In Part VI of Project Success, we track down Patrick Okuni, the best UCE student of 1985 from St. Joseph’s College, Ombaci in Arua. He tells his story to Benon Herbert Oluka
Towards the end of the two-and-half hour interview, Patrick Okuni reveals why he switched jobs from the Ministry of Water and Environment – where he had worked from 1992 when he graduated at Makerere University – to the United Nations Children’s Fund.
Speaking in a laid back manner, Mr Okuni recounts the reason he made the switch in 2005 with the same serenity that he handled other issues. But it was a revealing moment; one in which he subconsciously opened a window into his conscience.
“At that point,” he said, “I decided to leave because I felt I could not cope with the style of work of the government. The income I was able to make was insufficient; not that I am an expensive person but I am not good at making other money.
“In order to work successfully in government you have to find ways of making other money either within the government, which could be called corruption, or outside by doing other private work. I am not generally good at doing such; corruption is something I would not even think about and, again, doing other private work when you have a job you should be fully dedicated to is also not morally right,” he added.
At Unicef Mr Okuni, who has a masters’ degree in environmental engineering from the University of Newcastle in England, has found the peace of mind to do his work — and to help people from West Nile.
Mr Okuni says he helps support students programmes like the Makerere Arua Students Union, West Nile Foundation, and the St. Joseph College, Ombaci Old Boys’ Association, in addition to other development programmes.
“I think I have been successful,” he says. “Some people measure success in only financial terms. I look at it differently; in terms of how much you have helped the society around you. There, I have played my part.”
Mr Okuni says his passion for helping others stems from his own tribulations, and the help offered to him at different stages of his life by relatives and friends. By the time he beat the entire country at O-Level, with nine aggregates in eight subjects, Mr Okuni’s father had wound down his contract with the public service.
But Mr Okuni’s ingenuity had seen him and three other friends start a modest retail business to supply locals of Mvara village in Arua District with household times at a time when political instability had cut West Nile from the rest of Uganda.
“I started with the remainder of my little pocket money with a small stall at the roadside,” he said. “That shop grew and it assisted me a lot in meeting my requirements for A-Level because at that time my father was not working. My mother was a teacher in a primary school and she had very little income.”
Mr Okuni studied Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics for his A-Level at St. Joseph’s College, Ombaci — going against his own dreams and the wishes of his school administrators that he does Biology for which he had been the best.
“From childhood, I wanted to become a doctor,” he said. “But I realised that Biology students had to read hard and I was not so good at reading. So I decided to work to become an engineer. I think it was a good decision because up to now I don’t like reading; I love discussion, analysis and practical work.”
A combination of lack of teachers for some of his A-Level subjects and the fact that he had to juggle studies with raising his tuition fees meant he passed just well enough to get admitted to Makerere University for a degree course in engineering, after scoring A in Physics, C in Chemistry and D in Mathematics.
Since no bus company was plying the Arua-Kampala route regularly at the time, Mr Okuni made his first journey to Makerere University on the back of a tipper lorry – together with colleagues from other schools in Arua. They spent three nights on the road, sometimes sleeping on shop verandas.
“By the time I arrived in Mulago, where my cousin worked, I looked like a rebel,” he said. “But generally I liked the adventure.”
Against the odds
For most of his course, Mr Okuni says he rarely travelled back to Arua although the government offered students a travel allowance at the end of every term. Instead, he would stay with his cousin, send part of the money to help pay for his younger siblings’ tuition fees and spend the rest on clothes from St. Balikuddembe (then called Owino) Market.
With his school virtually unknown, Mr Okuni felt treated as an outsider by fellow students and a few lecturers but eventually won them over with good grades.
By the time he graduated with a second class upper degree in 1992, Mr Okuni had already secured a job with the Rural Water and Sanitation (RUWASA) project, which was sponsored by DANIDA to serve four million people in eastern Uganda. He rose through the ranks to become Deputy Project Coordinator from 1997 to 2001.
That year, Mr Okuni went for his masters, where he emerged the best student in a class of 26.
On his return in 2002, Mr Okuni helped wind up the RUWASA project and then returned to the ministry to work on other projects. In 2005, the father of three resigned from the water ministry.
At Unicef, which he joined in 2006, Mr Okuni is employed as a water, sanitation and hygiene specialist.
Best UCE students of 1985
1. Patrick A. Okuni -St. Joseph’s Ombaci
2. Fred Mpagi -King’s College Budo
3. William Worodria- St. Joseph’s Ombaci