At an early age, 49-year-old Mayimuna Nandawula’s Christian parents took her to her aunt’s home and this is where she picked interest in Islam.
“Our house was just near the mosque and I loved the way Muslim women dressed. When all people rushed to mosque, I was among them,” a beaming Nandawula says.
“I didn’t know how to pray but I was eager to learn.”
Nandawula, who converted as a child, speaks Arabic like she comes from one of the Arab countries. She is now a sheikhat (female Muslim cleric) and is married to a Muslim in Kangulumira, Kayunga district. Last Friday, Nandawula was among the Muslims who converged on Wandegeya mosque for a special send-off to the holy city of Mecca. The first group leaves today (Wednesday).
This is going to be her first time on pilgrimage.
“I have got a chance to travel and see the foundation of my religion no matter the expenses involved,” she says.
Asked why it has taken her this long, Nandawula says: “I had the money all these years, but Allah had not yet called for my visit to Mecca.”
She is looking forward to seeing Prophet Muhammad’s grave, which is located inside Masjid an-Nabawi at Medina. Musa Kigozi, 30, the sales manager for M-products bakery, was another excited first-timer at the send-off.
“Since this year started, I have been saving money for Mecca and I am happy that I am leaving this year,” Kigozi said. “I have been longing for this day throughout my life.”
He paid Shs 11m for the journey. Kigozi says he has managed to fulfill all four pillars of Islam but not the fifth pillar of the Hajj, regarded as the most significant manifestation of Islam.
“When I reach Mecca…I know all my sins will be forgiven and be like a newborn baby when I return to Uganda,” he says.
Meanwhile, the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) Kawempe division councillor, Shifra Lukwago, now goes to Mecca annually.
“I rather leave my bank account at zero and pay for such a holy journey,” Lukwago says.
This is her third pilgrimage.
Sheikh Ibrahim Hassan Kirya, the chairman Uganda Bureau of Hajj Affairs (UBHA), said the numbers of pilgrims this year will be low, attributing the decline to the escalating poverty in the country. Out of the 1,500 Muslims who registered this year, only 724 had fully paid by Friday last week. Last year, more than 1,000 pilgrims made it to Mecca.
Kirya said about 80 per cent of the pilgrims this year are youths, mostly women.
“It is now almost three years when women are dominating the Hajj,” Kirya said. “This is a sign that women and youth are now picking interest in Islamic affairs unlike the past years when most pilgrims were male.”
He added that men are now sponsoring their wives and more women are also successful business personalities who comfortably pay their fare. About 35 Hajj and Umrah travel bureaus registered under UBHA are into this lucrative business of taking pilgrims to Mecca. The pilgrims have paid $4,000 (Shs10m) to $4,500 (Shs 11m) for their travel to and accommodation costs in Mecca and Medina.
While sending off the prospective pilgrims, Dr Prince Kassim Nakibinge, regarded as the “grandfather of Islam in Uganda” urged them to follow instructions. He asked them to ensure they come back reformed as well as praying for the many issues bothering the Muslim community and Uganda.
Among the new guidelines for this year’s pilgrimage is the introduction of wrist bands that have to be worn by all pilgrims before leaving the airport. Kirya explained that Ugandan pilgrims have been provided with light green wrist bands that have all their personal data.
“These wrist bands are water [and fire] proof. If someone is lost, this band can be inserted into a computer and they can get your details very fast,” he said.
The first group leaving today is expected to reach Mecca on Thursday, while a second group leaves Thursday and the last one on Friday. They will spend 21 days in Mecca before returning. Kirya said pilgrims will only travel for three days and all Ugandans will stay in one seven-star hotel in Mecca. He said the hotel is located near the Kaaba.
In previous arrangements, pilgrims would stop at Jeddah airport from where they would be bused more than 250 miles to Medina. This time, all pilgrims will fly straight to Medina and only a few people will be picked from Jeddah.
About the Hajj
The Hajj, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca occurs every year during the Islamic month of Dhu’l-Hijjah. Every Muslim who is financially able is obligated to perform Hajj at least once in his or her lifetime.
At the beginning of the Hajj, pilgrims enter the state of Ihram (sacred state, in which they are prohibited to argue, quarrel, kill any creation or destroy vegetation) and change into unsown pieces of cloth also known as Ihram.
Other Hajj rituals include going around the Kaaba seven times (Tawaaf), reciting the Talbiyah (re-affirming one’s faith) and walking fast between the hills of Safah and Mar’wah in reminiscence of the act of Hajarah (Prophet Ibrahim’s wife), who ran between the two hills in search for water for her son Ismail.