Robert Nabulere got his first pair of shoes at 14. Born in poor, rural Uganda, he lived in poverty his entire childhood. His polygamous family was typical for his community. His father had three wives and 15 children. Feeding and keeping his family together was very challenging.
Robert grew up believing two things would help him succeed: hard work and education. He learned how to grow and harvest food, how to make bricks out of mud, and anything that could help their family.
He knew hard work could help them survive, but he believed education would be the ticket out of poverty. Robert’s father stressed the importance of learning. Beginning at age five, Robert walked 3 ½ miles barefoot on gravel roads to get to school. At 14, he was able to attend a boys’ boarding school. That’s when he got his first pair of shoes. Robert chuckled as he recalled them.
“I actually had slippers. I thought that was okay to go [to school] with because, to me, that was even big for me. When I went to school I realized I was the only one with that. Everyone else had formal, closed shoes.”
Being the odd man out didn’t bother Robert. He so valued the opportunity to go to school that having old, flimsy shoes didn’t matter. He was focused on working hard, getting an education, and getting his family out of poverty.
When Robert was 17, his father died. As the oldest son, he took on the role of provider. At the same time, he committed to staying in school so that he could one day go to the university. The years of hard work had prepared him well for this season. Robert looks back on this time and sees how God miraculously provided for him, even before Robert knew Him.
“My dad was a Catholic. But my disconnect was, even though we were Catholic, our family was still involved with witchcraft. When there was something wrong in our family, they would perform rituals and appease the spirits. I couldn’t put together the witchcraft and still going to the Catholic church.”
Despite the fact that Robert felt no connection to God, He was still at work in Robert’s life. Just when he needed it, an organization called Child Fund offered to help pay for Robert’s schooling. Without that, he would not have been able to complete his studies and pass the examination for entrance into the university. Robert was one of 2,000 students admitted, out of 20,000 applicants. As a poor boy from a poor village, he looks back on this as another miracle God worked, even before he knew Him.
Walking onto the university campus for the first time, Robert felt proud. Finally, he had made it. He had put all his hope in education. But what he discovered was a devastating disappointment.
“When I got to University, I was blown away. It was my great expectation, but I found a lot of sexual immorality there. There was a lot of drinking. There was a lot of profanity. At that time, HIV/AIDS was killing people in Uganda. The prevalence rate was 34%. I thought if I lived like any of those people, I was going to die. I didn’t want to die. I wanted to keep my father’s family going.”
This led Robert to a search for something bigger than an education and a job. He knew there must be something more important in life, something that would give him identity and purpose. He began attending every meeting, conference, debate or discussion to try to find meaning. One day, he wandered into a meeting to hear a guest speaker. He discovered they were talking about Jesus Christ. What he heard that day set him on a course that changed his life forever.
Hear Robert’s inspiring story in Chapter 21 of Epic.Robert Nabulere - From poverty to pastor