Within the African country of Uganda is a kingdom with 11 ½ million people. A kingdom that is 700 years old. A kingdom that is starting to lose its cultural and religious heritage. A kingdom, BYU-Idaho professor Dave Pigott is trying to help document its religious shrines before they disappear. 

Pigott has studied the Kingdom of Buganda for years. He’s traveled to Uganda multiple times and has even taught in a university there. As he has strengthened his ties with the country, the kingdom and the people, he has realized the religious shrines of the people of Buganda are starting to disappear. He decided to act now before they are gone forever. He teamed up with professors from Muteesa 1 Royal University to find, geotag and document as many shrines as possible. 

“It takes years to develop those bonds and that trust that will allow me access to some of these very, very intimate portraits of the culture,” Pigott said. 

During his trip to Uganda in May, he and the team – multiple professors from Muteesa 1, a guide/translator named Ssimbwa Dusulwa and two BYU-Idaho students who paid their own way to meet him there to help in the research – documented 60 or so shrines, more than the 30-40 they hoped to find. 

“I think we really, if I do say so myself, hit it out of the park,” said Zachary Lyman, one of the students who helped in the research. 

Pigott and the other researchers are excited about what they found. The research is being compiled into a database that will allow the research to continue. The goal is to document each of the shrines – as many as 1,000 according to Dr. Fred Musisi – upload the information to a website or app and hand over the information to the king of Buganda. 

Dr. Musisi works at Muteesa 1 Royal University. He says he’s working on a grant to continue the research. He and the other researchers hope to get this finished before the shrines disappear. Dusulwa estimates they could disappear within 20 to 50 years. He says it’s partly because the people are ashamed of their heritage as they progress into a more modern society. 

“So, this project is going to help bring out what we hide from the Americans because it was called Satanic in the early days of Colonialism, then we bring it out, then you can understand Africa, then we can enjoy the privileges of Christianity without fear and without hiding anything,” Dusulwa said. 

The religion of Buganda has been orally passed down for over 700 years. The people worship many gods. The shrines might be natural shrines, such as a cave or a large tree, they could be a shrine to a former king or they could be something small inside a hut. The active shrines typically have a priest, priestess or caretaker who helps people worship.  

“This is a religious experience for these people, no doubt about it. They’ll stay sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks, meditating, talking to the local priest, trying to get some sort of special help,” Pigott said. 

Dr. Musisi explains the people will often offer up some sort of sacrifice. It could be monetary or even an animal sacrifice such as a chicken. Then the people can ask the god for the help they desire.  

Even though many people do worship at these shrines, they are also members of other faiths. A 2014 estimate from the U.S. State Department shows that 82% of people in Uganda are Christian, 14% are Muslim and less than 5% are Jewish, not religious or only worship with their traditional beliefs. What doesn’t show up in the data is how many people worship within both their newfound faith and their traditional beliefs. 

“When they are faced with a crisis, they go back to the traditional worship,” Dr. Musisi said. 

For example, Dusulwa is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which sponsors BYU-Idaho. He joined the Church in 1995. His wife and six children are now also members. He faithfully goes to church each Sunday, traveling 60 miles to his nearest congregation. But Dusulwa is also a leader of his Buganda clan Kobe. It’s one of 52 clans in the kingdom. His responsibilities include performing marriages, helping in burials and performing naming of children ceremonies. He doesn’t see a conflict between his Christian faith and his cultural heritage. In fact, he’s grateful for this project and hopes it helps the people of Buganda be proud of their culture. 

“Now this project is going to help bring out all that on the table and then we can march and say, ‘Of course! Not everything in the African culture is good, but most is good,’” he said. 

He sees that as Uganda is becoming more modern, as people take jobs in office buildings, the traditions are becoming harder to hold on to. Right now, they squeeze them into their weekends. Pigott says with the progress of their society comes the encroachment of greed. Some of the shrines have been taken over by people who just want to make money. He hopes that when they turn the project over to the king, he’ll “throw out the moneychangers.” 

Once the project is complete and the information is available online, Musisi says it will be possible for anyone to access the information anywhere in the world, including Africans who may have left the country and haven’t had the chance to experience the shrines. 

Lyman and fellow student Ethan Johnson were humbled they were able to take part in the project. They saw these shrines firsthand as they documented where they were. Johnson remembers one shrine that was part of a rock outcropping that included shrines to multiple gods. 

“This was cool because it had so much going on there,” he said. 

The students enjoyed meeting the caretakers of the shrines who welcomed them into their homes and shared their culture with them, including one priestess on the Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria. 

“It was really neat, and it was really fascinating to be extended the hand of friendship by these people, really honoring,” Lyman said. 

The students will certainly remember this experience for a lifetime. Pigott will use the experience in his classroom for years to come. He says the tension of the traditional versus the modern is relatable to BYU-Idaho students today. 

“That tension is still playing out in our culture,” he said, “It’s a little more easy to test in Africa because, honestly, they’re in the process of that development, just like we are, we’re just a few decades ahead of them.” 

To learn more about the Kingdom of Buganda, click here.