On a day of leaden skies and heavy air, we visited a large local mosque with two young Australian NGO workers staying at Red Chilli, Emma and Whitney. I thought the excursion would be good for Sam, some hands-on religious education.
The National Mosque is the largest mosque in sub-Saharan Africa and can hold 30,000 of the faithful. Construction had started under the Amin regime but the money dried up when the economy collapsed and it remained half-finished until 2004 when building recommenced after funding was granted for its completion by Colonel Gaddafi of Libya. Before we entered, Emma and Whitney had to don head dress and a long skirt over their pants, the necessary cloth wraps provided at the entrance.
‘We don’t have to wear sheets.’
‘No Sam it is only ladies.’
‘Because it is their culture.’
‘I don’t want to wear a sheet.’
‘Do you understand what a culture is?’
‘It is what a group of people, like a country or a religion, set up as their rules.’
‘Oh.’ He pondered this and looked out the corner of his eyes. ‘I don’t want to wear a sheet. I don’t want it to be my culture.’
It was his aversion to long sleeves thing.
We were attached to a very nice guide, Ali*, a father of three. The mosque itself was a beautiful building, its vast domes covered in intricate carvings of Islamic motifs, Italian designed stained glass windows and a vast Libyan made carpet, a pleasure to walk across in our socks. Over the windows and the pulpit were arches made of Ugandan wood and the pulpit’s arch was encased in small tiles made of copper dust, a nod to the natural resources of this central African nation.
The arch was a symbol of Uganda, and reflected the shape of the traditional thatched huts of the Bugandan nation. Outside at the front, a giant concrete arch stood at the top of the steps up to the mosque, and a towering minaret with 304 steps up to its gallery stood to the side of the arch.
Ali sat us down on the carpet and presented to us an outline of the formation of the Ugandan nation and story behind the mosque. In centuries past, current day Uganda was dominated by Buganda, a sophisticated nation that had its own king, parliament and ministers. The first outside visitors were early Arabic slave traders entering from the east, either selling their goods to the king in return for human trade or ivory, or simply stealing it. Their cargo was then bound for Zanzibar on the Indian Ocean and beyond. As well as their trade, the Arabs also brought Islam. In the late 19th century early British explorers finally found the source of the Nile and established Buganda and some surrounding tribal lands under the name Uganda. The Union Jack was raised and colonialism had arrived.
Sam liked the carpet. As he stimmed on its tightly woven pile and the patterns contained within, I wondered how much of what Ali was saying was sinking in. I tried to reinforce the principal points to Sam as Ali continued.
Sam stood up. ‘I’m bored. I want to go.’
I pulled him back down and explained to Ali. ‘He has special needs.’
‘Not a problem. He is one of God’s children.’
Ali was very good with Sam, not in the slightest fussed by his quirkiness. We continued our tour around the carpet and columns, under the domes, past the giant encased Koran. Shafts of light angled down from high windows through the vast chamber.
Not only was it Sam’s first experience of a mosque, but his first exposure to any religion other than Christianity; well, as far as I know, he may have been taught something about this at school.
‘Sam, this is the holy book of Islam. It is like the bible of Christianity.’
‘But you don’t have to be an Islam.’
‘No Sam, you don’t have to.’
Emma, Whitney and I exchanged glances.
We climbed the stairs up the minaret. From the gallery, sweeping views of the chaotic city below, with its markets, crammed roads and suburbs carpeting the undulating hills of the landscape. The name Kampala is Lugandan for “small hills with impala”; looking at the vista before me, this made complete sense.
Sam thought the staircase up the minaret was like the one at Hogwart’s. ‘Did it used to be a prison?’
‘No Sam, it is where they call out to people to come and pray.’
‘I don’t want to pray.’
‘You don’t have to.’
While chatting on the way down the minaret, the girls discovered Ali’s youngest child was disabled. A few months into his life he had developed hydrocephalus, a condition where fluid around the brain has too much pressure, which Ali described as a big head. Now aged eight, he could not stand or walk unaided, had impaired speech and memory and did not go to school. A shunt to ease the pressure on the fluid in his brain had been placed in just two months ago. I wondered why it had taken so long. Perhaps Uganda’s health system had improved a lot in the last eight years. Ali told me they had tried local herbal approaches early on, but then his family had run out of money.
While not privy to the details of the history, I wondered whether this disability might have been preventable if the clinical scenario had presented in a first world country. When he discovered I was a doctor, Ali was pleased to hear my brief assessment was that there may be still hope, given the recent placement of the shunt, of significant improvement. It was the best I could offer. I looked at Sam after he described his son’s impairments. We all have our challenges to face.’
‘Yes, Doctor James.’
While at the minaret it had rained for 10 minutes, the first time Sam and I had experienced rain on the entire African trip. It was a refreshing break to the humidity. We grabbed some boda bodas and zoomed through the afternoon peak hour back to Red Chilli. The air was charged after the rain storm, and the large marabou storks swooped low over the traffic and through jacarandas between the low rise buildings, their broad dirty wingspans flashing before us. An exhilarating ride to end what I considered to be a valuable experience for Sam.
*not his real name