“Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.” – Matthew 6:29. God’s idea of royalty isn’t always the same as ours—his word even says that flowers of the field are better dressed than kings. His plan for Ernest Sempebwa’s life involved royalty of many kinds, including royalty in God’s kingdom.
When Ernest Kimwanuka Kintu Sempebwa was born in 1918, Uganda was just beginning to recover from the East African Campaign – a series of violent battles that spread across East Africa during World War I. The nation was also in the midst of a sleeping sickness epidemic.
Conditions were not favorable for the birth or survival of a baby. But God had a special plan for Ernest.
While little is known about his early life, Ernest clearly excelled in school because by the age of 22, he was a class master at Kings College Budo. He eventually taught the children of the King of Buganda (a subnational kingdom within Uganda), and functioned as the personal tutor to the King.
By 1942, Ernest had risen to the rank of Private Secretary to His Highness the Kabaka (King) of Buganda, as well as the chief executive of the palace.
He taught the Luganda language at the university level before being appointed higher education officer and scholarship secretary for the Buganda Kingdom. In 1962, he returned to Kings College Budo as the first African deputy headteacher.
Ernest continued to serve in various positions in the government until 1982. That was the year he joined Living Bibles International. At a time in life when most people are contemplating retirement, Ernest and fellow Bible translator, Canon Mwanje, set out on what would be a 32-year project: translating the Bible into Luganda.
Ernest and Canon completed the New Testament quickly and when Living Bibles merged with the International Bible Society in 1992, they diligently continued their work, translating the Old Testament.
“After completing the New Testament, we wanted to start the Psalms immediately,” Ernest answered when asked about the project. “But we were stopped because there were no funds. However, we decided to get on with the work. It was urgent for us that the Baganda be able to read the whole Bible in language they could understand and whenever the money comes, we would be paid.” He encouraged the team by reminding them that the Lord had called them to the project and He alone would keep them going.
Besides funding, there were other setbacks. At one point, the entire manuscript of the Psalms was lost at a regional office.
“It is the Lord, it is the Lord,” he always said, admonishing his fellow translators not to give up.
Despite his age – 64 when he began the Luganda Bible project, 95 when it was finally completed – Ernest was always the first to arrive at team meetings, where his work was being reviewed. This was no small thing since it required a roundtrip drive of 80 miles. As one associate noted, Ernest “came into this ministry with his heart.”
In 2014, the same year that the translation was finally finished, Mzee (Elder) Sempebwa grew ill and was hospitalized in Kampala. Advanced copies of the Luganda Bible were brought to his hospital bed. Just days after seeing the fruits of nearly 32 years of labor, Ernest died and was laid to rest at Kijabijo.
Ernest Kimwanuka Kintu Sempebwa truly lived a royal life. After serving an earthly king for most of his early career, he went on to serve the King of Kings, faithfully fulfilling the task he had been assigned.
Just imagine the welcome he received in heaven.
“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’” – Matthew 25:22, NIV