Housed on a hilltop above Lake Victoria, Murchison Bay Prison is wrapped in a panorama of green isles and cool waters—one of the prettiest vistas around Kampala, Uganda’s capital city. Inside the prison gates is also beauty, but it is dressed in rags and camouflaged by squalor.

A first glance reveals the harshness of the grounds: barracks of political detainees, their cinder-block buildings surrounded by high, barbed-wire fencing and small clearings beat to a muddy ooze by hundreds of bare feet. Metal huts of the prison staff, many as poor as the prisoners, sit nearby. At this medium-security prison, 2,000 prisoners wander the grounds or lounge on thin, straw pallets laid on concrete floors.

Prisoners also lie on newly donated beds in the prison hospital, but the surgical theater is bare, a testimony to the thoroughness of looters during Uganda’s 12-year civil war, officially ended in 1986. On the wall of one ward a poster wrapped in yellowing plastic warns of the lastest national scourge: “Love Carefully—AIDS Is Guaranteed Death.” One-quarter of the residents in the capital of this nation of 18 million are estimated to be infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. “We have a few diagnosed cases here,” says prison nurse Jennifer Mugoya, “but most patients are suspect.”

Fortunately, some Ugandans, like lay preacher William Ssentumbwe, have found their calling in looking beyond such misery to where hope is found. “When you preach to prisoners,” says Ssentumbwe, “they respond. They are pushed into a corner; they know the only freedom is freedom in God.”

And Ssentumbwe, 40, knows how to preach unashamedly. No artful introductions, no subtle sensing of another’s religious background. “Are you saved?” he asks a member of a government ...

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