The Inspiration behind Bethany Land Institute
In 2012, three Ugandan Catholic priests: Fr. Emmanuel Katongole, Fr. Cornelius Ssempala, and Fr. Anthony Rweza began discussing the problems of deforestation, poverty and land depletion in rural Uganda. After researching successful agricultural training models and consulting with ecological and farming leaders, they bought a 95-acre plot of land in Luweero, Uganda, using their own funds, to plant a forest and to set up a model sustainable farm. Reading Pope Francis’ encyclical letter Laudato Si’ in 2015 led them not only to see that that the major problems of deforestation, food insecurity in Africa and poverty in Africa are interconnected but that addressing them requires “an education program” to cultivate a “distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, …a lifestyle and a spirituality” (L.S. #111) They decided to build BLI to serve as a demonstration of the kind of integral ecology that Pope Francis calls for. Thus, Bethany Land Institute was formed as an educational program to form especially the poor and excluded in Africa, in the practices, lifestyle and spirituality of sustainable land care, food production, and economic expertise in rural Africa.
BLI's three founders were all born and raised in Uganda. All three founders have studied and frequently travel internationally, which has given them a unique perspective on the challenges and opportunities in Uganda. Father Emmanuel Katongole is the visionary behind the Bethany Land Institute. Born in rural Uganda, Fr. Katongole is a Professor of Theology and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, IN. He splits his time between Uganda and the United States. He is the author of several books concerning the intersection of Africa, the environment, and reconciliation. Prior to founding the BLI, in 2003 Fr. Katongole co-founded Share the Blessings, a non-profit organization operating in Uganda that focuses on bringing clean water and education to communities in need. In 2006, Fr. Katongole co-founded Duke University's Center for Reconciliation. Under Fr. Katongole's guidance, the center went on to co-found the Africa Great Lakes Initiative which inspires, forms, and supports thousands of leaders in the Great Lakes Region of east Africa in their work of peace and reconciliation.
The BLI’s two other founders, Fr. Cornelius Ssempala and Fr. Anthony Rzewa both reside in Kampala full-time.
Fr. Ssempala is a Philosophy Professor at Makerere University in Kampala; his farm outside of Kampala is his pride and joy. He is the BLI Site Manager, in charge of overseeing the construction of the campus ensuring that the campus is built to the correct specifications, and is built on-time and on-budget, using as many local resources and merchants as possible.
Fr. Anthony Rzewa is the Director of Interservice - the financial, business, and procurement department of the Uganda Catholic Bishops Conference. As the BLI Financial Director, he is in charge of overseeing the collection, disbursement and recording of all monies related to BLI.
The three founders combined have an incredibly deep knowledge of the practical, theological, political, organizational, economic and educational issues facing Ugandans today. All three leaders are strongly committed to and involved in the operations of the BLI.
Bethany Land Institute is designed to prepare leaders in sustainable agricultural education, integral ecology and rural transformation in Uganda.
History of Luwero, Uganda
BLI is located in central Uganda, in the Kasana Luweero Diocese. The Institute rests on 95 acres of land on the southern end of the village of Luweero. Luweero is about 60 kilometers north of the capital, Kampala, the land is very near the Kampala-Gulu highway, a major Ugandan thoroughfare.
Uganda has the 4th fastest growing population on earth, growing from 24.5 million people in 2002 to 34 million in 2012. 50% of the population is under the age of 15. Uganda’s growing population, coupled with inadequate or nonexistent government energy and ecological policies, has led to mass and rapid deforestation as trees are cleared for firewood and for unsustainable farming practices. Global warming, reduced and irregular rainfall, and depleted top soil cover has already created a crisis of reduced food production. As the land becomes more arid and less productive, families seek bigger plots of land to grow food. Land issues are increasingly becoming a major source of conflict in Uganda. The lack of viable economic activities in rural Africa is a major challenge especially for the youth. Those who are somewhat educated feel there is nothing for them to do in the villages – and often end up in slums on the city edges. Those who remain in the village engage in ecologically disastrous tasks like charcoal burning and brick-making, which involves the cutting of trees and digging out of marshes. The lack of viable economic options not only contributes to the ecological crisis, it undermines the dignity of millions of African young people, who increasingly feel unwanted, excluded and a failure.
Luweero was the site of some of the bloodiest clashes in Uganda’s prolonged civil war. In 1981 Uganda’s current President, then gorilla militia leader, Yoweri Museveni launched his campaign to overthrow the government from Luweero, moving towards the capital, Kampala. His campaign left tens of thousands dead, and carved out an especially bloody history for the area.
Yoweri Museveni became President of Uganda in 1986 and remains President today. Under his administration the civil war ended, and now that most of Joseph Kony’s LRA militia has disintegrated in northern Uganda, the country is at relative peace. While peace has come to Uganda, prosperity has not.
According to a 2012 report by the Luweero District Local Government, the district has a population of 440,200 people. 52% of the population is under age 15, and 19% of the population is under age 5. The literacy rate is 78%, and the average primary school class size is 55 pupils per teacher. Most residents live in rural areas (83%), and 78% of people depend on agriculture as their primary source of income. Only 57% of the population has reliable access to clean water, and only 9% of the population has electricity in their homes. The region's population is 32% Roman Catholic and 37% Anglican. As the statistics suggest, Luweero is an incredibly poor, young area. Most young people think their only hope to break out of poverty is to move to Kampala. Examples of successful farmers in the area are few and far between; in part due to transformation in the land, as a result of climate change, and lack of technical farming knowledge.
The Spirit of Bethany
The stories associated with the village of Bethany in the Bible provide powerful images to what the church is called to be in relation to Africa in general, rural Africa in particular.Accordingly “Bethany” serves as a good model and inspiration for the vision and mission of the Land Institute. For a number of reasons:
- In the Bible, Bethany is specifically referred to as a “village” (LK 10:38)
- In Jesus’ time, Bethany was a village where the poor and excluded lived – thus the name “Bethany” (Beit – aeAniae: which means “home of the poor”) – just like many African villages.
- It was the home of Martha who “welcomed Jesus in her house” (Lk 10: 38). Martha a model of a hard working, productive woman and community leader.
- It is also the home of Mary, Martha’s sister who sat at Jesus feet. A model for discipleship and personal intimacy with the Lord
- It is a place of resurrection: at Bethany Lazarus was sick (Jn 11), died, but was raised to life, which points to the kind of ‘resurrection’ we want to see realized through the Bethany Land Institute.
- Bethany is also a place of anointing, where Mary anointed Jesus head and feet and filled the entire house with a new fragrance (Jn 13:1-3).
- Bethany is also a place of revolution: Following the resurrection Jesus meets the disciples at Bethany (LK24:50-53) and sends them on mission into the world on mission. At Bethany Land Institute we seek nothing less than a revolution – a quiet revolution of a new way of living in Africa.
Thus not only does Bethany serve as a good model and inspiration for the mission of BLI, the latter will endeavor to recreate and be shaped and driven by the ethos and spirituality of Bethany: a spirituality of discipleship, productivity, hospitality, resurrection, anointing and of a revolutionary (new aroma) mission of servant leadership in Africa.
BLI’s goal is to be an institute of the poor for the poor. First, it targets students from the rural communities, especially those who have dropped from the national education systems. Its aim is to cater for the neglected, overlooked youth in these villages. Tuition will be affordable, and the students/Caretakers will have the opportunity to sell produce at BLI's market (Martha’s Market) to offset the cost of tuition. The BLI program will insist on the values of stewardship, hard work, a simple life-style and a culture of saving. We will keep all our programs and infrastructure simple and lean.
BLI will periodically run short courses that will be free and open to people from the nearby communities. The community will also be able to buy affordable produce from the BLI market (Martha's Market). Finally, one of the key programs (Lazarus Trees) is an outreach program that will carry out reforestation efforts and ecological education in schools and the rural communities.
Bethany Land Institute represents a new model: an integrated approach to fight poverty, restore dignity and care for creation. Our goal is to inspire similar models that can revitalize rural livelihoods in Uganda.