Saturday June 28 2014

Paul Oguti set the standards too high for his successors to match

Oguti after he had just retired. courtesy PHOTO

Oguti after he had just retired. courtesy PHOTO 

By Ivan Okuda

There is that distinctive streak of a teacher about him. It is written boldly in every action. It is painted in every bit of his speech. You feel and breathe it the moment the conversation starts. Athanasius Paul Oguti Bichachi, born in 1941, belongs to the old school teacher breed. The type that made schools, seen today as shadows of their past glory, the giants many only refer to with nostalgia.
Upon graduation from Makerere University with a Bachelor of Arts and Post Graduate Diploma in Education where he topped his class, with a First Class, Oguti was posted to Jinja College. It is here where he reached the apex of his career, after stints in other schools in eastern Uganda. He had earlier trained as a Grade Three teacher at Kyambogo government Teacher Training College between 1962 and 1963. His education career was hinged on three pillars that continue to define his outlook on life; discipline, integrity and hard work. These saw him turn around every school he went to, almost setting a standard so high that his successors struggled to match up.
At St Peter’s College Tororo, which he joined as a teacher in 1974, becoming deputy head teacher three years later, the tag, “disciplinarian” came to define his legacy. It is here that the geography and history teacher pioneered the teaching of a then new subject, African Nationalism, starting from scratch.
“The students loved it. It was more interesting than English history. At last, we had African history,” he says. At TC (for Tororo College), as the school is fondly known, he recollects tenderly, “I had Mr James Mudidi (the head teacher then) as my mentor. I was in charge of discipline as deputy. By nature, I am a disciplinarian.”
His memory, at 73, is still fresh and sharp. He plucks out each recollection with ease as though it happened yesterday.
“I taught journalist Charles Onyango Obbo. He was very argumentative. He would ask you tough questions and challenge you. We instilled discipline and sent many boys to university,” he recounts.
Oguti was later transferred to Masaba Secondary School as head teacher, then an O-Level-only school, which he served for six and a half years.
His promotion to the position of head teacher did not change his values and personality. Today, he exudes the simplest of personalities. At Masaba Secondary School, he sat with his teachers over breakfast and lunch, strolled with them in the evening for a drink and in so doing, made them feel he only was a first among equals and not a master. “With a school, once you build team work among the teachers and get them moving along a shared vision, together with disciplined students, sit and wait for excellence,” he tips.
It is these values that he exported to Jinja College, then a school struggling to break out in all spheres of school life. He was transferred to the boys’-only school, based in Jinja District in 1983 and served for 12 years. And boy did he give it a Midas touch that independent sources assert, remains a challenge for his successors to uphold.
This though, does not mean Oguti did not encounter challenges in his work. “I faced a problem of tribalism and some undisciplined teachers inciting students and acting contrary to the agreed staff position.”
In 1997, almost in preparation for his retirement in 2000, he asked for a transfer to Lumino High School in Busia after which he served at the district’s service commission till 2011.
He now enjoys his retirement, reading broadly from his more than 400 book collection and watching his 13 children in varied professions, reap from his virtues, integrity, hard work and discipline.

Trying moments

As Uganda underwent a rather turbulent political transition in the late 1980s, his management skills came under test. An anonymous letter was sneaked into his office at Jinja College, warning, “CLOSE THE SCHOOL. WE ARE GOING TO ATTACK THE BARRACKS.” In panic mode, the devout Catholic dashed to the bishop who chaired the school’s board, to seek counsel. “What are you going to tell the world? What will government think of you closing a school because of an anonymous letter? Go back, I shall support and pray for you,” the bishop told him. He dropped the idea and returned to the school, shaken but at least, calmed. And yes, it was all, but a scare tactic.
Confronting soldiers
A few years later, soldiers at Gadaffi Barracks in Jinja degenerated into looters, using their uniform and arms to amass whatever wealth they set their eyes on. Again, Oguti’s tenure at Jico, Jinja College is fondly known, was shaken. One night, an unarmed soldier walked to the school premises at night and told him, “I know you are the headmaster of the school. Now, I want a television.” In panic, he requested for time to get his office keys so he could surrender the TV. But that was a trick. “Because of the insecurity, I had mobilised my teachers into a vigilante group. We had bought whistles and bells for everyone. In case of any attack on the school, we would blow the whistles and let the rest know,” he reminisces, taking a sigh. To alert his teachers, most of who stayed on the school premises, he knocked madly at one door, demanding for the key, thereby attracting their attention. All of a sudden, all the teachers came out of their houses and were blowing whistles wildly. The soldier got scared and ran away.
In 1996, a strike ensued, bringing the school to its knees and prompting a commission of inquiry into its cause, led by Fagil Mandy (then assistant commissioner in the ministry of Education).
The commission report pinned him for “running down the school” but he successfully appealed it, leading to a fresh investigation that cleared him of any wrong doing.

Some of his prominent students

Charles Onyango Obbo - Editor, Mail and Guardian Africa.
Wafula Ogutu - Leader of the Opposition in Parliament.
Frank Tumwebaze - Minister for the Presidency and Kampala.
Stephen Mugeni - Former MP, Busia North,
Moses Magogo - Fufa president.
Edward Ntare - Lecturer, Kyambogo University.
Martin Odwedo - Former Permanent Secretary, Office of the Prime Minister.

About Jinja College

Jinja College is a government-aided, boys’ boarding, ‘O’ and A-Level secondary school. It is located on Rubaga Hill, two kilometers north of Jinja Town.
The school was founded in 1946 as a junior school by the Mill Hill Missionary fathers. It became a government-aided school and upgraded to secondary status (S.1 to S.4) in 1965. In 1981, the school was upgraded again to A-Level status (S.1- S.6) offering Arts and Science subjects.
It is at this school Oguti served for the longest period.