REVERAND DR KEFA SSEMPANGI has rescued more than 6,000 homeless children and turned their lives around through his Africa Foundation in Mukono.
Also founder of the Presbyterian Church in Uganda, he has been a deputy minister and twice an MP in different regimes. At Boston View restaurant [Quick Talk finds the name of that restaurant ridiculous, meanwhile…Boston View? From Buganda road? Humph!] Ssempangi tells Quick Talk about himself.
[After the pleasantries] So Reverend, what are you up to now?
We are not dealing with homeless children anymore; we are now dealing with child-headed families where the parents have died of this disease [HIV/Aids]. We have about 48 homes by the lake.
Six thousand homeless children are so many. How did you convince all of them?
I used to befriend them. I knew they had defeated their parents and authorities; so, I used a different approach. I used to offer them money to buy marijuana and extra money for them to buy lemon to disguise the smell of marijuana after they had smoked [different approach, all right...] That is why they started calling me seya, because I was sympathetic to their position. Over time, they realized it was wrong and changed by themselves under my care.
Are you still in touch with them?
About five years ago, 600 of them came to say thank you [aww!] I have some gardens at Mukono where the party was held. Can you imagine we were more than 2,500 people because they are married and have children [sounding like a proud grandpa]?
They always invite me to their weddings. There are very many success stories of lawyers, doctors, pastors, engineers... Some are even in politics. A good number of them are abroad.
Wow! But how did your children handle sharing your attention with these other kids?
My children had to adjust, but later my wife [Peninah Luggya with whom he has five children] went back to America [the Ssempangis had lived in the USA and Holland during the turbulent Idi Amin times] because there were so many coups at that time.
She said Uganda was not the right place to raise our children. I was taking care of so many homeless children; there was no way I could desert them. I decided to stay. Later on, my first wife gave me consent to remarry and then I married Olive Ssempangi, with whom I have three children.
How was your own childhood?
I was born in a place called Kawuna in Mukono. I didn’t go to school until one day when an evangelist from Rwanda gave my mother a Bible. Because my mother had never gone to school and she could not read, she took me to school so I could read the Bible to her.
She did not want me to become a doctor, politician, banker or anything. She only wanted me to learn how to read so I could read for her the Bible. I actually went to P1 when I was 12 years old. I could have missed school altogether [laughs].
So which schools did you go to?
I attended a school called Kiyoola for P1. I then went to Katente up to P4 and then Mpumu for P5 and P6. I later joined Makerere College School for J1 and J2 and I attended secondary in the same school. I got a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in 1967 up to 1970.
I thereafter went to the University of Westminster in Philadelphia and graduated with a Master of Divinity and finally to the Vrie Universtiet in Amsterdam for a PhD in Art history [Whew! Quite a CV for a lad who set out to learn to read the Bible to his mama!]
In all this, what would you call your turning point?
When my mother passed away in 1962. It’s the same year I accepted Christ as my personal Lord and saviour. I was on my way to Namirembe cathedral to meet my girlfriend when I met an elderly woman who asked me if I was born-again.
I did not pay attention to her because she was interfering with my mission, but later that night while in my room, I heard a voice telling me, “Kefa, you look like a born-again Christian” and that is when I started picking interest and started attending fellowship until the day I finally got born-again and I ended that relationship.
Hmmm, rendezvous with a girlfriend at church?
There was a section in the cathedral where people who had dates sat in order to be easily identified by their partners [thank God for mobile phones and WhatsApp, somebody.] People used to call it mu bbaluwa (the letters section). So, you would sit in church, barely paying attention to the service, but anxiously waiting for your date to show up.
How times change! Would you live without your phone now?
I can live without a phone, but of course not for long. One of my children that I picked from the street recently convinced me to join WhatsApp. He bought me a WhatsApp enabled phone and now they send me photos and videos [Eh, a dotcom grandpa!]
And how do you spend your spare time?
I am a farmer. I have a poultry incubator and a poultry farm. I grow passion fruits, oranges, and grape fruits. I enjoy nature.
Many men dye their hair when they start graying…
…It is what I am going for now. In my family, we don’t have full heads of grey hair. It is only the hairline and the beards that grey, so to make it uniform, I just dye my hairline and beards. I do it at my wife’s request. She is young, you know; she was born in 1975 [that makes her 41].
And how old are you?
I am 76 [Quick Talk actually thought he was much younger than that. This reverend ages gracefully! His secret:] I don’t have any special exercises to keep fit. I do a lot of walking on my 12-acre farm. Maybe that is what keeps me fit.
And where do you buy your clothes?
I mostly shop from America and England when I travel. Clothes in Uganda are too expensive for nothing. Sometimes, my children also buy me clothes.
What don’t people like about you?
People say I usually overlook people’s weaknesses. For instance, they hated the fact that I was associating closely with street children who many people thought were social outcastes. But I think that is a good habit. For me, I always don’t dwell on the bad side of anyone. I look for only the good.
And what kind of music do you enjoy?
I enjoy classical music and modern music. I like good compositions like Pastor Wilson Bugembe’s songs. You can tell he carefully composes his songs. I like all his songs.
Do you hope to come back to politics?
When I was defeated in 2006, I felt I had served enough. I am now a fulltime church planter. Since 1980, we now have over 200 congregations. Our first church was a huge structure along Lubaga road before the Kabaka Anjagala stage. I am now a pastor of a small church in Ntanzi along Mukono-Katosi road.
Rev Ssempangi also wrote a book, A Distant Grief, in 1979 while in America, explaining his escape from Amin’s government. A film lecturer in Seattle plans to make a film based on his story.