• Dec 01, 2021 . 11 min Read
  • World AIDS Day: First African priest to declare HIV status

Gideon (standing) during a seminar organised by the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda in June 2019.
New Vision Journalist
Journalist @New Vision

The Rev. Can. Gideon Byamugisha is an Anglican priest living with HIV.

In 1992, he became the first religious leader in Africa to publicly announce that he was HIV-positive.

In 2002, he co-founded the African Network of Religious Leaders Living with and Personally Affected with HIV and AIDS and in 2009, he received the 26th Annual Niwano Peace Prize.

Byamugisha became prominent in the international HIV/AIDS community.

He worked as an adviser to World Vision and travelled widely to speak at conferences including the US White House in December 2002.

In 2019, he published his biography, Labours Of Love, by Wilsdom Publishers, which sold out.

The former Prime Minister, Ruhakana Rugunda, was the guest of honour during the Friends of Canon Gideon Foundation silver jubilee thanksgiving and celebration at Namirembe Cathedral in 2017.

The former Prime Minister, Ruhakana Rugunda, was the guest of honour during the Friends of Canon Gideon Foundation silver jubilee thanksgiving and celebration at Namirembe Cathedral in 2017.

He wishes to print more and appeals for sponsors for the sh20m project.

The Rev. Gideon Byamugisha was born in Buranga Ndorwa village, near the Uganda-Rwanda border.

He was the first born of the late lay reader John Banard Karakabire and Mary Kyangwa Karakabire. He later became the eldest of 14 children.

Gideon’s parents were strong Christian leaders in faith and raised their children in the same.

Both were very humble and social people and served so faithfully in their ministry with the Anglican Church and the Lord, indeed, blessed them for their seeds sown into the kingdom of God.

Gideon’s mother, seeing how the Lord continually and consistently favoured her son, decided to change her name from Kyangwa (cursed or rejected) to Kyomuhendo (precious gift of God).

Miraculous survival

Baby Gideon escaped death twice as a child. The first was a mysterious sickness at one year that almost killed him.

At two years, he almost drowned in Lake Bunyonyi, one of the deepest lakes in the world.

“My son contracted a rare kind of rash all over his body. It was so itchy and developed into small open sores that oozed fluid,” Gideon’s mother narrates.

This rare illness failed a number of doctors that the mother was advised to get a leprosy doctor.

Leprosy at the time was such a stigmatised disease that all the leprous patients were gathered onto Bwama Islands in Lake Bunyonyi, where Dr Leornard Sharp, an English missionary doctor, had founded a leprosy hospital, built a school and church in 1921.

Gideon’s mother missed the only government boat for the day and hired a faulty canoe roared by a young girl of about 12.

During the journey, the mother helped out in bailing water that was draining into the canoe and in the process, the shawl tying Baby Gideon on her back snapped.

The baby fell into the water! Screaming for help, the mother stared firmly into the water, only to see the water edging her baby back to the surface, where she was able to grab him before he could sink again.

On the island, Gideon failed to respond to treatment for about a month. The doctor advised that they return home. It was his grandmother, on a visit, who prayed for a solution.

One morning, she announced that she had had a dream where the Lord had revealed to her that Gideon would live. Indeed, Baby Gideon not only got better eventually, he got completely healed.

She gave him the name Byamugisha – This child belongs to the Lord’s grace.

Preacher’s child

Being in a home of religious leaders was another challenge because the social expectations were so high. What would the community think if a reverend’s child did something ‘funny’?

What was somewhat acceptable for other children was not for him to do or say.

Discipline, respect, humility, and good character were paramount, especially seeing how his parents handled themselves with utmost respect in the fear of the Lord.

Gideon gave his life to Christ in Senior Three at Makobore High School during a school convention altar call in 1976.

He became a committed member of the Scripture Union and later at Makerere College School, where he did his high school and Makerere University, where he renewed his commitment to the Lord.

He later joined Redeemed Church Makerere and fellowshipped with them until he graduated as a trained teacher and left.

He continued on valuing his faith in God and made it a cherished part of his life.

Everyone who has associated with Gideon testifies about his priority to the things of God and desire to defend his faith in every way.

School life

Being that Gideon’s father was a reverend of the Anglican faith with an apostolic anointing of starting and building churches, the whole family was always on the move from one locality to another.

His father was also a schoolteacher and taught in the different church-founded schools wherever he was transferred to serve.

Gideon started school at Buranga Church of Uganda Primary School in 1965. He sat his Primary Seven at Kihihi Primary School in 1972.

The first grade then was graded at 205 out of 300, and he got 210. He was called to Masaka Secondary School, but it being a day school, his parents decided that he was young (12 years) to repeat Primary Seven.

He still performed well and joined Makobore High School, Kinyasaano, in Rukungiri district in 1974.

“It was the first time to wear shoes, but this excitement was short-lived when they were stolen in the first week at school. I studied the whole term barefoot because then I could only get another pair when I went back home for holidays,” he said.

He loved participating in sports; football, volleyball, and table tennis; he also loved singing and praying in the Scripture Union. At Senior Four, he scored 16 aggregates in six best subjects and 28 in 8.

He was admitted at his first choice school, Makerere College School. Gideon had never been so far away from home.

First time in Kampala

Gideon’s first time to Kampala city was expected of a country boy suddenly exposed to what he had never seen before.

He was escorted to a bus, and his only idea of the destination was a piece of paper directing him to his uncle’s place in Entebbe.

The long-distance drive was quite tiring as the bus was packed to the full, with some passengers standing and others seated in the bus corridor! But it did not affect his excitement by whatever he saw along the way. The city was even more amazing.

“I had never seen as many cars as I saw in the taxi park. I thought to myself: Maybe this is the reason we rarely see cars in the village; they are all collected away in the city!”

He arrived safely at his uncle’s home in Entebbe. His uncle, the late Chief Ernest Karusya, was his mother’s brother.

 He was the officer in charge of Kitara Prisons then. And he was not expecting him. Gideon had to explain who he was and where he was coming from.

Makerere College School

It was prestigious to study at Makerere College School, especially because it bordered the country’s only university at the time, Makerere University.

There was a motivating notion, therefore, that everyone in the college would just cross the fence into the university.

At 17, the well-dressed Gideon in the college uniform’s white shirt and well-folded tie, plus the khaki shorts and socks in black well buckled shoes; had a remarkable experience.

He studied history, geography and economics (HEG) from 1978-1979.

His future desire was to become a teacher. The college was a mixed school and hence presented more tests and trials before him emotionally and economically.

“Other students got involved in girlfriend-boyfriend relationships but some of us were scared of getting involved in such, given our background, and besides some of us were too poor to run girlfriends,” Gideon says.

The war

The war that overthrew Idi Amin’s regime in 1979 found Gideon in Senior Six.

A canon hit their hostel block at the college and, fortunately, they were all out for supper in the dining hall.

“We were scared and remained in the dining hall with the doors closed. Our ears were seasoned with different outbursts from canons hitting all over the area,” Gideon says.

“Another canon hit the Makerere University Mary Stuart Hall and the adjacent North-West to the college fence.”

They remained inside the school premises, until the situation calmed down and the students were allowed to safely return home.

With all the chaos going on, their normal classes were greatly interrupted, not forgetting their final exams. Many students failed, including him.

With Amin ousted, different groups of political and ethnic rivals started to compete for power. This was a season of political unrest.

Getting a job

When the insurgency finally calmed down, Gideon got a job because his results could not get him into the university.

His aunt connected him to her husband, Seguya, who was the manager of a sugar making plant in a small town called Namuwabula.

Gideon got a job as his assistant manager and eventually, got promoted to supervisor.

It was all going well, however, the excitement of making his own money got him blinded and he deteriorated in his Christian morals.

For example, this is when he first tasted local brew made from sugar molasses (locally known as sukali-gulu).

One morning, he realised three drums of sukali-gulu were missing! When Seguya returned, he told Gideon to find the sukari-gulu by the evening or else he would burn him to death.

While asking around in the neighbourhood for the whereabouts of the sukari-gulu, the villagers told him that Seguya actually burnt the former supervisor to death.

Gideon was not ready to put his God to the test. So, he gathered his few belongings that evening, closed the plant and walked away.

He first went to his girlfriend’s place but was shocked to find her with another man! So, he headed to his Uncle Ernest’s place in Entebbe.

University and work

Gideon repeated Senior Six at Makerere High School and was the school’s second best student in the final exams.

He joined Makerere University on a government scholarship.

He graduated in 1985 with a degree in education. Getting a job was easy because degree holders were selling like hot cake.

In Bushenyi, he taught geography and history at Ruyonza High School, Bweranyanji Girls’ High School and Bushenyi Community College High School.

In mid-1986, he was approached by the headmaster of Kihihi High School requesting him to join his school as deputy headmaster as it was a requirement for them to have an HSC section.

Marriage

While teaching at Bushenyi Community College, he fell in love with one of his students.

He shared his issue with a colleague, John Agaba, who was the deputy of the college.

Agaba knew this girl’s family very well and was happy to connect him to it. The year he transitioned to Kihihi High School as deputy headmaster (1986), he returned on December 7 to visit the girl’s parents.

On April 16, 1987, Gideon and Kellen were wedded by Bishop Edward Muhima at Emmanuel Church in Kabwohe.

The couple conceived their firstborn in 1988 but lost the baby due to delayed labour.

It took some time to conceive again and when they eventually did two years later, they gave birth to Patience Mary Busingye on February 11, 1990.

Call to priesthood

At Kihihi Secondary School, as Patron leader to the school’s Scripture Union and music leader of the school’s choir, Gideon impressed Bishop Yustus Ruhindi of North Kigezi Diocese.

The bishop interested him in becoming a priest and offered him a scholarship to study theology!

Gideon enrolled into Bishop Tucker Theological College in Mukono, (later renamed to Uganda Christian University) in 1989.

He was one of the best performing students. When the opportunity to exchange students with international universities came, he was chosen to go to Cardiff University in Wales for nine months.

The lecturers at Cardiff were so impressed by Gideon’s brilliance that the principal of the school of theology offered him a vacancy for a PhD. Gideon returned to Uganda as the principal looked for a funder.

The funder offered a full scholarships and Gideon was supposed to travel with his wife to Cardiff.

Death crushes in

Gideon’s wife left for the village to process her passport, but when she returned, she was complaining of a headache on Monday, a backache on Tuesday and chest pain on Wednesday.

The doctor diagnosed pneumonia and referred her to Mengo Hospital.

“We were the first in line, but the doctor delayed. As we waited, Kellen asked me to check on the doctor again. As I moved towards the doctor’s office, I heard people crying hysterically. I hurried back to find my dearest was dying,” Gideon said.

Kellen breathed her last on April 30, 1991. She was 25 years old and a young mother of a 14-month-old baby, Mary Patience Byamugisha.

Shocking news

Six months later, in October 1991, Kellen’s sister, Eunice, called Gideon to say there was something she wanted to share.

Eunice and Kellen had taken an HIV test the Friday before she died.

Unlike today, it took two weeks to receive HIV results! So, Kellen died before the results came out. When Eunice picked them up, they were HIV-positive. The news of his wife’s HIV status hit him hard. He cried out in desperation and hopelessness.

Eunice hugged him comfortingly and said, what he regards as one of the most powerful statements of support every HIV patient should hear: “Gideon, I am sorry that I am giving you such shocking news, but I want to assure you; we loved you before HIV and we will continue loving, supporting and caring for you even after AIDS,” she said.

They then said a prayer together asking God for strength through the testing time.

 

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