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His chalk was diplomacy

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Mulengwa at his home in Fort Portal during the interview. Left is St Leo’s College Kyegobe administration building. PHOTOs BY Ruth Katusabe 

By Benard Kahwa

Posted  Saturday, August 2   2014 at  01:00

In Summary

Benard Kahwa caught up with Mulengwa, a man whose legacy of good leadership is still fresh in the minds of his old boys though he retired more than two decades ago.

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When Mulengwa greets you, he beams with an enchanting smile on his face. It quickly connects to humility, a tool he relied on for his leadership. When you visit him at his home, he will rush to the refrigerator to bring you a drink. You can be sure the interview won’t start before you accept his drink.
His modesty colours the entire interview. But make a mistake and refer to his legacy to him personally. He will interject immediately; “I believe when you are in leadership, you create a team and credit goes to the whole team. I was just a team leader,” Austin Mulengwa said, sharing his teaching experience.

This is how he managed to lead a big school; moreover a boys’ school, from numerous cultures, for 13 years without even a sign of a strike. This was no mini feat. But his emphasis on discipline as a key factor at St Leo’s College Kyegobe in Fort Portal was something fruitful. Most of all, Mulengwa preferred dialogue to harsh punishments.
Whenever an issue arose, he would sit with his teachers and discuss with them to forge a solution. His social skills that spread up to his students ensured good relationship between him, staff and students.
For this, you could easily forget that his reign was during the time of the late Idi Amin, with horrid political turbulence.

Legacy lives on
Mulengwa retired long time ago, but his legacy and good leadership is still fresh in the minds of his old boys.
In 2008, his Rwanda-based old boys invited him to Rwanda and hosted him for five days. He toured Kigali and other historical places in Rwanda.
Although the Ministry of Education and many other people believed he could serve for more years, Mulengwa submitted his request asking the ministry to allow him retire due to health problems.

Currently, Mulengwa is farming at his home in Karambi, Fort Portal. He is married to Bonnie Mulengwa, who is also a retired secondary school teacher, and together they have five children, two girls and three boys.

His time at St Leo’s College Kyegobe

After graduating in 1970 with a Bachelor’s degree in Education, majoring in English and History, Mulengwa was posted to Aga Khan Secondary School in Masaka, where he served for only one year.
He was then posted by the Ministry of Education to St Leo’s College Kyegobe in Fort Portal in 1972, which was an O-Level only school by then.
Here is where Mulengwa left the biggest mark.
The situation wasn’t the same as was at Aga Khan where staff was dominated by foreigners. At St Leo’s, the majority of staff were Ugandans because Amin had expelled all expatriate teachers from Uganda.
Owing to his experience, Mulengwa was elevated to a deputy headteacher in 1973, and later on to a headteacher in 1974, a post he held until his retirement in 1987.

Leading in hard times

For the bigger part of his reign, Uganda was politically unstable and insecurity was high.
“One day, we woke up and found many dead bodies in River Mpanga and in nearby bushes in Fort Portal, about two kilometres from the school,” Mulengwa recollects during the interview at his home in Fort Portal.
In that massacre, some of my students from northern Uganda lost their parents and relatives, which was a matter of great concern to the school.

Mulengwa tried to help them to proceed with studies but couldn’t manage, and in the end he had to organise transport for them to go back home. “More than 10 students lost their guardians in this massacre” he recounts.
When Amin banned other religious denominations in 1976, and only Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox and Muslems were allowed to practice, Seventh day Adventist (SDA) students went to him and told him that they wanted to leave because they could not accept to be marginalised, nor would they accept infringement on their religious rights.
They told him they could not handle being forced to attend classes on Saturdays, since Amin was a Moslem and wanted to declare Friday as a resting day.

In an emollient reply, Mulengwa advised them not to take a rush decision until he discussed the matter with the rest of the staff. He quickly called for a staff meeting so that they could forge a way to help SDA students. After considering the situation, the meeting decided that even if it was a government policy, they wouldn’t accept to teach on Saturdays.

It was this decision that kept SDA students at St Leo’s
Even at 75 years, Mulengwa still vividly recalls the cruelty of Amin’s soldiers, and how challenging it was for him as a head teacher.
“I felt pressure from soldiers who wanted their children to be admitted to St Leo’s college even when they could not qualify,” Mulengwa says.
He always tried to accommodate as much as possible because he knew if he refused, he would be killed. Never-the-less, these soldiers were strict on their children not to misbehave.
“At that time, staff-students relation was the tool we used to keep students focused,” Mulengwa said, voicing a philosophy he would come to rely on.

For his 13-year spell at St Leo’s college, academic standards significantly improved, as well as sports. St Leo’s became the best school in Rwenzori region, and ranked among the leading schools in country. This attracted many students from other districts as many parents yearned to bring their children to the school.
Due to improved academic performance, discipline and infrastructure under his leadership, St Leo’s was elevated to A-Level in 1980.

What Mulengwa’s old boy says about him

“Although the school had rules and punishments to manage students, Mulengwa used his good relationship with students to develop the potential in students and help them to release that potential towards common goals. He was not only a leader but also a good manager, who gave a chance to students. Mulengwa would physically move around the school to see whether teachers were teaching. Sometimes he would take cover under the tree to see what students are doing, most especially those who would come late for classes,”
Steven Kaliba, Tooro kingdom prime minister

St Leo’s College Kyegobe
Built in 1921 by the White Fathers, the college was first established at what presently stands as St. Mary’s Seminary in Virika, Fort Portal. By then, it was attracting pupils from St Peter’s Primary School and other Catholic primary schools.
The birth of the school can be traced back to the early 1930s, when the White Fathers invited the Brothers of Christian Instruction to take over from them. In the early 1960s, the school was shifted to its current location, on a hill overlooking the plains of Mountain Rwenzori and some parts of Fort Portal town.