Idi Amin “The Butcher of Uganda” seized power in 1971 and until he was ousted in 1979, his regime murdered an estimated 100,000 to 500,000 political dissidents and members of various ethnic groups. And during those horrific events, Edrine Ddungu – now a Presbyterian official in California and president of The Interfaith Council of Greater Sacramento – was there.
Ddungu’s father was murdered in front of him, he told Interfaith Council members recently, and his uncle was thrown into a hole with corpses and buried alive. They were killing doctors, engineers, and other skilled people, he said. He hid in an attic while the slaughter continued in his neighborhood. Anyone stopped without an ID faced death, and so Ddungu slept with his wallet.
He became very angry, he said, and was ready to pick up a gun and fight. Instead, his mother sent him to Kenya to live with relatives. He had no money, was not a citizen and even though he was accepted as a student at Sacramento City College in California, it took him five years to get a visa.
He did return to Uganda 21 years later, to a country where many friends and family members had died, a country of orphans and widows trying to make a living by farming. He now returns to Uganda each year, bringing money for books, school supplies and food and he supports an orphanage and the “Little Children of Jesus” program. He also helped found a school to teach computers so students can learn job skills.
After such horrific experiences of brutality and death, Ddungu values understanding and communication. Uganda’s 50 tribes speak some 200 different languages, he said, and each tribe is very different in what they wear, what they eat and how they live, so communication and understanding are essential to peace.
And so it is with religious differences. According to research estimates, there are more than 4,000 different religious faiths, and each varies somewhat in belief, rituals, world view etc. And yet there are common threads of decency in all religions and the belief that we are more than flesh, more than the material world around us. And it is perhaps no surprise that Ddungu supports interfaith initiatives. “We don’t know everything, we have to be sensitive to people of other faiths – nobody has the right to say your faith is not right,” he said. “God gave me the gift of listening, I will be in your shoes, how can I help you?”Each interfaith attendee received a Human Rights booklet, and a DVD on “The Story of Human Rights,” an award-winning documentary film that helps individuals understand the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ratified in 1948 by the United Nations. The materials were produced by United for Human Rights and its program for young people Youth for Human Rights sponsored by the Church of Scientology.
Of particular interest in an interfaith context are Articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which state, respectively: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” And, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Ddungu came to the United States when he was 24 years old, and he’s now 60. To this day he has not told his family the details of what he experienced, and he still sleeps with his wallet. But he is a champion of communication, understanding and human rights, because he knows firsthand the evil that can follow when they are neglected or trampled underfoot.