Bishop Ellinah Wamukoya with the Rev. Winnie Varghese in Cape Town, South Africa in January 2016.

"A Great Tree Has Fallen"

The first woman to serve as a bishop of the Anglican Church in Africa has died.

The Rt. Rev. Ellinah Wamukoya, 69, bishop of Swaziland in eSwatini, fell ill with COVID-19 last week, and was placed on oxygen therapy. Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of Cape Town, Primate of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, announced Bishop Wamukoya’s death on Tuesday. 

“It is with profound sorrow that I have to announce the devastating news that the Bishop of Swaziland in eSwatini, the Rt. Rev. Ellinah Wamukoya, died today,” the archbishop said. 

The consecration of Bishop Wamukoya in 2012 was a groundbreaking event. Never before had a woman led a diocese of the Anglican Church on the African continent. Today there is one other woman serving as a diocesan bishop in Africa, the Rt. Rev. Margaret Vertue, in the Diocese of False Bay. Dr. Emily Onyango was appointed this month as assistant bishop in the Diocese of Bondo in Kenya.

Bishop Ellinah Wamukoya addresses participants of a Trinity workshop in Lusaka, Zambia in June 2014.
Bishop Ellinah Wamukoya addresses participants of a Trinity workshop in Lusaka, Zambia in June 2014.

Bishop Wamukoya served for many years in a leadership role in workshops organized by Trinity Church Wall Street and its partners in Africa.

"We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of the Rt Rev. Ellinah Wamukoya, the Bishop of Swaziland in eSwatini,” said the Rev. Phil Jackson, Trinity's Priest-in-charge.

“Beginning in 2013 Bishop Ellinah served as a resource person for Trinity's peer-mentoring in Mission Real Estate Development.  In that role she helped dozens of bishops and diocesan teams across Africa to discern new ways that church property could augment and finance ministry.”

For more than five years, the bishop contributed her leadership skills to those gatherings, often moderating panel discussions among the archbishops, bishops, priests, and lay members of congregations in Africa. Bishop Wamukoya also participated in videos in which Trinity’s partners reflected on Trinity’s core values, and how those values are demonstrated in an African context.

Bishop Ellinah Wamukoya with the Rev. Winnie Varghese in Cape Town, South Africa in January 2016.

In preparation for TI2017, a Trinity Institute Theological Conference devoted to the theme of “Water Justice,” Bishop Wamukoya appeared in a Trinity video in which she described the challenges her tiny nation faced after several years of severe drought. The bishop was an outspoken environmentalist.

“Bishop Ellinah taught us to love God and to cherish Mother Africa through her leadership of heart and hands. May the seeds she has planted in lives across the continent flourish to become trees of hope and healing for the nations,” said the Rev. Dr. Rachel Mash of Green Anglicans, a group within the Anglican Church in Africa dedicated to advocacy on behalf of the environment.

Bishop Wamukoya’s call to ministry came in her fifties, after years of service as a town planner, and Town Clerk of Manzini, utilizing her Master’s Degree in Regional Planning. Ordained a priest in 2005, she served for a time as Anglican chaplain at the University of eSwatini.

In 2016, BBC News listed her as one of the 100 most inspirational and influential women in the world.

As a "resource bishop" at Trinity's peer-mentoring workshops, Bishop Wamukoya provided leadership based on vast experience both in the church and in secular society.

Along with her historic status as the first woman to be a diocesan bishop in Africa, I remember the bishop for her strength and grace, and her ease in proximity to ordinary people. Having documented many of the Trinity workshops, I recall several occasions of sharing a table with Bishop Wamukoya for breakfast, with conversations about our vastly different life experiences.

The bishop was the type who was quite comfortable showing up, in her clerical collar, purple shirt, and ball cap, to encourage people working in a community garden.

Documentarian Tim Wege, whose brilliant video can be seen in the story of the Swaziland drought, recalls the day of the assignment with Bishop Wamukoya.

“She was incredible,” Wege said. “I still remember her being stopped for speeding by the cops outside Mbabane, and her explaining that she was the bishop and on church business.”

Bishop Wamukoya remained on church business, the business of caring for the people of her diocese, and caring for creation, right up to the end.

In the words of the Rev. Dr. Rachel Mash: “Our hearts are broken, a great tree has fallen.

“Hamba kahle.

“May your memory be blessed.”