In February 2012, a great wildfire raged through the Rwenzori Mountains National Park. In this area of significant conservation importance, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) had not expected, or prepared for, such a crisis and struggled to extinguish the high-altitude fire. Rangers battled it for over two weeks but still it burned, before the chief warden – in what may have been a desperate last resort – contacted the Omusinga, the leader of a traditional local community.
This indigenous group have long ties to the Rwenzori Mountains and believe them to be the home of their god Kitasamba, but they had been prevented by the UWA from freely accessing or managing the area for over 20 years. Nonetheless, their leader answered the warden’s plea and issued a call on a local radio station for his subjects to gather. The group left that same day, trekking the steep mountain peaks to fight the fire. They had extinguished it within three hours.
Even though Uganda’s religious minorities have not always been recognised, this episode is just one example the huge contributions they have made to the country and the extensive knowledge they hold. These groups are an essential part of Uganda’s religious tapestry and are required to be treated equally according to the constitution.
It is highly worrying therefore that the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has systematically excluded minorities. This not only mistreats those citizens but jeopardises efforts to contain the disease as a whole.
In its response to COVID-19, Uganda established a National Task Force as well as District Task Forces composed of health experts, political leaders, security personnel and local commissioners. On 20 March, it introduced a lockdown.
In theory, these measures affect all citizens equally, but the government has accorded special treatment to Uganda’s larger religions. On 21 March, for example, President Yoweri Museveni held an intercessory prayer service at State House to which only certain religious groups were invited. On 29 April, he held a consultative meeting with the leaders of the Uganda’s major religions, which resulted in the representatives who attended being given permission to distribute food among the needy in their congregations.
These meetings are organised under the umbrella of the Inter-Religious Council (IRC) of Uganda. This body’s membership is limited to just seven organisations: Seventh Day Adventists; Church of the Province of Uganda (for Anglicans); Uganda Episcopal Conference (for Roman Catholics); Uganda Muslim Supreme Council; Uganda Orthodox Church; the Born Again Faith; and the National Alliance of Pentecostal and Evangelical churches of Uganda. All other groups are, by definition, excluded.
Uganda’s minority religions have also been neglected in other ways. Since the lockdown, for instance, the country’s main religious groups have been given programmes on national and local television and radio to preach to their followers remotely. But smaller religious groups have not been awarded the same support, making it difficult for them to communicate with their members.
Uniting people and knowledge
In combating a public health crisis like COVID-19, it is essential that the country unites and works together. Yet Uganda’s government has not approached the pandemic in this way with regards to religious groups.
This is not unjust – in that it gives preferential treatment to members of the major religions – but counterproductive. For Uganda to contain the coronavirus, it must contain it among all citizens. And to do that, it needs to include all groups in its plans.
Rather than neglecting minorities, the government should support all those in need regardless of their religion. And instead of excluding the leaders of minority religions, it should be helping them communicate essential news to their followers regarding hand-washing, restrictions on movements and the wearing of face masks. It should support these representatives who could be crucial in influencing and informing hard-to-reach citizens.
Including religious minorities in Uganda’s pandemic response is not only essential to containing COVID-19, but it could bring other advantages. Many traditional practices have been found to be linked to important health benefits or have contributed to new scientific discoveries in the past. And as the 2012 fire in the Rwenzori Mountains showed, indigenous groups often have deep untapped wells of unique expertise that could prove essential to Uganda’s pandemic response, in potentially unforeseen ways. At this time of crisis, Uganda needs to both unite its peoples and bring together their areas of knowledge and understanding.