Sometime before 1996, the then Archbishop of the Church of Uganda, the Most Rev. Livingstone Mpalanyi Nkoyoyo, came up with an illuminating idea. He who started out as a mechanic, had all along been a visionary. Why not turn Bishop Tucker Theological College, started in 1913, into a full-fledged university from just theological training for Anglican priests. When the governing Provincial Assembly of the Church of Uganda approved the proposal, he set out to look for a Vice Chancellor.
Archbishop Nkoyoyo approached Rev. Prof Stephen Noll, a US based academic, to help transform the theological school into a university of repute. He contacted Stephen Noll but Prof. Noll for whom the idea to take up such a job was foreign. In his words to this writer, “I had never once dreamed of being a missionary in Africa, as many others do.” However, the charismatic Bishop could not be easily turned down. Soon Noll and his wife, Peggy, packed up for Africa.
Starting with just 36 students, the university blossomed. In January 2000, eight months before Professor Noll took up his Vice Chancellorship, he met a certain Rev. Dr John Senyonyi at the home of an American mutual friend in Kampala. Dr. Senyonyi was by then an itinerant evangelist with African Evangelistic Enterprise, preaching the Gospel of Christ on the continent of Africa. They had never met until then but Stephen, who heard much about Dr. Senyonyi’s ministry, clearly saw in him a suitable candidate to hire as the University Chaplain. Subsequently, he became convinced this was the man to groom and hand over the leadership mantle, when he was finally done.
It took Dr. Senyonyi seven months of hesitation to accept coming to Uganda Christian University. So, in January 2001, Dr. Senyonyi, became the first full time University Chaplain at Uganda Christian University (UCU), taking over from Rev. Canon Lusania Kasamba, who doubled as a lecturer in Theology. Two and a half years later he was promoted to Deputy Vice Chancellor for Finance & Administration, a job he did for three years. Thereafter, he took up the new position of Deputy Vice Chancellor for Development and External Relations, which he did for four years. In due time, Prof. Noll felt his work was done, and in September 2010, Dr. Senyonyi succeeded him as the second University Vice Chancellor.
Growing up in Nakasongola, John, had no idea he would end up being head of a University or the college where his father had once been. His father trained and qualified as a Grade II teacher at Bishop Tucker Theological College in the 1940’s. Grade II teachers were the first English speaking Primary school teachers. Out of school, Mr. Kajja was posted to head Nakasongola Church of Uganda Primary School, and years later Nabiswera Church of Uganda Primary School. In 1952, he married Efulansi Nabisaalu and they sired 13 children in all, though three passed on in infancy. Mr. Kajja passed away on 27 December, 2017 at the age of 95.
Perhaps because he was a teacher, Mr. Kajja highly valued education. It came as no surprise to many when Peter Nyombi, his eldest son, was the only pupil to score a first grade in all of Nakasongola District and that enabled him gain admission into the very competitive and enviable King’s College Budo. Similarly inspired, John, aimed high as well. But it was not smooth sailing, though he worked hard. “In 1967, in the Primary Leaving Examinations, I scored what was then called B Super,” he recalls, “but which failed to win me a place into King’s College Budo.”
Still determined to make it to the prestigious school, his father made him repeat Primary 7 at Bowa Church of Uganda Primary School in 1968. “Although I scored a food First Grade, King’s College Budo still eluded me,” he looks back ruefully, “It was the first year that Budo dropped some of the First Graders.” Instead he was admitted to Ndejje SS.
Nevertheless, he continued to pursue the Budo dream and when it came to O’level he was just as resolute. “I scored aggregate 20 in six and 30 in 8. That sufficed for entry in King’s College Budo in those days. In fact, when I checked at the Ministry of Education, they assured me that my score was undoubtedly admissible in Budo” So, finally he had made it.
Life without a purpose
Overwhelmed is the way to describe John’s first impression upon admission at Budo in 1973. “When I arrived at Budo, the environment impressed on me a sense of seriousness,” John remembers. “In Budo, everyone was studious and the students carried themselves with a sense of purpose. This was reflected even in their dressing, decorum and relationships. Furthermore, the compound was well planned and its green areas well preserved, while Ndejje was very much under construction.”
Budo was then led by its first African headmaster, Dr. Dan Kyanda, who had succeeded the last English Headmaster, Rev. Ian Robinson. “One could not fail to notice our Headmaster, Mr. Dan Kyanda (later Dr.),” he recalls. “He exuded good breeding, and was easily the smartest resident on the Campus. His English was admirable. As students, we thought he was so pro-student unlike other Headmasters that typified African schoolmasters. It did not occur to me then that he was a man of faith.”
As it were, Dr. Kyanda was a believer; he had accepted Christ as his personal savior when two lads, William Nagenda and David Rwakitarate, had shared with him the gospel of salvation while he lay sick at Mengo hospital in 1958. After graduation from Makerere University Dr. Kyanda had temporarily abandoned his profession as a teacher and joined an evangelistic mission organization based in Nairobi. It is from there that he was called to head Budo. He was generally well liked by his students.
Upon leaving Budo with his East African Advanced Certificate (A-level), John was admitted to the University of Nairobi for a Bachelor of Science degree to study Mathematics and Chemistry. But other than studies, there was little else to motivate him. So, after lectures John would spend much of his time loitering with a friend around Nairobi city, which he came to know like the back of his hand.
Seeing how aimless he was, a schoolmate at Budo, Stephen Langa, who had also joined the same university a year earlier for Engineering, challenged him to accept Christ. Though convicted, he quickly snubbed the opportunity, with the lame excuse, “I will think about it and make the decision.” As he says today, “Of course, I never thought about it thereafter.”
One day, though, John found himself passing time over at the Christian Union Fellowship, which in those days, met in the Nairobi Chapel. Sitting with his walking friend in the empty seats right at the back, he listened attentively to a white speaker. The speaker caught his attention when he made reference to praying for Uganda, which at the time was a sorely troubled country under Idi Amin.
He would have done nothing about it, but after the session, two students approached John and his friend. “They had one objective, to speak to us about the Saviour.” Unlike other times, something changed that day. “I readily accepted …The reality was that I had longed for this moment for years… I did not really need convincing.”
John was now a young believer, eager to grow in his faith. Fortunately, help was at hand, through the Navigator ministry involved in discipling new followers of Christ. “Since one of those two students was involved in the Navigator ministry, I was quickly absorbed in their inductive Bible Study and other Christian fellowships and activities, which all helped to grow my spiritual muscle.”
Previously aimless, he now had an insatiable appetite for the Bible which he read from cover to cover. “I dived into the Bible with insuperable zest, meditating, memorizing, studying and reading through the entire Bible.” John also found a mentor in that same student. “William Busolo, a final year student of Architecture, introduced me to a strict regime of imbibing the Bible. He ensured that he was my daily company, effectively replacing my former companionships, which wouldn’t have been healthy for me anyway. He drew up a plan to read through the Bible with me and in that way, we read through the Bible a good number of times.”
John also became quite active in Christian service. “Sunday was for me unforgettable. The day began at 7 am with student-led prayers for an hour in an upper room in Nairobi Chapel. We barely had an hour for breakfast before going for the church service at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church at 8.30 am. The Church was situated right next to Hall 12 where I resided, Ngala Hall. Immediately after the service at St. Andrew’s, we rushed to what was then called Valley Road Pentecostal Church, now renamed Christ is the Answer Ministries (CITAM). We would then rush back to the University for lunch. After lunch was the Navigator Bible Study that ended just before supper. The day was concluded with an evening service at the Nairobi Chapel.”
For the once aimless young man, his life was full. He was involved in activities that built up his life for godly living.
Love at first sight
After graduating with a 1st Class Bachelor of Science honors degree, John was awarded a scholarship to undertake postgraduate studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia, in 1980. The three-year Masters programme became longer when it was commuted into a PhD.
The scholarship provided for an opportunity to return home if an unmarried student’s programme exceeded three years. He came home to Uganda at the end of 1982 for a two-months holiday. Early during his holiday, John was walking along Parliament Avenue with his brother, Peter, a walk on which he reminisces, “Two young men and a girl walking in the opposite direction toward us smiled at us, or rather at my brother, as they did not know me. My attention was affixed on the girl’s smile, which for reasons unknown to me then, truly left an impression on my heart. I did not do anything about it until my friend Zac Niringiye (later Bishop) urged me about a month later to visit the girl in her room in Africa Hall.”
Ruth Nantege Kauma was the daughter of Bishop Misaeri and Mrs. Geraldine Kauma of Namirembe Diocese. Bishop Kauma was a charismatic Assistant Bishop in the Church of Uganda then through the tumultuous war (1980-5) that would eventually usher Yoweri Museveni to power.
John found Ruth attractive, and it quickly dawned on him this was the very girl he wished to marry. Without hesitation he started pursuing her. She sang with the Joint Heirs choir. “At the end of one of their performances in the Makerere University Main Hall, we strategically got Ruth to join us for a kabalagala (pancake) and tea relaxation time in the room of another student friend, Charles Male, in Livingstone Hall. That afforded us opportunity to invite her (and her roommates) to come and see me off at the airport. In any case, by the time I left to return to Australia, my mind was made up about this girl.”
long distance courtship can be challenging, and many wither away once one is out of sight. “Within a month of my arrival back in Australia,” he shared, “I signaled to her unmistakably that I was up to something. She decided to find out from Zac about my intentions; he confirmed her suspicions. It took only two months and I told her on phone what was in my heart.”
But how did Ruth react. “The story around this still amazes us. For, on April 5, 2003, she went into the Bishop’s Chapel at her parents’ home for private prayer. In that prayer, she committed herself to me. Of course I did not know what she was doing. But on April 6, I received a letter from my brother who knew well my hearts’ desire, urging me to propose to her. I did so later that same day, on phone. Unknown to me, she had decided and wanted to tell me right there, but I feared to let her do so unwilling to appear as if I was exerting undue pressure on her. She was kind enough to write immediately, and I got her Yes letter on April 18, 2003.”
Family and Vocation
John wedded Ruth on April 13, 1985 at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Namirembe. It was a double wedding, shared with his brother Peter who was marrying Juliana Kyegimbo. Armed with a PhD in Mathematical Statistics, John joined Makerere University as a Lecturer. But soon he felt a tag on his heart from God to leave this position. In 1988, Bishop Festo Kivengere of Kigezi Diocese, who had founded African Evangelistic Enterprise (AEE) along with a South African, Michael Cassidy, to preach the gospel of salvation on the entire continent of Africa, asked him to join the mission organization. Without much hesitation John took up the offer since he already knew God was calling him out of academia.
“My calling was to be an evangelist, and this was now my primary occupation. My designation was Team Member.” The Mission of AEE is to “Evangelise the Cities of Africa through Word and Deed in Partnership with the Church.” As an evangelist, John traveled widely within and without Uganda, and visited nations around the continent. This he did till the end of 2000 when in the next year, he transferred to UCU.
Stepping into the shoes of a founder or pioneer can be daunting. Over the years, John rose from University Chaplain to Vice Chancellor. In one interview with The Standard, he noted how many doubted he could live up to the task of Vice Chancellor. Now 10 years at the helm, UCU has flourished and today basks as the number one private University in Uganda.
The University has two constituent colleges and two campuses around Uganda: Kabale, Mbale, Arua and Kampala, with a population that averages 11,000. During his term, the university has put in place notable infrastructure like the Stephen and Peggy Noll lecture bloc and also constructed paved roads, among others. The Faculties have grown from six to eight, and the programmes to over 80. The UCU School of Medicine (UCUSoM) was launched in September 2018. The University is in the process of putting up a new campus block in Kampala to cater for the city population.
Meanwhile he and Ruth, who in 2012 acquired her PhD in Counseling Psychology and was recently installed a Canon, have had two of their four children celebrate holy matrimony. They are now happy grandparents of four grandchildren.
After UCU John looks forward to taking some well deserved rest. But one thing you can certainly count him on, once an evangelist, ever an evangelist; he will still be out there sharing the gospel that changed his life from an aimless existence to a purposeful life way back at the University of Nairobi. His story is still unfolding, for God is not done with him yet.