Fifty years ago this week, we completed Junior High School and entered history books as the last group to take the national juniour secondary school leaving examinations.
In my day, there were six years of primary school and two years of junior high school. That ended in 1966, replaced by a new system of seven years of primary education before entering secondary school.
Unlike today, there were very few children whose parents had the means to offer alternative avenues should they fail the examinations. Retaking the examinations was not legally allowed. People had to change their names in order to apply for the next year’s exams. So the 1966 examination was a matter of life and death.
We did not need to be persuaded to work very hard. Education was the only rock upon which we stood to survey the opportunities that lay beyond the horizon. Education was the engine that powered our journeys from Uganda’s villages to the national and international stages upon which we were destined to be successful players and competitors.
As a result, from little Kigezi, my home district that lacked, and still lacks, substantial wealth in its oversubscribed hills and valleys, came some of the most successful people in the broadest spectrum of human endeavour.
Similar success stories are told from every nook and cranny of Uganda. Educated people of my generation and my seniors have done very well indeed, both at home and abroad.
It is not that our parents were wealthy. The majority of us did not receive preferential treatment. The fact is that we had the qualifications that enabled us to successfully compete with formidable candidates from parts beyond our borders. We were able to compete because some people had made the great sacrifices that enabled us to get excellent education in schools far removed from Kampala.
Fifty years ago, five of us from Kigezi High School Junior were admitted to King’s College, Budo. The competition to get into that school was very hard, requiring very high scores in the national junior school leaving examinations.
Together with my friends – Stephen Katashaaya Rwaboona, William Kalikwisya Kanyandeku ka Rutuuraho rwa Keiganzi, Arthur Mbareeba Mugyema and Charles Kwizeera – we took our places alongside some of the brightest kids in the land. Godfrey Ndimbirwe of Rukungiri joined us from Mbarara High School. Four of us were selected to join the “express” group that sat the O-Level examinations after three years of secondary education. We did not let Kigezi down.
Other Kigezi kids of my generation went to the other Ivy League schools of the day, all demanding high scores for entry. They went to Kigezi College, Butobere, Ntare School, Nyakasura School, Saint Mary’s College, Kisubi, Gayaza High School, Mount Saint Mary’s, Namagunga, Trinity College, Nabbingo, Busoga College, Mwiri, Kiira College, Butiki and Tororo Girls’ School. The vast majority excelled, gaining easy admission into the only three universities in East Africa at the time.
The confidence with which my 1966 classmates strode towards our gilded destiny! Charles Musinguzi mwene Barabogoza, Henry Turyagyenda mwene Bagyema, Jimmy Tindigarukayo mwene Kazaara, Manueri Kamugisha mwene Muranga, James Tugume mwene Magabo, Stanley Sabiiti mwene Rugunda, Medadi Tumwebaze mwene Ruhindi, my fellow sojourners to Budo and so many more……….space does not allow a full roll call.
These brilliant kids went on to excel in their chosen fields because they had had the right opportunities, guaranteed by outstanding teachers that remain personal heroes – Charles Kabuga, Nasani Rwakaana, Gaetano Rubarema, David Kanyeihamba, Stanley Kinyata Bamwanga and Zabuloni Kabaza. Thank you, gentlemen!
What was true of Kigezi was replicated in Bugisu, Acholi, Bunyoro, rural Buganda and almost every one of the 15 districts that constituted Uganda.
Were we the only kids in our villages that were born bright? Not at all. We were just lucky enough to have had access to excellent education.
Today, in the villages of Uganda, there are equally bright, even gifted boys and girls. Their journey can be changed from one that has a dead-end to one in which they sit in the classrooms of Uganda’s best schools and colleges, and onto the most desirable boardrooms, lecture rooms, hospitals and research centres in Africa and beyond.
The problem is that most kids in rural Uganda have little hope of gaining entry into the country’s best secondary schools. These bright kids, now left behind by their Kampala Area peers, face a future of social and economic disadvantage on account of their place of birth and abode. Yet they have the brains to do it if they get the tools with which to work.
That is why provision of excellent and relevant education must be a national project that engages each and every one of us. It is one of those engagements that invite us to dispense with partisan politics and arguments, rally together, think together and do what our elders did for us. As it was fifty years ago, transformative education remains the engine that powers personal and national prosperity.
It requires sacrifice on our part. Fortunately, we have the intellectual and financial means to do it for Uganda’s children, and in so doing, for us and for posterity. What we need is the will to meet the challenge.