It is a possibility that there is a pre-written script that has all our lives figured out, and we, unwittingly, are simply living what it says. What else could explain a story as weighed down with symbolism and such telling tales of being predestined as that of the Reverend Simon Serwanja!
He is a third generation descendant of one of the Anglican Uganda Martyrs, Frederick Kizza, who was killed at Namugongo on June 3, 1886. And yes, his life is entirely woven around that martyrdom; he is a priest in the Anglican Church, the very church his great grandfather died for; he is a lecturer at the Uganda Martyrs Seminary, Namugongo, just a few metres away from the very place where his great grandfather was martyred; and when it came to building a house, he chose the hemlines of Namugongo.
He is a simple, charming man, the Reverend Serwanja. He smiles shyly, revealing white teeth which, when contrasted against his dark complexion, create a radiant effect. And when he does that, even while on the pulpit, it draws you in to the man, a warm and welcoming individual who has a smile for every passerby.
Rev Serwanja is one of the descendants of the very much-venerated martyrs, whose story has not been told. Until now. He is a man who owes his entire existence to God, from keeping his grandmother safe as she was born after her father, the martyr was killed, to the Christian upbringing that protected him from picking wrong behaviour in his youth, to serving the church, a vocation that has brought him all he has ever wanted.
And from early on in life, Rev Serwanja, partly as a work of fate, and, partly his own will, set his life aside to serve God. This can be seen from the way he lived his teenage years.
“I chose friends wisely,” he says. “I chose friends who were religious and it helped me avoid many bad practices. That was the time of Amin’s regime (1970s), a time when children were very much spoiled. I thank God, because I think my Christian background helped me.”
And although he was a student then, he spent his time, working away, serving in the church. “I was given a post to work as a verger at St John’s Church, in Makerere, from 1973 to 1974. I did various forms of work. I would work on Saturday; open the church, sweep it, and beat the drum to call worshippers. After Senior Four, I got more involved in church activities, like reading lessons,” he says. And since then, his career has had a thing or two to do with the church.
A martyrs’ child
His house, which he named after his great grandfather, Frederick Kizza, sits on a lush-green plot, just a five-minute drive away from the Namugongo Anglican Martyrs Shrine, at a village called, Jinja, Misindye. It is here that he is raising the fourth generation of Kizza’s children. Growing up, he was always reminded that he descended from a special person.
“My father always talked about it (that we were descended from the martyrs). When I was six, my father took us visiting the Namugongo Martyrs Shrine and that is when he told me the details of his background. I was not excited at first,” he says. “Now, I have also kept on telling my children.”
The connection with the martyrs, yet, would come to affect him greatly. “It did not have any impact at first, but at least, later on, especially after my S4, I asked, ‘why don’t I join Bishop Tucker College?’
“When I was posted to Namugongo Seminary, and I saw how people travelled from all over the world, to see the place, and knowing that I am a descendent, it had a strong impact on my life then. I thought that when it comes to buying land and building a house, why don’t I do it near here?
Rev Serwanja almost runs out of words when attempting to describe the weight and importance of the Martyrs to Uganda. And yes, you can read a sense of concern in his voice that some of this importance is getting lost on us.
“Without those martyrs, I don’t think we would be having a church now. The Catholic Church treats martyrs with great respect, more than the Anglican faith. (It is) not that we should pray through them, but we (should) show that we respect them and adore them,” he says.
He also thinks that having martyrs should have a bearing on Uganda, as a society. “People with martyrs should take their faith seriously, so that one day, we see Uganda as a country with no corruption,” he says.
“But what makes me cry is that for a people whose church was built on a foundation of martyrdom, we are one of the most corrupt people, be it in the church, , government and schools, everywhere. So, they (martyrs) should have an impact on each and everyone’s life. That is my appeal to all people, Ugandans and especially the Anglican Church.”
At 54 years, Rev Serwanja is starting to count the successes in his life. When he considers that one of his sons wants to grow into a clergyman someday, he welcomes it with wide-open arms. Why? “Whatever I wanted to get, all the education, whatever I wanted to do, up to a level of a university lecturer, I have got it all through the church. So, I cannot regret it at all. I feel happy, respected and I have never regretted,” he says.
Some of the students he has taught at the Namugongo Seminary have gone on to such heights as being bishops and that makes him proud.
The reverend is married to Dorothy, a primary school teacher and a Guidance and Counselling student at Ndejje University. The couple has three sons, with one adopted daughter. He prays for a life, long enough to see his children through school and into adulthood.
Rev Serwanja will wow and inspire you with the broad knowledge of his family, all the way from his grandmother, the daughter of Frederick Kizza, all the descendants down to the ones living today. In an age where family relations have reduced from the extended kind we have known to nuclear settings, his knowledge of his extended family awes you.
The martyrs’ story, which we relive every June 3, 2013, is an everyday ritual for Rev Serwanja. And yes, Frederick Kizza would be glad to know what his great grandson has done.
His life story
I was born on Sept 14, 1959. My earliest memories include going to nursery school in 1964. It was called Kikajo Nursery School, two miles from Nateete. I remember our teacher, a one Mr Nsubuga, who used to give us sweets and bananas, then we would sing and go back home.
I went to Luweero Boys’ School for Primary One to Five, and Kuungu Primary School in present day Wakiso District. That is where I sat my PLE, in 1973. I attended Mengo Secondary School from 1974 to 1977, for O-Level. Then I broke off for two years, teaching at Makerere Infant School. I proceeded to Bishop Tucker Theological College (now Uganda Christian University) in 1980, for a diploma in theology. I was ordained as deacon in 1983, and served at Luweero archdeaconry.
In mid-1985, when (Tito Okello) Lutwa took over the presidency, and Sudanese mercenaries ran through Luweero, we had to run away. I took refuge at Namirembe Cathedral for six months as a curate until 1986. I then proceeded to Kawuku Ggaba Parish as a parish priest, for nine months. That year, I went back to Bishop Tucker for a Bachelor of Divinity degree, from 1986 to 1989. In 1990, I was posted to the Uganda Martyrs Seminary in Namugongo to teach.
At the beginning of 1996, I went to Mombasa and worked at Bishop Hannington Theological College as a missionary priest. I volunteered to work as a priest outside my country, and I was sponsored by the Church Missionary Society.
I returned to Uganda in 1999 and was posted to St Peters Church, Kamuli, as a parish priest. While there, I joined the Institute of Teacher Education Kyambogo (now Kyambogo University), for a postgraduate diploma in community based rehabilitation from 2000 to 2001. Then, I was transferred back to Uganda Martyrs Seminary as a lecturer and chaplain. In 2002, I enrolled for a Masters degree in Counselling Psychology, as one of the seven pioneer students for that programme.
In 2006, after graduation, I joined Ndejje University as a full time lecturer, but also continued at Namugongo as a part time lecturer. I am also at Muteesa I Royal University as a visiting lecturer.