Ken D. Bilima: Dialogue with an Adventist diplomat from Malawi

Not many Seventh-day Adventists are addressed as His Excellency. Ken D. Bilima is an exception because of his appointment in 2003 as the ambassador of Malawi to Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Mr. Bilima had his collegiate training at Solusi University and later at the University of Eastern Africa, Baraton, where he was one of the first graduates.

He always considered himself a pursuer of excellence in education. This pursuit took him to the Philippines, where he obtained a master’s degree in Education and English. Upon returning from the Philippines, Prof. Bilima served the Seventh-day Adventist Church as a teacher, school administrator, and as the Malawi Union Education Director.

His administrative talents came to the attention of the government of Malawi, and in 2003 he was appointed as the Deputy High Commissioner of Malawi in Nairobi, Kenya.

While he is in town, Mr. Bilima attends the Lavington Seventh-day Adventist Church and is active in various ministries. He and his wife have two young children.

Mr. Deputy High Commissioner, can you tell the readers of Dialogue a little about your family background?

I was born in a family of nine children. Coming from a low economic background, my parents had to really struggle to care for us and educate us. They were able to pay for my tuition only up to the last class of elementary school. From the first year I joined the secondary school, I was on my own, and worked hard to find my tuition. One job I learned to do, which really shaped my determination, is literature evangelism. I can proudly say that God helped me to be self-supporting, and was with me as a literature evangelist all the way through my educational career up to graduate school.

We will return to that later. Can you comment about the schools and colleges you have attended and the kind of education you have received?

My elementary education began in a small school in my village. After two years there, I moved to Lunjika Adventist School where I completed the elementary level, and the first two years of secondary education. Then I moved to Malamulo Adventist School where I completed secondary school. Then began the exciting journey of college education at Solusi College (now Solusi University) in Zimbabwe. Armed with a diploma in theology from there, I moved to the University of Eastern Africa, Baraton. In 1982 I completed my bachelor’s degree with two majors, in English and Religion. But I was not satisfied. Education was my constant pursuit. So I went to Philippine Union College (now Adventist University of the Philippines) where I did a master’s degree in English and Education.

How did you get appointed to diplomatic service?

This appointment took me by surprise. I was working for the Adventist Church in Malawi as Union education director for ten years. During that time I was able to interact with several high ranking government personnel, including the president of the country on official church matters. When the president learned that I had not been reappointed during the church elections, he called for me and said, “I have a job for you in Nairobi. Please give me your curriculum vitae.” At that time, I did not know what kind of job it was until I received a letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asking me to appear before parliament. There I received my appointment to be Deputy High Commissioner located in Kenya.

Did your education in Adventist schools prepare you in any way for this kind of service?

Definitely. You see, Adventist education emphasizes not just one area of study. It is wholistic in its philosophy and nature, and it prepares young people for a wide arena of service. It trains one to meet varied challenges of life and work. As I studied theology, I was exposed to other areas like public speaking, counseling, and community service. When I was doing English I read a lot of literature, including foreign authors that opened for me other vistas. Adventist education really broadens one’s horizons, lifts one’s attitudes, and strengthens character.

As Deputy High Commissioner, what are your responsibilities?

My primary responsibility is to deputize the High Commissioner in representing the Malawi president and the interests of Malawi in the counties in which we serve. Whenever the High Commissioner is not around, I step in and carry out all the functions assigned to him. However, I do have specific responsibilities which include working as a defense attaché, administrative officer, political advisor (which means I must read all the newspapers and advise my president accordingly), trade attaché, consular officer, head of chancery, and head of accounts.

How do you manage all these responsibilities?

When you have a lot of responsibilities, you tend to work harder to accomplish all of them. I am used to working hard from my early life of struggle.

Being a Seventh-day Adventist, have you felt any special advantage in approaching your assignment?

I have read and heard people say that we need Daniels in the present age. Being an Adventist has given me an opportunity to be a Daniel in my own context. I get to interact with several government leaders, including heads of state. It is only when one is in the system that one is able to help.

Many equate diplomatic service with politics. Any comment?

I do not know if the statement is entirely right. Being a diplomat, of course, is a political appointment, but in a strict sense a diplomat is not in politics. We spend most of the time negotiating treaties such as trade agreements and dealing with non-political, inter-governmental issues between countries. Mostly diplomatic service has to do with negotiation. We are continually negotiating issues such as ways in which Malawi benefit from trade with Kenya and vice versa. So it is not politics per se but using negotiating skills and concluding deals effectively.

I notice that you are in church every Sabbath and actively participate in lesson study as well as other activities of the church. How do you manage to do this and how is your faith affected by your current position?

My work does not negatively impact my faith, but as in many cases, work such as I do challenges the practice of my faith. For example, the strict observance of the Sabbath. There are times when one is summoned to meet a governmental officer passing through on Sabbath at 6:45 a.m., or to assist some stranded person at the airport. Even in such instances I would still find time to worship my God. In cases where work is planned in advance, I have had no problem. One has to strike a balance and plan assignments that would not compromise one’s faith.

Do you find enough time to spend with your family?

Yes, I do. In fact I have more time for my family now than when I was working as education director, when I would sometimes spend up to three weeks out in the field. Now I have time to take my family in some of my trips, or just be together most of the evenings.

What advice would you give to young Adventists, wishing to take up diplomatic or government service?

One must be ready to serve one’s country, when called upon. Of course, young people should be aware of the challenges involved in such assignments. They need to know how to strike a balance and ensure value priorities. Diplomatic or government service is a good career that exposes you to significant leaders and authorities. Being there, like Daniel, opens up opportunities for faithful service and witness.

May be we can revisit your experience as a literature evangelist. Beyond making you support yourself while in school and college, have you gained anything from this work track?

When selling books you need to have the negotiating ability to convince your client to buy the books. That is very critical in diplomacy as well. You must be able to negotiate, persuade, and conclude deals. So I think my canvassing work helped me. You have to be prepared to approach anybody in high places, even in government, to sell a book; otherwise you cannot be a successful colporteur. The same is true with diplomacy.

Any counsel you can give to young people who are struggling to pay for their education?

Earning while you learn is a very valuable experience. Working your way through school not only gets you the needed financial support, but also helps you develop skills in leadership, independence, persuasion—all necessary to succeed in life. So if you don’t have ready resources for your education, don’t get discouraged. Press on. Use your hands. Use your head. Get a job, even a part-time job. Or join the church’s literature evangelism program. You’ll never regret the fact that you earned your way through college and achieved your goals under the blessing of God.

Hudson E. Kibuuka (D.Ed., University of South Africa) is the Director of Education of the East-Central Africa Division and Dialogue regional representative, with offices in Nairobi, Kenya. His email address: kibuukah@ecd.adventist.org.

Mr. Ken D. Bilima’s email address: bilimagroup@clubinternetk.com or sichima@sdnp.org.