"Sister Act" for the good
When the White Fathers Missionaries from France brought three vines of a rare cultivar to Nyamitanga Monastery, located in the Western side of Uganda, in 1978, the nuns immediately embraced the vines, especially because they acclimatized and gave them good grapes despite the hard conditions of the equatorial climate.
While the nuns initially consumed the grapes, a glut inspired them to venture into wine making. But it would be a daunting task, as they struggled with a climate that wasn’t ideal to produce the best grapes for making wine and lack of requisite equipment to make the best wine.
But their passion for wine making was greater than the obstacles. They produced their first wine in soup casseroles in the kitchen. “We wanted to produce wine so much. Although we weren’t harvesting too many grapes, we had enough and we wondered what we could do with the surplus. Our first primitive wine making process inspired us to keep perfecting and learning,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth, one of the sisters involved in the wine project.
The sisters’ light bulb moment came when Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni paid them a courtesy call. Impressed by the entrepreneurial zeal, he offered to sponsor them to increase their wine making skills anywhere in the world. After going through the internet and sending many requests, they got a response from a South African company that expressed interest in training them. “That marked the first and crucial step in a journey that has not only been spiritually nourishing but has opened more avenues for our convent and our church,” said Sr. Elizabeth.
In 2006, the nuns set out to South Africa for their crash wine making programme. They would meet Philip Jonker, a seasoned winemaker who has a degree in Viticulture (winemaking science).
Jonker is the fourth generation winemaker of the family estate, Weltevrede, which was founded by his great-grandfather in 1912. “It came as a complete shock when the sisters contacted me telling me they were looking for someone to train them how to make wine. It never occurred to me that nuns would have an interest in wine making,” said Jonker.
But as he would later learn, the nun’s enthusiasm, coupled with their passion to turn around their fortunes would make training them interesting. “They were very fast to learn and remain some of my best students to date. They would interrupt to ask questions and even teach me a thing or two. It was such a heartwarming experience so much that in 2013 long after the sisters were done with their training, together with my family we drove 1100 kilometers from South Africa to Uganda just to check their progress,” said Jonker.
With a sophisticated machinery and knowhow, the nuns have now gone full throttle into producing shiraz grape variety and a unique variety they have christened ‘Granny grape’ which gives the wine a dark colour and rich flavor.
The grapes are harvested twice a year in September and February with the September harvest producing 200 liters. While four nuns received training in South Africa, all the 25 nuns in the convent are involved in the wine making process. They also produce grape juice but it is the altar wine that is receiving phenomenal uptake. They supply it to the Diocese of Mbarara located South West of Uganda and sell the surplus. The demand is so high that they cannot even sate a fraction of it, even with increased production.
“Wine making is not all that easy, we need to have the skills, a big dose of patience and chemicals which are not easy to get. But it is possible to make wine in this part of our continent and it is just a beautiful and enriching work besides it also pays financially,” added sister Elizabeth.
The economic potential the nuns have realized in the wine business is now inspiring them to think beyond Ugandan borders. While they were also trained in cheese making they say it is exciting, profitable and rewarding producing wine. “We also enjoy drinking the sweet wine on our big feast days. It is so nourishing and nice to taste and it cheers our hearts,” added sister Elizabeth.