As a Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda, I served in a village called Kiwangala that straddles the Masaka and Rakai districts in the south-central region of the country. When I lived there from 2008 to 2010, the community was missing an entire generation, lost to HIV/AIDS. Before the epidemic, the area was hit hard by war. Today, an entire generation is missing, only orphans and the elderly survived. Some people in the deeper parts of the village are living in the biblical era with livelihoods no different than those in the agrarian parables of Jesus. Not only can the residents literally relate to the stories of the Bible, Christianity’s transcendental qualities gives the community faith to persevere in an adverse environment.
In the 1870s the Bagandan kingdom first came into contact with muzungu missionaries from Europe. Ugandan Christianity is tied to the charity of faith based groups. Churches from abroad give the country gifts of education, healthcare, and social cohesion after years of disease and violence. However, the relationship also has corruptible qualities that have contributed to a culture of dependency on foreign aid, aggressive evangelism, and perverse dogma. Uganda has adopted anti-homosexual laws, punishable by death, stoked by the tidings of American churches.
While living in Kiwangala, I was approached by a group of Ugandan pastors called the Shepherd’s Fellowship to film a passion play they put on in the village every year. A British church hand tailored costumes for the actors to give the play some authenticity. In some ways, Kiwangala already resembled the Jerusalem of Jesus’s time. As the play progressed up to the crucifixion scene, lines between theater and reality blurred.
The editing of the movie took a year. The actors, holding microphones, lip-synced their performances as a pre-recorded soundtrack played over a P.A. system. Unfortunately the loud diesel generator that powered the speakers drowned out any usable sound. I had to re-record each actor afterwards as well as learn a lot of the local language, Luganda, to translate the movie’s English subtitles.
The Revealed Truth debut was screened by another traveling church group. The movie was projected on a white sheet draped against two poles in the same soccer field where the play was recorded. The presenters fast forwarded through bits and interjected a fair share of commentary over their P.A. system.
When I returned after two and a half years in Uganda to the United States I posted a link to the video in this tweet:
Why is Jesus talking into a turned off microphone? Ugandan Karaoke explained. http://wp.me/pVoY8-1G
— Jean-Pierre Larroque (@jplarroque) June 19, 2010
Film critic Roger Ebert responded with what I assume is a thumbs up.
The best Christian film I’ve ever seen. Sincerely, http://j.mp/ah7UvU
— Roger Ebert (@ebertchicago) August 3, 2010
Sometimes, when I was making the movie, I’d question what I was achieving by spending so much time on an African passion play. It seemed petty in light of the suffering these people are facing. What good is art if people are starving?
Then one of the actors would see me editing on my computer. I didn’t have electricity at my house so I would bring my laptop down the road and sit in a dusty garage that had an intermittently working power outlet. The actors would come in, stand behind me, and watch me work. When they saw themselves or a friend or neighbor on the screen, even if it was just for a moment, they would erupt with excitement. They may have never seen themselves on video before, but they were eager to share their talents with an audience. It gave them a feeling of importance, a feeling that they weren’t forgotten by the rest of the world, that they were more than just a third world statistic.
The challenges that Sub-Saharan Africa faces doesn’t boil down to economics, education, or management, but of esteem: the recognition of self worth.
I believe that digital media has a part to play in facilitating international development. Awareness and advocacy comes from good communication. Giving the voiceless a voice is the first step in creating equity on our planet.
When the world found The Revealed Truth through Ebert’s tweet, they discovered a Ugandan gospel older than the missionaries.