uring most of the time that Robert and Gerd Pifer served as missionaries at the Rwenzori Mission Station in mid-western Uganda, they were surrounded by the ravages of war. Commonly referred to as the Rwenzururu movement, the conflict resulted from the injustices the Bakonzo tribe had suffered under the control of the Toro Kingdom, or Batooro people.
Kirsten Alnæs, a Norwegian social anthropologist who spent several years living among the Bakonzo, wrote, “Tooro rule had brought much suffering for the BaKonzo. The BaTooro officials treated their subjects with disdain, arrogance and direct cruelty. . . . Tooro chiefs exacted tribute and forced labor from the BaKonzo. . . . Moreover, large tracts of land were declared the possession of the Tooro King. . . . All of this . . . resulted in the Toro Kingdom referring to the Bakonzo . . . as ‘apes, baboons, gorillas, insects, dogs, flies and pigs.’”
The war had started after failed negotiations with Toro Kingdom leadership and the outgoing colonial government in early 1962. It continued with the newly elected government of independent Uganda after October 9, 1962. During March and April 1964, the Bakonzo pressured the infant government and the Toro Kingdom for equal treatment. Instead of solving the problem amicably, the government supported the Toro Kingdom in hunting, torturing, and killing the Bakonzo.
On June 8, 1964, a band of Batooro with spears surrounded the Pifer family at their Mitandi residence. The warriors threatened to kill the Pifers if they didn’t leave the mission within four days and stop aiding the Bakonzo.
The Pifers had helped many Bakonzo to escape across the mountains to Bundibugyo. At the time of the Batooro visit, they were hiding three Bakonzo families in the mission compound. These families were those of Yowasi Mukirania, the headmaster of Mitandi Junior Secondary School; Ibrahim Balihabuka, a church member; and Yowasi Isingoma-Nguru Obote, who worked on the compound with Pastor Pifer.
As soon as the angry Batooro left the Rwenzori Mission Station, Pastor Pifer sprang into action, making plans to evacuate the campus. With the help of Pastor Stanley Kyambadde, a Muganda tribesman who served as a pastor of Kihimbo Adventist Church in the town of Fort Portal, Pastor Pifer chartered heavy commercial vehicles owned by a Ugandan-Asian businessman to evacuate the families to Fort Portal. He wrote letters for each driver to present in case they were stopped and questioned, explaining that the people in their vehicles were mission workers who were being transferred. And he made arrangements with Felix Rwambarali Akiki, the secretary-general of Toro District administration, to have the families of Mr. Balihabuka and Mr. Isingoma-Nguru Obote escorted by armed police from Fort Portal to a refugee camp.
On the fourth day after the warning, the mission station workers loaded the belongings of the Pifer and Bakonzo families into the large vehicles. Around nine o’clock at night, 20 minutes after leaving the Mitandi campus, the convoy of trucks met and began passing the mobs of organized warriors who were headed to the station to carry out the executions. The vigilantes, fully armed with machetes, knives, arrows, and spears and singing war songs, didn’t detect that the people inside the trucks were Bakonzo because the drivers, representing local Ugandan tribes, were also partly Indian. As the vehicles made their way along the muddy roads, Pastor Pifer drove his truck behind them so that he could observe all that was happening. Gerd drove a private car with the Pifers’ three children.
Once the families of Mr. Balihabuka and Mr. Isingoma-Nguru Obote were in the care of the armed police in Fort Portal, the Mukirania family proceeded without any human protection to Ikoba Adventist Church near Masindi, in Bunyoro Kingdom. They arrived at six-thirty on the morning of June 12. The Pifer family moved to a government-owned house in Fort Portal, under the orders of the secretary-general of Toro District Administration, where they stayed for a year until their furlough to Norway and the United States in 1965.
With the evacuation, Mitandi ceased to serve as the headquarters of the Rwenzori Mission Station. In August 1964, Pastor Thorkild Pedersen from Norway replaced Pastor Pifer as director of the Rwenzori Mission Station, using a hired house at Ibonde near Nyakasura School, which was being run by Anglican missionaries.
When the Pifer family returned from furlough in 1966, they were called to the Uganda Field headquarters at Kireka, where Pastor Pifer served as secretary/treasurer and Gerd as a nurse. Mr. Mukirania served as a pastor for almost two years before he was sent to Bugema Missionary College for ministerial training. He later became a pastor and field president. His daughter Zipporah Mupaghasi served as business manager and lecturer at Bugema Adventist College, now university. Other children of the rescued families have served as teachers in the ministries of education and health of the Republic of Uganda and as elders in the church.
A glimpse into the servant hearts of missionaries Robert and Gerd Pifer
Pastor Pifer was a dynamic and enthusiastic preacher of the gospel. His sermons centered on the Ten Commandments and how they relate to salvation and Christian living. Besides his usual sermons, he wrote booklets on church doctrines and supplied them to church and community members wherever he preached.
In addition to his role as Mitandi Mission Station director from 1961 to 1965, he performed all maintenance required on the compound. He took time to play soccer with the students and faculty once every two weeks. During his time as director, several young people in the Mitandi area joined the church because he was “down to earth” and met them on their level.
The Pifers were generous and friendly. They invited families from around the mission headquarters to join their family’s birthday celebrations. They also supplied food to the poor in their community regardless of their creed, language, or background.
Gerd treated many patients who had been injured in the hostilities between the Bakonzo and Batooro tribes. She sometimes had to be driven by her husband at night for more than 12 miles (20 kilometers) to take war victims to a hospital with better facilities. Before the war, she attended to people with diseases of all types, both day and night, and taught them how to care for themselves and their families. People trusted her because she treated them with love and kindness.
Pastor Robert and Gerd’s exemplary lives of faith in action are vividly remembered by Seventh-day Adventist church members on Mount Rwenzori. Now scattered all around Uganda and the world, serving the church in public and private sectors, the members eagerly await the day when they will be reunited with each other and the Pifers on the resurrection morning.