Milly and Robert Tumwesigye showed me the reality of the present kingdom
It is January 2014 and I’m waking up in the back room of a small house in Fort Portal, Uganda. The sun is creeping through the curtains of my bedside window where, just a few hours earlier, a pack of dogs fought outside. The light reveals the surroundings I couldn’t see when I arrived the night before: a tin roof resting on wooden rafters overhead and cement walls.
We had been in Uganda for three weeks but this was our first morning in Fort Portal. I came out of my room to find breakfast already being prepared by our Ugandan hosts. American-style pancakes were on the menu. I sat at the wooden table next to my two American friends as Milly brought us our meal. I could see into the kitchen as she finished the last few pancakes on a segiri, a coal-burning stove the size of a dinner plate. Instead of syrup, we covered our pancakes in g-nut (peanut) butter and local honey stored in an off-brand Tupperware. We were soon joined by two nervous, giggling Ugandan children that I had not met the night before.
Milly possesses a gentleness that reminds me of my mother. During that first trip to Uganda she was always working and serving us while we barely noticed. When I say always, I mean always: as soon as she was done preparing breakfast, she started on lunch. Her hospitality was overwhelming.
Her husband, Robert, had picked us up at the bus station the night before. When we arrived at the bus station, he loaded us and our luggage onto motorcycle taxis (boda bodas) and guided the way home. Now his lean, 6’5” frame reached across the table to pour tea from a dented thermos.
Robert jumped right into conversation with us. He spoke with excitement about all that God was doing in their lives. Times were obviously hard but he didn’t complain. Instead, he shared how God had called them to leave jobs at a nonprofit in Jinja to move here and wait on him. His passion was energizing. Their faith was irresponsible. In many ways, it was what I came to Uganda to find.
We soon found out that the two children we shared breakfast with were not the Tumwesigye’s biological children. A few months earlier, the local police chief had come to Robert with the proposition of taking them in. They were living deep in the bush with nobody to take care of them. They were three and seven years old, covered in jiggers, had bloated tummies, and were forced to carry water much of the day by local villagers. Their mother had HIV and was in the hospital indefinitely and their father had left as soon as he found out about their illness. Their names were Alex and Jojo.
Robert and Milly had no income and, outside of divine providence, no financial prospects. They were behind on rent, could barely afford food for themselves, and were sacrificing time, energy, and income to care for a couple of kids who weren’t even their own.
The Cowboy from Kakinga
Robert grew up in a village an hour south of Fort Portal in a small village called Kakinga. His dad was the chief of the village. I’m not surprised as I look at pictures of his father. He was towering like Robert and wore collared shirts. Robert was a middle child, 49 of 67 to be exact. That is not a misprint; Robert had 66 brothers and sisters between his father’s 9 wives. Mostly he went to school and tended his father’s cattle along with his other brothers. He was known as the “cowboy.”
“His passion was energizing. Their faith was irresponsible. In many ways, it was what I came to Uganda to find.”
In a family that big, nobody received the love and attention they needed. Robert was regularly physically and emotionally abused by his brothers and father. He has shown me the scars on his arms from the panga where his father used to hit him when he was drunk. His life felt hopeless, so he ran away to the capital city of Kampala at the age of 10. There, he slept in ditches with other orphaned kids and runaways. He tells stories of running from wild dogs at night and struggling to survive on stolen food. He shakes his head when he shares these memories and I can almost see the unwanted memories creeping back from his childhood.
For most of his life, Robert felt like a throwaway. He was overlooked, mistreated, and unwanted. Then one day, a local pastor who ran an orphanage invited him to stay where he could have a bed to sleep in and food that wasn’t stolen. Not long after, an Australian man who had met Robert at the orphanage promised to pay for his school fees all the way through college. Suddenly, his narrative changed dramatically. He was valued, encouraged, and invested in by these men who claimed faith in Jesus. He came to believe that God loved him in a way that no one ever had before, and that this same God had a purpose for his life.
In his early twenties, Robert enrolled in a YWAM school where he met Milly, the daughter of two teachers. She was a few years older than Robert and taught at the school. After he graduated he gave Milly a series of failed proposals. Eventually, she gave in and married the cowboy from Kakinga.
Freedom to Dream Big
It’s been eleven years since Robert and Milly became husband and wife and nearly six years since I first ate pancakes at their dining room table. When I arrived in Uganda that first time, I came in pursuit of what it looked like to follow Jesus. I knew what the good news of the Gospel looked like on the pages of the Bible, in black and white, but when the life of Jesus became offensive to my “Christianity” it was time to take a leap. So, I bought a plane ticket to Uganda looking for the spark that could bring my dead faith to life.
A few months after I returned home from that first trip, Milly, Robert, and I started RUJA, a nonprofit organization on a mission to give kids the freedom to dream big. God’s calling on the Tumwesigye’s life was so evident that I had to be a part of it. We got a bigger house and they started taking in more kids with nowhere else to go.
Their vision was to provide a childhood that was, ultimately, an experience of God’s love. With an identity rooted in the divine image, a family that loved and supported them, and a good education, these former victims of child labor and abuse would be primed to pursue their dreams in a way that had previously been impossible, just like Robert had experienced. They could become the ones who change their world and the lives of people around them.
Planting Kingdom Seeds
Robert and Milly have given their lives into God’s hands. In their early thirties, they are parents to nearly a dozen kids. They recently moved to Kakinga, the same village that Robert left as a ten-year-old boy. His father has passed on, but his mother and many of his surviving siblings still live there. Half the village is either related to Robert or went to school with him.
Kakinga is a “village of kids raising kids” and the place where Robert and Milly are sinking their roots in an effort to give kids who the world calls nobodies a chance at a future beyond the borders of poverty and hopelessness. They are planting kingdom seeds in an effort to grow a harvest that will last long beyond their lifetimes.
Robert told me once, “It does not matter where you come from, whether you are an orphan or not or whether you were dumped on a rubbish pit. As long as God has you in his hands, the sky is not the limit. It is just the beginning.”
The kids that sit around their dining room table every night are proof that his statement is true; today, Jane is less than a year from finishing midwifery school. Harriet recently began an early childhood education program. Betty is working towards becoming a lawyer. Alex dreams of being a doctor and starting two hospitals.
“As long as God has you in his hands, the sky is not the limit. It is just the beginning.”
Milly and Robert’s move to Kakinga is a remarkable testament to the Gospel’s power to produce fruit in our lives. They return to the village that Robert once fled not as victims of poverty or failure, but as those who have discovered the wealth of a life poured out for others. I’ve learned more about God from each member of this family than I could have ever imagined.
Through their lives, Milly and Robert Tumwesigye have introduced me to a Gospel that moves beyond the pages of scripture into a life rooted in the reality of the present kingdom, a life of downward mobility as exemplified in the life of Jesus himself. They are teaching me every day what it means to follow him.
Milly is currently teaching at a nearby school and working on her Master’s degree in education so she can help start the first RUJA Academy in Kakinga. Robert is using his agricultural training and pastoral gifts to build relationships with local farmers and invest in their spiritual formation.
Photos by Daniel Olson.