The goats bleated and the roosters crowed as I stood barefoot on the brown earth looking over the valley where banana plantations lay in clean lines. The white smoke coming from the neighbors’ chimneys glided across the valley. Suddenly, a whirlwind whipped up and I blocked my eyes with my forearm, guarding them from the dirt and stones that were savagely making their way to an unknown destination.
I walked back to the outer kitchen where my mother was cooking so that we could have an early lunch before I left for the United States. My four weeks vacation that had started in January of 2023 had finally come to an end. There was an air of sadness about my leaving home and anxiety about me traveling. I sat on the old, black jerrycan and my mother on a stool as we engaged in small talk, avoiding the emotional conversation about my departure.
My father, who was busy with the morning farm chores, called from outside, “Vivi, I want to take the goats and other animals to the bush now and I want to bless you before I go.”
About two decades ago, I heard the story of Jacob in the Old Testament during a charismatic church service. I’d been fascinated by how invested he was in getting that blessing from his father no matter the means. I learned about the importance of a parent’s blessing and from then on, every Sunday after visiting with my parents, I asked for their blessing. My mother often asked my father to say the blessing while she lay her hands on my head.
Jacob then called his sons and said, Gather round, sons of Jacob.
And listen to your father Israel. (Genesis 49:1-2)
In 2015, before I left Uganda and traveled to the United States for graduate studies, I visited my Grandfather seeking his blessing before I took on a life-changing venture. He invoked the blessing and protection of my ancestors over me and whatever I did: for favor upon me; for the gift of working hard; for a long healthy life; to be loved; to be sought after—for the good. He called each ancestor by name and prayed for a particular blessing from each according to what they provided. He invoked the spirits—my tribal and clan spirits—to be with me and protect me. He invoked the spirits of the land and forests, of the rivers and lakes. In his sitting room, kneeling before him, my Grandfather uttered blessing after blessing like my life depended on it. I’d never experienced anything like that before. But, I’d never asked for a blessing from my Grandfather before either.
My Grandfather has always emphasized how important his ancestors’ beliefs and practices are. As an elder in the family and clan, it is his responsibility to tell the stories and perform the rituals and practices that he believes honors and keeps them alive among the living. As he spoke the words over me, I cringed, moving back and forth on my knees. I listened intently, wondering how his invocation would fit in my Catholic beliefs. Before I visited, I knew that my Grandfather’s blessing would be different. Even though it wouldn’t be what I was used to, it was going to be a blessing from my elder, from my paternal Grandfather.
…because of God Almighty who blesses you
with blessings from heaven above.
with blessings from the deep below
with blessings of the beast and the womb. (Genesis 49:25)
On this day as I waited in anticipation for the blessing, my father walked to the outer kitchen and stood right in front of me. In his working clothes and gumboots, my father lay his callous hands, rough from farm work, on my head and authoritatively and powerfully started to speak the words. My father always prayed with the traditional Christian prayer invoking God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Always. On this occasion, however, my father not only prayed the traditional Christian prayers but added a long litany invoking the ancestors and the spirits of my clan and tribe.
Father in heaven, in the name of your son Jesus Christ, I thank you for keeping my child safe.
We bless you and thank you for the time we have spent with her during this visit.
Thank you, Lord, for using her to be a blessing for us as we get older.
May her ancestors from my lineage and her mother’s keep her and protect her.
May the spirits of the land where she comes from, of the waters of the forests protect and fight for her.
May she find favor; May she be loved; May she be sought for;
May her ancestors go before her and set the paths straight for her;
May evil and the bad ones stay far away from her;
You spirits of our clan, spirits of our tribe, watch over her and protect her,
Grandfather Luboowa, keep her and protect her
And so on the litany went…
Back in 2016, a year into my seminary studies, I took a class on African Religion and Christianity that introduced me to African Theologians. The course presented African Traditional Religion in a way that honored African Traditional spirituality. I became interested in literature that presented African Traditional religion in a positive way—a way that disentangled it from the soiled western perceptions.
During my search, I read about the cultural practice of body markings among most African tribes as a remedy to cure diseases and ward off evil spirits as is the case with the burning of herbs, a ritual similar to the use of incense at the altar during Mass. I began to ask myself questions. What life-giving aspects of my African Traditional religion could I hold with my Catholic beliefs for both to be edifying for me? Did my Catholic faith even have room for that? Could the two be in gentle dialogue to allow room for holistic worship and prayer? If I could incorporate some Buddhist and Muslim practices into my Catholic practice of faith, something that had worked perfectly for me so far, what would it be like to do the same with my ancestors’ African traditional beliefs that were life-giving? Why was I uncomfortable with who was invoked when my father prayed?
The blessings of your father are greater than the blessings of the
ancient mountains, the bounty of the everlasting hills! (Genesis 49:26)
When my father started to pray with the Christian prayers that I was familiar with, my hands were spread out to receive every word that was spoken over me. When he started to pray calling on the ancestors and spirits, I tightly clenched my teeth and my fingers curled towards my palms as I tried to block out the words. I was witnessing a different aspect of my father. This was the first time my father invoked my ancestors and spirits when he prayed over me.
Hands stretched over my head with the distant hills behind him, my father was the elder presenting his authentic self and I was his child. And whether I was ready or not, on this day my father was blessing me in a way that he wanted to–in a way that not only honored our Christian beliefs but that acknowledged our ancestors in the mystery of life and spirituality. I wasn’t ready to receive this—I wasn’t ready to engage with the words of blessing that honored my ancestors. My past work in deepening my knowledge and appreciation of my African Traditional religion and practices was for naught, I thought. As I walked out of the kitchen, hands open at my side, I found myself prayerfully seeking to find meaning in my father’s blessing.
 I must say that my attempt at translating my father’s blessing from my vernacular to English was a challenge, not only because of the difference in structure and cultural environment of either language but largely because of my awareness of the colonial western fetishization of African traditional rituals and beliefs.
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Laurie Skiba says
This essay is incredibly rich–grateful for the many layers to think about in these powerful blessings. Thank you, Nabuule!