… Anthony Musaala, a household name in Uganda, and a friend of mine. From connectuganda.com.
“I was born on June 25, 1956 in Dublin, Ireland. My father was Paul Musaala, a well known lawyer in Kampala, and my mother was Josephine Namakula.
My parents went to Ireland in 1954 and I was born two years later. My father went to study law there. So the first two years of my life were spent in Dublin and then for the next seven years my parents moved to London.
The first school I attended was run by nuns in Bridport, Dorset, in South West England. I came to Uganda in 1964; I did not speak Luganda and I didn’t know anything about Uganda. I attended Nakasero Primary School and that is where I began to sing.
As soon as I joined the school, I joined the choir at the age of eight and a half.
In those days there were very few Africans in the school. When I look at the pictures, I see there were only three blacks in my class.
There were no African teachers in the school in 1964 and 1965. They were all white.
In 1967 I was selected to sing in a musical play called Carousel which was being performed at the National Theatre. That was the first time I went on stage, with a group called Kampala Amateur Theatrical Society (KATS). I was the only African in the whole cast of the play.
In the audience, there happened to be the assistant headmaster of Savio School (Kisubi). When he saw me on stage, afterwards he came and said, ‘we want to offer you a place in our school because you are a good singer’. So in 1968, I went to Savio School because of singing.
I passed P.7 and went to SMACK – St. Mary’s College Kisubi.
At St. Mary’s, I immediately joined the junior choir. We had guitars, drums; we already had bidongo [pop: I am finding it hard to get a more precise definition]. It was very good for me as a child because the mass became interesting. And also, people think the Catholic Church has been boring for a long time, but before the balokole came, we already had bidongo in 1969.
I say that because people think I brought a revolution in the Church, but I am only doing what I saw in a Catholic School – SMACK – in 1969.
Now, these were my adolescent years and I was in rebellion to parents and authority. I was discovering myself. I loved school so much not because of studies but because of the friends.
Although I was very intelligent, I was often at the bottom of the class and after Senior Two, they did not promote me to Senior Three. I was very unhappy and I ran away from SMACK and joined East African Railways Training School in Nairobi at the age of 15 without my parents’ permission.
I went to train as a railway mechanic. I applied by myself and then sat an interview at Kampala Railway Station (that time we had East African Railways).
I passed, they sent me a ticket, I got on the train and went.
I just told my mother that ‘I am going to Nairobi today at 4 p.m.’.
She said ‘what?’ But I was a very determined person. If I said I was going to do something, nobody could stop me. I was in Nairobi for three months and my father wrote a letter to the [railway] principal saying he would sue him for kidnapping his son (me) – he was a lawyer, you know. So the principal sent me back to Uganda on the train.
My father took me to St. Charles Lwanga Kasasa. Since I had been expelled from SMACK , they could not take me back. At Kasasa, I lasted one year and we had a strike over food, then I was expelled. My father was very angry with me and sent me away from home.
I boarded a bus to Arua where my mother was working. My mother had separated from my father and I went to live with her. I did Senior Four at a school called St. Charles Lwanga in Koboko. I managed to pass and I was sent to Mvara S.S.S in Arua town, but I did not like the school.
Eventually I managed to get myself expelled after one term. My father said, ‘Oh, it is you again! You have been expelled again?’
I said ‘yes’, and he told me to work in his office at plot 14 William Street as a clerk. That was 1974. I was 18 years old. I was very disappointed in myself. My brothers and sisters were in school and I was seated in an office. Amin was killing people, there were roadblocks everywhere.
One day I woke up and said, ‘I am going to leave Uganda.’ I took some money from the office and boarded a train to Nairobi. I knew I had a cousin there. But it took me a week to find her and I slept at a police station until I found my cousin. There was a kind policeman who saw this boy coming with a suitcase from Uganda and said, ‘you can come and sleep on this bench.’ I later got a job working in a shoe shop. After two years in Nairobi, in 1976, I went to London.
You see, I discovered that having been born in the Republic of Ireland, I was entitled to Irish nationality. So I went to the Irish Embassy in Nairobi armed with my birth certificate and said, ‘I am your citizen; give me a passport please.’ It was so simple. They said, ‘do you have any one to guarantee …?’ Within two days, I had an Irish passport. Then some friends did a harambee (fund-raising) and I was off to London at the age of 20. I said to myself, ‘I will never come back to Africa.’ It was like I was going to the promised land.
I arrived in London and worked at London Tara Hotel in Kensington, washing plates – kyeyo. They were paying me about £5, but at that time it was a lot of money. I did various jobs from 1976 to 1981. I worked as a swimming pool attendant, in a bakery, as a travel agent.
Life was very good in London. Those were the years when discos were starting and I became a disco addict. I used to go to the disco every single night without fail.
I would go to bed at 3 a.m. and wake up to go to work at 7 a.m. The discos were very exciting. That was my entertainment.
I was a total pagan. I never went to church. I was enjoying life. I travelled to America, Russia, France, Spain, Nigeria, Ghana, Holland, Denmark … I was working for a travel agency – AfroAsian Travel – so I used to get free tickets. Every year I used to come to Nairobi but would never come to Uganda.
For me Uganda had bad memories – because of Amin and because of the poor relationship with my father. And for five years after I left, I did not even speak to my father. But it did not bother me at all. I think it was this feeling that ‘I am now a free person to enjoy life. Those people are old; they are there with their problems in Africa. Me I am a muzungu.’ I had this passport, and freedom, and money.
Those were interesting years of my life because I was exposed to so many experiences. I was able to see what good life was, as far as the world is concerned.
Now in 1981, out of the blue, I began to experience a depression; to feel empty; bored, sad that life had no meaning. I was only 25, but I felt like an old man. Like I had done everything in life and now there was nothing more to do. I had dined, partied, had girlfriends and travelled; I met very wealthy people and poor people. It was like ‘is there anything left to do now?’
I did not have any ambition. The people I was working with in office wanted to study more, get promoted, and for me I was content, as long I had money.
So I had a crisis of existence: What am I doing? Why was I created? Is this all there is to life? I couldn’t find the answers in London.
So towards the end of 1981, I visited Nairobi on a holiday and met a Catholic religious brother called Br. Richard Tamale (RIP) at the New Stanley Hotel. We had been at Savio School together and I had not seen him since 1968.
I found it very challenging that this guy, with whom I had been friends, had become a brother and was now looking very holy. His whole life had a meaning and a purpose. And that is what made me feel that may be there was something I had not done yet. I began to hang out with this guy; he took me to their house and I watched him closely.
They were called the Marianist Brothers and they were working in slums. They were working with the poor; they lived in community, and they had joy. I said that whatever they had, I wanted to have. Gradually, I began to experience the love of God. They accepted me as I was; nobody told me ‘get saved’ or something like that. I started to pray again. I had not prayed in I don’t know how many years. And this depression, this sadness, started to drift away. I began to feel a deep happiness.
After about six months with these brothers (I did not go back to London), I joined a brotherhood called the Benedictine Brothers and they gave me a name, Brother Michael (when you join, they give you a different name). That was 1982. I went through the stages of formation and in 1984, I took my vows of chastity, poverty, obedience and stability. I became a brother.
In the same year that I took my vows, I came into conflict with members of the community because I had so many ideas about being a Christian and a brother. But the community I was with was very traditional and I felt there was more that could be done.
I appeared to them like I was radical. I took my vows in February and in May, they asked me to leave.
It was not upsetting; it was traumatic. I was 28. I felt betrayed by God, by myself. I really went through the biggest internal suffering of my life because I had left the world to join this community and now I was being told to go back to the world. I was totally devastated. I remember telling God, ‘… I left London and came looking for you, now I have been chased out. I am going back to London, I will make more money, become rich and I will be very happy.’
But before leaving, I hung around for about one year. I tried to negotiate with the people who had expelled me from the monastery, but it did not work out. That was also when I started a project with youths in the slums.
I rented a mud-house in Kitui–Majengo slum in Nairobi. This was an area where people were smoking marijuana, but I used to gather youths in my small house and we used to sing. I had a small keyboard. I wanted to know what it meant to be totally poor and to have solidarity with poor people.
One of the youths could curve gourds which we would sell to tourists in town. We would spend the evenings singing.
It was very challenging. I became very sick there. You sleep on the ground and fleas bite you. I grew very thin, almost like a reed.
After one year, I said ‘if I don’t get out of this place I am going to die.’ I wrote to friends and they sent me a ticket, and that is how I went back to London in 1985.
On arriving in London, I got my job back in the travel agency. I had kept on good terms with the manager and she said: ‘why not? come back. We even don’t know why you left in the first place.’ I worked for about six months and I tried to go back to my former life; the friends I had been with, the discos I used to go to, travelling around, buying clothes.
And once again, I had this experience of total emptiness. And you see this is something you can’t talk to anyone about. They will say, ‘what is wrong with this person?’ So I ended up going for a retreat to talk to a priest. I told this priest that ‘my life is a failure. I am so confused. I have tried everything and I am so miserable …’
The priest told me that the Catholic Church was looking for people of African background to be priests. He advised me to tell my story to the Archbishop of London and that is how I met Cardinal Basil Hume in the middle of 1986. I told this Cardinal everything; I was very honest with him, and he said: ‘It is not the end. Have you ever thought of becoming a priest?’ I said ‘no; I wanted to be a brother and I failed.’
He said, ‘I would like you to think about becoming a priest. I am going to send you to my seminary and if after one year, you don’t like it, feel free to leave’. I said ‘okay.’
But remember I had not completed A-level, and I told him so. But he said, ‘you go and the Lord will help you.’ I was admitted to the seminary to begin studying philosophy. I was there like on probation because they wanted to see if I could cope with the studies, but I was also there for myself – to see if I wanted to continue. At the end of the year, I passed very well. I did the second year.
In the first year, I started composing music for worship. One of the first songs was called You Will Find Me There. I was leading the choir in the seminary and I was able to develop my music skills.
To rewind a bit, during the time I went to the discos in the late 70s, I had decided to compose because I wanted to be a pop star. I composed two songs; one of them was called Dog in a Disco. The other was called Some Things. You see, there were these talent shows in pubs and I used to go there and sing. People used to clap and say, ‘wow, you are good!’ But I never followed it up. When I went to the seminary, I wrote so many songs. I could fill another 10 albums without adding any new compositions.
So, I went through the priest formation for eight years and was ordained in 1994. I asked Cardinal Hume for permission to be ordained in Uganda because my mother was here, my relatives were here and it would have been expensive to transport them to London. He sent a letter to Cardinal Wamala and he agreed to ordain me here.
Many of my friends came from England to witness my ordination at Lubaga. The ceremony was also attended by my mother’s family and my ex-teachers from Kisubi. Some of them came to see if it was really true that Musaala was becoming a Catholic priest. It was like nobody could believe it. I think they said, ‘if Musaala can become a priest, God is there! There is hope for all of us.’
I went back to London and worked for two years, after which I began to feel a strong desire to come to live in Uganda. What I realised is that we don’t plan our lives. I am the person who had said, ‘I will never come back to Uganda’ and now I am working in London and want to come to Uganda!
Of course things had been so bad under Amin. Now Museveni had taken power, things were getting better. I felt I wanted to be part of the new Uganda. I wanted to come home and make my contribution.
So I shared this thought with my Bishop and he was very disappointed. He said look, ‘we ordained you because we are looking for black priests. We have invested in you and now you say you are going to Uganda?’
So Cardinal Hume was not happy; but in the end he let me return. However, he said, ‘it is a great loss to our diocese. We needed you to be a priest here; maybe you would have become a very senior priest; who knows what God had in stock for you here?’
Cardinal Hume really loved me. He saw many things in me and now I was telling him ‘bye’. I was hearing something telling me ‘go home’. And I really struggled with it. I prayed about it for a year … Eventually I had to return to Kyaddondo, near Kampala.
My Bishop had to write a letter asking if Cardinal Wamala would accept me as a priest in his diocese. Cardinal Wamala accepted me first as a priest on loan and after four years I was fully incardinated into the Archdiocese of Kampala.
I came back in 1996 and was posted to Ggaba Parish. While there, I got the idea to make an album. I started composing Luganda songs and made my first album which was called Katonda Taata, around 1999. I have made all my albums in Kasiiwukira Studios. But the first album, very few people bought it because it was not marketed. Still, I recovered all the expenses. It probably sold 2,000 tapes.
In the second album, Jesus is Coming, I included one song from the Mujje Tumutendereze (Luganda Hymn Book), which is Tusinde ffenna mu kisinde, but I decided to do this song to Afro-beat style. On the album, that is the one song that captured people’s hearts. That is the song which made me famous because it is the one that won the PAM Award the first time. Everybody seemed to like it – the Catholics, Pentecostals, Anglicans.
And to me it was very interesting because I never intended to become a Gospel artiste. I was just doing something that I enjoyed. And then people would say the song was so nice: ‘Father, thanks so much! We saw you on TV singing and dancing. We have never seen a Catholic priest doing this.’ The Catholics would say ‘Father webale kutujjayo nti naffe tuyinza okubaako kye tukola (thank you for showing that we can also do something).’
And that is a very important statement because Catholics are so talented musically, but when it came to gospel music, we were not represented. Some people even thought it was not allowed for a Catholic to sing and dance like that. People were buying all these gospel albums without any by a Catholic.
I think of my celebrity status as a kind of value added to my priesthood. I don’t see it as being negative. What does it mean to be a celebrity? It means you become a public figure. For me as a preacher, that is what I need. It gives me a platform to reach out to many people I would never be able to communicate to. It is so wonderful to be able to bring joy to so many people.
For instance, I go to town or walk into a shop and there will be people who will either point at, whisper or say something. You are always on stage. You are always being watched. But I think that is also an opportunity to witness who you are. The way in which you interact with your fans can say a lot about your faith.
You find people and they say, ‘Father, I saw you on TV, but now I am seeing you live.’ I actually bless people on the streets; they tell me their issues. It is an opportunity to evangelise and to share God’s love.
People look at you as a whole package; as a human being, as singer. When I am interacting with my fans or the public, it is at different levels and it is very important for me to accept people where they are and to accept the kind of response they want to have towards me.
And I can always use that response to show that person the love of God or to give them a kind word or a word of encouragement.
Jesus Christ was very attractive. We read in the Bible that there were all these women who were following him. He was a man. He was not married and so he was like an eligible bachelor. But more important, he radiated love. He was an attractive person physically, sexually, intellectually, psychologically. What did Jesus do with that? He was able to draw people into a relationship with himself in which they could experience the love of God.
When you are 51 and have been to all the places I have been, you have this experience and you can tell what someone is going to say even before they open their mouth. You just need to be very skilful in ensuring that you don’t get caught up in people’s emotional jungle. You learn to create boundaries. And you see, I am very tactile; I hug people all the time and someone can say ‘father you have hugged me, now I will take a week without bathing’ – Ooh!
I think celibacy is a sacrifice in the same way that a married person would make certain sacrifices in terms of not having certain things for the sake of their children – a sacrifice of love; a sacrifice you do for the sake of a greater good.
When a man is getting married and he has had 10 girlfriends, he has to decide to stop seeing the other nine and in some cases a married man may be living away from his wife – and if you have made a commitment and you want to have integrity, you will try to be faithful.
I look at celibacy as a sacrifice that I have to make and it costs something.
But I also believe that celibacy for chastity is not possible without grace of the Holy Spirit. In fact, celibacy is not about not having sex; it is about being single – to have a single lover, a single purpose for your life. Jesus himself never married. Paul never married.
The Church in her long history has seen the advantages of celibacy. If the Bishop wants to move me from here to Mpigi, I don’t have to think about where my children are schooling. He just uproots me and sends me there like a soldier because I don’t have family baggage. It also means the Church does not have to provide for my family. And when people have family, property becomes very important: The wonderful thing in the Catholic Church is that the property of the Church remains in the Church. There are no children who have to inherit it.
Now, there are disadvantages of celibacy: priests are human beings and they also have a need for a partner. There will be time when a priest will suffer loneliness. This can make a priest vulnerable and we know that priests have fallen. But the number of those who fall is small compared to those who are faithful. You must also remember that married people fall, although they have wives.
I think for any priest to say that they have never had such moments would be dishonesty. However, I counsel married couples and I know the tremendous difficulties of married life and raising children. Sometimes I think, ‘thank God!’ It is a double-sided coin because there are also moments when I am like, ‘I have not had children!’
When you take celibacy vows, it is not like an automatic magic wand which makes all your human emotions disappear. But actually, it is a grace and without prayer, you cannot live as a celibate priest. I also believe that since celibacy is a Church discipline, the Church can also change it and it may one day decide to do that. But the Church also looks at what works, what has worked.
One of the highest moments in my life was the day I received the gift of tongues in Germany in 1985. Having been expelled from the monastery, I went to appeal to the headquarters in Germany. As the appeal was going on, I was asked to stay in a monastery in Bavaria for five months. One Sunday I went for a walk and very near the monastery there was an American Army base.
I saw black people walk in and out and I also walked in and saw a chapel. I thought that ‘if there is a Catholic group here, they pray in English’ because in the monastery we were praying in German. Inside the chapel, there were black Americans and they had a Pentecostal Church and they were clapping and dancing.
Then they started speaking in tongues – it’s like a language of the Holy Spirit. I found myself singing in those tongues. At some point the leader told them to stop and I couldn’t stop singing. I just continued, tears coming down my cheeks and they realised that something had happened to me. They came and put their hands on me and after about 10 minutes, I collapsed on the floor. That is why when you see these things on TV as an outsider, you ask yourself, ‘Are they real?’ I felt an indescribable joy.
My ordination was of course another moment.
My lowest moment was the death of my father. He was murdered in June 1986. It was a very dark day. And my mother’s death. She died in my arms at Mulago Hospital in 2003. It is a terrible feeling to feel totally powerless when you are watching someone you love die.
I don’t know what God is going to do next. I don’t know what is going to happen.”