Baha'i Community of Uganda celebrates its 50th anniversary

August 5, 2001
Mr. Ali Nakhjavani (third from left) speaks with Captain Michael Mukula, Uganda's State Minister for Health, at a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Baha’i community of Uganda held 2 August 2001 at the Baha’i House of Worship near Kampala. Mr. Nakhjavani, a member of the Universal House of Justice, was one of the six Baha’is who founded the Baha’i community in Uganda in 1951. (Photo: Ryan Lash)

KAMPALA, Uganda — In a week-long celebration that opened to the joyous beat of African drums -- and which went on to feature a statement by Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, the Ugandan Baha'i community commemorated in early August the 50th anniversary of its founding.

The Ugandan Baha'i community was established on 2 August 1951 when a small group of Baha'is from Great Britain and Iran arrived in Uganda with the intention of bringing the teachings of the Baha'i Faith to people here.

The principles of unity and social progress offered by the Faith soon won acceptance from individuals in every region of the country and most of the major tribal groups. Within two years the community had expanded to nearly 300 members in some 25 localities who represented 20 tribes.

Today, the Baha'i Faith has an estimated 105,000 members in Uganda, organized into some 200 local governing councils and established in more than 2,800 localities. Its members represent virtually every tribal and religious background.

"You will find we have Baha'is in all regions of the country, in the western, northern, eastern, southern and central regions of Uganda," said George Olinga, Director of External Affairs for the Baha'i Community of Uganda. "And you will find that the diversity of all Uganda is clearly seen in the Baha'i community and in our activities."

Praise for the Faith's record of promoting harmony and development in a country that has often been divided by tribalism was a main message of President Museveni's statement, which was read on 2 August 2001 by Captain Michael Mukula, State Minister for Health, before a crowd of some 2,000 people at the Baha'i House of Worship in Kampala.

"In Uganda we are constantly fighting against ethnic and religious sectarianisms and our politics was played out and polarized along those major fault lines for a very long time," wrote President Museveni, explaining that his government has sought to "bring all the people together irrespective of their faith, race, color or ethnicity."

Captain Michael Mukula, Uganda's State Minister for Health, reads a statement from the President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni at a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Baha’i community of Uganda, held at the Baha’i House of Worship near Kampala on 2 August 2001. (Photo: Ryan Lash) Slideshow
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Captain Michael Mukula, Uganda's State Minister for Health, reads a statement from the President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni at a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Baha’i community of Uganda, held at the Baha’i House of Worship near Kampala on 2 August 2001. (Photo: Ryan Lash)

"We have been doing what you in the Baha'i Faith began to do a long time ago," President Museveni stated in prepared remarks. "Yours is a very useful message and can contribute greatly to nation building."

President Museveni's statement went on to highlight the need to fight the evils of corruption and the necessity of reducing poverty -- goals which he said he and his government share with the Baha'i community.

President Museveni also said his government shares a commitment to bring about equality between women and men. "I appeal to members of the Baha'i Faith, who hold the equality of rights and opportunities for women and men as an act of faith and as their basic principle, to join in our crusade for the empowerment of women," stated President Museveni.

Among other highlights of the week-long celebration, which began on 31 July in Kampala and ended on 5 August in Tilling, Kumi District, in Eastern Uganda, were the presence of four of the six founding members of the community, the attendance of various officials in the Ugandan government, and extensive coverage of the celebration in the Ugandan media.

Among the founding members of the community in attendance was Mr. 'Ali Nakhjavani, who is currently a member of the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Baha'i Faith. He spoke at several events during the week, on the theme of "The Spiritual Destiny of Africa."

Before some 2,500 people on 5 August in Tilling, for example, Mr. Nakhjavani said that when he came to Uganda in 1951, the Faith was like "drops of water here and there."

"Now the Baha'is are like a lake," Mr. Nakhjavani said. "They should now transform that lake into an ocean." He added that Africans -- and all of humanity -- are from a single lineage and that we should "see ourselves as one family" in the world.

Philip Hainsworth, another of the six founders who returned for the celebration, told how the fledgling Baha'i community of Uganda became an important nucleus for the spread and expansion of the Faith to neighboring countries in the 1950s and 1960s, through the hosting of various international conferences and, in 1957, with the start of construction on the first Baha'i House of Worship on the continent. Completed in 1961, the nine-sided Ugandan Baha'i House of Worship is now a well-known landmark in Kampala.

In recent years, the Baha'i community of Uganda has sponsored a number of social and economic development projects. The Faith operates two primary schools, in Odusai in Pallisa District and in Tilling in Kumi District. With about 1,000 students and a solid reputation for excellence, the school in Tilling is now considered to be the top school in the district.

In the 1990s, in some 30 villages in the Kumi and Soroti Districts in Eastern Uganda, the Uganda Baha'i Institute for Development (UBID) undertook a project to train and support local volunteer community health workers, whose effectiveness at improving basic health and sanitation in the region has been documented by several outside organizations.

A Baha'i-inspired non-governmental organization (NGO), UPLIFT, has also recently started a literacy project in the northern region of Uganda, where literacy rates are low. Focused around the town of Packwach in Nebbi District, the project serves about 200 people in some six communities.

Government officials present at Jubilee events commended the Ugandan Baha'i community's contribution to the country's development. At the opening ceremony on 31 July, the Honorable Zoe Bakoko Bakoru, the Minister of Gender, Labor and Social Development, was the featured speaker. Ms. Bakoko Bakoru praised the Baha'is for their unity and for their support of equal rights for women. She urged the Baha'i community to work harder to spread such teachings and to undertake more development work. The Minister was also present on 5 August at the closing event in Tilling.

At a Jubilee event on 3 August at the Baha'i Center in Bweyeyo, Luwero District, the guest of honor was Edward Masiga, the Resident District Commissioner for Luwero. The local Baha'i community there operates a community school with about 40 students. Mr. Masiga urged the Baha'is to spread their principles "aggressively," adding that he hoped they would undertake more development projects like the school.

At least three major television stations (CTV, UTV and WBS) carried two- to three-minute segments on their evening news broadcasts. The government newspapers "The New Vision" and "Etop" carried articles with color photographs of Jubilee events. The newspapers "Monitor" and "Sunrise" and numerous radio stations also covered the Jubilee.

Like most other Ugandans, the Baha'i community suffered in the 1970s during the repressive regime of Idi Amin. The Faith, along with many other religious groups, was banned in 1977. After Amin was ousted in 1979, however, the Faith was legally reconstituted and, after a period of political instability, the community has continued its expansion.

"The time from 1977 to 1981 was a period of great trials for the Ugandan community generally, and there are stories of many heroic feats and sacrifices by Baha'is during this time," said John Anglin, Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Uganda, the national Baha'i governing council. "But the 1990s were a period of re-building our former capacity and strength."

"Now, over the next ten years, we expect to see steady growth both in numbers and also in capacity and maturity," Mr. Anglin continued. "The successful conclusion of the Jubilee events is one of the signs of this new capacity and new willingness to achieve."