`In this country, you are judged basing on whether you are pro or anti-government’
Kampala, Uganda | AGNES E NANTABA | Pastor Martin Ssempa is a familiar name in circles of activists and Makerere University Kampala. For over 20 years, he has run a congregation of mainly Makerere University students through his Prime Time fellowship at Makerere Community church. His style involves preaching through entertainment. He is very outspoken. But his campaign against homosexuality has been the most controversial.
In 2010, he got international prominence after a video of an anti-homosexuality presentation he made at his church went viral online. He has also campaigned for separation church and state, condom use and abstinence as key prevention mechanisms against HIV/AIDS.
Ssempa has recently made headlines for criticising singer turned prominent politician Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu alias Bobi Wine who made a political cover of a church hymn ‘Tuliyambala Engule’. Ssempa and others accuse the singer of desecrating the Christian heritage of the hymn for political gain.
“We have strong attachments to these songs because they map out the journey of a pilgrim’s progress,” he says.
But, in a viral debate that ensued on social media, many accuse Ssempa of working for the government to silence the opposition. He denies it, maintaining that his accusations against Bobi Wine set a new narrative which is not for only today but also for tomorrow.
Ssempa’s activism journey dates more than two decades ago when he converted to Evangelical Christianity at the Wandegeya Baptist Youth Center. Previously a catholic, his initial intentions for attending fellowship at the centre was to get close attachment to some of the beautiful girls but this was cut short by his reception of Christ. He reveals that continuous attendance revealed to him a whole different paradigm of godly young people, something that set into motion a one year process of self-reflection in his final year of high school at Namilyango College School.
As a teenage young boy, Ssempa was awarded East African break dance champion which he used to compose drama skits to educate students around the country about AIDS and the good news of Jesus Christ.
About the same time he joined Makerere University to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences majoring in Sociology. Sempa’s brother and sister contracted HIV and after their death, Ssempa started activism against HIV/AIDS through abstinence.
He says, “I was lucky to have made a decision to get saved and was challenged to be part of the response team”.
He started Prime Time Fellowship about the same time to strengthen his ministry among the young people and save many from contracting the scourge. The fight would mean traversing the country with several drama shows using the bible to counsel people.
In 1992 right after graduating from Makerere University, Ssempa married Tracey. Together, they have five children. He later received a Master of Arts degree in counselling from Philadelphia Biblical University and in 2006, that same university awarded Ssempa an unaccredited honorary doctorate for his work with people with AIDS.
In October 2012, Ssempa and five other individuals were convicted in Buganda Road Court of conspiring to tarnish a rival pastor’s reputation by falsely accusing him of engaging in homosexuality. The guilty verdict stemmed from a May 2009 incident in which Ssempa and the others engaged against Pastor Robert Kayanja of Rubaga Miracle Center Cathedral. Ssempa and others were sentenced to a fine of ShsI million and 100 hours of community service.
Ssempa was born in Naluzaale Masaka District to Dorothy Namuli. He never had an opportunity to meet with his father who he assumes to be an Indian or Asian trader.
He says, “I am a child of an illicit relationship that was disapproved of racially and religiously”.
He remains a strong critic of abortion after his mother chose to keep him despite several threats and orders to do so. Ssempa was named after his maternal grandfather. He spent the early years of school in Masaka before completing primary at Nsambya Police. He later joined Rubaga Boys where he completed ordinary level and Namilyango College for advanced level.