Roughly 19 percent of Ugandans professed belief in local religions in the late 1980s. In Uganda as in other countries, religion serves social and political purposes, as well as individual needs. An important social function of religion is reinforcing group solidarity by providing elements necessary for society's survival--remembrances of the ancestors, means of settling disputes, and recognition of individual achievement. Another social function of religion is helping people cope with negative aspects of life--pain, suffering, and defeat--by providing an explanation of their causes. Religious beliefs and practices also serve political aims, especially by bolstering the authority of temporal rulers and at other times by allowing new leaders to mobilize political opposition and implement political change.
Among Bantu-speaking societies in southern Uganda, many local religions include beliefs in a creator God, usually known as Ntu or a variant of that term (e.g., Muntu). Most religions involve beliefs in ancestral and other spirits, and people offer prayers and sacrifices to symbolize respect for the dead and to maintain proper relationships among the living. An important example of this religious attitude is found in western Uganda among members of the Mbandwa religion and related belief systems throughout the region. Mbandwa mediators act on behalf of other believers, using trance or hypnosis and offering sacrifice and prayer to beseech the spirit world on behalf of the living. In Bunyoro, for example, the ancestral spirits, who protect those who pray to them, are believed to be the early mythical rulers, the Chwezi. As a result, the Mbandwa religion in these areas is sometimes called the Chwezi religion.
Ancestors are also important in the lives of the Lugbara people of northwestern Uganda. Ancestors communicate with the living, influence their luck, and can be appeased by those in authority. A lineage elder is said to "own" an ancestral shrine, and this ownership serves to reinforce his power to communicate with the ancestors. The elder can invoke a curse on a relative, and people with illnesses often consult diviners to interpret the conditions of their lives and determine which elder might have caused the illness.
More secular functions of religion are evident in the Ganda belief system, which reinforces the institution of kingship. The kabaka is not considered to be the descendant of gods, but his skill as a leader is judged in part by his ability to defend his people from spiritual danger. Most spiritual beings are considered to be the source of misfortune, rather than good fortune--forces to be placated. A good kabaka is one who can defend his kingdom from divine retribution. Important gods in the Ganda pantheon include Kibuka and Nende, the gods of war; Mukasa, the god of children and fertility; a number of gods of the elements--rain, lightning, earthquake, and drought; gods of plague and smallpox; and a god of hunting. Sacrifices to appease these deities include food, animals, and, at times in the past, human beings.
Religion in the Tepeth society in northeastern Uganda also reinforces political values. Authority is concentrated in the hands of a small group of priests and clan elders. They admit men whom they judge to be most capable to a cult known as Sor. Sor initiates make sacrifices to enhance fertility, ensure adequate rainfall, and avoid disease. Men also become members of a society of mediums, who are highly respected, or priests, who are also respected but less so. Women receive spiritual communications regarding social ills, such as crime, but are believed to be incapable of seeing the spirits that communicate with them. Mediums, priests, and others--including women--are allowed to perform rituals that symbolize their spiritual and social prestige.
Religion overlaps with politics in many other areas of life. Ancestors and their agents on earth often support authority systems by punishing transgressions against elders. Killing or striking senior kin is sometimes sufficient to destroy a descent group. The transgressor can avert this tragedy by engaging a spiritual healer and paying the prescribed penalty. Illness is often interpreted as a penalty for flouting the authority of an elder. Illness and a wide variety of misfortunes provide opportunities for individuals to examine their own actions and relationships, admit their weaknesses to a respected leader, and compensate those who otherwise might become their enemies. This pattern of behavior--both political and religious--contributes to stability in many societies.
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