There are Ugandans who are taking the initiative in tackling their communitiesâ€™ problems. Pastor Martin Ssempa is one of the people New Vision readers identified. This is his story.
By Arthur Baguma
Name: Pastor Martin Ssempa
Project: Prime Time
In his words:
I was a cool guy but living a promiscuous life. The death of my sister and brother led me to find redemption.â€
Pastor, Makerere Community Church
CEO, Global Aids Prevention
International Consultant in AIDS Prevention programmes
Founder of Campus Alliance to Wipe out AIDS, an NGO
Publishes Prime timer news paper for Campus students.
P. O Box 21007 Kampala
Plot 56 Makerere Hill road
I joined Makerere University in 2001 as a fresher and my plans were crazy. I thought then that I was Godâ€™s gift to all the women my eyes could see. During the Freshersâ€™ Orientation Week, I was introduced to a happening event at the swimming pool.
I enjoyed the fun, music, the entertainment and the message of the speaker. I noticed that the fun was clean. No one got drunk and there were no sexual innuendos. This was very different from what I was used to and expected.
The speaker that night, Pastor Ssempa, talked about how campus can be either a graveyard or grapevine. That night in October 2001, I made a commitment never to have sex until my wedding night with my bride. I continued attending Prime Time and joined the drama team.
We would do abstinence outreaches based on my life experience. While involved in Prime Time, I met a young lady, Hadassah, who later became a very close friend. Our friendship grew and I saw in her what I desired in a wife and mother of my children.
Prime Time supported both of us in our abstinence journey and gave us an opportunity to grow as we pursued our life dreams. On December 17, 2005, we married. Now we spend our days counselling and supporting students at Makerere to stay alive.â€
This is the story of Simon Peter and Joy Hadassah Onaba. Their testimony is just one of the many who have passed through Prime Time, a brainchild of Pastor Martin Ssempa.
Fred Kigulu, a civil servant, says if you attended university in the 1990s, then you would appreciate what Prime Time has done.
â€œUnwanted pregnancies were common and it was fashionable for girls to get pregnant in their final year,â€ Kigulu says.
But the inception of Prime Time changed this trend. Pastor Ssempa says a survey conducted four years ago showed that 40% of students said they were virgins, 33% were abstaining or what Ssempa calls secondary virginity.
Dennis Musinguzi, a former student now working with a local NGO, says: â€œMy first time to come to Prime Time was when Roger Mugisha, formerly â€˜The Shadowâ€™ came to preach.
He counselled us on the relevance of salvation and since then, I have never looked back.â€ He adds that at Prime Time, positive entertainment at no cost is given. â€œI continue coming even after leaving university. This place offers the best programmes for students. I lived a fulfilling life as a student because of Prime Time.â€
Ugandaâ€™s HIV/AIDS prevalence rates have declined from 18% in the 1990s to about 6.4% today. Experts say part of the reason for the decline in new infections was the increase in fidelity â€” more people were being faithful to one partner.
Pastor Martin Ssempa is one of the activists who have consistently campaigned for abstinence among the youth as the best remedy against HIV/AIDS.
After surviving HIV/AIDS narrowly as a youth, Pastor Martin Ssempa set out to save others. First, his brother succumbed to the disease, followed by his sister. And he thinks he was slated to follow if he had not paused before taking another step.
The 40-year-old recalls sitting by the death bed of his sister and brother as they succumbed to AIDS 18 years ago. He says their problem was not medical, they were promiscuous. But Pastor Martin Ssempa also knows that he could have died young if he persisted with promiscuity.
After seeing his sister and brother pass on as a result of AIDS in 1990, he decided he had to do something about it.
It hit him hard that AIDS was staring in his face if he did not change his lifestyle. â€œI was a cool guy but living a promiscuous life. The death of my sister and brother led me to find redemption,â€ Ssempa reveals.
â€œThey were nice people and I do not think they were the most promiscuous people. They just got the disease from the boy-girlfriend promiscuity. You can imagine the AIDS of that time when there was no medicine,â€ Ssempa says as he adjusts his spectacles.
In his teens, Ssempa was a celebrity. He was East Africaâ€™s break dance champion. But with fame, he added a promiscuous life style â€” a dangerous cocktail for a teenager.
Pastor Ssempa also buried his dreams of becoming an international artiste with money and fame. He gave his life to Christ at the Baptist Youth Centre in Wandegeya, and embarked on a countrywide sensitisation of the youth about HIV/AIDS.
He is a pioneer member of the AIDS drama groups that flooded schools during the peak of the HIV/AIDS problem in the 1980s and 90s. His works culminated in the formation of Prime Time or what you would call the Straight Talk version of Makerere University.
Prime Time is a social vaccine to loneliness; peer pressure and the challenges linked to HIV/AIDS problems among the youth.
About 3,500 students meet every week at the university poolside to listen to a man who admits he lived a promiscuous life in his teenage years.
He is credited by the international community for his activities in transforming the lifestyle of youth in institutions of higher learning and his crusade against the HIV/AIDS and immorality.
Many universities have contacted Pastor Ssempa to start a similar programme there. Prime Time is the single largest event at Makerere.
I recently set out to feel for myself what grips young people at Prime Time. Contrary to what many might think, it is not only about religion. An update on the latest happenings on the international scene, politics, sports, music, gossip and relationships is given.
After the talk ranging from the Premier League, jokes about relationships and â€˜the third termâ€™, the audience was now charged and excited. It was time for live performances. The presence of God was evident and happiness and love were in the air.
Prime Time is a fun-packed package but all wrapped in praise and worship. The climax of the event is usually the most thrilling. In groups, students kneel and humble themselves as the pastor prays for them. They chant: â€œBye Angenoir, bye Club Silk... I am on my way to the gates of heaven.â€
And it is not only students who attend the weekly event. The inspector general of Police, Maj. Gen. Kale Kaihura, is there on this evening.
But who is Pastor Martin Ssempa, the bespectacled light-skinned man who now commands a huge following? His dress code is casual. And when he communicates, his mannerisms are not different from those of a 20-year-old. He speaks with a lot of vigour and loves gesturing.
He loves talking so much that you would mistake him for a politician. He has led demonstrations on the streets of Kampala against immorality. Some human rights activists have blacklisted him for his tough stance against gay people, but he has not weathered.
The climax of his stance against morality was tested four years ago when his mobile phone number was put in a local tabloid that he offered girls for sex.
â€œI received phone calls from people asking: â€œWhere are the girls for sex.â€ I told them.. â€˜Brother youâ€™re a sinner.. And you need God...â€™ Those who called me have seen the light instead.
They converted....â€ the flamboyant light-skinned pastor says with an aura of confidence. He started Prime Time with a handful of students but today it is a revolution.
Like many of the students in his congregation, Ssempa did not have an easy childhood. His mother died without revealing to him who his father was. â€œI was born out of wedlock, thatâ€™s all my late mother told me,â€ he says, adding: â€œI know the pain of growing up without a father.â€ The story of his life is a major source of inspiration to the students who go for Prime Time.
Ssempa was born in 1968 in Nalusali village, Masaka district. Being a child of a teacher, he went through several primary schools.
He attended Kimanya Primary School in Masaka, St. Peterâ€™s Primary School, Nsambya before heading to Rubaga Boysâ€™ Secondary School. He completed his Aâ€™level at Namilyango College.
He joined Makerere University in 1988 and graduated with a bachelorâ€™s degree in social sciences, specialising in sociology. In 1992 he enrolled at the Philadelphia Bibiblical University for a masters degree in bibical counselling.
After 10 years of practice in transforming peopleâ€™s lives, he was recently awarded an honorary PhD by the same university. Ssempa walked down the aisle in 1992 with Tracy, whom he met in the US.
My life is not the same
Paul Mukiibi, a third-year student of psychology
â€œThe friends I met at campus seemed more interested in partying all the time. One day they lured me into going for a night disco, but I did not have the money. As I passed by the poolside that evening, I heard music playing and branched off to see what was happening. I ended up becoming a member of Prime Time.â€
Kulsum Amongi, library and information science student
â€œPrime Time has helped me to abstain and remain faithful to my future husband. It has also helped me to know that my life is much more worth than having sex. By attending Prime Time I believe that I will get a faithful husband who is also waiting for marriage to have sex.â€
Veronica Babirye, student of education
â€œThrough Prime Time I have learnt the value of my life. I have also learnt to respect and enjoy life constructively.â€
W. Mukisa, bachelor of commerce student
â€œPrime Time has changed my life. I used to go to the night clubs and hence be exposed to sexual activity that would put my life in danger of contracting HIV. But Prime Time gave me an alternative source of entertainment and as a result my life is more focused and I now know what I want in life.â€
Wilson Kiggundu, electrical engineering student
â€œPrime Time has modelled me into the person I always wanted to be while at campus. It has provided a platform for meaningful interaction where I have gained confidence, self-esteem and I want to multiply the message and impact of Prime Time.â€
â€œPrime Time has made my weekends enjoyable. I have saved my money that I used to take to the bars. And most of all it has given me many friends who support my decision to abstain.â€
Erechy Bazil, library and information science student
â€œI joined campus after I had made a decision to abstain from sex until marriage. However, I was told by some of my friends that abstinence is a shame at campus since life here is all about romantic relationships.
But when I joined Prime Time, I found out that abstinence was highly upheld at campus.
This helped me to continue my heartfelt decision to abstain from sex until marriage. Prime Time has been very supportive.â€
Send your comments and nominations of Ugandans Making a Difference to changemakers @newvision.co.ug