Ugandan guards in Iraq find solace in worship, cultural ties
JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq — Swahili gospel chants backed with clapping, banging percussion floated through the humid, buggy night air, eliciting quizzical glances from troops walking to chow.
Men and women in khaki uniforms threw their hands skywards, beat together rough pieces of wood, and shouted words of praise as they circled a dimly lit gazebo tucked into a eucalyptus grove. A worshipper manning a cheap synthesizer wove a simple melody.
It was one of the twice-daily services for the Ugandan Christian Gospel Fellowship, conducted in both Swahili and English, and a small example of how the army of foreign laborers imported to U.S. bases carve out a little piece of home in Iraq.
Khaki-clad Ugandan ex-soldiers are ubiquitous in Iraq, with hundreds working for private contractors as guards at U.S. bases throughout the country. They act as gate guards, protecting dining halls, gyms and military exchange stores.
Almost all of the some 20 worshippers on a recent night worked as guards and all were Ugandan, though Atwine Robert, 40, a night-service pastor, stressed that all people are welcome to the services.
Working for long stretches far from homes and loved ones can be lonely and stressful and the church services are one way to escape, if only for a short time.
"It helps me to be connected to God, to be free, to stay out of trouble and stresses," said Moses Mwesigye, 28, who has worked for about a year in Iraq and has a wife in Uganda.
The Ugandan guards have also faced hardships in Iraq related to their work — some have alleged they haven’t been paid what they were promised; others have alleged that their passports were taken from them once they arrived. And a commission investigating waste and fraud in wartime found "serious deficiencies" in their training and equipment.
With everything from country and rock blaring on buses to Southern fried fare at dining halls to fast-food outlets — all aimed at making many large bases feel like a fortified piece of America — the distinctly East African feel of the religious service stands out.
The service also offers a chance to speak in a common language (Swahili is the lingua franca of Uganda, though a multitude of languages are spoken in the country) and hang out with fellow Ugandans.
"It’s really so comforting," said Denis Mwesigwa, 27, who also helps lead the night services.
The open-air environs are not ideal (sweating worshipers in a prayer circle had to unclasp hands from time to time to swat mosquitoes), but indoor space is limited and it’s the prayer, not the building that’s important, said Robert.
"It should not stop us from worshipping God because he is everywhere," he said.