“John Nagenda confessed salvation in his hospital bed”.
By Dr. Martin M Lwanga.
As he lay dying, the son stood on the edge, a storm of thoughts clouding his mind. His father, whom he loved deeply, was a famous global Evangelist, who had preached for a quarter of a century around the world the Gospel of salvation in Christ. However, himself, he had long walked away from the faith.
Late John Mwesigwa Nagenda
When I met John Mwesigwa in his early eighties, he not only shared with me his final moments with his father, William Nagenda, but on the subject of receiving Christ as a personal Savior, he was quite adamant. “I loved my father dearly,” he told me, a bit teary. “But I just don’t believe you need to be saved to go to heaven!” It was just after noon and he took a sip of whiskey at Kampala Club where as President of Kampala West Rotary Club I had just honoured him with a vocational award, for his life of service as a writer.
In 1912 William Nagenda, had been born to a leading Muganda saza (province) chief, Festo Munyangenda. During the early reign of Ssekabaka Mutesa 1, Munyangeda briefly served as a regent. As was common then for sons of chiefs Nagenda Sr was taken to King’s College Budo where he excelled to go to Makerere University. He graduated with a Diploma, the highest award offered then, and was posted to the colonial Central Government base in Entebbe as a clerk. There while attending an open air crusade meeting led by a one Simeon Nsibambi, he made a life turning decision to accept Jesus as a personal saviour. And his life was never the same.
Nagenda Sr resigned his secure Uganda Government job, to engage in full time Christian ministry. Together with Nsibambi the two married two beautiful sisters of a leading chief, Erastus Bakaluba. While Nsibambi would marry Eva; Nagenda went for the younger Sala.
Nsibambi had also resigned from his government job as Health inspector. A chance meeting with a British missionary, Dr Joe Church, had led him surrender completely his life to Christ. After that Nsimbabi had also led his younger brother, Blasio Kigozi, to Christ. Kigozi as well married a Bakaluba girl, Katherine. This trio became full time lay preachers, using the Nsibambi home in Bulange as a base.
Blasio Kigozi was a fiery preacher whom audiences could not resist as he urged all to repent and accept Jesus. Dr Church appointed him as Headmaster of Gahini Evangelistic Training School. However, in 1936 after a mission trip to Gahini, Rwanda, where Dr Church had started a missionary hospital, Blasio passed away following a short illness. Nagenda was posted to Gahini to succeed him. And it is here in 1938 that he and Sala gave birth to a bouncing son whom they baptized the name of Mwesigwa (“Our God is faithful!”)
Bishop Stuart who headed the Anglican Church easily saw in Nagenda the kind of leader he wanted. After a brief time as a Chaplain at a Tea estate owned by a committed Christian business couple, Leslie Wilsons, he convinced Nagenda to attend Bishop Tucker Theological College and join mainstream clergy.
Founded in 1913 by Bishop Alfred Tucker the College was the best theological institution in the region, not just training priests of the Anglican Church, but also teachers and certain other vocational skills. When Nagenda joined he was on fire for Christ and started preaching against sin, repentance and modern practices that had made the Church “cold!” Nagenda roused his fellow students to get up at 4 am for fervent prayers. Feeling threatened by this “revival movement” of young believers, the administration resisted. The matter went up to Bishop Stuart who was already under siege from the young balokole (savadees) accusing the Church of being lukewarm. He sided with the administration. The radicals were given an ultimatum to cease with their revival campaign. But they refused to balk down. In the end Nagenda Sr together with 26 students, just a month to graduation, were all expelled.
But that was not the end of the matter. The Anglican Church now felt under attack from the radical balokole who were pushing her traditional members to embrace salvation. Coincidentally these balokole were from the leading Baganda families and wielded a lot of influence for the Church to be concerned. Yet, also, among the balokole were also those who wanted to leave the Anglican Church and form a separate Church. What saved the day was when Nsibambi and Nagenda, the leaders of the movement, decided against exit. Their reasoning was that the Church needed them most and it was better to preach “okulokoka” (salvation) while still in the Church, than outside. Indeed, to this day, the balokole remain part of mainstream Anglican Church.
It is generally acknowledged that if Nsibambi, a former Head Prefect at Budo, had not given his life to Christ, and continued with his government career, he would have risen to become a Katikkiro (Prime Minister) of the 500 year plus Buganda Kingdom Government. Likewise, for Nagenda too, Bishop Stuart in sending him to Mukono, the idea was he could one day rise to become the first African Bishop. Bishop Stuart was disappointed when Nagenda refused to repent, who insisted that he had obeyed God. As a result of that, he was punished more, with Bishop Stuart revoking his license to preach in the Anglican Church.
Denied of the opportunity to share the Gospel in Church, Nagenda Sr decided thereon to spend the rest of his life sharing the gospel of salvation as a Street evangelist. He and Dr Church, whose license was also revoked, would occasionally be invited to speak within and outside Uganda. In 1946 Nagenda made his first evangelical mission to England. He had a very good command of the English language and easily won over crowds. Soon he was visiting the rest of Europe, parts of Africa, the US and South America on evangelical missions.
As Nagenda Sr became a global evangelist, Sala at home was busy as a doting mother. Like all believing mothers, Sala introduced Sunday School stories about Jesus to her son. Although we have no record, at one point, Sala, must also have led young Mwesigwa in a prayer of salvation, which would normally happen with all children raised in a believers’ home.
Nagenda and Sala also decided to take Mwesigwa to the best Christian mission schools around at the time. Starting him at Mwiri College, Busoga, Mwesigwa, who also had a stint at Kigezi High School, would later join King’s College Budo in the most famous class of Jubilants (Budo @50 years). His Budo classmates would later read like Who is Who in Uganda. Among them was Charles Kikonyogo, later Governor Bank of Uganda; Professor FIB Kayanja, later Vice Chancellor Mbarara University of Science & Technology; Professor Phares Mutibwa, later the noted historian; Dr Jack Jagwe, later Medical Superintendent Mulago hospital; Dr Edward Kakonge, later a Cabinet minister. But there was also Rev Laban Bombo, later not only my muko (brother in law); but one who would return to Budo where for nearly 30 years he taught a future generation of global leaders.
After passing his Cambridge Certificate of Education with a first-class, Mwesigwa joined Makerere University where he had two interesting classmates- Joyce Kaddu, later a Vice Chair of Public Service Commission and Benjamin Mkapa, later President of Tanzania. They would remain close friends over the years. “Once when President Mkpa was in Uganda on a visit,” Joyce Kaddu would share with me, “Mkapa invited both of us for a private dinner at Sheraton hotel. We had such a good time reminiscing about our Makerere days!”
At Makerere University Mwesigwa’s love of writing flowered. It was not by accident though. Mwesigwa’s maternal grandfather, Erasto Bakaluba, was a writer of a small book “Emmere y’ abaganda! His mother Sala had written an unpublished novel. When Mwesigwa joined university a young and restless African educated class was rising eager to define African identity in their words. Mwesigwa would become editor of a literary magazine ‘Penpoint’ which first published his poems and short stories. In 1962 after graduation, Mwesigwa joined the Oxford University Press where he would edit and publish many of the emerging works of African writers.
As Mwesigwa rose and established himself in the literary world publishing poems like “Gahini Lake” and short stories like, “And This, At Last” he started cooling towards the faith of his parents. Somewhere in the mid sixties after preaching salvation on the five continents, Nagenda had slowed down. Concerned about his health, his many friends in the United Kingdom took him in, but as his condition worsened, he returned to Uganda.
By then Nagenda and Sala had given their all to their six children: Stephen, Ruth, Jane, Tendo and Jim, the best education of the day. Through their global connections they secured them places in overseas universities and all would go on to become well established. They looked with pride as Mwesigwa not only established himself as a writer but became a lion in the sporting world. In 1975 Mwesigwa would represent East Africa at the World Cricket match, by then recognized as perhaps the fastest bowler in East Africa.
So why would Mwesigwa, successful in life, now start cooling towards the faith of his loving parents! What had happened is that out in the world, freed from the religious atmosphere of his childhood, Mwesigwa had encountered a world of intellectuals and egregious sports lover, some hard drinking, who inevitably shook his earlier beliefs as a born again Christian. Among African intellectuals who, ironically had largely been educated through missionary schools, it was a fashion to scorn Christianity once exposed to the rest of the world. Many were quick to observe that Christian missionaries had hypocritically painted African cultures negatively as they held up theirs. In reaction prominent writers like Nagenda’s age mate, James Ngugi, decided to renounce the Christian faith as the religion of the exploiter. James Ngugi renounced his Christian name James, though Mwesigwa never went that far and retained his name John.
Another reason, less obvious, but clearer to the spiritual eyes, was because Mwesigwa was the First born of Evangelist Nagenda’s six children. In the Bible we find that when Moses went out to plea for the release of the Israelites and met opposition from Pharaoh, the only way the latter agreed was after God moved to snap the life of all First borns, with the exception of those of the Israelites. In as much as the First born belongs to the Lord; the enemy who comes to “kill and destroy” is always after these! If Mwesigwa would turn his back on his father’s faith, as the eldest child, then the rest had no one to look up to. Each one could walk his way.
On this point we must note that, as Mwesigwa walked away from the faith, the relationship between his parents remained strong. To the end they prayed he would return to the faith they had given their life to and preached around the world.
No longer identifying himself as a Christian, Mwesigwa now embraced humanism as an alternative belief system. The seventies were perilous times and Mwesigwa like many intellectuals of his time fled into exile. His fellow writer, Robert Serumaga, was one of those who took up arms to fight for removal of Idi Amin. In 1980 President Obote returned to power after contested elections. Some of those aggrieved decided to take up arms and wage a guerrilla war using Luwero Triangle as a base. Along the way Mwesigwa also joined in the struggle helping connect Prince Ronald Mutebi with Yoweri Museveni, of whom many Baganda were quite sceptical. Eventually he led Prince Mutebi to the battlefield, which was a turning point in that wars’ fortune.
Grateful for his support, after Mr Museveni took power, in 1986, Mwesigwa was appointed a member of the Commission of Inquiry to investigate the abuse of Human rights in Uganda. Having distinguished himself, he was later promoted to Senior Presidential advisor on Public Relations, a position he held up to the time of his death. In a sense Mwesigwa was one of those who had the longest running relationship with President Museveni. But it must be said, also, it was often a fractured one, especially when out of exasperation and apparent lack of access to the President, he would take to his pen that could send shiver in many where he openly disagreed on important issues like removal of Presidential term limits.
In the early 2000s I started attending Prayer Breakfast prayer organized by Mr Balak Kirya. In 1966 Balak Kirya was one of the five ministers detained without trial by the Obote government who were opposed to his coup plot against President Mutesa II. After Obote regained power Kirya quickly joined the rebels and took up base in Nairobi. One day he was kidnapped and hauled back to Luzira maximum security. There alone in a cold cell Kirya gave his life to Christ. Now as a Minister in the Museveni government he started weekly prayer breakfast meetings focusing on leaders. One day we were joined by Stephen, the younger brother to Mwesigwa and, one who himself confessed Christ as a personal savior. Later when he left to take over the management of the Namutamba tea estate, I could only relate with the Nagendas through Mwesigwa’s New Vision weekly column: “One man’s week”.
I was an enthusiastic reader and aside from following his incisive commentaries I could not help but count how many times he would bring up the memory of Nagenda and Sala, whom he had outlived for over thirty years. Yet, almost in the same breath, Mwesigwa, would also remind readers, that unlike them, he was not a believer. “My religion is humanism” he shared freely in one of his last New Vision interviews.
Incidentally, Mwesigwa was not the only First born to walk away from his father’s faith. The eldest son of Nsibambi, Dr John Nsibambi, had also backslid. Married to my cousin Solome Nabulya, I never heard anything about the faith of his father while growing up. All I knew was that he was living a high town life. But with the passage of years, Dr John Nsibambi, repented and gave his life back to Christ. Later he was joined by his younger brother Apollo Nsibambi, then Prime Minister of Uganda.
But where was Mwesigwa! Unlike his Nsibambi cousins, Mwesigwa, held on to the fences, even as he aged. In one New Vison interview, then 80, he spoke ruefully, “God exists and I don’t deny that according to the Bible, Christ came. I have read a lot about it, but I have my point of departure from my cousins, like Apollo Nsibambi, who got saved and stopped and then became a Christian again..!”
By then his star as a writer had soared, with a novel “Seasons of Tembo” to his name. He took on many prestigious positions in society, chairing the Uganda Cricket Association, among many honors. High as he went there was though that distinct, quiet but highly regarded part of society who, whatever Mwesigwa wrote would read and see him through lenses of “the son of an Evangelist”! For one of the permanent facts about our lives is that none of us can deny our identity. All of us inherited a certain identity at birth. If you are born a child of a Sheikh even if you turn out something else, you will always be known as “the son of a Sheikh”! Jesus is the “son of a Carpenter”! So, even as Mwesigwa took on a different belief system, and cast doubt on his father’s, he would remain ever “the son of an Evangelist!”
More importantly, many of the balokole were praying for him, that however long it took, no matter, one day, Mwesigwa- omwana’ w’omulokole, (son of a savedee) would come back to his father’s fold, as he would have wished.
And why would they care so much? For some it was simply because a man called Nagenda and his wife Sala, had led them to Christ. In her autobiography, “My Life is weaving” Rhoda Kalema shared how as a young newly born-again Christian she visited the Nagenda home in Namutamba. “William was approachable, friendly and humble. He talked to me in a personal way about my new salvation…He promised to pray for me, for God to guide me.”
After handing him his Rotary vocational award we continued to engage. Although I have read he could set terror in many, personally, I found him a gentleman of extreme grace and with a rich sense of humor. Once after the loss of a sister I placed a call to him but we missed each other. The moment he got an opportunity he got back to me apologizing profusely.
In another call I shared a matter of great concern. After reading about Nagenda and the 26 students expelled in 1941 from Mukono, because of their beliefs, I wondered if was it not about time that Uganda Christian University (the successor of Bishop Alfred Tucker Theology) where I was then on staff, should apologize for their summary dismissal and award them posthumous diplomas! History had vindicated the Nagenda-led expelled students, who never wavered in their beliefs even if the decision had cost them their career ambitions. Through these expelled students the East African revival was born that touched the rest of the world. Mwesigwa immediately warmed to the idea. But then, by now, his health was in steep decline and we didn’t follow up. Our last conversation was when he told me how he was struggling to take regular walks out on his wide veranda, and I encouraged him to just carry on.
Far away in Tanzania, while following events back home, early this month I received news that Mwesigwa had passed on. Immediately a thought raced through my mind, almost too terrifying to behold. “Did Mwesigwa finally return to the faith of his father!” I felt a mixture of sadness and anger at the same time, thinking what a loss!
Then, as the day closed, my heaviness was lifted when news came from a close family member: “John confessed salvation in his hospital bed to his wife. I talked to him while he was alert. He didn’t deny his confession. Yesu talina gwalemwa. Tukutendereza!”
Jesus once asked, “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? ( Mathew 8:12). To illustrate the point he gave the story of the prodigal son who, left all his father had for him, wandered out in the world, only to realize there was no better home to be than return his father’s.
Not so long ago I happened to be attending a funeral of some important person. The Mwesigwa’s cousin, Prime Minister Apollo Nsibambi stood up to say something about the deceased. “I wonder what kind of rejoicing is happening now in heaven!” he mused. “It must be home coming joy up there!”
Nagenda and Sala gave all their lives to win over the lost to Christ. What a joy it was and, is, that the First born, had returned home, finally, to enjoy eternity together with Maama and Taata! The heavens must have rejoiced with, “Tukutedereza Yesu!”