In the outskirts of Kampala, on top of one of the city’s many hills, rests a Baha’i temple. Peacefully perched with the luxury of not being crowded by tin roofs and half built hotels, the temple’s nine sides stands amongst lovely acacia and palm trees with a sloping landscape of well groomed gardens. I arrived at 11:07 Sunday morning after a long goose chase with the taxi trying to locate the temple (like men in America, Ugandan men dislike asking for directions).
I expected the 10:30 service to have started according to ‘African time’ but was
disappointed to see a stream of Ugandans, whites, and people of unknown colors and nationalities coming out of the sanctuary. As I stepped through the crowd I shook hands and was greeted by an overwhelming number of individuals. Many asked if this was my first time, apologies for my missing the service, and assurance I could still go in and pray.
More interested to learn about the history of Baha’i in Uganda, I was directed to one of the oldest members, a man with severe burn scars all over his face and neck. He has been Baha’i since 1965, and like many Ugandan Baha’i was raised Christian. With 22 other Ugandan Baha’i he traveled to Israel in 2014 on a pilgrimage to Haifa. He spoke of his journey there with such pride and longing, recounting the open gardens and inclusion he felt with the community there.
Baha’i first came to Uganda in 1952 and slowly found a following with at the place of worship pictured, completed in 1958. It is one of only seven similar temples in the world, and the first in Africa. There are Baha’i in many other cities but not a center of worship such as in Kampala. According to my Baha’i historian, the goal is to build a school, library, university, hospital and house of worship all in one. Additionally, this center was forcibly closed from 1977-1979 because the president wanted to make Uganda a Muslim nation. He claims they did not fight this but he accepted the closure as a path from G-d, praying at home during this time.
I spent over an hour talking to a Congolese Baha’i- evidently the country with the 3rd largest Baha’i following. He spoke strongly about his religious beliefs, saying that he supports the religious choice of all individuals. Even his children he allows a freedom of choice, but all he can do is show them a way. He emphasized the power of g-d, saying that “perfect things only g-d can do”. I kept inquiring into the religious tensions he has experienced, wanting to know more about what other Ugandans and Congolese think of the Baha’i. He insisted that he holds no prejudice and has felt none towards him. Honestly, most people even living close to the temple are unaware of its religious affiliation. I have heard other speak negatively towards Muslims, making reference to recent attacks in the US and globally, but he intelligently stated that this could have been from a Christian, Jew or Hindu, it is not the religion but the person.
All of the people I spoke to were kind, open and welcoming, excited to tell me about their beliefs and the oneness of humanity. The basic testament being that they share a love of G-d, peace and unity. The program for the service had passages from the Qur’an, new and old Testament as well as the Baha’u’llah and was in English and Luganda. While it is clear that there is a slowly growing following of Baha’i in Uganda, most of the attendants were like me, merely excited to sit in a peaceful part of the city, away from the traffic and smog. The space is open daily from 8 to 5pm and is well visited as there are no public gardens in the city that are open to people of all socio-economic levels, at least from what I can find. Several couples were sitting picnicking on the grass, a Middle Eastern family came to take photos in front of the flowers and a High School aged boy sat studying his books.