Tororo, Uganda | By Geoffrey Ochwo | A small group of people was gathered in the shade of a mango tree. They were focused on their prayers, but as I approached, all eyes turned to me. I took a seat on a papyrus mat in the back of the group, avoiding their gazes. Almost immediately the speaker called an end to the day’s prayers.
“Fellow believers, what we have learned today from amongst us shows spiritual maturity. So let us do according to what we have shared today,” the preacher said.
“We have come to end of our service,” he added.
The worshipers scattered from the tree, all looking back at me with suspicion. I could not help but suspect that my presence was the cause for the unceremonious end to the service.
I remained with two older women. The mango tree was in their compound.
“You are welcome sir and how can we help you?” asked the younger of the two. I introduced myself and told them I was there to learn more about their religion.
“There are some things that people blame us for which I do not understand, people say we are opposed to education of our children, taking medication, having phones among others. I for one I do not have a phone because I cannot afford to buy one,” she said.
As Uganda struggles to fight illiteracy in its eastern regions, schools in eastern Uganda could soon find themselves empty with the emergency of a new religion. “Banjiri” (gospel preachers) as it is called advises its believers not to send their kids to school, seek medical treatment when they fall ill or use modern forms of technology such as mobile phones or computers.
The origin of the religion is not clear but the local authorities say it is a western religion that passed through Kenya to eastern districts of Tororo, Busia, Bugiri, Iganga, Mayuge and some districts of Teso region.
I had spent two days combing the villages north of Tororo town in search of members of this faith after hearing about it from friends in the region.
Finding a “congregation” proved difficult because Banjiri believers have found themselves questioned by local authorities who are concerned over what they consider to be “extreme” views.
Authorities I spoke to acknowledged freedom of worship but were troubled, especially if these beliefs would stop a parent from seeking medical treatment for a sick child.
Mr. Nelson Etyang, the LC I Chairman of Agogomit Zone, Molo sub county- Tororo District told me: “I received complaints from local residents about this new faith in my zone and I tried to warn them of their faith but they ignored my warnings. Indeed it is true that these people stop their children from going to school, seeking medical treatment and they don’t handle phones at all.”
As born-again Christians continue to build stadiums for fellowships and gathering heavy sums of money from their followers as offerings, believers of Banjiri do the opposite. For them, giving offerings and building churches are not biblical.
They gather under trees and offerings are never collected from the believers since there is no established leader of the church. They have no set location for their worship but choose to gather wherever they can, usually on Saturday, which they consider the Sabbath day. Upon arrival, the congregation chooses a speaker for the day who will take the worshippers through the service.
One female believer who preferred not to give her name told me: “Jesus said in his teaching that whoever wants to lead should be a servant. So this is the reason why we have no leader save Jesus Christ who is the leader of all,” she said, quoting Ephesians 4:11.
No collections are made but if one of the members has an urgent problem, the congregation tries to work out a solution. When you join the faith, you cease to go to the hospital since the faith teaches that once you fall sick, Jesus will heal you and if you die then you die with Him.
Sending children to school is prohibited because some of what is taught in schools contradicts their faith and as one of them put it this would mean missing the kingdom of God.
The reason why the group does not use modern technology was not clear except that they believe these devices to be “satanic”. It seemed though that the group had no problem using bodas or taxis. I did not ask about radio or television.
For local administrators, these beliefs are extreme enough that they have been compelled to arrest followers of Banjiri.
Mr. John Emiriat, the LC III of Molo Sub County confirmed the arrest of eight people believed to be preaching the Banjiri faith.
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“Eight people were arrested so far and they took them to Morikatipe Prison from where they were released on bail as the investigations are on- going,” said Etiang. He also added that the preachers of this type of faith are hard to trap as they keep changing their fellowship venues.
“We were arrested under unclear circumstances but no one has come to make a complaint against us,” said one of those who was arrested who only identified himself as Mr. Otieno, a shop keeper at mile eight (Agogomit Zone).
“We have the right to avoid things we feel are not helpful to us and this shouldn’t be any body’s concern. I for one I don’t like phones and I will never use them since my business does not even demand for one,” Othieno said.