In Part XIII of Project Success, we track down Eng. Vincent Buleetwa Okwija, who was Uganda’s second best O-Level student of 1982. He tells his story.
To emerge the second best student in the Uganda Certificate of Education (UCE) examination of 1982, Eng. Vincent Buleetwa Okwija scored nine aggregates in his best six subjects and 14 aggregates in his best eight subjects.
During our conversation at his home in the Kampala suburb of Kisaasi, Eng. Okwija, 45, constantly juxtaposes his performance and the results often splashed on the front pages of today’s papers.
“During those years, we never used to pass as high as the children today,” he said. “With my grades, I would now probably have been the best in some remote district.
“Right now,” he added, “when you have a kid in school, you really need to ensure that he does exceptionally well in order to keep up with the pace. If you performed well with my distinctions, you would still struggle to find what to do. You need to do better than that.”
What intrigues Eng. Okwija, though, are the results when he compares the products of the education system today and that of his time, about 30 years ago.
“My worry is the trend things have taken these days. People tend to pass a lot but you don’t see the results on the ground. I guess it has to do with the lack of enough facilities for the increasing numbers but we need to find the cause of the problem,” he said. “My own experience with young people who come fresh from the university is that they take long to be tailored to what we do.”
Eng. Okwija’s performance at Makerere University, where he graduated top of his engineering class with an upper second degree, could also have put him in the shadow of today’s flurry of first class degrees. There were only two other upper second degrees in his class of 12 students.
“Maybe our system was much more difficult,” he pondered. “If you failed a supplementary paper, you would miss the entire year. For us, even passing without supplementaries was quite a feat. But the system has changed; people do course works and they are examined in things they do daily so probably they have an opportunity to do it better.”
Or maybe individuals like Eng. Okwija were simply smart. By his own account, Eng. Okwija’s worst class position throughout the seven years of primary school was fifth – largely because he didn’t score a single mark in his handiwork examination.
When he arrived at St. Leo’s College, Kyegobe in Fort Portal for his senior one in 1979, Eng. Okwija faced his first shock when he learnt that he was ranked second last on the admission list of about 60 students.
“It gave me the impression that if I am to stay here, I have got to work very hard because those days if you didn’t do well, you would be expelled,” he said. “But by the time I finished senior one, things had sorted themselves out and I began to show up again at the top of the class. From then onwards, I never looked back.”
Eng. Okwija says at one point he excelled so often that he began to wonder if his teachers were preparing them well enough to be able to sit for national exams.
“In my last time of senior three, I had sat a mathematics paper and at that time I was beginning to think ahead; how I would pass my O-Level. I finished the paper about 20-30 minutes ahead of time so I handed in my answer sheet. During that time, he began marking my answer sheet and towards the end of the exam, when I was going out, I happened to peep at my marks. I had passed with 98 per cent. I was very disappointed. “I was thinking, ‘in one year’s time we will sit Uneb exams and these teachers are playing around, giving us simple things. When shall we get examined?” he said.
But the Uneb exam eventually exonerated his teachers.
“I was blaming the teachers for setting a ‘simple exam’ but little did I know that probably I was not as bad as I thought,” he said.
Throughout his post-primary education, Mr Okwija says his first love was the science subjects – although he was not doing the arts too badly either. “I was very interested in the science subjects. Actually I could read the physics and chemistry text books like I would read a novel,” he said. “By the time I got to senior four, I could pass most of the science subjects. So much of my time in senior four, I was concentrating on the arts subjects.”
During his senior four holidays, Eng. Okwija says he was taken on by his former primary school, Kisomoro Primary School in Kabarole District, as a teacher. He also taught physics and mathematics to the senior two and four classes of St. Leo’s College during his senior six vacation.
But Eng. Okwija’s own performance in A-Level was not “top of the charts”. He says this was mainly because the A-Level section of St. Leo’s College “had not yet mature” by the time he joined it, having been established only a few years before.
The performance was, however, good enough to earn Eng. Okwija a place at Makerere University. But he sat out a year because he could not come to Kampala at a time when most of western Ugandan was cut off from the rest of the country due to the National Resistance Army rebellion.
After graduating from Makerere, Eng. Okwija was retained by the university to serve as an assistant lecturer for two years. Around the time he was offered a job by Makerere, Eng. Okwija had secured another one with Multi-Konsults Consulting Engineers and Technical Planners.
Eng. Okwija has spent his last 20 years at Multi-Konsults, where he has risen to the position of Projects Manager in charge of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) department. As an electrical engineer, he has undertaken the design, documentation and supervision of major works around the country, including installations at Bank of Uganda, Crested Towers, Workers House and Barclays Bank.
Over the last 20 years, he has attended several short courses related to his line of work. But he says he did not seek opportunities to pursue a masters programme because of the family responsibilities he had to take up as soon as he left University.
“I used to think about it but, you know, I grew up in a very straight system; either things work out or they don’t. When I was lecturing at Makerere, I told my supervisor, if I am here for two years and I haven’t gone for a masters, then I will abandon the idea.
“Also, the other thing that was key in my decision was that during my time at the university, I got a son so I had to decide whether to go for further studies or to stay behind and take care of my son.
“By the time I finished Makerere, he was grown up and was ready for school. If I went for further studies, I would have to leave him with my parents in the village,” he said.
Eng. Okwija says at 45, he is unlikely to further his education. His focus now is to provide an environment that will “let my boys do what I didn’t finish”.