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Archbishop Ntagali: ‘I was captured by Jesus before I became wild’

It is a year since Stanley Ntagali 'Akiiki' was consecrated archbishop of the Church of Uganda. Known for his firmness and calmness, Ntagali today featured on Capital radio’s Desert Island Discs programme, where he told his life story to host Simon Kasyate. Excerpts:

The Most Reverend Stanley Ntagali ‘Akiiki’ – Archbishop of the Church of Uganda. Who is the man behind these gracious robes?

I am Stanley Ntagali, the Archbishop of the Anglican Church of the Province of Uganda, born in 1955 in Kigezi, now Kabale district in the hills across Lake Bunyonyi, in Rubaya sub-county, Ndorwa county.

When my parents moved to Hoima in Bunyoro-Kitara kingdom in 1971, I had to move with them, at 16. And so that’s all about my life that I spent in Kigezi, the rest in Bunyoro and that is where I call home.

Let’s go back to your cradle in Kigezi; to whom were you born?

Well, I am the first born of my mother, Molly Ntagali, who is fortunately still living in Hoima. My father Ernest Ntagali – who went to be with the Lord in 1980 while I was a student of Theology at Bishop Tucker Theological college – was a polygamist, my mother being the second wife. I went to our local school called Kitooma primary school.

So when I moved to Hoima, I had gone through primary school. In my other time, I enjoyed gardening and grazing sheep and goats.

There was a lot of work that I used to do for my father and the rest of the time was spent playing games with my peers. I used to enjoy playing football, but when you are a boy, you do it for fun and enjoy it.

But that’s glossing over your childhood, my lord; share a little more about the little you, the obstinate boy running into trouble with his parents and the like…

That’s is typical of any boy, playing football and it gets dark and you haven’t gone for water or fire wood of course that is what happens; you are in the company of your peers and you forget to do what you were supposed to. I used to do that, I used to come home late sometimes and get questioned why and where I was.

But on Sundays, I wish to tell you, I used to enjoy going to church. So, I used to go to church every Sunday and in fact I was baptised when I was ten, not as an infant. I was from a polygamous home and at the time it was not allowed for infants born outside wedlock to be baptized. So I attended baptism class and was baptized at that age, I can remember how water flowed down my cheeks and the whole experience. So, that was my childhood.

Would I be right to assume that this baptism at a fairly mature age is what ignited in you the desire to be the priest you are today?

Hmm, it was not clear to me then. But inside of me I had this really strong desire to keep closer to God. We were having religious education in class, I was very good in religious knowledge and I used to enjoy singing Christian hymns and choruses; maybe that is how I was being prepared. But it was never clear to me at that point that I would end where I am today.

Children are often influenced to love God or attend church by their parents and or peers; to whom would you attribute this young love for God?

Interestingly my stepmother, who became my godmother at my baptism, was a very committed Christian who used to read the Bible every day, to lead us into prayer everyday and she was my natural choice for a godmother. She nurtured me spiritually, encouraged me to go to church. My mother was not a committed Christian in as much as she was baptised.

And your siblings, both from your mother and your stepmother: how many were you, how were your relations with them?

From my stepmother there are two brothers and one sister while with my mother we are seven; one unfortunately died.

Moving on to Hoima where you migrated…

When we migrated in a new place, settling, I did not get the chance to go to school, I only got to do my own private study. So formal education for me ended with the primary seven I had completed in Kabale.

In Hoima it was not easy to find a school for us new immigrants, so I concentrated on doing things like helping my parents with gardening, doing private study and doing church work straight away. When I got saved in December 1974, that was three years after moving to Hoima, I was very deeply involved in church work, I was a catechist…

My lord bishop, you are taking us on a marathon; let me try to slow you. What was the reason you migrated from Kabale as a family?

Kigezi as you know, it is densely populated, there are many people and land was not enough and even at that time people were already migrating to places where they could find some land.

So, we were happy that arrangements were being made by the church and the Uganda government to places with more land. We moved by bus, using a bus warrant that was available for persons and families voluntarily willing to move to a destination. We were allocated land in Hoima.

Mind sharing your vivid recollection of this moment when many would be overwhelmed by the nostalgia of leaving their cradle for an unknown place.

That was a very difficult moment. There was a man called Stephen Karl working with the Church, the Bunyoro-Kitara diocese, then under Rwenzori diocese.

There was a memorandum of understanding with the government to move Bakiga from Kabale to Hoima, where the king had allocated land to new settlers. Because people were already finding it hard in Kabale, many volunteered to be moved and were facilitated to do so.

And what social amenities, if any, did you find in the new location?

There was a church because there were people there, few. There was a grass-thatched church. I was among those who started up a school because many migrant families did not have where to take their children. So, we decided to start Wambabya primary school, where I worked as a licensed teacher with other dedicated people. I used to teach English as my favourite subject.

The school was later taken up by the government and is still standing and serving the community. This locality where we settled is known as Wambabya village in Kiziranfumbi sub-county. We found the land very virgin with tall grass, lots of streams and rivers, many wild animals like baboons, pigs, elephants.

It was very fertile and when you take a Mukiga to such a place, they know they have arrived in Canaan. It was a wonderful place and we used it to cultivate a lot of food and more people started following us and came. Our church also developed into a parish.

There were challenges of course, there were many mosquitoes and malaria was a menace yet the nearest health facility was about seven kilometres. So for the most part we resorted to a herb called Omubirizi, which we took to protect us from the malaria. But many people died, especially children.

In fact some people could not tolerate this, they went back to Kigezi. Although when the situation normalised, some of these returned. It was a warmer area than where we came from, so we had to go to the garden early and by 11 you would have to be retiring home. Those who went there before us were tea growers because we are near Bugambe tea estates, for example, Rev Geoffrey Tibenda.

But note that the locals were very hospitable and warmly welcomed us. In the beginning we did not have food, they provided it to us, some of our women worked in their gardens for food and so these people were very happy to have us as neighbours.

They say when in Rome do as the Romans, so we quickly learnt how to speak the local dialect and even assumed pet names-which is part of the Bunyoro culture-and mine is Akiiki, and so we were assimilated.

At a personal level what was going on in your mind with regard to your future?

As a young man I was having many dreams. I was a very clever and dynamic man. I became a catechist, allowed by the bishop and I started leading a church and preaching. I was about 18 years then. Before I became wild, the Lord Jesus captured me and so I felt I should remain focused.

Wait a minute; are you saying you never indulged in life’s little destructive pleasures?

I used to drink, I used to smoke. In fact the day I got saved, I had just been having fun but the spirit of the Lord touched me and said I could not go on like that. See, when I was still in Kigezi, I used to drink local brew like Omuramba; so when I went to Hoima there was a lot of tonto but it was not fulfilling.

I used to smoke and on a day when I didn’t have enough for a cigarette, I smoked the rolled tobacco. But on the day I got saved, I heard a voice ask me: ‘when you die where do you want to go?” Another answered, “I don’t want to go to hell”. And so on December 24, 1974, I gave my life to the lord, went home and told my excited parents about the good news.

But before that, my fellow youths were not amused when I stood in church and gave a testimony. They gave me two weeks to backslide but like they say, the rest is history. I agree there are temptations, but because I was received by brethren, members of the East African revival, they were always with me in fellowship and prayer, they were mentoring me and I had no chance of thinking otherwise.

Not long after, I became a parish youth leader and because I enjoyed it and loved singing, I composed songs as well. Some were in Swahili which I learnt from the community we lived in. There were many Alurs and Lugbaras and as such I had to learn Swahili on my own. And not long, Bishop Yustus Ruhindi of Bunyoro-Kitara noticed we were a gifted choir and so used to invite us to perform whenever he had guests for the diocese.

So, I wouldn’t be wrong to say this, the choir was the springboard to your priesthood.

Let me first tell you something interesting. In this choir was a very beautiful young lady, so beautiful, and she captured my heart. One day I walked up to her and asked her if she could marry me. As you may not know, Bakiga girls do not answer quickly. She kept quiet and later she said yes and that’s my wife now, Mama Beatrice Ntagali.

We were known to each other from Kigezi from where our families migrated and lived in the same parish so she was part of my growing up. So by the time the bishop invited me to his office, we were already engaged. At that time, money was not important. We had some land, we were available, love was there and so we were ready.

And so when the bishop invited me to his office along with two other friends he said, ‘young men, the doors are open, I want to send you to Karamoja to be missionaries.” Because he had got a request from the Karamoja bishop who was a British missionary who had appealed to the House of bishops that they help him find young men to work as evangelists, lay readers, etc.

We pondered about it, prayed and said yes.

People in Karamoja speak a very different dialect, didn’t you feel challenged?

I told you I was a brave young man, I was dynamic and like Obama said, yes we can. I did not fear any challenge, up to this day, challenges are opportunities. This for me was a very good opportunity that was God-given. It was a week after Idi Amin had killed our Archbishop Janan Luwum, February 1977.

That is when we set off with Rev Canon Jack Ruhindi and Jotham Tumwesigye [Not the Justice] who did not manage and came back after just three days. I was put in Moroto and Jack was put in Kotido. That was the first time I was ever to leave Hoima for any other part of the country.

I saw Kampala for the first time. I left behind my fiancée and parents that were not happy with what life I chose, but I still felt strongly that God had called me to Karamoja to serve. When I told my fiancée she said “ fine; I will wait for you.” Despite people telling her I had left her, she stood by and I returned to her.

Bishop Brian Herd, who invited us, received us very well and ensured we had good accommodation and were settling in. Unfortunately few days later, he was deported by Idi Amin. I recall one morning the special branch people came and allowed him three hours to pack and go and we were left like orphans.

However, the bishop of Soroti was tasked to care-take Karamoja diocese. So we continued our ministry, so since I was not yet ordained,  I came to do theological training in Mukono that same year.

What was your impression of Karamoja when you set foot there?

There were many civil servants who came from across the country from Buganda, Kigezi, etc and so on. The food was good, there was matooke and so it wasn’t difficult to blend in. But it wasn’t entirely that easy. See the Karimojong believed that all the cows are their cows given to them by God and cattle rustling was very strong.

People feared to come to church, while others did not want to change their way of life. That is why the bishop had found it difficult to find church workers and invited missionaries from elsewhere. But I was convinced beyond reasonable doubt that I was in the right place according to God’s purpose.

And from Karamoja, when and where does God’s purpose take you?

I came to Mukono in 1979 for a three-year Theological training from which I graduated in 1981, returned to Karamoja, where I was ordained as a deacon in St Philip's cathedral Moroto. My father had already died, my mother did not manage to attend but my other relatives came and some friends from Hoima.

By this time, you are married, right? How did you squeeze this in your busy evangelical schedule?

When I went to Karamoja, I left Beatrice already in agreement that we would marry. In 1978 January, I returned to our village in Wambabya and got married and had our honeymoon in Moroto! By the time I did my theological training in Mukono, we were married.

But for the first two years, she stayed in Hoima and in the third year, the college allowed married students to bring along their family and so she stayed with me for the whole third year at Mukono. By then, we had already had our first son Justus Mwesigwa – now a teacher, married with three children.

After my ordination I was sent to Amudat, among the Pokot on the border with Kenya. They speak better Swahili than the others; so, I had the opportunity to polish my Swahili since some of the services were in Kiswahili. Here I was the Vicar of Amudat parish and chaplain of the hospital. After four years in 1986, I opted to return home, having felt I had finished my missionary work. I was made the Vicar of St Peter’s cathedral in Hoima of Bunyoro-Kitara diocese for four years. I enjoyed my ministry here.

After these years, I felt I needed to go back to school. I went to St Paul’s united College, now St Paul’s United University in Limulu in Kenya for a diploma in theology and a bachelor of divinity staying four years and returning in 1993. My dear wife joined me for the last two years in Kenya. When I returned, I was promoted to archdeacon and assigned as archdeacon of Masindi, in my mother diocese.

This I did for five years. Around that time, the people of Masindi had made a request to the diocesan synod of Bunyoro-Kitara to be given permission to prepare for a diocesan status. So, I undertook the preparations and accomplished many things like the office block and after here I felt I should study some more. I went to Oxford University for my masters in Theology and Development for one year. By this time we had our five children: four boys and one girl, our daughter Judith.

I returned to Bunyoro-Kitara diocese after which I was appointed the diocesan secretary as a Reverend Canon for two and a half years. There came up a vacancy at the province and I was invited as one of the candidates for the office of Provincial administrator. In 2003, I took over as the Provincial secretary working closely with retired Archbishop Mpalanyi Nkoyoyo one year before retirement.

Then my immediate supervisor Henry Luke Orombi was elected Archbishop. I worked with him for a year and then Masindi was ready to receive it first bishop, who was I upon election. I was thus elected the first bishop of Masindi-Kitara diocese which was carved out of Bunyoro-Kitara diocese in December 2004. And for eight years, I worked diligently with the hope to retire but God called me to yet another assignment- Archbishop.

You are an archbishop in very challenging times, but also times that provide more platform than the mundane pulpit. So do you tweet or post evangelical messages on Facebook?

[laughter] I have a facebook account but not a twitter one. I receive and send messages on Facebook, it's rather personal, not one as archbishop, but hopefully soon, I will operationalise one for the office of archbishop.

What does the future hold after you are done with pastoral ministry; politics?

NO! I will be going back to Hoima to rest. I feel fulfilled and I will be happy when that time comes to go and retire. And I am preparing for that. Politics? That is not my calling.

We have heard your life’s story; we would do with a Christmas message and perhaps one to carry us into the next year.

When I was coming in, people did know who I was. I am glad they didn’t. I am more concerned about what God wants to do through me. That is God’s mission, his vision and all that he will use me to deliver.

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of the King of Kings, we should use this time to reflect and think about our relationship with God and allow Jesus to be born in our lives.

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