Hope Amid Confusion

Christianity, Politics, and the Afterlives of War in Uganda:
There Is Confusion
By Henni Alava
Bloomsbury, pp. 288, $115

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Review by Emmanuel Katongole

Northern Uganda, predominantly a Christian region, was embroiled in a war beginning in 1996 that pitted the military against a series of rebel movements, most notably the Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony. During this 25-year war, thousands of children were abducted and forced into the Lord’s Resistance Army, hundreds of civilians were maimed, raped, or killed, and millions were displaced from their homes.

While the fighting has now stopped and people have returned to their homes, the aftershocks linger. What role do Christian churches, Anglican and Catholic churches in particular, play in postwar efforts of healing and reconstruction? How do they imagine a postwar future of peace? What resources do churches offer to Christians who struggle to reconstruct, rebuild, and move on with their lives in the aftermath of war? How do religion and politics interact in shaping postwar hopes and dreams?

These are the questions that Henni Alava, an anthropologist and development studies specialist, engages in Christianity, Politics, and the Afterlives of War in Uganda: There Is Confusion. Using many case studies and notes from extensive ethnographic research, she proposes the notion of “confusion” (anyobanyoba) to highlight the embedded nature of the church in the social, material, and political realities of Northern Uganda.

The distinctions we often assume between politics and religion, church and state, spiritual and material, individual and social, do not hold. Even the notion of “postwar” is misleading, for the violence and memories of the war do not disappear with the silence of guns. Instead, these memories descend and meander in and through the fabric of everyday social life.

Attending to this weave of the ordinary, in which the memory of the past may be conveyed through practices, gestures, and deliberate silences, invites the researcher into a delicate posture of listening and attentiveness. This is a journey of friendship, in which the distance between the researcher and her subject becomes increasingly blurred.

Alava’s book is therefore as much about the afterlives of war in Northern Uganda as it is about her encounter with the lives of Christians in the wake of the war. In this encounter, she listens to and empathetically describes both the lives of her friends in Northern Uganda as well as her vulnerability within the encounter. This is what makes Alava’s work an engaging form of scholarship — anthropology as accompaniment — that both questions and extends the boundaries of the discipline.

Scholars interested in the relation between church and state, and in the role Christianity plays in Africa’s social history marked with violence and political uncertainty, will have a lot to learn. This is not a book only for scholars. The realities it deals with — violence and its aftermath, disruption and reconstruction in the wake of war, suffering and hope — are not limited to Northern Uganda.

Avala offers a glimpse into the promises and complexities of coping amid adversity, and ways of negotiating various social, material, spiritual, and institutional dynamics. Christianity can provide visions of hope and engender tangible practices of that hope. It is this “unsettled uncertainty” of Christianity in Northern Uganda that competes, contends, and collaborates with other social, political, material, and religious visions that Alava masterfully explores.

The Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Katongole is professor of theology and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame.

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