Charles Onyango Obbo
Asavia, Margaret, Senteza…and Bernard: They were a class apart
Posted Wednesday, October 16 2013 at 01:18
Bernard was disarmingly simple, and averse to status and power. He didn’t seek it, he didn’t affect it...
Mr Bernard Onyango has left us. Onyango, was the longest serving Academic Registrar at Makerere University. He was also the founding Academic Registrar at Nkonzi University.
I knew him well because he was my father-in-law. For that reason, I shall not write about him as an individual, but rather about what he and other men and women of his generation and kind represented. I think of Bernard and, for me, three other defining figures at Makerere University – Prof. Senteza Kajubi, who was Vice Chancellor in the 1970s; two-time VC Prof. Asavia Wandira; and Prof. Margaret MacPherson, who was my Literature professor.
Bernard was disarmingly simple, and averse to status and power. He didn’t seek it, he didn’t affect it, he didn’t dress the part, he didn’t speak it, he didn’t walk it, he did not care for it, nor did he try to profit from his position. For someone who was a pioneer in so many things, and was so venerated, it was perplexing.
Senteza had the streak of an English gentleman and a bourgeois element to him. Still, he and Bernard were cut from the same professional cloth and were close friends. Yet Kajubi’s humanity was unsurpassable. He treated the students like his children and with a remarkably even hand.
He visited the student dormitories, and during the 1979 war between the Tanzanian and Ugandan exiles forces and Idi Amin’s forces, he outdid himself.
He drove out of the university into a frightened city and Buganda countryside and returned with lorries of food for the students who were barricaded inside The Hill. He stopped and spoke to students on the campus, laid his hands on their shoulders, clasped their hands, and assured them he would not leave them. There were daily reports of threats to his life, but he held his ground – he didn’t have to.
We glued ourselves to foreign radios to hear reports of the war every day. But the days also ended with an update on Kajubi’s runs to stock up supplies.
The last time I saw Bernard and Senteza together was in church. Both of them came in wheelchairs. Kajubi wheeled himself, joined the choir and got lost in song. There was so much joy in his eyes. It seemed few people understood the rythms of life, and heard so much music in it, like Kajubi.
Wandira was extremely sophisticated in his mannerism, and meticulous in speech. He observed his intonation strictly, and even clicked some of his words appropriately.
At home, he chose his wines by the book. He was knowledgeable to a fault, and seemed to know everyone who mattered. He had earned the right to live in lofty airs, but he didn’t. When you visited his house, he would see through the door and walk you out of the compound. Then, in true African fashion, linger a bit and make small talk on the road and laugh heartily. He always seemed uneasy about being vice-chancellor.
Then, there was Margaret. I suffered a slight speech impairment as a result of being struck by lightning as a little boy. I was out for many hours, but in the end became one of the lucky few to survive and write about it.
One day she asked me to her office, and inquired if I had ever thought of reading back to myself as a form of therapy. “Try Shakespeare”, she said. And so I read out to myself a large chunk of Shakespeare, and started on a near-miraculous path to healing.
Mid-way she asked me what I “really” thought about Shakespeare.
“You have a rebellious spirit, and I have noted your unease in the Shakespeare class. On the next assignment, feel free to break away and write what you really feel”, she said. This from the authority on Shakespeare.
On the next Shakespeare assignment, I took to the forest with a very unconventional review.
My eyes popped when I got back the assignment. It was a perfect mark!
I got the point; I didn’t need to conform.
I visited Margaret frequently in Cumbria after she retired, and we even went there for our honeymoon. She was a great recycler. She grew her fruit and vegetables in the backyard, and made her own jam and chutney.
She would save the money she’d have used in the supermarket and buying new things, and whenever I returned from visiting her I would carry envelopes of Pounds for families she was helping in Uganda.
In common, these three men and woman struggled with power and fortune. They either turned their back on it, or shared their blessings generously. They served selflessly and proceeded from the belief that they were a small part of something bigger. It was never just about them. That age, as every Ugandan knows, has all but passed.