Striking gold at the grassroots in Kiryandongo

Those prospecting for mineral wealth might be able to narrow down a search area through existing maps and survey data from the comfort of their own laptops but sooner or later they have to get their hands dirty and take actual samples if they are to strike literal or metaphorical gold. Theological education is not dissimilar: it is only when training actually goes on at the grassroots that local discoveries are made, findings that are pure gold if they unlock potential for learning and opportunities for mission in a specific locale.

This is one benefit of BUILD, which encourages local, non-formal training as an integral part of its programme, over and against more centralised and traditional forms of training. Take the critical issue of language and learning in Kiryandongo in northern Uganda. Last month’s blog entry highlighted the work of BUILD in Masindi-Kitara Diocese and noted a group led by Robert Angopa. Robert is a bi-vocational lay-reader and head-teacher in Kiryandongo District some distance from the nearest town. What language might be most suitable for learning there?

One might expect the answer to be Lunyoro, the language of the Banyoro. Even the central cathedral in nearby Masindi-Kitara town speaks of that as “our local language” to quote the description of worship there. Or it could be English, as an option for the more educated who use that official language. Or it could be Luganda, in which trade is transacted across the country. Those from other member states of the East African Community might suggest Kiswahili, that other lingua franca; however, that is sometimes perceived as the language of the army and police from previous and best forgotten eras. So it might be a surprise to find that Kiswahili does provide a uniting, shared language in that specific location.

Despite its relatively remote location Kiryandongo feels a little like a Uganda within Uganda or an East Africa within Uganda; its fascinating history that has led to a high degree of ethnic diversity. In addition to the Banyoro, the immediate area is home to Acholi, Alur, Baganda, Bagisu, Banyankole, Bakyope, Banyore, Iteso, Karamojong, Langi, Lugbara and other groups. There have been ancient migrations as well as much more modern ones: the Bakyope, for example, are said to have moved to the area from what is now South Sudan in the 1950s and 60s. And more recently still Uganda has hosted refugees in the relatively open settlements of Kiryandongo, which are so central to the district’s life and economy.

It is no wonder then that typical small groups such as those Robert oversees have at least five first languages spoken within them and, in those groups, Kiswahili becomes a language of choice with over eighty percent of participants actively using the language. Quite apart from immediately influencing the language for learning this has a range of implications. For example, here is an area that offers the opportunity to demonstrate dramatically the very heart of the gospel of reconciliation and its power to break down barriers and walls of hostility. And here is an overlooked place that could provide a surprising platform for mission across boundaries within the district itself, beyond into neighbouring ones, and further afield. Overall, theological education needs to be done in ways that are locally researched and sensitive to the location if those who need it most but can afford it least are to be reached. And if it is, we may find ourselves hitting rich veins of spiritual wealth in some of the most unlikely of places.