Baha'i Conversions in Africa (Uganda)
Research Notes in Shaykhi, Babi and Baha'i Studies, No. 5 (August, 1997)

Conversions to the Baha'i Faith in Uganda

Date: Wed, 25 Jun 1997 22:23:59 -0600

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From: Negar Mottahedeh <motta003@MAROON.TC.UMN.EDU>

Subject: Uganda, etc. conversion

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Date: Wed, 25 Jun 1997 22:45:27 -0400 (EDT)


Subject: Re: Uganda, etc. conversion

OK, guys, having been "outed" by Susan as someone who knows something about

the early conversions of Africans to the Faith in Africa, I will have to

say something. I have been holding myself back, because I don't have my

notes right in front of me and will have to write everything from memory.

So, I disclaim all responsibility beforehand. ;-)

As to the beginnings of "mass conversions" in Uganda, I was honored to

interview Mrs. Sammireh Banani (Mama-Jan) before her recent passing and get

a clear picture from her of how things got started. It seems that after

Enoch Olinga became a Baha'i, he was responsible for the first rapid

conversions to the Faith and for the new technique of mass teaching. Olinga

appears to have become a Baha'i in the ordinary way, by attending classes

taught by Ali Nakhjavani in Kampala. But, after his conversion, he had

occasion to return to his home district on vacation for a few weeks. During

this time, he converted dozens of people to the Faith in that area and sent

the declarations of faith by mail to Nakhjavani in the city. Ali followed

up these initial conversions with "consolidation trips" of his own, but

Olinga was always the point man for the conversions themselves. This, of

course, underscores the importance of African inititive.

All of the first converts to the Faith were nominal Christians and were

members of Olinga's own ethnic group (Teso), which was a small minority

community (still is) in Uganda. Now, of course, we also have to give credit

to Ali who accepted these conversions as genuine---probably because of the

new methods that were being proposed in Iran by the new generation

of Persian teachers, which Ahang has referred to. And credit is also due to

the Guardian who immediately applauded and encouraged this work. (We might

remember that Shoghi Effendi himself would have been a part of that new


Very shortly thereafter, Enoch Olinga moved to Cameroons in West Africa

during the first year of the Ten Year Crusade (1953). He quickly

established a network of friends and was able to find new Baha'i converts

within the Basel Mission system (Presbyterian). Again, all of the new

converts were Christians, and all had belonged to the Basel Mission.

Indeed, the Baha'i Faith soon became an underground movement within the

Mission with whole villages converting the the Faith (many times secretly)

and mission teachers and preachers even secretly holding Baha'i beliefs.

The situation here is complicated, and I have not worked it out completely.

But the Baha'i message certainly captured the attention and, many times,

the allegiance of the lower, marginal, semi-educated Christian men

associated with the Mission. Olinga, by living in an African life-style,

and relying on the support of the believers for food and shelter, was able

to become a full-time teacher of the Faith for some years. And he travelled

extensively in Cameroons. The new movement very much centered around him

personally. And it probably helped that he was widely thought to be an

American. (Though, of course, he wasn't.)

Anyway, Olinga's tolerance for different definitions of Baha'i identity was

certainly much broader than anyone else's, since he was willing to accept

as believers even those who did not openly declare their faith (because of

Mission associations) but who remained Baha'i secretly. Of course, this

drove the Mission crazy, but there was really nothing they could do about

it, since they did not command the full allegiance of their own flock.

Well, that's all for now. Take all this with a grain of salt, until I write

it all up with footnotes. Hopefully soon.


Tony Lee

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