The ranks of Uganda’s Great Generation have been pruned so thin that we, their offspring, are expected to be the elders of the clans. That is very humbling. Even more humbling is that the Lord has spared a few, among them my father, now in their 90s, still anchors that we look up to with deep gratitude. They may be in retreat but the power of their presence remains.
The definition of a given society’s “great generation” is a very subjective and even personal matter. Uganda’s Great Generation, loosely defined by me as those who were born between 1900 and 1935, was not so much about their time of birth but their experience and contribution to shaping modern Uganda. These are men and women who emerged from relative poverty and traditional civilizations that marked the transition from pre-colonial rule to the Europeanisation of Africa.
Notwithstanding our anti-colonial sentiments, the fact is that societies such as mine in Kigyezi emerged from the heart of darkness, where polygamous men engaged in drunkenness, constant inter-clan wars and murder as a sport of sorts. The late John Bikangaga used to tell the story of the terror that he endured as he traversed the mountains and valleys travelling from Kahondo ka Byamarembo to Kigyezi High School in Kabaare where he was a student in the 1930s.
Bikangaga once spent a night perched on a branch of a tree, his refuge from marauding Bakiga who would have killed the young stranger had they met him in the darkness. Yes, he was more afraid of humans than of leopards.
A 1920s colonial governor’s report announced to the readers in London that Kigyezi was a mountainous region inhabited by the “most backward, most unruly and most ungovernable people” who were given to “drunkenness, quarrelsomeness and constant warfare.” To emerge from such circumstances and acquire an education that enabled them to become teachers, doctors, medical assistants, nurses, administrators, priests and other professionals was an extraordinary accomplishment.
They were human, of course. They made mistakes for which they have been justly criticised by the modern observer and historian. Their dictatorial and often very harsh management of their families and of institutions under their charge was always unsettling. No doubt they had inherited the ways of their fathers, and the equally harsh Victorian leadership model that the British colonials bequeathed to us.
However, they commanded respect because they conducted themselves with great dignity. They seemed to be free from the obsession with materialism and the flaunting of trinkets that is the signature song of those who now rule the roost in Kampala and other Ugandan towns.
We admired their values, not because they lectured us about the Ten Commandments but because they lived lives that were, for the most part, a reflection of what they said. That was a time when the best dreamer in the land could not have conjured up the “ministry of ethics and integrity.” It was simply not an issue. The majority of the men and women who were in charge of public funds accounted for every shilling, happily living off their salaries, complete with supporting their extended families.
I cannot think of those men and women without bowing, so to speak, in eternal gratitude for the great values they instilled in us. And I cannot think of most of them without remembering that central to their counsel and advice was the message of salvation through Jesus Christ. Many of them were Balokole (born-again and saved Christians) who panel-beat us with a forthrightness that was founded on the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul. Theirs was an uncomplicated message that was supported by their transformed lives. They were true Christians.
We may have found their preaching at odds with the raging hormones of youth and the counterculture that wafted our way from the Beatles and other forces which made the 1960s a most exciting time to live. Yet their message and influence took root as we followed in their footsteps, discovering the saving grace of Christ and the true meaning of citizenship.
To live under the rule of one of them could be supremely challenging. Like all adolescents since the dawn of humanity, we did not take kindly to what appeared to be draconian rules and expectations. So we rebelled and misbehaved and grumbled and cut corners, all in an effort to gain our independence.
Fifty years on, one looks back with gratitude to the strictest minders who saved us from ourselves. Of the five headmasters that I had in my primary school years, the two that I remember with greatest fondness were also the strictest and no-nonsense governors of the schools.
Mr. Ezra Rwendeire, under whom I studied at Kigyezi High School Primary (Lower School), was a multi-talented gentleman who did not hesitate to cane or slap us with his long-fingered hands to get his point across. I was a boarder in his home in Primary Six. So I enjoyed his firm disciplining both at school and at home for an entire year. I occasionally contemplated escaping from his kibokos (canes), but abandoned the idea upon realizing that my father would kill me. I could not wait to get out of Kigyezi High School Primary.
My freedom arrived in 1965 when I joined Kigyezi High School Junior as a boarding student. My headmaster was Mr. Zabuloni Kabaza. I do not recall a teacher in all my student days who was as strict about school rules as Mr. Kabaza was. For example, being late for a meal or chapel or class would earn instant punishment, usually a heavy one. He expected good manners. He did not hesitate to punish students who revealed their lust for the opposite gender. I left Kigyezi High School in 1966 convinced that I had just escaped from a military camp.
Like many human experiences, it was long after I had left Kigyezi High School that I realized how fortunate we were to have been tutored by Mr. Rwendeire and Mr. Kabaza. Mr. Rwendeire instilled a life-long passion for music. Mr Kabaza instilled a work ethic and obedience of the rules. Their methods were the norm of the day. The seeds they planted would germinate into the discipline that served us very well in our careers and in our lives.
Sadly, we lost Mr. Rwendeire in the early 1990s. But most happily, Mr Kabaza is alive and well, still enjoying robust health and continuing to praise and glorify the Lord Jesus Christ with the same passion that was central to his ministry as he led us at Kigyezi High School. Like my father, Mr. Kabaza is officially 97 this year.
With the most sincere gratitude, I send my father and Mr. Kabaza the warmest greetings from a son who thrives on the values and ideals that the Great Generation instilled in us. As long as Mr. Ezera Kisigo Mulera, Mr. Kabaza, Mr. Hezron Kakuyo, Mr. Karekaho Karegyesa, Mr. Festo Karwemera, Mrs. Rhoda Kalema, Mrs. Sarah Ntiro, Mrs. Tereza K. Mbire and their peers live, our assumption of the reigns and rights of eldership must remain on hold. And may our wait last many, many years.
(Updated: Originally published in The Monitor January 11, 2011)