When Pope Francis visits Uganda this mostly Christian nation over the weekend – its to commemorate the story of the Ugandan martyrs, the boy-children who moved by their faith stood against the absolute power of Buganda’s Kings and were executed for it in the late 1800s.
Very little is mentioned in the journey of the Martyrs about their mothers and sisters. One of the legacies of the Catholic Church and its alliance with Ugandan politics over the years is this conspiracy against women – in the church and within society.
Its steeped in myths and half measures.
The Baganda version of the creation story, one that preceded the Christian missionaries her Kings invited and later fought with, involves a confident young woman called Nambi.
Daughter of Ggulu, the creator of all things, it was Nambi who started the Ganda nation when against her family’s wishes, she married the earthling Kintu.
The rest is history. Never her-story. Nambi is dead.
Not unlike many of the strong women who hang around as helpers in the Bible stories that replaced her praise songs at homes and in Sunday school.
Ordaining women priests for example are a major reform, if only because of it is a powerful symbolism that the Church is catching up with the times. Still it remains a taboo even for Pope Francis hailed as a reformer.
And this is a problem. Reform should not simply be accommodation. It should signal a departure from the norm. As it has been with the Church and with Uganda’s own efforts at emancipating women- a policy of appeasement falls short of realising the full potential of equality of the sexes.
In fact here the Ugandan government has done slightly better.
When the last Pope,John Paul III, was a visitor the country was two years away from embarking on its wide-reaching secular program for gender parity. In 1995 Uganda embraced with initial gusto a new constitution that sought to give women “full dignity and rights” with men. It mandated women representation in public affairs and appointed a woman Vice President, a first for Africa.
These efforts have yielded fruit – perhaps one of the most important as been in affirmative action in girl education, an area dominated by Church founded institutions.
There are more girls in schools today than boys [ though girl drop out rates are high] and this had immense consequences for Ugandan society today. Despite the barely concealed paternalism that Uganda’s leading women have to face from an older, traditional and more entrenched old boys club, younger women no longer have to set a ceiling of being secretaries and nurses anymore. That was life when the first ever Pope came to visit in 1969.
But even now as the country celebrates the 20th anniversary of these continuing reforms now with yet another Papal visit – a privilege that’s rare in Africa, the refusal of the Church under Francis not to tackle the ultimate taboo of women priests reveals a retrogressive streak not in tune with the lived future of young Christians – most of who are women.
As Francis leaves the country he will do good to reflect on its intransigence. Here is why.
Firstly there is a myth that Africa- and Uganda with its majority young population deserves the attention of Rome because of her numbers. The argument that Africa is the fastest growing region is deceptive because its simply based on the large number of children that women are having. In Uganda in particular on average, a woman will have six children in her lifetime. However this translates to growth for all religions. The fastest growing faith is not the Catholic church but the evangelical movement in Uganda which to note is more progressive on gender. Its patron is the First Lady Janet Museveni.
Secondly while young people have always led the Church through example, as did the Uganda Martyrs whose sacrifice keeps bringing every Pope back to the country, it is the same energy that forces them to question the Church’s orthodoxy in the face of radical new opportunities for women.
Not surprisingly many of them will leave the Church or find a spiritual home elsewhere. Lastly – no policy of appeasement or accommodation can do for the Church what real equality can. Reform can be about meritocracy not just privilege. And as every creation story has shown from Eve to Nambi – the genesis of merit does not exclude women.
Nor should Francis.