The Prospect Terrified Me

THE UGANDAN MOTHER had given birth to twins—and for her people, this signaled impending sorrow. Someone else in her family would soon die. She must hide the children from sight so the village would not share her misfortune. Then, baptized Christian though she was, she must visit the witch doctor to propitiate the spirits.

But then an evangelist arrived at her hut. He picked up the twins and presented them openly to the village. The people stood frozen. Surely the spirits would punish such outrageous behavior with death. But nothing happened. The children—and the rest of the village—lived.

The evangelist knew exactly what he was up against. Born in 1864, Waswa Munubi had survived the death in infancy of his own twin brother. He wrote, “If a twin dies, the parents do not weep. They announce the death by saying the child has gone back, and everyone knows what that means.”

Waswa grew up the son of peasants in the country now known as Uganda. His parents apprenticed him to a witch doctor, but when he discovered the man tricking people out of their possessions, he left him to learn about Islam, recently brought to the chief’s court by Arab traders.

“Our father first began to learn to read in the days of Mukabya from the Moslems,” Waswa wrote. “Kabaka Mutesa commanded all his chiefs and people to read from the Moslems and to keep their fasts.”

“Chief Mutesa, I presume?”

But when Waswa turned 13, H. M. Stanley, who had discovered David Livingstone in 1872, paid a visit to Mutesa’s court and persuaded the chief to begin “reading” in the Christian religion. The chief was probably more impressed with Stanley’s guns than with his Bible, for Mutesa had already parted ways with the Arabs and now needed protection. But the chief’s welcome opened the door for his people to embrace Christianity.

Stanley’s expedition opened the way for other missionaries too, notably Alexander Mackay, who arrived in 1878. Waswa credits Mackay with planting seeds of belief in his life. “When I looked at the European,” he wrote, “his eyes sparkled with kindness.” Mackay organized a church, and members of the chief’s court began attending his classes.

But then the chief rejected Christianity and put Mackay under house arrest. When Mutesa died in 1884, his son Mwanga unleashed a violent persecution on the infant church. No one knows how many perished, but in a single vicious rampage in 1886, Mwanga ordered the execution of 32 Christians— the famed “Uganda Martyrs” whose memory is still preserved in an Anglican and Roman Catholic feast day.

Mwanga lost his people’s support, however, and together Muslims and Christians seized power from the chief. Predictably, the alliance dissolved, and as Waswa was still considered a Muslim, he was forced to join their army—now raiding the countryside. But his heart was not in it; when his companions began setting villages on fire and burning their victims, he abandoned them and took up residence among the Christians.

Waswa briefly flirted with hemp smoking, but when he began attending Christian classes, he quit the practice. Shortly after this, he converted to Christianity.

Waswa requested baptism in 1894 and took a new name—Apolo Kivebulaya. “Apolo” honored the evangelist of Acts 18:24-25; and “Kivebulaya“—meaning “the thing from England“—was given to him because he wore a suit under his long white garment.

Shortly after this, Apolo’s fiancée died. He later viewed this as providential, as it freed him for missionary work.

Meanwhile, the Christians with British military aid expelled the Muslim armies, and the call went out for missionaries to enter the recently stabilized region of Toro, or western Uganda. Apolo answered the call and began planting a church there. But in a series of unfortunate incidents, Apolo was accused of storing the chief’s belongings and arrested and imprisoned by the British in Kampala.

Facing the Mountain

Eventually Apolo was released without trial, and soon he set out for a new mission field, accepting the challenge of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) to evangelize a tribe in the Belgian Congo.Blocking his way were the snow-capped Ruwenzori mountains. Intimidating though these were, Apolo trekked across them into the winter. Finally he crested the ridge and glimpsed his continent’s heartland for the first time.

“I stood and looked far away to the Congo. The prospect terrified me.” But the pull of the Great Commission and his compassion for lost brothers and sisters urged him on. In December 1896 he began ministering in the town of Mboga.

At first the work went well. But as Apolo’s influence among the people grew, the chief (or Tabaro) resented the intruder and began slandering the Christians.

“There is no God,” said the Tabaro. “Let them bring back the charms and incantations.” When the Tabaro’s sister accidentally fell on a spear intended as building material for Apolo’s church, the chief accused Apolo of murder and had him escorted back to the English authorities in Uganda.

In this darkest hour of Apolo’s life, Jesus appeared to him in a dream. Apolo heard him say, “Be of good cheer; I am with you.” He answered, “Who is speaking to me?” And he heard, “I am Jesus Christ. Preach to my people. Do not be afraid.” From that day, Apolo’s spirits revived. Soon CMS members intervened for the imprisoned missionary and secured his release.

The Belgians, meanwhile, contested the Congolese border with Uganda, and Mboga changed hands. This temporarily closed the door for further ministry in the Congo, and Apolo returned to Uganda for 20 years of productive ministry. In 1903, the CMS ordained him a priest on Namirembe Hill in Kampala, and he began planting numerous churches across Toro, traveling hundreds of miles annually by foot and bicycle. The people soon said that Apolo’s big flat feet with spread-out toes enabled him to walk anywhere—he never wore any shoes.

Word of his ministry spread, and CMS missionaries came to visit him. They praised him: “[Apolo] never had the opportunity of theological training in the ordinary sense of the term, but his devotion, his saintliness of life, his understanding of men, and his missionary passion have made him one of the strongest forces in the diocese.”

Apolo gave rigorous attention to the spiritual disciplines, waking early for prayer and Bible study. He cared deeply for his congregations, taking in children from the village to live at his home and building a house for widows and deserted women. He lived simply, owning only two coats and giving nearly all his pay to his teachers.

People also told stories of Apolo’s near miraculous powers. When a famine broke out in 1913, one witness reported that Apolo “went to Kitagweta to give Holy Communion and told them to be patient in Jesus and He will even give you rain. . . . [He] prayed and it rained straight away.” Once, Apolo sailed onto Lake Edward to visit an island when a storm blew up. Apolo sang, and to his companions’ surprise, the storm quieted.

Those who met Apolo spoke of his contagious joy. One missionary wrote, “His face is an inspiration, and he is greatly beloved by us all for his simple wholeheartedness and desire to win souls.” Apolo sang hymns as he traveled and led exuberant crowds to welcome bishops or missionaries who approached his home in Kabarole.

Back to the Congo

With Christianity firmly established in Toro, Apolo’s thoughts returned to the church in Mboga. The Belgians had loosened their restrictions on travel, and in 1915, Apolo traded a well-earned year’s leave in Kampala for a renewed term of service in Mboga. He arrived to find the missionary outpost in shambles. “When I reached Mboga, I found some of the Christians possessed by an evil spirit. Some were practicing witchcraft. Some had three wives, some two, and there was too much drinking of beer.”

Apolo set about rebuilding the church and reviving his classes. The new chief clashed with him, falsely accusing him of stealing from the village. Apolo had to face down Chief Sulemani’s challenge. In church one Sunday, the missionary publicly rebuked the chief: “Sulemani has turned his back on God,” he said (the chief had flirted with Catholicism and then reverted to tribal religion), “and God will turn his back on him!” Sulemani contracted leprosy and died later that year.

Sulemani’s son, Enoke, was no better. He accused Apolo of not paying his taxes to the Belgians, though the attack fell flat, as Apolo was on good terms with the Belgian government. Delivering yet another prophetic barrage, Apolo predicted Enoke would lose his kingdom and “dig potatoes” in exile. When Belgian authorities later found Enoke stealing ivory, they removed him from his chieftainship. Enoke ran away to Toro where on his food plot he did indeed dig potatoes.

Singing with the Pygmies

Soon Apolo received another vision, this time directing him to the forest of the Pygmies in the Congo. The Pygmies stood no taller than 4 feet, 8 inches, and were known for their skill as forest trackers and for their accuracy with bow and poisoned arrow. Some tribes accused the Pygmies of cannibalism, though the evidence is inconclusive.

Apolo hired the freed Pygmy slaves to interpret for him, and he put together a team of teachers. In 1921, they entered the forest. Three years later, Apolo baptized his first converts. In the early 1930s, near the end of his life, he was visiting 14 different forest tribes every year.

One witness told how Apolo, when first meeting a Pygmy tribe, would sit among the people and sing to them. This greatly amused them, as they respected Apolo’s old age and loved to sing themselves. Apolo also brought with him salt—a prized commodity for the Pygmies—and told his teachers to “lend” their possessions to the people, though they knew the Pygmies had no concept of returning things. Thus, the missionaries befriended the tribes.

Final years In 1927, Apolo was called to Kampala and elected vice president of the CMS. It was the culmination of a life’s work: in 1890, one church with 200 members stood on Namirembe Hill; in 1927, Uganda could boast 2,000 churches with nearly 185,000 members. According to a missionary at the ceremony, “Apolo said he knew now he was a member of the great CMS council, and felt very honored; his dear old face was shining with the light of God. . . . I felt like kneeling down and asking him for his blessing.”

The day Apolo died, he wrote this final prayer:

“O God our Father
And the Son Jesus Christ
And the Holy Spirit
May you give me a blessing while in this world
While you lead me through the forests
Through the lakes and the mountains
So that I may do your work among your people.
Grant that I may be loved by you
And by your people.
Amen.”
By Steven Gertz

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #79 in 2003]

Steven Gertz was editorial coordinator of Christian History.
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