Being Young and Muslim in Uganda

Joweria Namuyomba, in conversation with Hala Alkarib

Being a Muslim in Uganda had never been an issue prior to the recent rise of militant Islam. Islam has been part of Ugandan culture since the 19th century, when it was introduced by Arab traders.

Joweria issue 3.png

According to the National Population and Housing Census of 2002, the Muslim population represents the third largest faith-based community in the country after Catholics and Anglicans, and despite a troubled past and years of civil conflict in the 1980s, Uganda has long been known as a place of tolerance, diversity and freedom.

However, the past 20 years have witnessed the rise of militant Islam, a trend accentuated by geopolitical factors including the leading role assumed by Uganda in the peacekeeping mission in Somalia. In 2010, the country became the target of the Somali Islamist group Al-Shabaab whose brutal attack on two restaurants in the capital city of Kampala killed over 70 people. Since then, sustained counter-terrorism measures have sparked religious tensions in the country and torn apart the social fabric of once tolerant and inclusive communities.

Joweria Namuyomba is a young Ugandan woman born in 1996 in Kawempe, one of the five administrative divisions of Kampala and a highly populated Muslim majority neighbourhood. Along the main road in Kawempe one building in particular stands out – the community centre of which Joweria is an active member. Managed by the Century Entrepreneurship Development Agency (CEDA), a non-for-profit organisation, the centre aims at supporting the social integration of young Muslims through mentoring and entrepreneurship development. Joweria’s encounter with the Women in Islam Journal took place in early 2016 at the Kawempe youth centre, when CEDA and the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA), in collaboration with the Islamic University in Uganda, organised debates on human rights and Islam among local Ugandan youth.

Joweria volunteered to share her thoughts about what it means to be Muslim in Uganda, the dilemmas she faces, and her endeavour to live by her religious values.

“I was raised in a Muslim family”

I was born in 1996 in a Muslim family in Kawempe, but grew up in Iganga district, Eastern Uganda, where I stayed with my aunt (my father’s sister) after my mother died. I was only two-years-old when she passed away. My mother had three girls of whom I was the youngest. As for my aunt, she already had six children when I joined her family. My two sisters remained with my grandmother (my father’s mother). While growing up, I came to realise how diverse my family was. We were not all Muslims. As an example, my aunt was Muslim while her husband was not.

After finishing primary school, I returned to Kawempe to attend secondary school and stayed with my grandmother. I did not wear the scarf when I lived with my aunt, but when I moved back to Kawempe, my grandmother told me that in her house I had to cover my hair just like my sisters. Having grown up in a conservative family, she was very strict on us.

When I first moved in, my sisters discriminated against me. They would not listen to me giving the excuse that I did not know anything about being Muslim. At first, they did not welcome me, but later we became close.

In Kawempe, I attended a Muslim school where it was mandatory to cover your hair from morning till evening. But on my way back from school, I would sometimes take my scarf off and put it back on when reaching home. Once, my grandmother caught me unveiled while I was in a matatu (taxi bus). When I reached home with my scarf on, she confronted me. I denied her allegations and told her that she must have mistaken me for someone else. When she threatened to tell my father, I asked her not to do so and promised to never take my scarf off in public again.

I was lucky to go to school. At first, my uncles did not want me to continue. They said, “after all, you’ve already completed primary.” But I persisted and managed to convince my father, who deeply cared for me and finally agreed to support my education until university if that was what I wanted to do. My sisters did not get this chance, and did not go to university.

“At times, I thought Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab did right”

I have always been proud of my religion and admired my fellow Muslims. Sometimes men with caps would come to our place and I would hear my sisters saying that by joining such people you get rewards from God. At that time, I thought that I had missed many opportunities for reward. I used to say to myself that if I had a chance, I would join one of these groups. My sisters had told me that after dying, these men were going straight to heaven. I knew nothing else at that time. I grew up admiring these men, thinking they were good, and that their actions were mandated by the Quran.

I remember the day during the World Cup in 2010 when Al-Shabaab’s militants killed dozens of people. At first, I felt sad for the people who died, but then I thought that the militants were probably right since the people they killed were watching football instead of worshipping. I believed that wasting time watching football was a sin. I thought that people around me were committing sins simply because they were going out, eating out and sometimes had multiple sexual partners. Also, when Boko Haram abducted 200 Nigerian girls, I felt it was good news as those girls were not Muslim and will now be forced to turn to Islam.

“I have learned about Islam in a different way”

The training on Islam and human rights I received at the Kawempe youth centre shook my beliefs. I realised that what Al-Shabaab does is not permitted by Islam. I returned home and told my sisters about what I had learned but they would not listen to me, persisting in their views. I thought I would give them some time. Then one day, I asked them how they would feel if a relative, cousin, mother, father, or sibling had been at Lugogo (where one of Al-Shabaab’s attack took place) when the bomb went off in 2010? They all kept quiet as if maybe now they could relate to those people who were killed for no reason.

What I retained from the training is that the Quran prohibits the killing of innocent people. I have learned that stoning has no basis in Islam and that nobody should be killed for adultery. It is men and their religious leaders that have come up with their own interpretations of Islam. I have learned about jihad and the influence that jurists, who acted based on their times and circumstances, had on religion.

Before, I could have joined a militant group thinking that it was the right thing to do. But now, I don’t even want to come near them. I used to think that living with non-Muslims and celebrating days like Easter and Christmas were a sin. Now, I realise that there is nothing wrong about it and I enjoy sharing happy moments with non-Muslim friends and relatives. I even like to listen to Justin Bieber and dance.

I do have many non-Muslim friends. One of my good friends told me, ‘I will never be a Muslim, Joweria’ and I still like her. But I don’t want to talk about religion with them because I know that if we go an extra mile, we will fight. So, I have to keep quiet. I am also very close to my cousins, even though they are not Muslim, because I grew up with them.

Why should I discriminate against other people? I don’t want to harm others as the extremists do. I want to support my community and, in particular, Muslim women who are too often isolated and treated as if they were the property of men. We should look for more equality because women can do as well as men and people need to see that. Many of my fellow students don’t want to recognise that women have equal rights. As an example, when it comes to electing a representative for the student union, men are reluctant to select and be led by a woman, although several women competed for the position. But it gives me courage and one day, rain or shine, I will be a community leader or a Member of Parliament. My goal is to serve my community, and to support its development and the well-being of its members.

I know many young people who don’t have a job and stay idle. It is easy for them to go wrong as they can be influenced by people offering them money or eternal rewards in heaven. In the end, I would like to tell Muslim youth that they should keep asking questions. They should not be ashamed of having doubts and calling for help. If you don’t ask questions, you will never be answered or satisfied.

From Women in Islam Issue 3 (2017)