‘This boy will be a reverend’ – 20-year journey to Ph.D.

By Penelope Nankunda

When Jacob in Genesis (Chapter 47:1-10) is brought before the pharaoh of Israel and asked to identify himself, he says, “My years have been difficult.” Canon Moses Stephen Isabirye, an undergraduate degree alum from Uganda Christian University (UCU), has a similar story is as it pertains to his academic life. 

 “My years have not been easy, and some of the people that I studied with especially in primary school and secondary school would wonder why I have taken so long to get this Ph.D.,” he said. “I should have gotten it about 20 years ago.” 

Isabirye’s story is one of triumph amidst challenges with his latest success in attaining his Ph.D. in theology from Kenyatta University (Kenya) on December 18, 2020.

With a narrow, stretched-out smile, and eyes glowing brightly with joy and humility, Isabirye spoke in early January 2021 from his home in Mukono. Dressed in a black coat, a deep-dark grey shirt accompanied by a clerical collar and an ashy grey trouser, at 8:09 a.m., he gently emerged from the right-hand corner of his long rectangular house just above the University Chapel.

 “You are welcome,” he begins pausing briefly in his steps before resuming his gentle walk to the back of the house.  He quickly lifts two bright green plastic chairs – one for himself and one for this student reporter – and a small squared, long-legged wooden table and places them in the center of the compound.

He sits comfortably under the one-sided leaning Jacaranda tree in the midst of a colorful green garden covered with peaceful grass and a short jasmine tree.  Next to it is a row of striking yellow lily flowers and several banana trees within the fenced compound. 

Canon Isabirye told his story. 

He was born on October 23, 1962, to Agnes Namboira and the late Sudulaki Ibanda of Iwololo village, Butagaya, in Jinja District, eastern Uganda. His names – Moses and Stephen – are renowned for heroism in the Bible.  The biblical stories depict Moses as the leader of the Israelites, while Stephen was the first Christian martyr whose martyrdom is reflected through the bravery and persistence of Isabirye in his pursuit for a Ph.D. despite numerous challenges and persecution.  His third name, Isabirye, means “father of twins” a name that was derived from his grandfather who had had twins three times.

Rev. Canon Moses Stephen Isabirye and wife, Ruth
Rev. Canon Moses Stephen Isabirye and wife, Ruth

Married to Ruth who, like Canon Isabirye, is a teacher by profession, the couple has three children. The first born is Rachael Kyobula, a graduate with a Bachelor of Computer Science from UCU and currently employed at Equity Bank in Entebbe. The second born is Paul Mwesigwa Ibanda, a senior six candidate at Hillside Namirembe SS, and Paula Mwebaze Mukyala is the youngest. 

Canon Isabirye’s journey at UCU began in September 1991 when he joined the Bishop Tucker Theological College to study a Bachelor of Divinity course offered by Makerere University through the college; he successfully completed that undergraduate degree in 1994 and graduated with first-class honors in January 1995. While at Bishop Tucker, he pursued several other short courses in youth ministry and chaplaincy at Daystar University Nairobi, which helped him attain advanced certificates from that University.  

Owing to Canon Isabirye’s academic excellence during his undergraduate studies, his lecturer, Dr. Tudor Griffith, helped Isabirye secure a master’s level scholarship in the United Kingdom. Dr. Tudor Griffith also had just returned to Uganda with a Ph.D. from Bristol University and was eager to see Ugandans acquire similar qualifications. 

“There was a requirement for my diocesan bishop who was a very good friend of mine to sign but he refused,” recalls Canon Isabirye about the forms that Dr. Tudor provided for the University of Leeds. “He said it was a good opportunity, but that I had just graduated and started working at the diocese, insisting that he would only sign the forms after I had spent three years at the diocese.” 

The opportunity at Leeds was for a Masters in Theology, majoring in Christology. The decision not to sign his forms left Isabirye bitter but determined to pursue further studies. In 1997, he joined Makerere University to pursue an MA in Religious Studies, graduating on November 23, 2003. It was while he was pursuing his MA studies that Canon Isabirye was invited to work at UCU as a part-time lecturer. 

In 2006, he was again invited from his Parish in Jinja, St. Andrews Cathedral, by UCU to teach full-time at Bishop Tucker School of Divinity and Theology. Canon Isabirye, who now teaches church history, pastoral care and counselling as well as related subjects also heads practical studies and history in the School. 

Although Isabirye enrolled for a Ph.D. in 2010, which he applied for in 2008, and was admitted in 2009, it took him 10 years to graduate. He attributes his delay to several challenges, one of them being having changed supervisors. 

“When one’s supervisor is changed, definitely there is a delay, which forces one to go back to the drawing board,” he said.

Canon Isabirye’s Ph.D. is in the area of Theology called Church History, specifically African church history. For his thesis, he examined the Phenomena of African Indigenous Pentecostal Christianity in Busoga and Buganda regions in Uganda using the Deliverance Church as a case study. His comprehensive exploration includes how those churches emerged, and the reasons and the factors their founders had. 

His desire now is to continue teaching and also do ministry work. 

Reflecting back on his journey to accomplishing this great attainment, he acknowledges the difficulty. He attributes two stingingly memorable and important days in his life which brought a large wave of change that never left him the same again, as well as helped him remain firm, faithful and confident in God, preparing him for these challenges. 

The first day was in 1974 when the late Rt. Rev. Cyprian Bamwoze (the former Bishop of Busoga Diocese) visited his church while he was in primary school and identified him out of many other pupils, prophesying “this boy will be a reverend.” The second memorable day on April 17, 1981, was when he came to the Lord (became born again).

“On that day, the preacher spoke of when Jesus had died the curtain tore into two, and as I was getting saved, I saw something get torn into two in my life,” he said. 

Canon Isabirye urges the youth to depend on the Lord. 

“My journey has been long, tedious and at times painful, but I do not regret anything because God has been in it,” he said with a reminder that regardless of age, people are in a pilgrimage for Christ. “I always ask God to lead me until the end.” 



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