Thursday, September 7, 2017

Why I kinda, low-key, actually care about Profit Mbonye mania

I am atheist, which means that when people pray, I just politely stand by waiting for the moment to pass. Same way I stand still, close my eyes and hold down my skirts during a dust storm. But I can't lie. This time, I am interested in this Mbonye mania. 

This Tuesday, Joseph Kabuleeta, a former colleague from our New Vision days, and one with whom we share mutual respect for each other's writing gift, opened the Prophet Mbonye weekly fellowship at Kyadondo Rugby Club. This being the first after the dinner for which faithfuls paid up shs 1 million to honour the prophet, Kabuleeta predictably opened with salvos at those "people on social media" who made a frenzy about what happened at that dinner. If you've been living under a rock, reports indicate that some chosen faithfuls (including Kabuleeta) got to kiss the prophet's shoes. I have also heard that the steep admission fee bought the faithfuls plates of katogo. What more does an event need if it's going to go viral? "They can love you. They can hate you. But they can't ignore you. Tufuuse ensonga," Kabuleeta said to applause and ulalations from the congregants. Ahead of me in the security queue two ladies could not contain their excitment. "They will be fine!" one said of the social media detractors. "Tukikole neera!" she added, high fiving her mate. 

What was I doing standing in a queue to Prophet Mbonye's fellowship? Well, technically, the same thing I patronise the rugby club for: I was there to drink beer. Even though the club's pitch becomes a church every Tuesday, the bar remains open & cheap, for those of us whose thirst isn't spiritual. But I was also there for the fellowship. In fact, that would be my second time attending it. I enjoyed live tweeting the theatrics of it, the first time.

You see, Kabuleeta is right. Love or hate, we can't ignore them. I don't even love nor hate the Prophet Mbonye mission. I have a very limited emotional bandwidth so most things fall out of its range. Mbonye would be one of those things. But, I am endlessly fascinated, not by Mbonye or Kabuleeta and the other shoe kissers (they're making bank), but by people like that lady in the queue who dances at the thought that what she does with her spirituality is a slap in the face of some faceless people out there. That crowd of faithfuls that has grown from about 2500 to possibly 5000 in the past 16 weeks that the Mbonye fellowship has been at the rugby club. What is the utility of the fellowship to them? Why do they give their money to get prophesies on who will win the oscars in the U.S? 

For the most part, testimonies at the fellowship are underwhelming: they leave you wondering what miracle was worked. A young man was on the verge of eviction in 2006  because he owed shs 3 million in rent arrears. Then he saw a poster advertising the Mbonye fellowship at Theatre La Bonita. He attended and the God of Prophet Mbonye "moved a friend" to lend him shs 1 million which he put towards his rent debt and that way bought time with the landlord. "The God of Prophet Mbonye is powerful!" he says. Except, that sounds a lot like the standard hustle in this town for folks religious or otherwise. In fact,  it feeds a thriving loan sharks sub-economy. Why would someone lending you a million (if you're the kind of person whose rent is large enough for arrears to rise to shs 3 million) somehow be a miracle that can only be accounted for by the power of a prophet? "Also, your rent problem didn't get resolved!" the writer in me, who hates sloppy storylines, wanted to point out. But, considering I was in the bar upstairs, about 50 meters removed from the Silk Events stage that is set up to serve as pulpit each Monday evening, I would have had to scream to get his attention. That then, might have led me to being tackled by the counter terrorism policemen who patrol Kyadondo during fellowship. 

Did you know that? Yes, the counter terrorism police (or men in its uniform) guard the fellowship. It used to be the military police but the security appears to have been upped. An hour or so before fellowship, counter terrorism sweeps the venue with sniffer dogs, stations some officers along Jinja road to guide pedestrians crossing the road to the fellowship, and positions armed sentinels at the corners of the bar upstairs. I haven't the faintest idea how much Mbonye pays for our national security apparatus to guard him, or if he pays at all. I know though that he does pay Kyadondo sh10m every week to hold the fellowship on it's pitch. 

Back to the testimonies. A lady testified that she & her husband had wanted a family car for years but failed to afford one. Desperate for it, she printed an image of the model she wanted & went to fellowship with that piece of paper for the entire month of May. "Prophet Mbonye said God can decide to spoil you. You can point at a car and it becomes yours," she recalled. So, she consulted car dealers who told her she would have to pay 32% of the car price before they imported it. Her husband insisted they still couldn't afford the car until 2018. Then, sometime in July, at work (I surmise she works for the Uganda Revenue Authority), she saw that Prophet Mbonye had applied to transfer a car into his names but hadn't paid the transfer fees. She paid the fees for him. "I knew that was my point of contact [with God] for my miracle," she explained. She also "was blessed to be part of the people who processed a personalised number plate for the prophet. Then she asked him for a prophesy regarding her car desires. He said he saw her driving that car in the 8th month of the year. Then, "the holy spirit ordered the car without me paying any deposit," she revealed. When the car arrived, her husband paid the installment needed to get it out of the bond, and "by the second week of August, I was driving that car." Cue: ululations from the crowd. 

In the above testimony, I especially like the part where the holy spirit orders for the car. It reminds me of a lady who worked for me back when I run a chappati business in my S.6 vacation. In the beginning, she was clearly pregnant. We woke up early to make the chapattis and her morning sickness was major! Then she was sort of ill but not in the morning sickness way. Just ill. Then, we realised she wasn't showing any pregnancy signs anymore. Somebody asked her what had happened, perhaps for gossip or out of genuine concern that she might have suffered a miscarriage. Her response: nasaba mukama nebiterera (I prayed to the Lord and matters were made right). My friends and I still speak about abortion with that euphemism. "She's brave, keeping it under the circumstances. In her shoes, I would have prayed to the Lord for matters to be righted," one might say of a pregnancy that happens in a failing relationship. Not to get totally derailed though: in the above testimony, where a husband finds himself with no choice, but to pay for a car the holy spirit ordered, despite the state of family finances, are there counter prophets who can send mites to keep his wife itchy all night? 

From the three Mbonye faithfuls so far, I surmise two reasons to believe fervently in the god of Mbonye. One: by default you believe you have haters and detractors and even the most personal things you do with your life (like worshipping your god) keep them awake at night. So you do more of those things. Long live passive aggression. Two: You are a person who is uncomfortable with your own agency. You may or may not subject your friends to harangues regarding lending you money for rent you don't afford. You may or may not have arm-stronged your husband into buying a car he wasn't ready for. But let's just say, the spirit moved them to do these things. 

Although his patterns & rhythms are hard to discern because he jumps from one train of thought to another, sometimes abandoning the previous idea mid-sentence, the prophet's 1-hour sermon is mostly woven with two motifs; salvos at detractors & good fortunate despite oneself. "They haven't seen anything yet. I told you we messed up the devil's crowd. We came to take it to them. We are offensive with it. We are not playing defence. We came to take it to them. We are the remnants of the Lord. When we showed up, what they thought they knew about Christ, they will have to rethink it again," the prophet says. It sounds like gibberish but only if you haven't been tuned into the online wars between Ugandan Christians interpreting "The Word" correctly since Mbonye arose. He zooms in to the personal, "I am speaking here as a prophet of God. Whoever has given you a hard time at your work place... they will crumble. We came to take it to them. Hahahahaha." Occassionally, he breaks into actual gibberish. "Rabashata rababa rashata..." he says in a low devotional voice from time to time. It drives his congression into a frenzy for some reason. Every time. Other times, he goes into a bit of TMI on himself. We, for instance, learn that his sister once tried to set him up with a white babe. "Hahahaha," he likes to break up his speech with a dry laugh from time to time. Sometimes, he quotes the Bible, reading its verses off a teleprompter positioned to the side of the stage, just below eye level. As he reads from it, the undiscerning might conclude he is reciting memorised verses. It's not hard for me to imagine people who would be that gullible. One Saturday morning in 2010, I discovered one of my relatives was that way lacking. 

It was about 8:20am when I got the call. “Lyd, come to Nakawa. Bring your car. There is a problem with Mike,” said Saul, my cousin. Saul is as illogically generous as his father before him. He therefore is everyone’s distress call. He’s the guy who bails out detained relatives and mediates talks between fathers and their disowned sons.  If there is a child out there who was fathered in an extra-marital affair by one of relatives, it will be Saul who slowly assimilates them into the family fold by showing up at funerals and weddings with them. Typical calls from him go something like, “Gundi ali ku police eNatette. Yalya sente zabaandi. Bamukutte. Yamba nze. Kikolere nze, ssi ye. Mperezaayo emitwalo ettano, tusonda kakalu ka kooti.” Usually, the shortest way out is to acquiesce. Saul has both moral high ground & tenacity. He will beat down every argument you have for not getting involved.  So, that Saturday, even though I didn’t quite remember who Mike was nor how I was related to him, I drove to the specified Nakawa location. 

It was a row of single room rentals & Saul was peeping into the window of one. He seemed to be bargaining with someone inside. When I got to the window, I saw that inside the room was a man-child. A tiny malnourished, yellow eyed person, squatting with his bony knees touching his chin. He didn’t seem mentally present. Saul was trying to get him to come to the door and let us in. Eventually, dragging himself using feet, bony bum and palms, he approached the door, turned the key and we got in. 

The room was empty except for a plastic chair (broken) and four basins full of water. It was, miraculously, also clean. I had expected to find a mound of faeces in a corner because there was no way this person could make it out to the toilet outside. It turned out, he hadn’t had anything to take to the toilet in weeks. This was day unknown of his 40-day fast, as instructed by the prophet of the day: a man of god, whose name & title I don’t recall. His faithfuls congregated on a hill somewhere off Entebbe road. He is the guy who first popularised the idea of seeding: giving some money to your pastor such that it grows into a blessing many folds bigger. Actually, that idea is as old as church itself. What he popularised was the Luganda phrase for it: okusiga. 

What had happened to Mike’s property? He had seeded it all into the pastor. His wife? Yes, she too had either been seeded, or had seeded herself, into the pastor. Mike himself seemed still intent on seeding his very life into the pastor. He still didn’t want to break his fast. He has absconded from his government job as a secondary school teacher months earlier and all he had done with the time is worship this pastor. 

So far though, it seemed that all Mike had reaped from the seeding was beriberi disease. His limbs didn’t work. His eyes moved involuntarily. He could hardly speak. His mind was hardly there. It seems that in the weeks he had been lying starving in the house, he had grown an affection for the water in his basins. When we poured it away, his otherwise confused face was overcome with the saddest of expressions. Water in basins was all the material wealth he had left and he had just watched us pour it away. Defeated, he let us carry him to the car. Saul worked his family cohesion magic and got Mike taken in by a relative who nursed him back to health with literal baby food, like they give malnourished children at the Mwana Mugimu clinic at Mulago hospital. 

Thank god for government inefficiency. When Mike recovered, he found that nobody at his old workplace had reported his prolonged absence. So, he had a job waiting for him, and his name was still on the payroll. I never learnt what fruits the seeding of his wife bore. I suppose neither did Mike. 

I really want to leave matters of Mbonye to the faithfuls. I figure that if you can find shs 1 million to pay for a dinner of any kind, you are not a vulnerable person that needs my protection. You know what value you are getting from your association with the man of gaad. But, you also might be a Mike. Surely, there must be several Mikes in the crowd of 5000. People selling all their earthly possessions, for a chance to kiss the prophet’s shoes, in the hope they’ll be catapulted into the middle class comforts of the other well dressed people in the tent with them. How cruel it is for anyone to make them believe that is going to happen. That’s a cruelty I cannot pretend not to care about. 

Then again, what can anyone do to dissuade them? I may care about the Mikes believing in Mbonye magic, but I also know I can't help them. The only path through this is: they will invest themselves, hit beriberi bottom and if lucky, they will start over, wiser for it. So, next Tuesday, I will drink my beer and watch the frenzy below, praying my own non-prayer: may none of the Mikes in the crowd be related to me. I would feel much better respecting their freedom of worship, knowing that it indeed will never cause me to lose sleep. Not even Saturday morning oversleep.