By Denis Wembi
Reverend Canon Diana Nkesiga is the former Vicar of All Saints Cathedral, an author, a poet, and a mother.
On the day of her ordination, Reverend Canon Ernest Kibuka whispered to Diana “Mwana wange, ekibo bakiluka nga kyetolola.” (A basket is woven as it spirals.) The phrase is a metaphor for our lives in God’s hands. While it may feel like we are spiraling, we are often being shaped from mere grass, frail as it is into something purposeful for God’s work. At least, this was the case in Rev. Diana Nkesiga’s life.
“ As a child, I was quite the shy one. Long-legged and slightly taller and bigger than my peers. My mother said I was the only one of her children who did not cry on the first day at kindergarten. I was determined to be like my sister, to get to color in too, to have my pictures admired, to have my songs… to have a story of my own to tell.”
Reverend Diana is now 61 years old. Two years after she was born, Uganda would receive Independence, she would live through the tumultuous Obote and Amin years and the bloody coups that their removal necessitated as well as the beginning of the AIDS pandemic in Uganda. Diana and her husband would leave for South Africa in 1992 and live there in the years leading up to the country’s first democratic elections, the beginning of the post-apartheid era up until 2005 when they returned to Uganda. Diana wasn’t someone whom history simply happened to, she also made history, a woman of many identities, she spiraled into something formidable.
In 1983, Diana was teaching in Gayaza High School when she was appointed an assistant chaplain to the school. As she mentored and counseled the girls that came to her, she learned a number had been raped, assaulted, and their humanity violated, a common experience during the 1979 war that ousted President Idi Amin. The story of the girls would never leave her the same, it kindled her passion to fight for justice within her. In 1986, she would attend school at Bishop Tucker Theological College, present-day Uganda Christian University, surprising everybody by leaving behind the acceptable path for a woman. At the time, the entire population of the college was 220 students and of these, only 13 were women. In Diana’s degree class, there were only two female students.
It was never actually written anywhere that women were not allowed to become priests, it just so happened that all the women that dared were appointed as Commissioned Workers. It also happened that there were few if any men at all that became Commissioned Workers. The reality was, that few women even dared to become priests, to begin with. One such woman was a lady from Bunyoro, as early as 1953, and even though Florence Njagalia had been admitted into Bishop Tucker, she was only permitted to sit outside the classroom where the men took their lessons. Upon completion of her studies, the sidelining continued and she was awarded the position of a Commissioned Worker.
“Becoming a Commissioned Worker is the equivalent of being on hold… the level of a Commissioned Worker was lower than the level of a lay minister or a mubulizi. It didn’t have a proper definition, but what we knew was that you never found a man who was a commissioned worker. This was set aside for women and it never had a designated ministry, they did whatever they wanted with you .”
Diana had no idea about the discrepancies when she enrolled in theological college. Diana had gone to Gayaza and all her life she had been told she could become anything she set her mind to. She expected that she would become a deacon or a priest just like anyone else who was called to full-time ministry.
In which year did you graduate from theological college?
I graduated in 1989
What happened after graduation?
I was made a Commissioned Worker.
When did you get married to Solomon?
19th August 1989 the same year I graduated.
When and why did you leave to go to South Africa?
We left to go to South Africa in 1992, after working at Uganda Martyrs Seminary Namugongo as tutors from the end of 1989 to December 1992. We thought that there was an option to do ministry within the church and not be on the periphery as tutors. It was the decade of evangelism and so we tried our luck, we tried in several places to see if we could take the gospel outside of Uganda where both of us could serve.
How long was your ministry in South Africa?
12 years, almost 13 years, I returned December 2005, and my husband returned in May 2005.
Why did you return to Uganda?
Well, originally we had hoped to serve only 5 years abroad but we stayed longer and in 2005 my husband and I felt that we were prepared to come back. Well, he was prepared to come back, he wanted to serve his nation, I was not quite prepared for it because of my past experience so I initially found a job with an NGO.
What discrimination have you faced in the church?
Well one, even though I was a degree holder in theology when I taught in Namugongo, there was one year when I was paid half the salary of my male counterparts. Another instance was being made into a Commissioned Worker, even after receiving the certificate of ordination which means they have looked at you, your characters, your quality, your integrity, your call, I was made a Commissioned Worker….Then, for a long time even when I was a deacon in South Africa I was not allowed to preach in the church they would allow me to do youth conferences, and talk to people in the hall but not in the pulpit, and I was not allowed to celebrate holy communion or the holy eucharist, and when I and another woman set up an AIDS haven, we were only invited to do ministry outside of the church congregation and speak in the halls of the church because people were dying, but even then, never in the pulpit.
After that, I was given chaplaincy at the University of Port Elizabeth Technicon which I served from 1997 to 2003 and I really did not have a proper salary, medical aid, or housing, they just assumed because I was married to a priest… so if a woman was single.. she would not have qualified for any of those things either. I also did not qualify for the car loans that every priest in South Africa usually qualifies for. I really meant to be a part-time chaplain but I worked full time despite the fact
that they never paid me. Those are just some of the experiences, but discrimination never ends you never want to feel depressed… I am happy now, and I never want to smear anyone but.. (laughs)
Why do you think you were omitted from the deacon’s list in 1992?
The facts are, I was made a deacon in 1991 and I was meant to be priested in 1992. Are you hearing the difference? You start as a serving deacon and then usually after a year you are made a priest. So I was made a deacon in 1991 and I was put on the list for being priested in 1992, but I was dropped from the list with no explanation, but my husband and I guessed that it was because I was pregnant and visibly pregnant. (laughs) I was about to bring life into the world. So in 1992, I was omitted from the priesthood…and after that, we left for South Africa.
Despite the discrimination and challenges that came with her work, Reverend Diana continues to serve the church and her community and has gone on to write a book that goes deeper into her life experiences. Woven Spirals is now available in bookstores. Get yourself a copy.