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In search of true church: life of Old Believers in Uganda

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In search of true church: life of Old Believers in Uganda


Alexander Ryazantsev

Last week, the Orthodox villages of Uganda, a small photography exhibition, was opened at the Moscow State University. It was arranged following an ethnographic expedition by the University. There are quite a few Orthodox believers in this African country - from 4 to 6% of the population. Few people know about the even more surprising phenomenon - the Ugandan Old Believers, who have been parishioners of the Russian Orthodox Old-Rites Church since 2012.

Orthodox believers in Uganda

In the early 20th century, Uganda became the cradle of Orthodoxy in Subsaharan Africa. The founder of Ugandan Orthodoxy was a local resident Reuben Mukasa, an Anglican. The inquisitive and pious Ugandan man once discovered the word Orthodoxy in a dictionary and became interested in its meaning. The book interpreted this concept as: “the true church, the mother church-”
The opportunity to be a part of so-called "true Church" grasped Reuben’s mind ever since — he and his followers made up the first Orthodox community in Tropical Africa. By the middle of the 20th century there were already quite a few Orthodox communities in Uganda and neighbouring Kenya, and in 1946 they were accepted into canonical communion by the priesthood of the Alexandrian Patriarchate.

Christianity is inextricably connected to the ordinary life of Ugandans. His Grace (God's Grace) Supermarket Photo by the expedition of the Africa Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences /

Today there are more than a hundred Orthodox communities in Uganda and the number of Orthodox Christians is hard to determine, but in any case it is an impressive community of 1 to 2 million people. Orthodoxy in Uganda has official status, being recognized as one of the countrys traditional religions.

Uganda is a country with non-systematic housing system; so the definition of Orthodox village is sometimes blurry - there is no strict classification into a town and a village. As there is no clear boundary between religions. Lavina was a Christian; then she married a Muslim and converted to his faith. She became a widow 20 years ago. Now Lavina goes to an Orthodox church and sometimes to a mosque; she brings up children from an Orthodox orphanage, said Innokenty Burtsev, one of the expedition participants, a graduate student of the Ethnology Department at the History Department of Lomonosov Moscow State University, explaining this feature of peoples religious commitment in Uganda.

Innokenty Burtsev gives a tour around the exhibition

However, there is the Orthodox Church; the liturgy is performed in it. This temple, or rather the parish, creates a whole social system centered on it. Humanitarian aid comes through the church, medical care is provided in the church hospital, children attend kindergarten and school founded by the community. In many churches there are kindergartens, shelters, mothers' councils, youth councils. All these branches are active; often their activities are rather of business type. For example, when enterprises affiliated with temples are established, community members jointly weave baskets for sale or open hairdressers, shares Innokenty.

The young scientist was mostly impressed by proactivity of Ugandans, especially in matters of faith. For example, adoption of Orthodox Christianity in Uganda occurred without any ministry, without violence, without support of foreign states. Just one person saw the word orthodoxy in the dictionary and became interested in it, he explains.

The search for a true, mother church in Uganda has not ended. This very search led the priest Joachim Kiyimba to the adoption of the Old Belief in the 90s of the 20th century. In fact, Ugandan fellow believers-to-be got in touch with Old Believers in Russia on their own initiative and expressed desire to join the "true church.

Tradition is a key word

Joachim Kiyimba, a priest, set the Old Belief in motion in Africa, told us Dmitri Bondarenko, a renowned expert in SubsaharanAfrica, a corresponding member of the RAS, a professor who led expeditions to Old Believers in Uganda in 2017 and 2018. In 1991, being unhappy with the calendar reform (transition from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar) and excessive, from his point of view, convergence with the ecumenists, he left the Alexandrian Orthodox Church, joining the Greek Old Calendarists (i.e. Old Belief) opposing Synod (non-canonical Greek Orthodox Church - Ed.). In 1991, he founded two communities - in Mpererve, a suburb of Kampala, the country's capital, where he lived then, and in the village of Nakabaale located about 120 km east of Kampala, where he had spent his childhood years.

A merchant in Uganda. Photo by the expedition of the Africa Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences /

True, in 1998 the Sts. Joachim and Anna Parish established by Father Kiyimba joined the Uniate Syrian-Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch in Africa. In 2000 Father Joachim became a priest of the Boston Synod of the Holy Orthodox Church of North America. From 2004 to 2007 Father Joachim returned to the Opposing Synod, and then he joined the True Orthodox Church of America.

As we see, it took some time before Father Joachim Kiyimba and his parishioners converted to the Russian Orthodox Old-Rites Church. Only in 2012, as his widow told me, says Dmitry Bondarenko, he came across information about the on the Internet. He was attracted by the fact that, as it was written there, ancient traditions were faithfully observed in this church.

Father Joachim Chiimba and Old Belief priest Father Nikola Bobkov in Moscow. Photo credit: the Obschina newspaper /

Father Joachim approached the Metropolitan of Moscow and All Russia, the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Old-Rite Church Korniliy with a letter, where he expressed a desire to join this church. In 2013, he was officially ordained and became a priest.

Christmas Greeting message from the Metropolitan Korniliy to Old Believers of Uganda. Photo by the expedition of the Africa Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences /

Tradition is a key word for Old Believers from Uganda, the scientist explains decision of the Ugandans to join the Russian Orthodox Old-Rite Church. They do not accept any innovations. They were attracted by the fact that the Old Belief is considered to be the oldest form of performing Christian rites – this is what is vital for them. Proper observance of rites and rituals is very important for the Ugandans.

Local community newspaper. The girl from the Old Believers community masters the two fingers gesture (to make the Sign of the Cross). Photo credit: the Obschina newspaper/

According to the ethnographer, such attitude to ritual dates back to pre-Christian beliefs, where the most effective ritual is the oldest by default. The most correct rite is the oldest one, the scholar explains. And the Old Belief has reputation of the oldest form of Christianity.

And at the same time, the Russian researcher believes, they are certainly the true Christians, and religion holds a prominent place in their lives. These are the people who profess Jesus Christ and deny traditional polytheistic beliefs.

The Old Believers Church in Nakabaale. Photo by the expedition of the Africa Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences /

Dmitri Bondarenko illustrates his idea with the example of Alex Chaka, the creator of the Old Believers community in Kisojo. A Catholic by birth, he became an Old Believer in 1999, because, according to him, he realized that Old Belief is the right way to make a prayer. Here is how Chaka himself explains his decision: I considered some of the practices of the Orthodox Church, which are not in the Catholic religion, to be inherent to the true religion. Two figures gesture, baptism by triple immersion in water, not by sprinkling, - these are the aspects that true religion should have: I read about all these things in the Bible. Old Believers practice religion as it is described in the Bible. Convincing others to follow him, he explained them the same points; in particular, that the truly correct way of baptism is by triple immersion, because it is described so in the Bible (Bondarenko D. From Russia with faith: the emergence of Old Belief in Uganda as a reflection of cultural processes in modern Africa // Siberian Historical Research. 2018, No. 1).

Anthropologists work. At the picture: D.M. Bondarenko. Photo by the expedition of the Africa Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences /

Father Chiimbas legacy

On his return to Uganda, Father Joachim made efforts to expand his congregate and organize its life according to the Old Believers' traditions, in which the Moscow Old-Rites Metropolis has been providing all possible assistance ever since.

FatherKiyimba I used to know him died in 2015, Bondarenko goes on. He was a very charismatic man, able to convince, to lead. After his death another priest was ordained in Moscow Father Joachim Valusimbi. He converted from Catholicism to the Old Believers under the influence of Father JoachimKiyimba. During his time, that is, in recent years, several Ugandans converted to the Old Believers.

The Russian Orthodox Old-Rite Church still does not have a huge congregation, there are only about 150 people. And they live in four settlements, rather remote from each other.

The first one is Mpererwe, a suburban area of Kampala, the capital, where Father Joachim Kiyimbalived and where his family lives up to date. There is Sts. Joachim and Anna Church, the only Old Believers church.

Children in the church, Mpererve. Photo by the expedition of the Africa Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences /

The second place is the village of Nakabaale, 120 kilometers east of the capital. This is Father Joachim Chiimbas native village.

The third place where the Old Believers live is the village of Kisojo, 130 km west of Kampala. There the community was created by a nephew of one of Father Kiyimbapatients. And finally, the fourth place is the village of Kapeke, 70 km north of the capital. Thus, the Old Believers community in Uganda is quite scattered, and its members from different parts often do not have the opportunity to communicate with each other.

Old Believers are more noticeable in Mpererwe because their church is located there. Currently, the Sts. Joachim and Anna Church is the only Old Believers church in Uganda. Church of St. Mary of Egypt in Nakabaale remains uncompleted due to lack of funds. There is a canopy installed at the community meeting site to provide protection from rain, which is not uncommon in Tropical Africa. In Kisojo, Old Believers come for prayer to an abandoned apartment building. A few years ago, a plot of land located 80 kilometers west of Kampala was purchased for construction of the Sts. Constantine and Helen Church. The money was provided by a married Russian Old Believers couple from the USA. However, the lack of funds, as well as unresolved ownership issues in respect of the plot, prevent commencement of construction (D.M. Bondarenko. From Russia with faith ...).

Church women in tents. Photo by the expedition of the Africa Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences /

How do Old Believers live in Uganda? Probably, just like any other community: there is a small core body of the most active members; there are people who participate in Sunday, Christmas and Easter services more or less regularly. And there are those who rarely come to the temple.

Services are conducted in Luganda, the local language, which everyone in Uganda understands, regardless of their ethnic origin. Their liturgical books are also in Luganda, just like the Bible - the Anglican and Catholic missionaries completed its translation in the late 19th century.

The church book in Luganda. Photo by the expedition of the Africa Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences /

Old Believers of Uganda are ordinary people. Father Kiyimba was an educated man; he came from a priests family and graduated from a theological seminary in Leningrad. And his secular occupation was a doctor. It really helped him in his preaching, since a doctor in Africa is a very significant figure, explains professor Bondarenko.

His successor, Father Joachim Walusimbi, does not have such education; he is a constructor. There are teachers, accountants, nurses and etc. among African Old Believers. All of them live ordinary life of inhabitants of the capitals poor suburbs. Their social network mainly includes people of other confessions of faith: colleagues, relatives, friends, and simply acquaintances.

Holy communion. Father Walusimbi. Photo by the expedition of the Africa Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences /

Catholic church, temple, mosque…

Villages in Uganda are quite large. For example, there are about 700 inhabitants in Nakabaale, and Old Believers make up its minority. People of various religious backgrounds live in these villages, as well as almost everywhere in Uganda. For example, there is an Orthodox church (Patriarchate of Alexandria), a Catholic church, an Anglican church and a mosque in Nakabaale, and thats in addition to the unfinished Old Believers church. And most of the inhabitants of Kisoggio are Catholics, Anglicans, or Pentecostals. Tolerance here is great. Often, even members of the same family belong to different religions.

The village of Nakabaale. Photo by the expedition of the Africa Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences /

In general, the Ugandan Old Believers have rather tolerant attitude towards other Christianity confessions. For Uganda, this is the regular thing. They are stricter towards Muslims, but have really negative attitude only to followers of pagan cults who are engaged in divination or accept the sorcerers services.

Community members collect donations and occasionally pay tithing, but all such amounts are very small. Old Believers from Russia provide them with some support. Construction of a three-storey building for the spiritual and educational center associated with the Sts. Joachim and Anna temple in Mpererwe was completed with the financial support of the Russian Orthodox Old-Rite Church. However, now a large part of donations for Ugandan fellow believers comes from parishioners of the Russian Orthodox Old-Rite Church in America and Australia. They donate not only money, but also church utensils, clothes, children's toys, etc.

Life in Uganda is very modest. Presbytera of Father Joachim Walusimbi, the village of Kapeke. Photo by the expedition of the Africa Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences /

There is a school of liturgical singing in the Sts. Joachim and Anna temple, which is a rather modest building by our standards. Presbytera Margarita, Father Kiyimbas widow, is in charge of the school. There is also an admission room for sick people.

Worship service in the church, Nakabaale. Photo by the expedition of the Africa Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences /

What do parishioners of the Russian Orthodox Old-Rites Church in Uganda know about Russia, Russian culture? Not much. Many, of course, have heard of Vladimir Putin and give, in general, positive assessment to his activities, because he opposes America. Elderly people also perceive Russia as the successor of the Soviet Union and speak of it as of a country supporting the peoples of Africa and opposing the United States. In general, their Old Belief does not depend on the fact that it came from Russia, says Dmitri Bondarenko.

It was established here without any without any active preaching from outside or force (as the case was with Anglicanism and Catholicism in the 19th century, and now with evangelism), even without any historical or cultural ties with Russia. As in the case of Orthodoxy in Uganda, establishment of Old Believers community here is the result of religious zeal from Ugandans only.

Church and social service

We talked about life of the Old Believers community in Uganda with Father Nikola Bobkov, the priest of the Russian Orthodox Old-Rites Church, who knew Father Kiyimba and repeatedly visited Uganda to help fellow believers and introduce them to the Russian Old Belief.

According to Father Nikola, the community in Uganda continues to exist without much change. It is still comprised mainly of those who were invited by the late father Kiyimba- these are his acquaintances, relatives, friends, patients, and those who were taught by him at medical courses. In Africa, a lot of things are tied to social service, so through his medical courses, he was also able to preach faith at the same time, explains the priest.

Wedding of young Old Believers. Wreaths for them were sent from Russia. Photo by the expedition of the Africa Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences /

And that was the reason Father Chiimbi wanted to open a medical school at the Sts. Joachim and Anna Church. However, the fate decreed otherwise. The building has to meet certain standards that even Uganda has. It is required for the certification. Fitting out of the building requires an amount of about 60 to 70 thousand dollars. We do not have such money, neither do they. There is a building, which currently hosts Sunday school. Presbytera of the deceased Father JoachimKiyimbateaches there children to sing. But, unfortunately, the medical courses had to be closed, because new requirements came into force in Uganda, which could not be met, said Father Nikola.

Father Joachim Walusimbi, who took place of the deceased Father Kiyimba, lives in Mpererwe, so he cannot visit community members who live in other places often. You need to understand that people have rather poor life there, explains the priest. Traveling around the country is quite expensive for them, and the community has almost no income. Father Joachim does not receive a salary, so they chip in together to cover his expenses for coming. Sometimes someone gives him tithing - for example, corn or something else.

Father Joachim Valusimbi and Father Nikola Bobkov. Photo by the expedition of the Africa Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences /

During their visits, Orthodox priests from Russia make efforts to help their brethren in Uganda as much as they can. So, in their past visits to remote areas, they brought a doctor with them; he helped people who were sick there.

According to Father Nicolas observations, Old Believers in Uganda are very curious and eager to learn more about tradition, which is new for them. Uganda is a very Christian country. Their attitude towards faith, religion, and traditions is very reverent, he says. However, the priest acknowledges, there is still no end to matters of organizing worship properly.

Parishioners in traditional dresses Gomesi, the village of Kapeke. Photo by the expedition of the Africa Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences /

Representatives of the Russian Orthodox Old-Rite Church would like to tell their fellow believers in Uganda more about Russian traditions, however many things depend on funding in this case. We would like to do that because it would help them to learn our culture, traditions of our faith, says Father Nikola. Generally speaking, the priest acknowledges, a missionary should be sent to Uganda; he would live here, if not permanently, then for a long time. However, so far the Russian Orthodox Old-Rite Church does not have such possibility.

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