Govt can learn a few things from South Ankole’s Bishop Ahimbisibwe

Emilly C. Maractho (PhD)

What you need to know:

  • “Most of us go to church to hear the Word of God, to get comforted, and to lay our burdens at the Cross. Being told to go home and dig is not part of the Gospel we hope to get out of the pulpit."

When Bishop Nathan Ahimbisibwe of South Ankole Diocese visited Israel in 2014, he came back troubled. He could not believe that gifted as we are, with good weather and vast resources like land, Ugandans are so poor. The possibilities that agriculture offered Ugandans out of poverty, he noted, were all around. Yet, very little of it was taken advantage of. That realisation set in motion a series of initiatives for his diocese, which today is a multimillion enterprise. 

Bishop Ahimbisibwe is not new to out-of-the-box thinking. Some Ugandans may remember a preacher who, instead of waiting for Christians to bring the little they had for offertory, showed up with money to give them. Some Christians got as much as Shs50,000, and experienced their miracle moments right there in broad daylight.  There is clearly more to the smiling Bishop. He believes in hard work and getting his flock working so that the fruits of their labour would be blessed. He also believes people must plant the trees they wish to sit under in their old age. He has planted many trees.

Visiting the diocese last week, to show us around was the bishop himself. My colleagues and I marveled at the vast resources and some of the achievements that the diocese has made in about three years of implementing its agricultural projects.

Much of the Church in Uganda owns vast pieces of land that in some cases, have been idle. Bishop Ahimbisibwe decided that they would start with what they had – land. A number of projects were born out of this desire to put their land to good use and to encourage Christians to do more than just wait for the government to help them out of poverty. 

Walking through more than 20 kilometres of coffee plantations that Bishop Ahimbisibwe told us had already given them some large sum of money in just three years, with more expected in the coming years, we were amazed by the transformation we saw. It is difficult not to look back on the various government programmes that have not been as successful in ensuring there is a transition from peasant farming to large-scale commercial farming without envying this simple farm and the Christians who own it. 

Bishop Ahimbisibwe is exactly the difference we now know that leadership makes in everything. “If the leader is blind, how blind shall the flock be”, goes an old saying. This bishop is leading the way, so even if some Christians resist, there will be more seeds falling on good ground. It says a lot about what the Church can do for community development.  

He has, it may seem, gathered the support of not just his faithful, but that of the government too. The evidence is in the irrigation scheme that supports their projects, and the deep Christian support they enjoy. And he also sometimes pastors President Museveni and the First Lady, Mama Janet, which must count for something. Having these among your flock might mean something more, like celebrating 50 years of marriage for the First Family and a few other benefits. 
It has to be said, that there is a lot of hard work that has gone into these fields. It is the passion of the leadership, their commitment, their sweat, and the faith that carries them through it all. 

As a telephone farmer, I know that farming is not easy. It brings in challenges of immense proportions – from the weather to the labourers. For the bishop’s team, it was sometimes Christians not buying into their vision and many more waiting to see, if that Gospel works too.   Most of us go to church to hear the Word of God, to get comforted, and to lay our burdens at the Cross. Being told to go home and dig is not part of the Gospel we hope to get out of the pulpit. We think the story of the five talents, the workers in the vineyard, the fishermen, and so on are of old. Surely, in this digital age, we can do better, or so we think.

Yet, that is exactly the message this bishop carries to the pulpit. At home, his wife, Mama Lilian Ahimbisibwe, provided us with the best fruits for us to enjoy from their garden. A farmer too, her garden of passion fruits is a marvel. It is a family of farmers and they, in turn,  are  selling their passion for farming, to their flock.
My colleagues and I returned to Kampala wondering if what we saw could be replicated in other dioceses. 
Perhaps, it is the government that should be learning from this diocese, lessons in the implementation of simple successful projects and how to support farmers. If all government workers who travel abroad came back determined to transform their sectors, we would be far into middle income. 

Ms Maractho (PhD) is the director of Africa Policy Centre and senior lecturer at Uganda Christian University.  [email protected]