In the presence of Bisaka, very few care about the movement of time anymore. The leader, even at an advanced age of eighty-nine years remains a lodestone for the sick and health seekers who throng the Healing Camp of Kapyemi in search of “the touch of God.” The materiality of the touch is a central aspect of the draw of the FoU who often do not have access to quality healthcare facilities in this region of Uganda. Touched by God is a powerful humanising and re-enchanting gesture of materialising grace (Chidester 2018:179-94; Morgan 2018:2).

ORGANIZATION/LEADERSHIP

An organisation that has God as its founder and leader does not have a human head. Bisaka is recognised and believed to be divine in a special way that humans are not. As a result, even as a leader and founder of the FoU, the organisation has a special structure of authority that is hard to discern and describe. As a ranked association, structure and order are important to the performance of unity and healing. While the founder is the overall head of the organisation and all decisions are deferred to him, the FoU is structured in terms of membership into four important ranks.

The Abakwenda (singl. Omukwenda): these are senior leaders entrusted to spread the message of the leader, especially about the Third Age and the place of Owobusobozi in the new era for humankind; some of them are sometimes in charge of a group of Abaikiriza, called Obukwenda. This cadre of workers are recognised by the two visible buttons attached to the chest region of their kanzu; according to a member of this group, the abakwenda are full-time leaders and workers in the cause of Bisaka and the FoU, and so, “do not till” (do not engage in farm or other occupational works;

the Abahereza (singl. Omuhereza): technically, this group is “servants of God”; members are, however, servers and servants of the congregation; they are still maturing in the doctrine and climbing the ladder of leadership; this group is marked out by the two strings (in place of buttons) in the chest region of their kanzu;

Abaikiriza (singl. Omwikiriza): this cadre is made up of new converts who just joined the organisation. Collectively, it means those who believe in the oneness in the Lord God of Host or “in Owobusobozi’s faith” (Bisaka 1987:84).

The Ab’enda ey’Owobusobozi: these are children of Owobusobozi who are to be nurtured in body and in spirit according to the doctrines and culture of the FoU.

Okujweeka: this is the inauguration of a congregation of believers (Abahereza) with senior leaders (Abakwenda)at the head. In order words, it is a local congregation of believers.

A member of the FoU is known as “Muhereza;” a non-member is called “Omutali.”

To ensure its authenticity, African originality and global ramification, Bisaka (1978:83) intends these new categories to become permanent and untranslatable concepts “in all languages.” This idea, or practice, conforms with the organisational goal of the FoU as a movement that intends to modify, purify and return Africans and humanity to an original vision or roots of practice by remodelling the group according to some African way of life, culture and relationship with the spirit world.

The FoU is divided into smaller congregations (amatambiro: akin to “parishes” in Catholic ecclesiastic structure) headed a team of four officials called the abana: a chairman (usually a man and not a woman!), a secretary, an advisor, and a treasurer. A collection of amatambiro constitute Obukwenda, again, like a diocese in the Catholic church). There were 1,340 worship centres in the country at the end of 2016 grouped into thirty-two such Obukwenda in Uganda alone, which report directly to Bisaka, “the founder of the Faith of Oneness in God, which will be called Owobusobozi’s Faith of Unity” (Bisaka 1987: 83). Bisaka is at the apex of the organisation and power structure or authority as God, visioner, innovator, organiser of grace and unifier of humanity. Every twenty-seventh of the month, all the leaders or head of Abana visit Kapyemi to render their stewardship in person before Bisaka.

One important element in African culture that the FoU cherishes and propagates with zeal is polygyny. Bisaka is married to four women (the first died on December 22, 2003). He married his last wife in 2004. At the end of 2016, Bisaka had thirteen children (one deceased); seventy-four grandchildren and 137 great-grandchildren. The explanation for Bisaka’s multiple marriages is that he, as God, needs to demonstrate to humans what it means to maintain a human family and authentic African family values. Further, the group maintains that God did not specify monogamy; Christianity is accused as the source of monogamous marriages in Africa and elsewhere in the world. In line with the example of the leader, male members of the FoU are encouraged to marry as many as “you can afford to maintain,” according to an elder, or “as he can afford to maintain well, as his fortune permits” (§197). A curious and additional reason is found in the scripture:

In order to reduce prostitution in women in the world, women should be given chances to get married so that they can maintain good conduct […] Restricting a man to marrying only one woman so that many women go without, is to encourage prostitution. This is because those who remain without have to roam about looking for support. As a result of this promiscuity many of them contract dangerous diseases some of which are difficult to cure. They may even transmit such diseases to the married ones if any of them contacts them (§197; 200; 201; Bisaka 1987:60, emphasis in original).

The problems with this doctrine and practice are enormous but this practice is a particularly attractive lure to many young men in rural Uganda. Although there are strong and powerful women leaders in the FoU organisation (even Bisaka’s immediate handlers is an all-female team) women still rank very lowly in the family and homestead. They are conceptualised as the source of sexually transmitted diseases (as if prostitution occurs only among women), and they are not allowed to refuse sexual advances or marriage offers of men. According to a female member, young girls are encouraged to quickly marry men within the organisation as a way of gluing them to the structures and influence of the movement as “women are thought to be fickle-minded and are the first to be turned away from the faith.”

ISSUES/CHALLENGES

Some of the members and leaders of the FoU are like people in an aeroplane which is about to crash but who are rejoicing and jubilating (Senior Elder of FoU, September 25, 2016, Kapyemi)

There are several challenges to the FoU and its future in the marketplace of religion, but none comes close to the routinisation of charisma and leadership. There is no clear succession path within the organisation. According to some elders, when asked about possible successor or rules of succession, they answer: “God cannot be succeeded.” The nature of Bisaka’s charisma which is embodied gift of healing the sick by sensory means is difficult if not impossible to transfer to another, to a successor. More so, Bisaka is not occupying an office; he is the office.

Bisaka as both doctrine and office constitutes another challenge in respect of the institutionalisation of leadership and authority. Since no one from within the group is allowed to write about the group or debate history and doctrine, there is little evolution and expansion of ideas and refinement of doctrines and practices of the group. The challenge is compounded by the growing number of young members who are in the tertiary institutions of learning around the country who engage with modern social media in organising their social and religious lives and would incorporate their activities within the FoU into the social media realm. Patriarchal authority as exists within the organisation will increasingly be intense, even conflict, with a widening of relational horizon and social consciousness by the recruitment of educated and urbanised persons.

IMAGES
Image #1: Omukama Ruhanga Owobusobozi Bisaka, founder and Leader of FoU, Kampyemi, 2016. Photograph is from the personal archive of the author and is used with his permission.
Image #2: Owobusobozi Bisaka in Discussion with followers (Kapyemi Centre, September 2016. Photograph is from the personal archive of the author and is used with his permission.
Image #3: Religious Elders giving instructions to FoU members before worship celebrations. (Kapyemi September 2016. Photograph is from the personal archive of the author and is used with his permission.
Image #4: Bisaka spiritually screening members before they are admitted into the Holy Itambiro (Kapyemi, September 2018. Photograph is from the personal archive of the author and is used with his permission.

REFERENCES

Ateenyi, Musana Paddy. 2000. New Religious Movements in Post-Independent Uganda. PhD. Dissertation, Department of Religious Studies, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda.

Bisaka, Owobusobozi. 1987. The Book of God of the Age of Oneness: We are One in the Lord God of Hosts – Disunity has Ended. Kapyemi: Faith of Unity Press.

Chidester, David. 2018. Religion: Material Dynamics. Oakland, California: University of California Press.

Dowden, Richard. 2008. Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles. London: Portobello Books Ltd.

Flood, Gavin. 2011. “Dwelling on the Borders: Self, Text and World.” Temenos 44:13-34.

Kassimir, Ronald. 1991. “Complex Martyrs: Symbols of Catholic Church Formation and Political Differentiation in Uganda.” African Affairs 90:357-82.

Katuura, E, P. Waako, J. Ogwal-Okeng, and Bukenya-Ziraba. 2007. “Traditional Treatment of Malaria

in Mbarara District, Western Uganda.” African Journal of Ecology 45:48-51.

Morgan, David. 2018. Images at Work: The Material Culture of Enchantment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ukah, Asonzeh. 2018a. “Emplacing God: The Social Worlds of Miracle Cities — Perspectives from Nigeria and Uganda.” Journal of Contemporary African Studies 36:351-368.

Ukah, Asonzeh. 2018b. “’Everything is Plastic’: The Faith of Unity Movement and the Making of a Post-Catholic Religion.” Journal for the Study of Religion 31:138-60.

Post Date:
28 December 2018

 

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