By the stream there stands a school grandest of all others…, trumpets the anthem of Sir Samuel Baker Secondary school in the heartland of Acholiland.
If any school shares a unique founding, then Sam Baker, as its enthusiasts prefer to refer to it, then this school a few kilometers outside of Gulu town is it. It construction did not follow the tradition of the pre-colonial days of a faith (read church) founded school and unlike many, the local content surpasses all due to the fact that local chiefdoms made a direct cash contribution to its building. This give the school its unique identity, it was not a donation and it wasn’t an imposition and saw beyond religious shades, a major divider of colonial Uganda.
But like many in Uganda, the school enjoyed its hay days and suffered its share of the post-colonial turbulence though its products have endured to have their names engraved in the country’s history.
Some of these will return to Sir Samuel Baker next month for a re-union and because they have been few and far in between, this newspaper could easily establish what numerical position the July re-union will claim.
But what is undoubted is the mission and purpose of the re-union, the nostalgia of the schools glorious past and a reflection on what needs to be done to reclaim, rebuild and surpass that past and head into the future offering better promise.
Everything about Samuel Baker School is at once imperial. The imposing cast of huge mvule trees usher guests through a one-kilometer boulevard to the school. At the forecourt sits an oversized icon of explorer and anti-slave trade crusader Sir Samuel Baker, after whom the school was named.
Samuel Baker School exhibits a winning colonial experiment of productive collaboration with native administrations.
With aid from Uganda Protectorate under Governor Andrew Cohen, Sir Samuel Baker School was carved from the big hearts of native governments of Acholi, Karamoja, Lango, Madi and West Nile.
Each sacrificed British Pound sterling 5,000 to found the school as a Centre of excellence to give secondary school education to the greater northern Uganda. Governor Andrew Cohen commissioned the school in 1953.
Founded as non-denominational and cross-cultural, Sir Samuel Baker School soon came to exemplify Uganda’s true national character. The northern districts had sown their confidence in a crop of ‘young men of learning, integrity, and high endeavour’, who they hoped would repay their sacrifice and quicken the pace of progress of Uganda.
And soon, the school charmed sufficiently brilliant students from as far afield as Kigezi, West Nile, Karamoja, Teso, Busoga, and Buganda. And coming to Samuel Baker for the cream de la crème meant promise of a great future and becoming part of Uganda’s smart set.
Bonded to the school motto of “To learn to serve”, the stream of young Ugandans rose to the challenge of increasing the prosperity and speeding the progress of Uganda. Among the pioneer students to become distinguished educationists were former National Teachers College, Kyambogo Principal Michael Buruwa and former Education Commissioner Paul Ekwang. Later day entrants included former MPs and ministers Dr David Kazungu, Eng Simon D’Ujanga, Eng Akena p’Ojok, George Abola, Abednego Ongom and Ambassadors Dr Joram Ajeani and Harold Acemah.
Little wonder, that a roll call of Samuel Baker School alumni reads like a list of Uganda’s glitterati in all disciplines of life. From Supreme Court Justices Arthur Oder (RIP) and Obiga Kania, to distinguished Professors Chris Mudhoola, S. Odaet, D Owiny, Omwony Ojwok (RIP), Dent Ochaya Lakidi, JP Ocitti, and Ogenga-Latigo, to Permanent Secretaries George Okuttu, Dr Ben Otto, Opika-Opoka, John Mitala, Katambi Lujju, and Opiyo Lokone, to military top brass air force Brig Gad Wilson Toko, and former UPC iron lady Ms Cecelia Atim Ogwal, the school provides a roll call of the high society of post-independence Uganda.
Ms Ogwal provides the school’s historical anecdote. Being the only school with an A-Level exams Centre in Acholi then, girls from Sacred Heart School in Gulu, including Ms Ogwal, sat for their A-Level exams at Sam Baker.
Everything about the school remained lofty until the 1970s. Then set in the national political turbulence that was to extend its reach to the non-military and none political fields. The Idi Amin coup d’état of 1971 felled the school’s fortunes. It’s essentially British teachers fled without any immediate replacement, leaving few countable local teachers, including the first African to become headmaster, Michael Burua. But despite the sudden change Samuel Baker retained that nota bene (N.B.) for excellence.
The Latin phrase for ‘note well’ warned mediocre students at PLE and O-Level to steer clear of choosing big league school Samuel Baker and ranked it level with King’s College Budo and Ntare School.
Despite the Education Ministry’s best efforts to hold up the grand Samuel Baker, wholesome passing of examinations quickly thinned out. But as Old Boy and current headmaster Churchill Lacere Olanya muses: “Sam Baker School is one of the top schools – a great school undone by war – but rehabilitation today restores the school to its glory days and those of its peers King’s College Budo, Ntare School, Gayaza High School …We supplied students and teachers to each other. We hope to bring back that spirit.”
And that enduring spirit lives on among current crop of teachers and students.
When the gong will toll for that chorale …a school grandest of all others…, and the OBs assemble, that undying devotion to the anthem, to struggle for the future glory of school and country, will ring eternal. Sam Baker School will look to recapturing its former glory as the top school in the country.
Sitting on a sprawling 137 hectares of land, Sam Baker School dwarfs most schools, which squat on just a few decimals of plots of land.
It prided itself as the heart of academics, sports and other co-curricular activities in Northern Uganda. Every student mentored sporting talents here and from this golden generation emerged eminent athletes.
The school had dedicated sports fields for athletics, football, basketball, volleyball, badminton, ring ball, frisbee, and swimming.
Samuel Baker was the only school in northern Uganda with a swimming pool and every student a swimmer as the sport was compulsory.
Rugby, the school’s most popular sports, marked out Samuel Baker as the only school in northern Uganda to have supplied two players to the national rugby team. Sam Baker also had its fair contribution to Uganda’s footballing glory, providing six national football star-players to The Cranes in the 1960s.
Prominent among whom were Peter Okee, Okot p’Bitek, Bahemuka, Alex Ojera, and B. Odong.
But the story of 20 years’ war and decay in northern Uganda has rendered one of the huge sports field a fertile garden and the swimming pool a shrubs bed.
When veteran journalist Illakut Ben Bella will lead the OBs to the mess, their appetite will be ruined. Heaps of firewood will lie in sharp contrast to electric boilers in the glory days.
The OBs will run into a mass 1,300 students streaming with food to the seven dormitories unlike in their royal days where the grand Dining Hall seated every one of 650 academic princes to a sumptuous daily meal of fish or beef, bread and butter, fruits, and sugarcane.
School fact file
Named to fête British explorer Sir Samuel Baker, an adventurer and anti-slave trade crusader
- Baker and his adorable wife named Anya-dwe or Daughter of the Moon, pitched camp at Fort Patiko in Gulu in the 1860s and fought off Arabs slave traders in Turko-Egyptian Equatorial Province that included Northern Uganda.
- Built between 1948 and 1952
- Commissioned by Governor Andrew Cohen in 1953
- Opened gates to pioneer junior and secondary school students in 1953
- Pioneer students included late Education Commissioner Paul Ekwang and NTC Kyambogo Principal Michael Burua
1. The School Badge depicting the different cultural symbols of the various communities that contributed to the school founding project;
2- A statue of British explorer, Sir Samuel Baker after whom the school was named
3. A wooden plaque in honour of Samuel Baker.
4. Though the main Hall still looks immaculate, it can longer accommodate the number of students at the school.