, KAMPALA, Apr 25 – A Ugandan Pentecostal pastor who blesses his congregants\’ passports to help them get visas for the industrialized world first became fascinated by rich nations thanks to McDonald\’s and Burger King.
"The thing is that whenever somebody goes abroad, things change. You go abroad when you are tiny-teeny, and you begin eating fast food and you gain weight," Joshua Magezi told AFP on a bench outside his church in a dingy Kampala suburb.
At Magezi\’s church, a box-like structure of wooden planks and iron sheets, the faithful are encouraged to bring their passports each Sunday so the pastor, through prayer, can expedite their visa applications.
"\’Go in power in the name of Jesus. Find favour with the counselor. Let all your paperwork work out in Jesus\’ name.\’ That is the usual prayer," he said.
Since Magezi opened the Kibuli Miracle Centre some 10 years ago, he has aggressively encouraged his members to go abroad, because he was only able to found his own church after his first trip overseas to Norway 14 years ago.
"For me, the idea was, I go, get friends, tell them my vision and my ideas and then they support (me)," he said.
Magezi, now 40, said he started his church with a 250-dollar monthly stipend from a Norwegian benefactor.
"Traveling is a blessing," he said, "no question about that."
For many people, a trip to Iraq in 2007 might not have been seen in quite that light, but for 36-year-old Martin Bwayo it was something worth praying for.
Bwayo, a retired sergeant in the Ugandan military and a devoted member of Magezi\’s church since 2002, was struggling to pay his bills while working at a Kampala print shop.
"So I said to Pastor, \’I want to go out and make something (some money). Maybe I go to Iraq to work with the Americans there\’," Bwayo recounted.
More than 10,000 Ugandans are currently working in Iraq as guards at US military bases, supermarkets and banks, according to the country\’s labour minister.
Local recruiting firms generally hire former soldiers.
"And Pastor said, \’OK, you bring your passport here,\’ and he prayed for me and he said, \’don\’t worry, God is taking you out.\’"
Bwayo said he touched down in Bagdhad on November 14, 2007, and that it would not have happened without Magezi\’s prayers.
"Pastor Magezi is a man of God. If he prays for you, God answers your prayers," he insisted, although his broad shoulders and sturdy build likely helped his application as well.
He returned to Uganda in late March, after 28 months abroad. His time in Iraq was interspersed with several trips to the United States for additional training.
Speaking to AFP on Easter Sunday, he described the experience as financially worthwhile, although occasionally cold.
"Alaska is the worst state in America," he said, referring to a two-month training course in the northwestern state. "During winter, you can\’t see the sun."
Despite having just been reunited with his wife and four children, Bwayo, who has school fees and house payments due, is anxious for another contract.
He duly came to church this Easter with his passport in his pocket ready to receive more blessings.
About an hour into the service, Magezi summoned the passport holders to the stage and Bwayo along with some 20 others approached with their travel document raised high above their head in their right hand.
"In the name of Jesus let there be American visas. Let there be Canadian visas. Let there be English visas, in the mighty name of Jesus," Magezi shouted, his voice going hoarse as he brushed anointing oil on the foreheads of those he approached. "The Lord is opening doors that are very international."
Thousands of Ugandans apply to study or work in the industrialized world every year, but many are unsuccessful, including Zubeda Nalyaka who was praying three metres (10 feet) away from Bwayo on Easter Sunday.
Interviewed a few days earlier, Nalyaka, 32, vented frustration about her failed attempt to study and work in Canada.
She was admitted to study business administration at a small university in British Columbia in 2008, according to the acceptance letter she produced, but said that because of visa and financial complications she could not begin the course.
Not contented with praying only on Sunday, she said she goes to church most evenings after finishing her customer service job at a nearby hospital.
"I believe in miracles," she said. "With prayer, I believe it can work."