Samwiri Bishaka’s death was end of an era

Can Samwiri Bishaka was a teacher but excelled in administrative roles because he was a great organiser and planner. PHOTO/COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • Trendsetter. Can Samwiri Bishaka was among first people in Ankole to learn how to read and write and embrace modern lifestyles, writes Sylvia Mwesigye.

It is hard to imagine Ibanda District without Can Samwiri Bishaka, who has been a mainstay of the region for a century. His passing is not only a loss for his family and the people of Ibanda but marks the end of an era in the history of Ankole and Uganda at large.

At 108 years, Bishaka is among the last of his generation. He was part of the first crop of our ancestors to go to school and embrace Christianity.  He was also among the first from the Bairu ethnicity to hold public office and be entrusted with responsibilities outside of their own families. Before this generation, most powerful positions were held by the Bahima, who easily associated with the ruling class.

He was among first people in Ankole to learn how to read and write; and embraced modern lifestyle such as wearing clothes, shoes and lived in modern houses. Bishaka was a trendsetter, who pioneered modern mixed farming, opened a bank account and owned a car.

The man
Bishaka had a pleasant and welcoming demeanor. He was a great conversationalist because he had great knowledge about most subjects. He was not afraid to make his position on religion, government or society clear. While he was not a fashion trendsetter, Bishaka was meticulous in the way he dressed and he took great care of his clothes.  

For a man of his means, I was always surprised by his minimalist lifestyle. While he could have built the latest type of mansion and filled it with the trendiest decor, Bishaka chose to live in the house he had constructed in the 1950s.

The modest house is still in tiptop shape. His guiding principle about acquiring wealth was; if one thing could suffice there was no need for two even if he could afford it.

Bishaka was a teacher but excelled in administrative roles because he was a great organiser and planner. For almost all his life he was entrusted with money because of how he diligently handled and used public funds.

Bishaka had a great many stories about the 1945 revival movement of which he was a member. According to his recollections, contrary to popular belief, the balokole movement was not that popular from the start even with the church. The church missionaries in their zeal to get as many converts as possible had not put very many stringent standards on the new converts. So, before the revival movement, it was normal for Anglicans and even the clergy to drink alcohol or smoke tobacco.

Polygamy was one of the few practices frowned upon perhaps because of cultural intolerance by the British as a society. But when the balokole came, they taught that every believer was to crucify the body with all its desires, through denying oneself such indulgences such as alcohol consumption, smoking and attending secular dances.

They also insisted that for one to be forgiven of their sins, they had to publicly confess them. Many Christian converts felt this public humiliation was unnecessary since nothing is hidden from God’s eyes.

The mainstream Anglicans, especially the clergy who had power, felt they had the responsibility to bring order to the church by guarding it against heresy and strange practices. The members of the new group had to endure suspicion and persecution before being accepted as the rightful keepers of God’s truth as it is in the Anglican Church today.

The revivalists felt that God’s grace should not be taken in vain and it was not to taken as a license to sin. As this new teaching gained traction, many young people embraced it first in Buganda by the likes of Simeon Nsibambi, Peter Kigozi, and J.Nagenda. These non-ordained Christians took it upon themselves to preach the gospel and with time predictably came to clash with the traditional church, which felt this teaching was not in line with God’s all-embracing nature. It stigmatised sinners and yet the church was for sinners.

Bishaka once told me that for a while, their group was persecuted but with time their views were embraced to extent that today you cannot be accepted as a serious Christian unless you are saved. In fact today it is taboo to be a member of the clergy unless you are saved.

Bishaka’s getting saved meant that he also has been a preacher of the gospel for eight decades and had witnessed for Christ all over western Uganda and beyond.

Bishaka also participated in building the church physically. He contributed to building of the church at Bweranyangi West Ankole and his contribution to the creation of St Paul’s Cathedral Ibanda present day North Ankole Diocese, is immeasurable.

For many years, he served as head of laity and treasurer. Woe unto anyone who tried to deep their fingers into the church purse. He is credited together with other committee members to have acquired several assets for the Church in Ibanda such as the Church farm at Bukonje and a plot in Ibanda on which a multibillion structure is being constructed under the able leadership of the Bishop Amos Magyezi.

Born to Ezra and Dora at the beginning of the 20th Century, Bishaka was certainly born at home where his mother probably was attended by a traditional birth attendant or any other adult.

While his age was never recorded, his baptism certificate shows that he was baptized in 1920 along with his mother and father. He often said the group had walked about five kilometres to the church, meaning he must have been about eight years or older to be able to comfortably walk that distance.

The death of his father and the fallout of his mother with his father’s family due to her refusal to be inherited meant that his future was uncertain without any land or livestock. But a chance encounter with the Saza chief of Ibanda County known as Yona Kategaya offered him a chance at education.

He enrolled at Ibanda Boys School at 17 years and later joined Nyakasura Teacher Training College, where he trained as a primary school teacher. He taught in various schools in Ankole and later took up other administrative roles in schools such as Bweranyangi Girls in Bushenyi, where he worked as an estates manager.

Bishaka’s passing can be likened to a great library burning down because of his grasp of both the secular and religious life of Ankole and Ibanda in particular. Bishaka was a very loyal person who kept friends for life and because he has had the privilege of outliving his friends, he always sought to continue these relationships through their children. His life gives us a great model to follow, because he surmounted great odds to create a meaningful and inspiring life worthy of emulation.

He is survived by his children; Grace Ekudu, Patience Kamugisha, Ezra M Bishaka,  and Christopher Mwesigye.