Religion, health and healing are intricately interwoven and inseparable in traditional African worldviews and societies. Among many African peoples, religion is as much a way of dealing with critical issues such as managing illness, addressing the threat of death and what happens after death, as well as creating and maintaining community life. The ‘good life’ is generally one that fosters and enhances continued harmony between human beings, their surroundings and the spiritual world of gods, spirits, deities, divinities and ancestors.
With its concentrations of people and wealth-creating institutions, the city holds a special attraction for Pentecostal Christians as a site of survival, existential fulfilment and redemption.
The introduction — or rather, violent imposition in many cases — of European missionary Christianity in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, starting from the 14th century, gradually but steadily uncoupled the health-seeking and healing impulses and practices from the African religious experience. These dislocations and disruptions in the life worlds of Africans by non-African religions caused a sacral trauma which propelled a schizophrenic spiritual quest in the souls of African converts to Christianity. Starting with the activities of Dona Beatriz (1684 – 1706) (also known as Kimpa Vita) in the ancient Kingdom of the Kongo in the 17th century, through to the Ethiopian Zionist churches of southern Africa from the 1890s onward, and to the emergence of the Aladura Christian movement in West Africa in the 1920s, different forms of African appropriation of Christianity have tried — with varying degrees of success — to reassemble the dismembered African spiritual understanding of the world.
Attempts at consolidating African worldviews with Christian ideology and theology have not waned. In response to new ways of life which have arisen alongside the rapid urbanisation of many African cities, new religious norms have emerged. These efforts offer mechanisms and typologies aimed primarily at restoring adherents to the ‘good life’. For many African Pentecostal-Charismatic Christians, God loves the city and wishes to concentrate specific redeeming acts within its borders. With its concentrations of people and wealth-creating institutions, the city holds a special attraction for Pentecostal Christians as a site of survival, existential fulfilment and redemption. Yet the same elements that offer such opportunities also forge a place of temptation, addiction and damnation. These reciprocal perceptions of the city have informed Pentecostal practices within a city like Lagos where ‘Miracle Cities’ or prayer camps hem in the cityscape: Rural environments are generally conceived as places of unimaginable evil, poverty and suffering. During a recent field study of religious city-making practices in Uganda, however, a different kind of understanding or model informs the practices of the city as exemplified by the Faith of Unity (FoU). The FoU religious movement (with headquarters in Kapyemi in western Uganda) is yet another significant attempt at addressing the African quest for healing through the instrumentality of religion. It is a full-fledged religion in its own right although with significant borrowings from Roman Catholicism. FoU combines healing, worship, radical reverence for nature and selective appropriation of aspects of the indigenous culture of the Bunyoro people of Western Uganda.
The FoU is a new religious movement founded in 1980 by Dosteo Bisaka. Born into a fervent Catholic home on 11 June 1930 in Kitoma Kiboizi, in western Uganda, Bisaka had an ambition towards the Catholic priesthood. When, in 1944, he was unable to realise this aspiration, he trained to become a catechist (like his father and grandfather before him) and a primary school teacher.
In the African context, healing is a restoration of threatened security, destabilised identity and shattered relationships.
For 35 years he was a teacher at St. Joseph’s Catholic Primary School in Muhorro. He was also a choirmaster, a member of the Catholic Diocesan Liturgical Committee at Hoima, a parish secretary, advisor to the Legion of Mary group, and chairperson of the parish council at Muhorro in Kagadi District. In these multi-faceted roles, he acquired and cultivated spiritual capital that made him an important personality in the running of the local Catholic congregation. Through what Bisaka recognized from hindsight as spiritual inspiration, he started from 1966 onwards, composing liturgical hymns for the local Catholic congregation. Between 1975 and 1980, the manifestation of his charismata intensified in the context of hymn-singing and liturgical performances. Sometime in December 1979, he believed to have heard the voice of God “commanding him, ‘You shall heal people by touching them’”. For three months, he hesitated and ignored the command. On 22 February 1980, however, he touched a sick woman who immediately received healing. From his healing mission emerged a ‘healing city’ at Kapyemi, in Kagadi District, 268 kilometres from Kampala.
Known to his followers as Omukama Ruhanga Owobusobozi (Runyoro for ‘The Lord God of the Power of God’), Bisaka set up FoU with a single mission to heal the global religious disunity afflicting humanity through healing the sick. Healing requires a space and a place. In the African context, healing is a restoration of threatened security, destabilised identity and shattered relationships. Historically, these are often what cities also provide: a sense of collectivity afforded by the safety in numbers and a deep appreciation of rootedness. At Kapyemi, the Faith of Unity movement has built an expansive, 86-acre Healing Camp now home to about 1,500 people. To understand FoU’s Healing City as a place where individuals come to safely approach the sacred, it is important to pay attention to social actors such as leaders and elders of the movement, sacred events and the processes of joining the group or accessing healing and also the relationships and networks which such activities produce and sustain.
Unlike the Redemption City of the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Lagos whose managers claim was built through ‘kingdom investment’ and the recruitment of funds from the general public, the Healing City of the FoU is being built through direct collective investment and labour of Owobusobozi’s four-million-strong followers in five countries in the Great Lake Region of East Africa. Situated on a hill and surrounded by lush green bushes and grazing fields (for Owobusobozi’s herd of cattle), the two most significant structures in the estate are the Itambiro (Runyoro for: place of healing and worship) and the newly built palace or living quarters of Owobusobozi that was inaugurated by the President of Uganda, Y. Museveni, in 2014.
In Kapyemi, ritual entrepreneur, Owobusobozi, has built a city that responds to, and satisfies Africa’s deep-seated spiritual roots and needs – a critical function which contemporary African cities often ignore.
Aside from the living quarters of the leader’s extensive family (13 children, 74 grandchildren, 137 great grandchildren), the Healing City houses a sick bay with a capacity for 40 patients, a maternity ward, and a robing hall, where worshippers change into their all-white liturgical garments before filing out in a long procession into the Itambiro with Owobusobozi and his aides at the rear.
The Healing City of Owobusobozi is characterised by greenness, serenity and near absolute absence of any world reference with the exception of the majestic palace that is home to the leader. With a capacity of sitting about 1,500 worshippers, the Hall of Healing, the Itambiro, is marked by an interior of white paint, austerely decorated with floating white and yellow gold ribbons, the corporate colours of the FoU. The facility symbolises restful, pure, elemental simplicity. Like the Tibet, Vatican City and the many Western monasteries that predate its establishment, its appearance signals a differentiation from the world beyond and asserts itself as a place for purposeful healing. Yet in marked contrast to the aforementioned religious enclaves and the gated Pentecostal cities in Africa, its spaces are open to all. In Kapyemi, ritual entrepreneur, Owobusobozi, has built a city that responds to, and satisfies Africa’s deep-seated spiritual roots and needs – a critical function which contemporary African cities often ignore.
 The first African Initiated Church was founded by Kimpa Vita in 1704/5; the Native Baptist Church was founded in Lagos in March 1888 while Mangena M. Mokona founded the first Ethiopian church in South Africa on 20 November 1892.
 The fieldwork for this study was carried out under the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity project on “Religious Innovation and Competition: The Impact in Contemporary Africa”, sub-project, “Miracle Cities: The Economy of Prayer Camps and the Entrepreneurial Spirit of Religion in Africa” (ID: 2016-SS350), funded by The John Templeton Foundation.
About the author
Asonzeh Ukah is a sociologist/historian of religion; he is affiliated to the Department of Religious Studies, University of Cape Town. His research interests include Religious Urbanism, sociology of Pentecostalism, and religion and media. He is the Director of Research Institute on Christianity and Society in Africa (RICSA), University of Cape Town, South Africa, and Affiliated Senior Fellow of Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies (BIGSAS), University of Bayreuth, Germany. He is the author of A New Paradigm of Pentecostal Power (AWP, 2008) and Bourdieu in Africa (edited with Magnus Echtler, Brill, 2016).
This article is part of a series on The City that Prays.