Mackay, Sembera K.

Anglican Communion (Church of Uganda)

Sembera K. Mackay was Uganda’s first Protestant and the first Ugandan to request baptism.[1] On October 8, 1881, Sembera delivered a note he had composed with “a pointed piece of spear grass” as the pen and “ink manufactured from banana juice and dirt” to Alexander Murdoch Mackay requesting baptism. Mackay, a Church Missionary Society (CMS) missionary, had been Sembera’s friend and teacher since arriving in Buganda’s capital in November 1878. The note, which soon became a justification that Ugandans were ready for baptism, read as follows: “Bwana Mackay, Sembera has come with compliments and to give good news. Will you baptize him because he believes the words of Jesus Christ?”[2]

Early years

The exact place of Sembera’s birth is unknown, but he was born in Busoga. He was a Musoga who had come to Buganda as an enslaved person. It was not uncommon to see enslaved people from other ethnic groups in Buganda as the kingdom often raided neighboring territories. The captives then either worked for the king and the chiefs or were sold to Zanzibari Arab traders. Catholic martyrs Mathias Mulumba Kalemba and Adolphus Mukasa Ludigo, both contemporaries of Sembera, were slaves in Buganda after being captured in Busoga and Bunyoro, respectively. Similarly, in a letter to the Times in 1889, Mackay stated that Buganda sold as many as 2,000 enslaved people to the Zanzibari Arabs every year.[3a] When Sembera first began attending the Protestant mission station, he was enslaved to Mayanja, a Muganda chief (Munakulya), who later became Isaya [Isaiah] after his conversion.

From a conversation Sembera had with CMS missionary Rev. E. Cyril Gordon, we know that he arrived in present-day Nabulagala, Buganda, during the reign of Muteesa I, the thirtieth kabaka of Buganda. The Zanzibari Arabs persuaded Muteesa to decree that all Baganda learn basic Islamic prayers from them. The Arabs had first come to Buganda during the reign of Ssekabaka Ssuuna II, his father, and immediate predecessor.[3b] Sembea studied the Arabic prayers taught to him and became familiar with Islam but was never convinced. As the Zanzibari Arabs used Swahili, Sembera learned it, further expanding his linguistic repertoire, which included Lusoga and Luganda.

Things suddenly changed when Henry Morton Stanley came to Buganda in 1875 and met Muteesa. On behalf of Muteesa, Stanley wrote an open letter to Queen Victoria published in the Daily Telegraph of November 15, 1875, requesting that English teachers be sent to Buganda to fill an urgent need for learning. He also left behind a young man named Muftaha, who acted as Muteesa’s secretary and ran his classes in Muteesa’s court in the afternoon. As Sembera was interested in learning he took Muftaha’s lessons as well. Though the Queen did not respond, the CMS sent a team of eight missionaries. Two of them reached Rubaga, Buganda, on July 8, 1877, followed by the Catholic White Fathers, who arrived from France, via Algiers (Algeria), on February 17, 1879.

Sembera was one of Rev. C. T. Wilson’s students. When Wilson returned to England, Sembera connected with Mackay, with whom he became affectionately close. The two men had known each other for almost three years when Sembera decided to take his faith a notch higher by filing the infamous baptism notice (mentioned above). The note he gave to his teacher requesting baptism was the unique moment the CMS was waiting for to organize the first baptism, especially as Sembera was an exceptional student. That same year, Mackay had described him as a diligent pupil who had read everything he was given and who was exemplary, as far as he knew. As Rev. Philip O’Flaherty and Mackay were planning and preparing for the baptism following Sembera’s request, a young man named Ddamulira, who had believed in witchcraft all his life, requested baptism before his death.[4] When Ddamulira died unbaptized, the CMS took this news as extra motivation to organize the baptism.

First Baptisms in Uganda

The CMS had not baptized a single person in the five years of its existence in Uganda, making Sembera’s request more exceptional. The Catholic mission, set up a year later, had performed several baptisms, starting on March 27, 1880, when four young men were baptized after only four months of instruction. There were two more planned for 1882. Reflecting on the delay, Robert Ashe said they wanted to baptize only when they felt Ugandans were ready and the CMS could not compromise on some important doctrinal issues. One such issue was polygamy. Polygamous men had to give up all their wives but one to be baptized, which ruled out many people, including the king and chiefs. But the inability of the CMS missionaries to stay in Uganda for a reasonable period might also have been an issue. Only Mackay, who was not ordained, appeared focused on the Ugandan mission until O’Flaherty joined him.

On March 18, 1882, Sembera was baptized by O’Flaherty, assisted by Mackay. He thus became the first (of five) Ugandans to join what has since become the Church of Uganda. The other four Ugandans baptized with him were Mukasa Edward, Mukasa Philip, Buuza-Abali-Awo Henry Wright, and Takirambudde Yakobo. One of the Mukasas took up O’Flaherty’s name as his Christian name, as Sembera adopted that of his teacher and friend. The significance of this baptism cannot be overemphasized, as it opened the door to more baptisms and revived a struggling CMS mission. The enthusiasm of the first eight missionaries who had left Southampton, England, for Uganda on April 27, 1876, was hardly visible anymore.

But during the same year, Henry Wright Kitakule, a leading local Bible translator, was baptized on Easter in Zanzibar by the Universities Mission. The following year, Mika Sematimba and Zakaliya Kizito Kisingiri also joined the church. Sematimba was the first Protestant convert to travel to England to request more missionaries for Uganda. Kisingiri was a trailblazer in the church and rose to the positions of deputy Katikiro (Prime Minister) of Buganda and regent of the young Ssekabaka Daudi Cwa II. In 1884, Nikodemo Sebwato, a prominent chief, let go all his wives but one so that he could be baptized. He then pursued great accomplishments for the church, including leading the construction of the first iteration of the monumental Saint Paul’s Cathedral Namirembe, Uganda. By the end of 1884, eighty-eight Ugandans had been baptized. Such was the magnitude of the events Sembera had set in motion that, in 1904, a historical high of 6,135 Ugandans received baptism.

Translation Work

Following baptism, Sembera continued learning and working with the CMS mission in different areas like interpretation and translation, thus endearing himself to the mission. In a letter dated August 5, 1890, published in the CMS Intelligencer of January 1891, Gordon wrote: “Now, with the help of Sembera and Kitakule, I have nearly completed the gospel [St. Mark and St. Luke].” In his book, Eighteen Years in Uganda & East Africa, Alfred R. Tucker, the first Protestant bishop to reach Uganda after two others before him failed, also wrote about how precious Sembera was to the team: “Sembera Mackay was peculiarly dear to both Walker and Gordon.” In the CMS Gleaner of July 1893, Gordon again stated: “There was not one among the elders of the church in Buganda who had gained the respect and won the love of the whole of the church, including the missionaries, as [much as] Sembera had done.”

In October 1883, Sembera participated in the first-ever holy communion with twenty others. The communion was again led by O’Flaherty, Mackay, and Ashe, who had since joined them in the spring of 1883. Intriguingly, the Luganda word for taking communion Oku-sembera is derived from the word Sembera, meaning “to approach,” as defined by O’Flaherty in his Luganda Grammar and Vocabulary, published posthumously in 1890 by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK). Christian missionaries and their local counterparts often had to invent new words or improvise where they needed a local word for a foreign word or activity that did not previously exist in a local language. Communion was one such word, and it is possible that Sembera’s name played a role in how communion came to be known in Luganda: Oku-sembera.

Persecution under Mwanga

On October 10, 1884, Muteesa died and was succeeded by his son Mwanga II, whose reign was characterized by Christian persecution for the first four years. Interestingly, the young Mwanga had been Mackay’s student for a while, although he was never baptized early on. When he was chosen as king out of Muteesa’s children, both English and French missionaries might have thought he was going to treat them favorably. It was never the case because he sought to stamp out Christianity from his kingdom from day one. On January 31, 1885, barely three months after enthronement, he sent shock waves throughout the kingdom when he ordered the “slow-burning to death” of three young Christians, Serwanga, Kakumba, and Lugalama, whose bodies were dismembered and displayed in strategic locations in the kingdom as a warning to whoever aspired to emulate them.

That same month, Sembera was elected one of twelve members of the very first church council, thereby becoming one of the original elders of the Church of Uganda. The council was born out of concern and fear on the part of Mackay that Mwanga might expel all Europeans from Buganda because Christianity continued to spread despite the persecution,. For it to be possible for the Baganda to continue the church’s work, the English missionaries came up with the idea of the church council as the first step towards the indigenization of Uganda’s Protestant church. To be elected a council member or even vote, one had to be Christian and Ugandan. It quickly became a leadership platform that placed trust and responsibility in several local Christians, elevating them to national and regional status. Due to their role as elders, Kitakule, Sematimba, Nikodemo, and Zakaliya were among the twelve original members who also became prominent leaders of their generation.

Mwanga did not immediately expel anyone, but persecution only intensified. On October 29, James Hannington, the first bishop of Equatorial Africa, did not reach Buganda because he was killed in Busoga by Luba, a local chief, purportedly on the orders of Mwanga. On November 1885, Joseph Balikuddembe, the head of Mwanga’s pages, was ordered to be burned alive, but the Katikiro killed him before throwing him into the fire. Worn out by the stressful environment that Mwanga’s reign had ushered in, O’Flaherty decided to leave the country of his own volition in December 1885, followed by Ashe the following year. In July 1887, Mackay was also expelled, on the advice of the Zanzibari Arabs who retreated to Usambiro (present-day Tanzania). Gordon came in to replace Mackay as the only CMS missionary left in Uganda, but the circumstances under which this happened are beyond our scope.

Sembera and his fellow elders could not do much to change Mwanga’s resolve. However, when Mwanga turned against the Muslims, they toppled him, forcing him to flee on October 12, 1888. In the ensuing confrontation between Muslims and Christians, Christians lost and were driven from Buganda to Ankole. The CMS Awake of October 1892 reported that an estimated 2,500 Christians fled to Ankole, including Sembera. Even in exile, he used his voice to promote peace, stressing that Uganda could accommodate all religious groups, Protestants, Catholics, or Muslims. Not long after that, Mackay, still in Usambiro, requested that Sembera join him so they could continue translation work. When Christians returned to Buganda a year later after Mwanga seized the throne on October 11, 1889, Sembera was in Usambiro. He only came back after Mackay’s death on February 8, 1890.

Sembera declined the offer of a chieftaincy from Mwanga who had sought to reward him for his contribution towards his reinstallation as kabaka. Many others, including Zakaliya, Nikodemo, and Sematimba, accepted positions in Mwanga’s administration. It is worth noting that the CMS’s perception of itself in Uganda had evolved to the point that they believed political and cultural influence contributed to their overall cause. Sematimba was promoted to chief in time for a trip to England under the auspices of the CMS since they believed that would make him a more credible guest. This belief was based on their memory of Muteesa’s first envoys to England that O’Flaherty had led back to Buganda on March 18, 1881. In rejecting the position initially—something many others could not do—Sembera had demonstrated that God’s work deserved undivided commitment.

Sembera’s Leadership and Global Influence

In a Christmas letter he wrote to Christians in England, published in the CMS Gleaner of November 1890, Sembera called for more missionaries to Uganda, writing thus:

We have returned to our country by the strength of our Master Jesus Christ. We now reside in Buganda with our fellow countrymen of the Catholic party. Mr. Mackay has gone to his rest, and only two remain, Messrs. Gordon and Walker. I am your friend and, therefore, tell you these words that you may help us in the cause of our Master Jesus Christ and that you may send our Christian brothers having sympathy with the religion of our master to teach the Word of God in Uganda.

Interestingly, another story about him in the CMS Gleaner of July 1893 claims that Sembera constantly communicated with Christians in England—some even unknown to the CMS missionaries. Yet the above letter was monumental in many ways, aside from being possibly the first letter written by a Ugandan Christian and being reported in another country. This made Sembera even more exceptional than most believers of his day. Following the letter, the annual number of missionaries sent to Uganda began to steadily increase: no fewer than three came in per year. Ten came in 1895, of whom five were the first female missionaries in the eighteen years of existence of the CMS mission in Uganda.[5]

On January 20, 1891, Sembera was one of the first six catechists passed by Bishop Tucker on his first trip to Uganda. The other five were Kitakule, Sematimba, Kisingiri, Paulo Bakunga, and Yohana Muyira. Without an education system in Uganda, graduating as a catechist meant having the highest level of education. With Uganda edging closer to becoming part of the British Empire and as the Imperial British East African Company (IBEACo.) was already in Uganda, translation and interpretation work increased as colonial officials and CMS missionaries needed language experts. The prolific linguist and translator G. L. Pilkington is described as always needing the aid of Sembera, Kitakule, Samwili Mukasa, and Nuwa Nakiwafu.[6] Even Frederick Lugard, the colonial administrator who led IBEACo into Uganda, confided in Gordon that he considered the judgment of Sembera “most sound and his opinion most worth hearing.” The CMS Gleaner of June 1891 refers to a committee for translation set up by Gordon that Sembera was appointed to.

When Bishop Tucker asked Gordon to go to Busoga to explore the possibility of expanding the CMS mission, Sembera was naturally chosen as part of the team because, among other factors, his roots were in Busoga. In Gordon’s words, he was their “Musoga elder.” During the trip, Sembera often led morning and evening worship and would reach out to many people who needed a word of encouragement as they traversed Busoga. This laid the foundation for the first mission station in Busoga which was established in January 1891. In this regard, Sembera had inadvertently used his Christian development to promote his community of origin.

Mission Rivalry and Sembera’s Death

As all of this happened, Mwanga grew dissatisfied with his condition again. Both English and French missions tried to get their countries to occupy Buganda but, in the end, British missionaries won the contest and the IBEACo flag flew high in Buganda’s capital. The Catholics drew Mwanga to their side and tension began building between both mission stations. On January 24, 1892, Sembera was shot dead purportedly by a Catholic convert, which resulted in instant violence. Mwanga had to flee a second time. This time, he ended up in Budu where the Catholics had been driven.

Catholics maintained their innocence, stating they only fired at Sembera because he would have killed one of them instead, as he had drawn his gun out. Sembera’s colleagues said he was a messenger of peace and had only become involved in the scuffle that claimed his life as a mediator. His death, however, had not only immediate but also long-term implications. The civil war that erupted on the day he died became a contextualized example of why politics and religion should be pursued separately. It is the basis of article seven of the 1995 Constitution, which states that Uganda shall not adopt a state religion. Interestingly however, per the 2014 national census, eighty-four percent of Ugandans identify as Christians.

Sembera’s death was mourned by many—both Protestants and Catholics—in Uganda and England. Here is how Gordon, who had, in many ways, replaced Mackay as Sembera’s foremost friend and teacher, described him to Christians in England after his death in a letter published in the CMS Gleaner of July 1893:

In Buganda, he was my faithful friend and constant helper. He often had to act as a go-between in the frequent word strifes that arose between the Roman Catholics and Protestants. He received the thanks of Mwanga [Kabaka] and was spoken well of by the French priests and Roman Catholic chiefs for healing sore disputes and preventing serious fighting more than once.

At the time of his death, Sembera was married to a wife we only know as Zatusaanga, with whom he had two children, one of whom was unborn. Sembera, who had come to Buganda as an enslaved person, was the first to be freed in Christ in Uganda and he died a free man.

Kimeze Teketwe


  1. Ashe, Robert Pickering, Chronicles of Uganda. New York: A. D. F. Randolph & co., 1895.
  2. Church Missionary Society Periodicals. Marlborough, Wiltshire, UK: Adam Matthew Digital.
  3. Harrison, Alexina Mackay. The Story of the Life of Mackay of Uganda Told for Boys by His Sister. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1891.
  4. Mullins, J. D. The Wonderful Story of Uganda: To Which Is Added the Story of Ham Mukasa, Told by Himself. London: Church Missionary Society, 1904.
  5. Stock, Eugene. The History of the Church Missionary Society, Its Environment, Its Men, and Its Work. Vols. 1-3. London: Church Missionary Society, 1899.
  6. Tucker, A. R. Eighteen Years in Uganda and East Africa. Vols. I-II. London: Edward Arnold, 1908.


  1. There are at least two variations on Sembera’s middle name - Kumunbo and Kamumbe. The first one is how Mackay used to write it and it appears as excerpts from Mackay’s journal in book The Story of the Life of Mackay of Uganda Told for Boys by His Sister, published by his sister (1891). The second one is what survives in public life in Natete, Uganda, where Mackay and Sembera met and worked. This is why I have abbreviated it.
  2. J. D. Mullins, The Wonderful Story of Uganda: To Which Is Added the Story of Ham Mukasa, Told by Himself (Church Missionary Society, 1904), 27. The Luganda word Bwana (still in use today) means colleague. 3a. Mullins, 19. 3b. Ssekabaka means a dead king, while kabaka means a living king.
  3. Mullins, 27.
  4. Mullins, 82.
  5. Mullins, 222.

This article is reproduced, with permission, from the Journal of African Christian Biography 8, no. 3, (July 2023): 14-21. All rights reserved. It was researched and written by Kimeze Teketwe, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he graduated from the International Educational Development (IED), M.S.Ed. program in December 2022. He holds a graduate degree in missiology (MAGL) from Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. He was born and grew up in Uganda, East Africa.