Aberi K. Balya is believed to have been born in 1877 in Rwahunga village, Kyaka County in present day Kyenjojo District. His father was Kibesingo, a Muslim by clan, and his mother a Muhindakazi by clan, a princess born in Ankole Kingdom. Kebisingo was an outstanding wealthy person with a lot of cattle who is said to have migrated from Kyabukuju, Rubare in present day Ntungamo District.
During his youthful days, Aberi Balya accompanied his father on a military campaign when Kabalega’s Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom was at war with the British. Kabalega lost the war; he was captured and taken into exile while many of his soldiers and subjects were killed. The survivors, including the aged Kebisingo and his son Balya, scattered in disarray. After many years of haphazard moving, calamities, illness, and loss of cattle, Balya heard the good news that Tooro had a very good Christian king David Kasagama Kyebambe. On hearing this Balya quickly came to Kabarole where he found his cousins, Subi and Muragira, who had already taken refuge with King Kasagama. After scrutinizing him, King Kasagama put him in charge of the king’s treasury store, servants and guards–a domain known as the Egalian.
Balya was baptized in 1901 and later confirmed. During this time he learned to read and write and was later selected by missionaries to teach in the Kabarole mixed school. Balya’s real call to Christian ministry came in 1903 with a European missionary while he was working as a curate at Kabarole. Like the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 8:6), he heard a voice.
Rev. Johnson sent him to Kyakka Nyakabimba to preach the gospel and to Ankole after the elders recognized him as an outstanding teacher and were assured that he would offer an efficient service.
On Feburuary 25, 1907, Balya married Ketura Byanga and was later posted to Mboga-Zaire, present day Democratic Republic of Congo.
In 1908, he was transferred to Kitagwenda, in present day Kamwenge District, and in 1909, he was transferred back to Kabarole. In 1910, Aberi Balya, together with Rev. Maddox Y. Kamuhiigi and Zabuloni Musana, translated the Bible into Runyoro/Rutooro.
In 1914, Balya was sent to Namirembe for further studies and in 1915 he was posted to Rwengoma, in present day Kabarole District. In 1918, Balya was sent to Bishop Tucker Theological College, Mukono, where he later became a deacon. In 1921 he was posted to Rwengoma as vicar. While there, Balya extended his operations to Bukonjo, Bwamba, and Butuku/Ntoroko in Kasese and Bundibugyo Districts.
In 1922, Balya was again sent to Namirembe for further studies. In 1923 he was posted to Rwano to cover Bunyangabu county in Kabarole District and Busongora county in Kasese District. In 1924, Balya was posted to Butiiti-Mwenge in Kyenjojo District. In 1927, he and Canon Blackledge were selected to be the missionary commissioners announcing the good news of Uganda Jubilee all over the world. In 1931 he was posted again to Kabarole. Later he was made canon of Namirembe Cathedral, a position that was not easily attained back then, and he worked tirelessly to build St. John’s Cathedral Kabarole which opened in 1939. In 1933 his colleague Canon Apollo Kivebulaya died in Boga-Zaire (present day Democratic Republic of Congo) and Balya organized his burial there.
Balya was appointed bishop by the Archbishop of Canterbury on the advice of Bishop Stuart who was bishop of Uganda then. At first Balya pleaded with Bishop Stuart, saying that he (Balya) was not the right person for this position giving the excuse of old age and inadequate education, and he humbly rejected the call.
However, after some time Bishop Stuart told him that CMS (Church Missionary Society) London had agreed with his proposal to appoint him bishop and showed him a letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Balya then submitted to the call, believing that the vision was from God. Balya was eventually consecrated bishop of Sudan at Namirembe Cathedral in a ceremony that was attended by many dignitaries including the Governor of Uganda, the Kabaka of Buganda and the kings of Tooro, Ankole, and Bunyoro, Bishop Taylor of Northern Rhodesia, Bishop Stuart of Uganda, Bishop Reginald of Mombasa, and many others.
Balya was then enthroned assistant bishop of Uganda in charge of Bunyoro, Tooro, Ankole, and Kigezi, but was also free to serve anywhere in Uganda in consultation with the bishop of Uganda. He thus became the first African bishop in East and Central Africa south of the Sahara.
In 1952, his first wife Ketura with whom he had ten children died. Five years later, in 1957, he married Asita with whom he had two children.
Balya was a member of the Church Missionary Society in London all his life. The Queen of Great Britain honored him with the Order of the British Empire and he was awarded the certificate of honor from the Ugandan Government. He attained the highest dignity when he acted as bishop of Uganda when Bishop Stuart retired. Bishop Brown, who was to replace Stuart, delayed for seven months, so during this time Balya acted as archbishop of Uganda. Balya installed Bishop Brown as archbishop of Uganda on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the archbishops of Kenya and Sudan.
Balya’s prayer drum sounded at 5:00 a.m. daily because he felt that no bird should pray to God in the morning before him. In his daily prayer Balya always remembered that he had been chosen by God and relied not on his will but God’s. He believed that he had been captured by the Lord just like St. Paul was captured by the Lord on his way to Damascus. In his lifetime as a minister of the church and bishop, he never entered the church with his shoes on for he believed it was the holy of holies just like Moses when he encountered God in the wilderness.
Balya retired in 1960 at the age of eighty-three and moved to his home area of Bunyonyi - Kihumuro where he continued to preach the gospel at the church he had built there and in surrounding churches.
On November 26, 1979, Balya passed away at the age of 102 years after an illness (jaundice). He was accorded a state burial on November 30, 1979 at St. John’s Cathedral Kabarole. The burial service was conducted by Bishop Dunstan Nsubuga assisted by other diocesan bishops and attended by many dignitaries including Godfrey Binaisa, the president of Uganda.
Many institutions that he helped establish have been named after him. These include Bishop Balya Theological College, Bukuuklu, Kabarole; Bishop Balya Parish, Bunyonyi, Kabarole; Balya House at Kyebambe Girls Secondary School, Kabarole, next to St. John’s Cathedral; Balya House at Bishop Stuart University, Mbarara; Balya House at Nyakasura School, Kabarole; Balya Road at Fort Portal town, Kabarole; Balya House at Bweranyangi Senior Secondary School, Bushenyi; Balya House at Uganda Technical College, Kichwamba, Kabarole.
John Kateeba Tumwine
“Life and Ministry of Bishop Aberi Balya,” Rwenzori Diocese Bulletin produced December 9, 2001 in commemoration of fifty-four years since the first African became bishop of East, Central, and South Africa.
Gingerrich, Paul. “A Call to Africa” in Gospel Herald, July 14, 1964, p. 509.
Brill, Earl H. The Christian Moral View. The Anglican Book Centre, 1976.
Uzoigwe, N. Godfrey (ed.). Anatomy of an African Kingdom: A History of Bunyoro-Ktara. New York: Anchor Press, 1973.
“1914 Report.” Namirembe Cathedral - Anglican Church of Uganda Library, Kampala.
Kisembo, Rev. Reuben, principal of Bishop Balya Theological College, who edited the book on the “Life and Ministry of Bishop Balya 2001.” Interview by author, June 14, 2008.
Rubaale, Rev. Canon Shem who worked under Bishop Balya as a very young man and was a good friend. Interview by author, June 7, 2008.
Tuma, A.D. Tom and Phares, Mutiibwwa, eds. A Century of Christianity in Uganda: 1877-1977. A Historical Appraisal of Uganda Church over the last 100 years. Nairobi, KE: Uzima Press, 1978.
This story, received in 2010, was written by Rev. Canon John Kateeba Tumwine, director of Global South Institute at Uganda Christian University, coordinator of regional theological colleges in the Church of Uganda, and member of the DACB Advisory Board, East Africa.