We’re republishing this as part of our 25th anniversary series featuring favorite stories from our archives. This story by Robert Hewitt appeared in ANM’s Adnamis magazine in 1995. Enjoy!
“The pearl of Africa”—that’s how Winston Churchill once described it. Set upon a high plateau embracing the deep blue waters of Lake Victoria, the east African nation of Uganda is a trove of peoples and cultures, and possesses what may be the most fertile soil on the continent. Tragically perhaps even more than its southern neighbor of Rwanda, its people have known the atrocities brought on by tribal jealousies and political opportunism. It is a bitter price to pay for any pearl. Ask Alex Mitala.
Mitala, as he is known in his native land, grew up in a meager home in the Ugandan jungle. His father, a heavy drinker, abandoned the family when Mitala was just a boy. Left alone, his mother could not begin to care for them. At sixteen, Mitala left for the city, and soon discovered the easy profits of selling marijuana to adults and children alike. A year later, sought by police, he fled back into the jungles.
Up until this time Uganda had been ruled by Milton Obote, appointed leader by the withdrawing British colonials in 1962. Within four years, Obote had introduced a new constitution, abolishing all authority of the traditional tribal kingdoms and concentrating power in his own hands. It was the beginning of twenty years of civil war for this beautiful land. When Mitala left the city, the fighting had already begun.
In the jungle, he became deathly ill with malaria. There seemed little hope for recovery. One day, he heard a voice, “Mitala, if you do not get saved, you will surely die.” He knew the message was urgent, but having no understanding of the word “saved,” he concluded that this was simply the way people died. One day, a man purchasing bananas from the woman who lived nearby began speaking loudly outside his window. “Old woman, when are you going to get saved? You will wait too long and it will be too late!”
He knew then that the strange word was not merely something from the other side of the grave. Seeking to learn more, he began to meet with a group of local believers and committed his life to Christ. That same year, Obote was overthrown by a man the entire world would associate with the wildest atrocities of despotic power: General Idi Amin.
Amin moved quickly to exile all foreign missionaries. Any devoted follower of Jesus was considered a traitor. In 1974, Mitala entered the ministry full-time. Politically, his timing could not have been worse. Within two years, all evangelical churches were closed. Some pastors were killed and many others were thrown into prison. It became against the law to carry a Bible, a political offense to preach on a street corner. Churches preaching repentance, salvation, and holiness were considered radical and not tolerated by the new regime.
By 1977, Mitala had put his ingenuity to work again. Moving to Kenya, he began to smuggle Bibles and other Christian literature into Uganda. Because of persecution, meetings had to be held secretly in homes or deep in the forest. The church grew strong in those days and many indigenous leaders arose.
Seizing the moment
Two years later, after more than 300,000 people had been killed in various “purgings,” Amin was overthrown by Tanzanian forces and Ugandan exiles. Mitala returned from Kenya and began a mission to his own people, Back to the Bible Truth Evangelistic Team, an interdenominational ministry working with local pastors to assist them in evangelism and training. Over the next fifteen years they would plant 130 new churches in the recovering nation.
Though Amin had been ousted from power, civil war in Uganda had never really ended. By 1982, several of Obote’s supporters had brought back the exiled leader from Tanzania. During the next four years, more people died in Uganda than under Amin’s eight-year rule. Thousands of educated and skilled people were killed or fled into exile. Entire villages were destroyed, and more and more children were orphaned. Many fled their homes in search of a safe haven, but few places in Uganda could be defined as “safe.”
People sought God, and the witness of the church continued. Distinctions between the “rich” and the “poor” faded. Everyone was poor because of the war, and all had time to listen to the message of hope brought by the Lord Jesus Christ. By 1986, guerrilla forces led by Yoweri Museveni had driven the army out of the main cities and populated areas. Over time, order was restored.
Starting from nothing, the current government has begun to rebuild Uganda’s land and people. The now stabilized economy is drawing major foreign investors. By July, the popularly elected Constitutional Assembly should ratify a new constitution, guaranteeing among other things freedom of worship and full democratic elections.
A different kind of threat
But it is the children which pose the biggest dilemma. Through two decades of civil war, when entire villages were destroyed and parents summarily executed, thousands of children were left without shelter or family. In the midst of these terrors, there arose an even more insidious plot against them: an AIDS epidemic unequaled anywhere in the world. Today it seems likely more will die as a result of this one virus than were killed during Uganda’s twenty years of civil war. Though many international relief organizations have set up programs there, the needs of tens of thousands of children orphaned through war and AIDS far outstrip the combined efforts of governmental and humanitarian agencies.
With polygamy a tradition, the effect of AIDS reaches catastrophic proportions. Current figures estimate that over half a million children have lost at least one parent to AIDS. Today there are more street children than ever before.
When Mitala’s brother died of AIDS, he left eleven children. One of these also succumbed to the virus, and two others moved out to live on their own. Mitala and his wife took the other eight to live with them and their six children. It has completely changed their plans for their family, but it was his responsibility to take care of his brother’s children. That is tradition, too.
Mitala and the members of Back to the Bible Truth continue to preach the message of hope and reconciliation. In the north, where tribal differences are more pronounced, they recently held an evangelistic crusade with a choir composed of many tribal groups. As they sat and prayed and talked afterwards, members of several different tribes gathered together under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Though the military conflicts have ended for now, the spiritual battles rage on: for the care and nurturing of the children, for the reconciliation of tribal differences, and for the health and peace of all those afflicted with AIDS. Yet far beyond any political or economic agendas, the most important struggle is a spiritual one, waged over the eternal destiny of every man, woman, and child in Uganda. That alone is the true pearl of great price.
Alex Mitala’s ministry continued to grow, and ANM still partners with Mitala and Back to the Bible Truth.
Twenty-five years later, the work continues, and we are closer than ever to seeing the Gospel proclaimed and lived out among every people group in the world. Thank you for your partnership in the Gospel!
There’s more to be done, and just $25 a month can equip another missionary. Learn more.