Time check: 10:15. I alight at Luzira; destination: Covenant Nations Church about 500 metres away, as one heads to Uganda Breweries Limited.
I am petrified; I don’t know what to expect. Will I return to the newsroom and tell the story or will my colleagues instead tell my story as I am checked into Luzira Maximum-Security prison after being charged with criminal trespass?
This is my third attempt to attend this church pastored by President Museveni’s 39-year-old second daughter, Patience Rwabwogo. The first two times I failed, thanks to an influential Christian friend who had promised to accompany me – I am Muslim – only for him to develop chicken feet at the eleventh hour.
“My friend, you want me to get arrested from there?!” he told me.
A signpost placed in the middle of the road jolts me out of my thoughts: “Police notice; reduce speed 30km/h.”
I determine to make it in this time. If they allow me in, I will write a story; if they refuse me, still I will write a story. Outside, I count 20 men in Special Forces Command police uniform, some wielding very big guns, others pacing up and down with AK47s.
Across the road a red firefighter truck is parked with its driver deeply engaged in a conversation with another uniformed man. Other uniformed men are seated along the perimeter wall, their fingers not far from their guns’ triggers. I approach one of them.
“Morning, Officer! I’m told there is church around here. Can you direct me where it is?”
He looks at me from bottom up and finally says: “Do you see where those soldiers are standing? That’s where you should enter from.”
At the said entrance, two soldiers man a security checkpoint. As is the norm elsewhere, I empty my pockets before walking through the metal detector, after which the male security guy further thoroughly frisks me. When he signals me to go, a lot of my anxiety disappears. I had feared he would ask questions and probably for my ID.
Inside the fence, the church house is sandwiched among several warehouses and offices. The compound appears to be a workplace housing a number of companies, including TERP Consults, Odrek Rwabwogo’s company.
The church entrance is at the back, where a female usher welcomes everybody with a hug and then hands them an envelope in which tithes, the offertory and pastor’s love gift are placed.
“You’re welcome, brother,” the usher tells me with a grin. “Is this your first time here?”
I answer in the affirmative. She hands me the envelope and leads me to my seat. I am the fifth to arrive. It is now 10:22am and my seat in the fifth row allows me calculated gazes in the interior.
I count about 450 metallic-frame chairs with yellow cushions. A raft of lights line the white and blue ceiling. To my right are nine windows and two at the front near the podium. To the left are several doors, each with a name, including Jesus, Alpha, Omega and Faith, among others.
Some worshippers come in through these doors and take their seats as I wonder what is beyond those doors, but I dare not investigate. A man with a camera stations near me and occasionally turns his lens on me.
PATIENCE THE TEACHER
I keep my eyes on the pulpit, covered with a blue carpet (the rest of the church floor has grey tiles), with a sideboard holding books and other regalia standing against the wall. With the sideboard stands a white screen where the praise songs and verses are projected. To the right side of the pulpit stand a guitar, piano and two speakers. Curiously, there is also flip chart.
In the middle stands Pastor Rwabwogo’s modest altar, a size like for those used in hotels. After several minutes of no activity thanks to the few congregants, a young, light-skinned gentleman I later learn is James, steps to the altar.
“Hallelujah! Praise the Lord,” he says, but we ignore him. Nevertheless, he carries on preaching until a considerable number has come.
James gives way to the choir of three; a man and two young women in yellow dresses falling to the knees. I check my watch again and it is 11:15am now. English, Luganda and Runyakore praise and worship continue up to 12:10pm, and now about 80 people have taken their seats.
Of these I only recognize the Uganda National Roads Authority (Unra) executive director, Allen Kagina, who is in the company of her husband – or so I guess – seated two rows in front of me.
Some congregants look familiar, but I cannot place them; maybe I have seen them on TV. I cannot help but notice that majority of the men are light-skinned, lanky and averaging at 6ft height. The older ones spot moustaches popularised by celebrated military generals such as Ivan Koreta.
From their sharp facial features and pointed noses, it is clear ‘westerners’ love this church. Even the female congregants are tall with similar features. Where the men spot moustaches, the ladies seem in agreement about the ‘Janet cut’ hairstyle. And from their shapely backsides and distinct legs, there are no prizes for guessing where they hail from.
Surely I must be forgiven for thinking they look like life has given them everything they ever craved. At the pulpit, the choir makes way for a Pastor Steven who engages us in hilarious banter before inviting the senior pastor to give the day’s sermon.
Pastor Patience, as her congregants fondly call her, is dressed in a white and black striped sweater that falls to the middle of her thighs over black trousers and medium-heeled black shoes. Her hair, unlike majority of her female flock, is braided with white beads at the end of the braids. She speaks softly but with authority.
“There is a country that has the ministry of happiness and if we ever got that ministry in Uganda, I would really recommend that Steven be the minister of happiness,” Patience begins her sermon. She asks James to fetch her flip chart, because “today this is more like a discussion and I want you to write”.
The sermon, with Patience handling it pretty much like a classroom lecture – something that makes me think she is like her father in that regard – goes on for slightly longer than an hour. She takes us through the stages of spiritual development and discovering one’s calling.
This, I was later told, has been the continuing topic for the past five weeks. As Patience winds up, two ushers step to the front with baskets then praise songs are sung as worshippers drop their envelopes. At 1:23pm, the service ends.
COME HERE YE FIRST- TIMERS
After the service, James welcomes those visiting the church for the first time. We are 13 in total, looking quite out of place compared to the affluent-looking majority of congregants. James hands us to the chief usher, Festus Emmanuel Rwabuhihi.
“Thank you for coming to Covenant Nations Church,’ Rwabuhihi begins. “As you can see, Pastor Patience is down to earth, not like she is portrayed out there.
They say mbu ‘this president’s daughter is looking for money’, mbu ‘if you don’t have Shs 1m for the tithe, you can’t be a member of the church’; you have seen that all those were lies by our enemies who are being used by the devil, but ignore them.”
Rwabuhihi invites us to become permanent members of the church if we want. I take a taxi back to town, proud for pulling off a story I feared might be explosive. But where Patience Rwabwogo is understood by her flock, she and her church are still an enigma to the outsiders looking in.
“Abasabira awo basaba bagumu; sikwezo emmundu! [People who pray from there are very secure; not with all those guns!] the taxi driver tells his conductor. “Naye bava wa? Kuba siraba bantu ba kuno nga bagendayo, [but where do the members come from? I don’t see local villagers praying from there]
The conductor offered: “Kirabika bava Luzira mu kkomera, kyebava babakuuma bwebatyo. [They must be Luzira prison inmates; that’s why they are heavily guarded.]
Two weeks later on May 14 I return to the Luzira church, but this time security is not as tight as the first time. I go through a metal detector but I am not frisked.
Outside, I count 14 soldiers. I soon learn that Pastor Patience is not in the house. The day’s sermon is delivered by Pastor Molly Asiimwe in pretty much the same fashion like Pastor Patience. Asiimwe is assisted by an Indian pastor, whose name I did not establish.
Unlike my first visit, newcomers this Sunday are not invited for a briefing. Of the 13 who joined with me previously, I only recognise one in attendance. As the congregation departs, I leave for the door where I catch up with Unra’s Kagina immaculate in a black top and white trousers.
Her Land Cruiser pulls up to the church door and a guard steps out to open the back door for her. Kagina and her husband step in and they are driven away; outside, a double-cabin truck with six armed men completes her motorcade.
About 80 per cent of the flock heads for the car parking lot after the service; I and another young man flag down a taxi. When the young man I boarded with takes his sweet time alighting when the taxi stops at a stage, the church, not him, takes a beating.
“Naye abasabira ku church ya Natasha beeyita ki? (who do these people that pray at Natasha’s church think they are?)” the driver rants.
Natasha Kainembabazi Karugire is Patience’s older sister, but even after 30 years in the first family, some people cannot tell who is who.