The sight of the demolished St Peter’s Church, Ndeeba whose steeple and cross defied the machines and refused to go down is the kind of imagery that gets etched on one’s mind.
To the grieving Christians, it is a comforting confirmation that the kingdom of Christ is stronger than the kingdom of darkness. You can see this unspoken peace in the eyes of everyone.
Nonetheless, the mood at the destroyed church was not any different from a vigil. Old women were seated in small groups under tree sheds, talking in low tones. Some people were wiping tears from their eyes while others held their bowed heads in their palms.
Middle aged men were moving about briskly, making sure that the government officials were welcomed according to protocol. Young men and women were standing by to point journalists to the right people.
Every other minute, a passerby would stop by, stand and look at the debris of the church in wonderment. Many were on the verge of tears, mouthing curses at the dark forces that brought the church down. Most were simply rendered speechless by the shock of it all.
So what really happened? Why was a church demolished, and why at night?
A scan through the reporting on the matter suggests that there is no foul play. Everything is backed up by permissions from relevant authorities.
To start with, on June 6, 2019, a ruling by High Court judge Eudes Keitirima, declared that Church of Uganda trustees fraudulently acquired the land where the church sits.
On July 10, Justice Keitirima issued an order for vacation of the land.
On July 30, a permit issued by the KCCA acting director of physical planning, Mr Ivan Katongole, approved the demolition of the church.
In the same permit, he wrote: “The demotion shall be carried out during weekends and off peak hours, [so that it doesn’t cause] interruption of traffic and other businesses within the vicinity.”
The legal side is as clean as whistle. And yet questions linger in the mind. If it’s true that the church has been a squatter on someone’s land, did the family try to talk to the church amicably for compensation?
A church is no regular squatter; especially when it has been on the said land for more than 40 years.
According to the public relations officer of the diocese, the Rev Flobia Sebunya, no such meeting has ever happened. This is confirmed by Godfrey Sentamu, one of the church elders who insists he went for every court session.
The other question is, why did the court case only start 26 years later, five years after the death of Evelyn Nachwa, the original owner of the contested land, after the death of all the church trustees? The demolished structure has been on the land since 1981.
The court case started in 2007. While the church insists that it bought the land from the original owner, the court ruled that there was nothing on the title that showed the land belonged to the church. The three trustees, were, according to the court judgment, registered individually as proprietors and not trustees.
A source at the Namirembe Diocese Estates Office admits that there were serious loopholes in the way some of the church titles were registered.
“The title for St Peter’s Church Ndeeba is one of 70 land titles that we recently sent to the land’s office for rectifying. It is based on the old system where the trustees were registered on the title as proprietors. It was based on the trust we had in the people we chose as trustees, that they would not turn around and steal the land.”
The trustees were chosen thus; the sitting bishop at the time of the purchase, another bishop, and the clergyman at the church.
The Rev Sebunya who by coincidence happens to have attended, in her youth, the now demolished church, gives a revealing account of events.
She says: “The land at Ndeeba belongs to the church. In 1979, an elderly lady by the name Phoebe Kagumya, who lived just next to the present church grounds offered the community a plot on which to build a church. That church actually started in her house before a makeshift structure was built in her compound.”
“Shortly after that, the congregation sought to expand. There was a vacant plot next to the church plot so they looked for the owner. A few leaders went to the lands office and discovered that it belonged to Evelyn Nachwa, a member of the Buganda royal family. The land housed and still houses the Kabaka’s well. The young church approached her and she was gracious enough to sell us the land. That was in 1981. A sales agreement was signed and a title for the land was arranged,” she says.
The account is confirmed by several elderly sources at the church. The construction of the now demolished structure started in 1981.
Mr Godfrey Sentamu, one of the senior members of the church, was in his late twenties at the time and participated in moving the earth for the foundation.
“By the time we bought the land, KCC was also very interested in the land. They wanted to build a market on it. But the lady chose to sell it to the church because, she said, she would rather sell it to an entity that would not resell the land in future. But see what has befallen us now,” Sentamu says.
“We built this church as a community. Everyone lent a hand. I was one of the brick layers for the first batch. We moved the earth together, 15 feet of it to build the foundation. After that, regular fundraising services built the church over a period of over 30 years.”
The Rev Can David Romans Serunjoji joined the Ndeeba church when he was in his 20s too. He found the church on its foundation, some 39 years ago. Today he serves a large congregation somewhere in Mpigi District.
He is one of the gloomy onlookers at the demolished church, of which only the steeple tower remains now. Only God know why the demolition men left it standing.
He says: “We sold chicken and sugarcane to fundraise for this building. People gave as little as Shs100. There are no millionaires in this church, neither are we many parishioners. For a long time, we were only about 100 in number.”
Among the people who regularly raised funds for the building of the demolished church are Evelyn Nachwa, the person who sold that land to the church.
Dodovico Mwanje, the man accused of razing the building down contributed a total of Shs15m. He was a member of the church until a few years ago.
It has been a fit of Biblical proportions for the people of Ndeeba to build this church, clearly. And by the time it was demolished, it was still under construction. The floor was yet to be properly hardened and tiled.
The beginnings of trouble
In 2001, Evelyn Nachwa passed away. Five years later, her children approached the church with some unpalatable news.
“In 2006 someone came and said that the land belongs to the family the late Evelyn Nachwa. They even had a title for it. We sent them to the diocese. Shortly after that, the Lands office wrote summoning us to a meeting.
“The commissioner that met with us was names Sarah Kurata. We presented both titles, the family and us the church. At the end of the meeting, the commissioner declared that the family’s title was forged and confiscated it. ‘If you are not satisfied, go to court,’ she said. And that is what they did,” he says.
The case has passed through the hands of five judges since its opening in 2007, according to the elders who have been attending the court sessions.
The last judge who handled the case, Eudes Kaitirima finally decided that the church was a squatter on the land, and that they should be evicted.
Did the judge try to get the parties to discuss a possible compensation plan? The estates office says nothing of the sort was suggested.
In March this year, a small school that has been built by the church on the premises was demolished.
The Rev David Sserunjogi says: “We built that school about 25 years ago. It was after its demolition that we started having issues with this man called Dodovico.
The minister of Lands came to the premises and said that no one is supposed to evict anyone during Covid-19 lockdown.”
On the same day that the school was demolished, the priest of the church, Rev Augustine Kayemba was evicted from his house at the premises by the police. He had been at the church for only two months before churches were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. His residence was effectively taken up by armed men.
“I was evicted from here on March 6. Soldiers have been sleeping here. The vandalism is unbelievable. All the switches and cabinets have been take as you can see. The toilet is clogged. Those condoms are just a small sign of how this place has been defiled,” he says with a smirk of resignation.