Yohana Kitagana, lay catechist, was the first Catholic missionary in Ankole and Kigezi, southwest Uganda. Kitagana was born in the Kingdom of Buganda, on the island of Busi in Lake Victoria. His mother was called Bwayinga. Kitagana belonged to the lungfish clan and entered the service of Madzi, Chief of Koki. When the Catholic missionaries arrived in Buganda in 1879, Kitagana was in his twenties. By that time, he had amassed a small fortune for himself and had no fewer than five wives, as well as a slave girl concubine. In the war of 1892, he went to the Kingdom of Ankole to help negotiate on behalf of the Ganda refugees. On returning to Buganda, Kitagana began to be interested in Christianity. By chance, he attended a Catholic catechetical instruction and was influenced by the example of the Catholic chiefs, especially by the conversion of Chief Kagolo. His interest in Christianity increased, while working for Chief Jumba at Bunjako. One by one, his wives abandoned him and he gave the slave girl her freedom.
Up to the moment of joining the catechumenate in 1892, Kitagana was illiterate. As a catechumen, he learned to read and write. By the time he was baptized at Kisubi in 1896, he had decided to remain single for the remainder of his life. Kitagana’s baptismal name was Yohana or John. In his late thirties, Kitagana was tall and thin of build, with an attractive personality. Moving to the mission of Mitala Maria, Kitagana was made a chief about 1900. However, during a retreat he made in Holy Week 1901, he felt the call to become a missionary, and, giving up the post of chief, began to work as a catechist in Busoga and Teso in eastern Uganda.
Impressed by his dedication and the quality of his work, Bishop Henri Streicher, sent Kitagana to Bunyoro, to work with the missionaries at Hoima. Meanwhile a catechist training centre had been opened at Rubaga and Kitagana was sent there for training. Kitagana’s ardent preaching of Catholicism in Bunyoro was seen as a form of opposition to the colonial government and to the Protestant establishment. Kitagana was therefore sent to the Kingdom of Ankole, to Bunyaruguru where the British had established an enclave, under Ganda chiefs. Kitagana began a medical apostolate, using both western and traditional medicines. Living in poverty, he cultivated his own food crops, and began to attract the youth of the area. Eighty people attended his first catechetical instruction. Abuses by the Ganda chiefs led to his receiving death threats from the local population. When an Ankole rising against the Ganda chiefs took place in 1908, Kitagana’s life was in danger, but his reputation saved him. Kitagana rebuked the Catholic chiefs for their abuses, while remaining on good terms with the Protestant chief, Kasigano. He also contested the influence of traditional healers and mediums.
In 1909 Catholic missionary priests finally joined Kitagana in Ankole and he asked to be sent to Kigezi in 1910. Kitagana settled at Kagamba in Mpororo under chief Yohana Ssebalijja, formerly of Bunyaruguru. As was the custom, Kitagana taught religion at the chief’s court. He also contested the Nyabingi spirit possession cult, which held strong influence in the area. For thirteen years Kitagana prepared the soil in Kigezi for the eventual coming of the missionary priests to Rushoroza, Kabale, in 1923. Once again, Kitagana asked to carry out pioneering evangelizing work, this time in Bufumbira. After sixteen more years, often encountering life threatening situations in a strongly traditional area opposed to the introduction of Christianity, Kitagana died and was buried in Kabale cemetery.
In his life work, Kitagana embodied the Ugandan experience of African lay evangelists, preceding the arrival of expatriate missionary clergy. The success of the Catholic Church in the areas of his primary evangelization is due in no small part to his piety, faith and hard work. Yohana Kitagana was a true saint of God. The historian Louise M. Pirouet calls him “an outstanding Catholic catechist.”
Aylward Shorter M.Afr.
Amand Duval, Yohana Kitagana Catéchiste (Condé-sur-Noireau, France: Editions Corlet, 2002).
Louise M. Pirouet, Black Evangelists - The Spread of Christianity in Uganda 1891-1914 (London: Rex Collings, 1978).
This article, submitted in 2003, was researched and written by Dr. Aylward Shorter M.Afr., Emeritus Principal of Tangaza College Nairobi, Catholic University of Eastern Africa.