JONATHAN L. EARLE & J.J. CARNEY
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions about your book Contesting Catholics! To begin with, can you please provide a brief overview of your book?
The book wishes to understand the different ways in which Catholic activists in late colonial Uganda reworked church hierarchies, networks, histories, and theologies to imagine a postcolonial world. Although Catholic communities constituted a plurality of Uganda’s twentieth-century population, there were several ways the colonial state marginalised their communities. These injustices were seen primarily in terms of disproportionally smaller landholdings and employment opportunities. To tell this story, we focus on the political biography of Benedicto Kiwanuka, Uganda’s first elected Prime Minister and Uganda’s first Ugandan Chief Justice. Idi Amin’s government assassinated him in 1972. On the eve of Uganda’s independence (October 1962), Kiwanuka sought to organise Catholic activists into a national movement that transcended religious and ethnic partisanship. This project was strongly shaped by religious currents of Catholic social thought and cosmopolitan influences of liberal democratic theory. We try to understand how his project developed and how differently Catholic politics looked throughout Uganda. Yet whatever Kiwanuka’s intentions, there was not a singular Catholic movement in Ugandan politics. This complicates the notion that there was one Catholic political order around which devotees organised their sociopolitical priorities, which is a standard trope in Ugandan history writing. The story was far more complicated, contested, and decentralised than we might imagine.
This is the first scholarly treatment of Benedicto Kiwanuka, Uganda’s first elected ruler, why do you think that is?
Uganda possessed a robust tradition of history writing by the 1950s. This was especially the case in the Kingdom of Buganda, where Baganda activists and historians utilised Luganda to author tens of thousands of pages of royal, clan, and national histories. Two of the most influential historians of this period were also leading Protestants, Sir Apolo Kaggwa and Hamu Mukasa. Because they produced such a large body of historical material, they influenced how political power and academic scholarship have been structured, which tended to marginalise Catholic perspectives. Most of Uganda’s major postcolonial leaders were Protestants, and many scholars have shown little interest in Catholic politics beyond dismissing the Democratic Party as ‘sectarian’. In turn, it’s been far more challenging for scholars to access unpublished Catholic sources in regional and private archives, many of which were destroyed throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In Benedicto Kiwanuka’s case, his private papers were believed to have been destroyed by the Amin government. Because of this silence in the sources, we have far fewer studies on Catholic political histories when compared to their Protestant counterparts. We would note, however, the important local biography of Kiwanuka produced by Albert Bade in the 1990s, which was very helpful as we drafted this book.
Can you tell us a bit more about Mr. Kiwanuka aside from his political side? How was he perceived by people in Uganda and beyond?
Benedicto Kiwanuka was—and remains—perceived as a profoundly principled person who took both the law and his spirituality very seriously. He studied law at the University of London, and when he opened a practice in Kampala in 1956, he was only the sixth lawyer in the city. He was a devout lay Catholic who attended daily Mass at Rubaga Cathedral, volunteered as an altar server, and carried his Catholic prayer missal with him. Both inside and outside political life, he was known as a deeply principled person, which is one of the reasons he was appointed as Chief Justice of the High Court in 1971 (and later assassinated, as he would not acquiesce to Amin’s political pressure). Critics have even accused Kiwanuka of being too principled, refusing to make the compromises necessary to advance his and his party’s political agenda. He is widely seen as a “martyr to the rule of law” in Uganda, and local activists have requested that the Archdiocese of Kampala introduce his cause for Catholic sainthood.
What drew you to this topic?
Earle’s interest in this topic was borne in a storage shed in the outskirts of Kampala, where he first encountered Kiwanuka’s remaining papers. As we talk about in the book, these sources opened a new window into Kiwanuka’s life and career. We met a Kiwanuka and Democratic Party that was far more complicated and varied than described in earlier works. Working on a separate project on Catholic leadership in Uganda, Carney’s interest was piqued by the aforementioned “sainthood dossier” that was shared with him by a Catholic bishop in Uganda, who simultaneously lamented the loss of principled politics in Uganda.
What was your research process like for this book?
After working through the entirety of Kiwanuka’s papers and the national press, we developed the chapters based on where we felt the sources spoke most clearly. We would author our respective chapters, then read each other’s chapters and offer critical suggestions. We also farmed the chapters out to numerous Ugandan scholars and activists, who provided advice and raised concerns. Overall, we really enjoyed the collaboration, and we learned that our respective expertise in political and religious history could helpfully complement each other—the whole was greater than the sum of its parts!
Was there anything in your research that you found especially interesting or that really surprised you? What was it like to study Kiwanuka’s personal papers?
It was a profound honour to work with Kiwanuka’s personal papers. Kiwanuka was confronted with numerous hardships and, by the late 1960s, imprisonment. In the early 1970s, after being released from prison, Idi Amin appointed Kiwanuka as Uganda’s first Ugandan Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The relationship between the two was soon strained, culminating in Kiwanuka’s murder. It was stunning to see just how aware Kiwanuka was of the imminence of his death; in many ways he embraced the self-identity of a martyr. Kiwanuka read about Amin’s statements about him in the national press, and he took numerous measures to get his affairs in order before his assassination. This included spiritual steps such as seeking the sacrament of anointing (last rites), and financial moves such as purchasing additional life insurance. We were also struck by the diversity of Catholic political projects in the late 1950s. Contrary to mainstream scholarship and even our own initial predilections, there wasn’t a singular Catholic movement during the period; they varied depending on regions, competing priorities, and the influence of different Catholic religious orders.
What has the response been like to your book so far?
We’ve been quite pleased with the early reviews of the book. Our May 2021 digital book launch with the University of Cambridge was a terrific opportunity to dialogue with a wide range of scholars in Uganda, the UK, and the USA. We look forward to further conversations at the upcoming meeting of the African Studies Association and beyond.
Tell us about your cover, what does the image represent?
The image for the book’s cover comes from the Kiwanuka papers. It is an image of Benedicto Kiwanuka celebrating his release from thirteen months of detention in January 1971. We found the image both celebratory and unsettling. It captures a moment of tremendous vindication and optimism after President Idi Amin released him from prison. And yet, the image foreshadows something far more troubling. It shows Kiwanuka postured in a cruciform shape. In many ways, this fit Kiwanuka’s self-image as a Christian martyr for the cause of “truth and justice.”
What’s next for you both?
Jon Earle is currently working on a book that shows how the Kingdom of Buganda changed the course of global politics in the early to mid-twentieth century. The book draws from archives worldwide to show how the course of several historical currents intersected with the work of Baganda diplomats and activists. These areas include: Indian Ocean slavery; Global Christianity; Winston Churchill’s political biography; British colonial policy throughout Africa; Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential bid during the Election of 1912; the creation of modern Israel; Polish refugees during the Second World War; the end of the First World War; Mahatma Gandhi and Indian Independence; Black history writing in the United States; and the origins of the humanities and social sciences.
Jay Carney recently published For God and My Country: Catholic Leadership in Modern Uganda (Cascade), which includes a chapter on Kiwanuka, among other influential Catholic activists in postcolonial Uganda. He is currently finishing work on a separate co-authored book on Catholic theology and sport, and discerning future research projects on the Catholic Church in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
JONATHAN L. EARLE & J.J. CARNEY
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Jonathon L. Earle is the Marlene and David Grissom Professorship of Social Studies at Centre College.
J.J. Carney is Associate Professor of Theology, Creighton University, and author of Rwanda before the Genocide: Catholic Politics and Ethnic Discourse in the Late Colonial Era (2014), which won the Ogot award.