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Experiencing the Catholic Church in Uganda

Posted on June 8, 2021

Sister Kathleen Mitchell, assistant professor of pastoral theology, recently had the honor of visiting Uganda for the ordination and first masses of Father Peter Walusimbi and Father Falasiko Matovu, two members of the Mundelein Seminary Class of 2021.

In this interview, she reflects on her memories of being immersed in the country’s culture, meeting its people and participating in such a joyful moment for the Church in Uganda. She also discusses her own vocation story and her experience teaching the next generation of parish priests at the seminary.

Here is Sister Kathleen Mitchell’s personal reflection:

Uganda will always have a special place in my heart and in my life. Long before I was asked to be the seminary representative for our seminarians being ordained for the Ugandan Diocese of Kiyinda-Mityana, I felt a stirring in my heart when I listened to them share about their beautiful country. So when they asked me to go for their ordination, I felt particularly blessed. My joy multiplied when they invited me to spend more time with them in their villages after their ordination, getting to know their families and the wonderful people there.

On May 1, Father Francis (Falasiko) Matovu and Father Peter Walusimbi were ordained at St. Noa’s Cathedral in Mityana, Uganda, and I was blessed to meet their bishop, experience the brotherhood among their priests, visit their seminarians and religious and travel to some of the remote “out stations” (mission parishes) in their diocese.

Since this was my first time in Africa, I am deeply grateful for the blessing of going to Uganda and experiencing such a vibrant, faith-filled people. Uganda may be known for its natural beauty and its safaris, but at a far more profound level, for those willing to risk an authentic encounter, you can discover the deeper cultural richness of Uganda and the serene, friendly Ugandan people who prioritize relationships and the needs of others above all else.

During my time in Uganda my relationship with the word “Mzungu” shifted greatly. Groups of children called after me “Mzungu! Mzungu!” (“White person!” “White person!”) — and people came up to the car window or waved at me on the motor-bike shouting “Mzungu!”

At first it was a little disconcerting to have people calling you “Mzungu” so often, but I soon began to understand that Ugandans are genuinely curious and excited to see a Mzungu and want to engage and possibly make a new friend. Furthermore, in the villages, it is a novelty to have a white visitor. Relationships are important to Ugandans and a foreign friend is especially interesting, but all relationships in Ugandan society are deeply treasured and nourished. Even extended family and friends are often considered brothers and sisters, and frequently others care for children when their parents can’t provide for them.

Although it’s certainly not possible to characterize an entire country, my impression is that Uganda is filled with smiling, vibrant and welcoming people! Wherever I traveled, Ugandans wanted to say hello, have a conversation, and introduce me to others. I quickly learned that, in Ugandan culture, greetings are important and can be lengthy. I was able to learn a few phrases in Luganda, the language spoken in the areas I visited, and when I greeted groups of people in Luganda, they clapped and cheered.

Although English is the official language of Uganda and is taught in schools, in the villages where I was, Ugandans spoke Luganda and many of the adults knew little English. Children are learning but may be shy to try out their English. I found Ugandan English to be very distinctive, with a bit of British formality and some colorful Ugandan qualities added on! It can also be very direct, and the accents and cultural differences on both sides can make conversations quite interesting!

My days in Uganda were blessed and full: from attending first Masses and celebrations, to dancing with Ugandan school children, to having conversations with wonderful people living in great poverty in rural villages. I spoke to many classes of elementary and secondary school children; visited health clinics, an orphanage and a youth center; gave out religious articles, clothes and books that I brought with me; and visited with the families of Father Peter and Father Francis. I even had a chance to take several rides to schools and back on the “boda bodas” — the motorbikes for hire. That is an experience unto itself! It was the rainy season in Uganda, and often by the time we arrived we were soaking wet and covered in the distinctive Ugandan orange-colored mud — but smiling!

While in Uganda I learned that the country moves at its own pace and isn’t in a hurry. On a daily basis, I witnessed that schedules are very flexible. Even so, Ugandans are very busy working, cooking and raising children. Many have deep financial concerns and are barely scraping by. Even though Ugandans have a lot going on in their lives, they always seem to have time for others and show infinite patience with daily chores and lengthy Masses and speeches. Sunday Mass can be much longer than here in the United States, but people showed genuine joy to be there and to express their faith in a communal way! Sunday Mass may be scheduled at 9 a.m., but there is the usual line of people waiting to go to confession before Mass can begin. Everyone waits patiently. The Ugandans I was blessed to be with are people of deep faith who pray, dance, and sing while in church. At the end of Mass, there are inevitably a number of lengthy speeches, and I soon learned that I would be asked to say a few words, too. Children singing, beautiful drumming and dancing, and then a meal together can follow this. The church is the heart of the village, and everything takes place there.

Although I saw the big, bustling city of Kampala, Uganda, several times, the majority of my time was spent in rural villages where people get by with very little. I learned to make friends with matoke, boiled and mashed plantains, which is the “daily bread” for many. One of the villages where I spent time was Ki-jjomanyi, a poor village with no electricity. There I was blessed to be with the village children in their crowded, dark classrooms at St. Maria Goretti School. Life is difficult in this village. People spend much of their time struggling to simply get by: fetching water and washing clothes outdoors; cooking outside for long hours over an open fire; walking long distances on the muddy dirt roads and looking for work to provide for their families amidst soaring unemployment. Despite their struggles, the people have a deep sense of togetherness and of care and concern for one another. I saw them find time to dance, to chat, to welcome one or two more at the table and to receive an unexpected visitor.

This Mzungu may have found many people in the villages of Uganda who live in great poverty, but more importantly she found people who are rich in so many ways: rich in gratitude and joy, rich in selflessness and generosity, rich in genuine love for God and others.

Weebale Nnyo Uganda — thank you very much Uganda! You will always have a place in my heart!