Some time at the start of the final decade of the last millennium, in a Peninsular town on the northern shoreline of Lake Nyanza, a 28-year old woman walked to the altar with her six-month-old baby.
“Give this child a name.”
Those were the words that came out of the mouth of the neatly robed priest who was officiating the baptism that morning in 1991.
Her response would change everything, and I mean everything.
That woman was my mother, and that six-month-old baby was me. Lake Nyanza is the traditional name of what is now called Lake Victoria.
My mother decided that I would be called ‘Daniel Erica Sabiti’.
Now, if you wondering how important that is, stay with me.
Erica Sabiti is one of the prominent names in the recent history of the Church in Africa’s Great Lakes region. He was the first black Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Boga, Zaire.
When Erica Sabiti became the Archbishop, what followed were some of the most turbulent times in the history of the Anglican Church of Uganda. Yet in many ways, he was a pioneer. According to H. H. Osborn, “He was a very capable administrator, strong in his convictions, fearless in denouncing racial discrimination and social injustices and, at the same time, very gracious in personal relationships.”
That is the man my mother named me after: a church leader who like the Prophet Isaiah said “Here I am! Send me.” (Is 6:8) When the church needed someone to stand in the ‘gap’, Erica Sabiti courageously stepped up.
That man is who my mother wanted me to be. She dedicated me to the Lord on that Sunday morning in 1991. That morning, she put a target on my back (I mean this in the positive sense of the phrase).
My mother died when I was nine. She did not live long enough to tell me all this. Instead, I connected the dots myself when my uncle handed to me my baptism certificate over a decade ago. And with conversations with my aunties and uncles, my sentiments were confirmed, that indeed my mother was thoughtful in naming me. In January this year, my uncle Natiko reminded me that I had a target on my back and that my mother was to blame for this.
But what is this target on my back that I am rumbling about?
You see, I have, like all other kids, had dreams of what I would become when I grow up. For most of the time, I had wanted to be a journalist. What drove me there was my love for the beautiful game—football. I enjoyed playing it, watching it and talking about it. That is why I reasoned that it be would fun to be paid to pursue a career in my hobby. The only route, maybe it was not the only route, at least the logical one was to pursue a journalism/mass communication degree at Makerere University.
But while I was waiting for the intake of the academic year 2010/2011 (which would be my freshman year), I chanced upon a book. I don’t remember what the title was, but it had a green cover, that I remember. The book was a reader on the most influential social ideas of our time, published in the 1970s. In that book, I was introduced to, and later captivated by the ideas of Karl Marx (to some of my American friends, don’t judge).
Two things stood out. One was the utter brilliance of Marx’s theorisation. Coming from a profoundly collectivist society, his ideas made sense. That was the first time I ever made sense of reality through a theoretical lens.
Two, Karl Marx attracted me to original social thought. He brought a fresh perspective on the whole enterprise of education. I never looked at education the same way again. To this day, I believe that the learned are useful to society in so far as they are able to accurately diagnose social problems, and then offer solutions through tried-and-tested frameworks which can be replicated elsewhere.
And that is why I ditched my journalism dream to study Political Science at Makerere University, Kampala.
Even while going back and forth, there was still a target on my back.
God was that target.
The prayers of my mother were heard. In my wandering, God kept me close, even when I tried to plan my life without him in it. He was there because in dedicating me, my mother was responding to a God who had chosen me before I was formed in her womb.
I went on to be a Youth minister for some years, then started and led a Bible Study fellowship, while I worked to keep the lights on.
Men and women, the ones I ministered to, told me that I would live a miserable life if I kept on denying the call that they clearly saw on my life. They thought that I had gifts that would benefit the church. They pushed me to go for theological training, even before I saw the need to do so.
They had seen the target on my back.
When, on my 24th birthday, I accepted the call to ministry, I also acknowledged this target on my back.
Right now, I am in my final year seminary. Although like any biblically consistent theologian, I attribute all this to the grace and mercy of the Lord, I cannot fail to acknowledge the prayers of my mother. Those prayers have brought me this far.
Two weeks ago, my mentor, who is also my boss asked me about my sense of call. I told him that my call (to me) starts on 1st April 1991, the day I was baptised. I hold to a high view of baptism, and so I believe God did, and still does divine things through those baptismal waters. But this is not the time for that discussion.
All I meant to say is that my sense of purpose as a human being started with my baptism, which was also my naming ceremony in the faith.
I turned 30 today, yet I am still that kid who was named after a pioneering Archbishop. God, through that name, has been pursuing me and he always does to this day. And he has put a vision on my heart—a vision for the church, for his people.
My heart is focused on a bigger question: how can we communicate the truth of the gospel to multi-cultural societies without demonising them, or flushing their unique socio-cultural attributes down the drain? In other words, how do we help a Kakwa in North-Western Uganda and North-Easter DRC; a Samia in Western Kenya; a Dinka in South Sudan; or a Fang in Gabon conceptualise a God who is present in, and with her cultural context?
Indigenous theologies can go along way to build up the church for the glory of God. Yet, they are scorned against, especially in the western world where they are ‘otherised’. You will, for instance, hear a Western Christian say that her theology is ‘Apostolic’ and then there are other theologies. I disagree with this claim. No one has the right to throw dirt on another’s knowledge of God. No one.
When you think of theology as arising from the interaction between the unique socio-cultural forces (at a particular time, and place) and scripture, you will appreciate why it is essential that an African slave on the plantations of America conceptualises God as one who liberates, as a God of the Exodus. That is not a faulty theology, it is an accurate one arising from experience, just like a Western theology which is sold to everyone as the Apostolic theology also arises out of western values of individualism and modernist ideas of the enlightenment.
All theologies are other theologies, including your Calvinism, Roman Catholicism and other theolog-isms.
It is therefore vital that we allow indigenous people to understand God from where they are at a particular time and location.
This is my burden—and maybe someone else’s out there. Yet I sometimes think that it would have been different had my mother not named me Erica Sabiti.
What I will do today, like on all my birthdays is reflect on what God is doing through me and my ministry. I know this whole write up was a long detour, but that is why the statement “Give this child a name” means a lot to me.
The response to that statement changed everything for me.