Fr Odomaro Mutungirehe, fondly referred to as Fr Odo succumbed to cancer of the intestines on April 25. For us Old Boys of St Paul’s Seminary, Kabale, especially his classmates (cohort 1979-1982), memories of him will remain indelible.
Odo was a chubby and lively boy, almost unserious with the things that most of us thought mattered in life when he joined St Paul’s on January 1979. His family had migrated from Rubira, Kabale District to Rukungiri District. His parents named him Odomaro after an uncle, one of Kigezi’s greatest musicians, who has just retired as the District Education Officer of Ntungamo District.
The actor and naughty
Unlike most of us whose voices were beginning to deepen, with that annoying occasional uncontrollable slip back to alto that gives young boys vocal discord, his voice remained consistently high and feminine to adulthood. We thus nicknamed him Femina Latin for Woman.
He used to volunteer to play the part of a woman in every classical literature play such as Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Robert Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons, and Wole Soyinka’s Kongi’s Harvest. We were Latin beginners and gave a Latin name to everything. Odo joked about his nickname that we soon realised it had no effect on his happiness, we dropped it.
By 1982, before we completed O-Level, St Paul’s did not have A-Level. A year earlier a rule had been passed that everybody intending to join priesthood would first sit A-Level in an ordinary secondary school before joining Katigondo Major Seminary. Odo obsessed with Makobore High School in Rukungiri because he was familiar with it. The students had informally renamed their school “Obore” in Obote II regime. Odo walked around our compound chanting “Obore!” thus his new nickname.
Odo was hardworking, loved sciences and, the administration saw it fit to give him an assignment to clean the Chemistry laboratory. When everybody else picked hoes, brooms and slashers to maintain the lawns, Odo and a few others wore gloves to clean laboratory equipment. We referred to these as “special jobs” which were allocated for a year depending on the student’s performance on the “job”. The school had only 130 students and the teachers knew every student. Our rector, Fr Pius Tibanyendera, even knew our parents. Therefore, “special jobs” depended on student character and abilities.
Influenced by Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to use Igbo terms, students who did not have “special jobs” were called Efulefu. When students reached Senior Four and relinquished all special jobs to concentrate on preparations for exams, they became Egwugwu but Odo remained in his “special job”. He lit and distributed pressure lamps to different places– classrooms during night prep, the refectory, chapel, nuns’ convent and the priests’ dining room. Occasionally, he would be invited to a cup of tea.
The super bugler
Odo effortlessly blew the bugle and he was the first in our Senior One class to join the famous school brass band. This was a big feat because the band was reserved for “members” only (Senior Two to Senior Four). It was an official permission to leave the school frequently because the band was invited to perform at many church and political functions in Kigezi. There was stiff competition in playing the different musical instruments in order to qualify. Odo beat the buglers hands down.
Generous and loyal
Being a small community of adolescents, we used to exchange cloth items and rugabire ( tyre sandals). This was mostly on the last Sunday of the month when the school authorities permitted John Murangi, a photographer from Kabale Town, to photograph us. Odo’s generosity made him friends but also brought him problems. Towards the end of Senior Four, he lent his yellow jumper to a classmate who had a plan to sneak out at night, which Odo did not know about.
The priests spotted the boy. Being night, they only recognised Odo’s familiar jumper but not the wearer. They concluded it was Odo and resolved not to admit him to the pioneer A-Level class the following year. One priest told Odo about it. Although Odo reported that it was mistaken identity at the time, he refused to disclose the borrower. This emboldened the administration further to not readmit him. He only revealed to us the story and the name of the classmate when he celebrated 25 years of priesthood in 2018.
Odo did not make it to “Obore” but ended up in Ibanda SS due to family circumstances. After his A-Level in 1985, he taught at Bishop Comboni College, Kanungu District. There, some of us rejoined with him and we had a good time under the supervision of Principal Fr Paolino Tomaino. Odo picked the missionary vocation at that time and joined the Comboni Missionaries (then called Verona Fathers), to which Fr Paolino belonged. He joined and completed his Philosophicum but his father Mzee Zebiikiire died.
Odo dropped out of Major Seminary and got a job to teach at St Joseph’s Vocational School and part-timed at Maryhill High School in Mbarara. There, he reconnected with the DMJ nuns who had taught him at St Paul’s. The nuns informed diocesan authorities about him. One Sunday afternoon, he unbuttoned his shirt, lay on his bed and he dozed off, only to be woken up by the sound of footsteps. There, Bishop Paul K. Bakyenga of Mbarara stood in his room carrying the saucepan of partially-burnt rice. Odo chatted over the plain meal and he expressed his desire to rejoin the seminary.
Bishop Bakyenga offered to inform Bishop John Baptist Kakubi (RIP), about his request. Eventually, he joined St Mary’s National Major Seminary, Ggaba for Theology and was later ordained a priest of Mbarara Diocese.
He was attached to Uganda Martyrs Parish in Mbarara town and adopted by a family in Kakoba Division. He advanced his education including a Master’s in Education Management from Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi. He served in several parishes, started or headed several schools in the diocese, especially in the Ibanda. But, his health started to fail.
While serving as a priest, Fr Odo developed a skin condition that left him with open wounds which healed slowly. He visited the Vatican for healing. The Pope (now St John Paul II) spontaneously stopped and told his security to call the young black priest to him. He whispered to Odo: “Go and tell Padre Pio of Pietrelcina about your health problems.”
Fr Odo spent a couple of days praying by the body of (now) St Padre Pio. Weeks later, his skin disease had cured and he returned home. At this point he dedicated himself to serve God more and wore his clerical attire permanently. In July 2018, he celebrated 25 years of his priesthood at Uganda Martyrs Parish, Mbarara. In his speech, he said that he felt privileged to touch the body of Jesus in the Eucharist and feed him to other Christians.
Failing health and farewell
Late 2019, Fr Odo was diagnosed with cancer of the intestines. He asked his friends and OBs to pray for him and was referred to India for treatment. There, he found Margaret Kediisi, a neighbour from Kazindiro who hosted him for three months while he received his treatment. Paul Korinako, his uncle, and his wife, gave us daily updates on his health. Fr Odo returned in high spirits.
On January 19, at his invitation, his classmates from St Paul’s met him at Chakig, a resort he co-founded in Mukono. He said Holy Mass and told us to always pray for him and to love each other just as we had loved him. He was happy to meet our class because he knew that if anything went wrong and he died, we would be the ones to bury him. It was the last we saw him after photographs and blessing.
The cancer relapsed with a vengeance. He was supposed to have gone back to India but couldn’t travel because of the global lockdown due to COVID-19. He became bedridden but kept it to himself. During Holy Week, he rejected palliative care medicine and said he wanted to suffer with Jesus.
Eventually, he was transferred to Nsambya Hospital by ambulance from Bishop Ogez SS in Bushenyi, where he had been deputy head teacher. He passed away on April 25, 2020, at 11 pm. He was laid to rest at Nyamitanga Cathedral Cemetery in Mbarara on April 27, 2020. Unfortunately, most of us were not able to attend his burial due to the COVID-19 lockdown.