Kalungi: Monitor child living the American dream

Kalungi with his wife Florence and their children Hannah and Nathaniel. PHOTOS | COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • Determined. Ronald Kalungi, a needy boy who got a bursary from The Monitor  to attain an education,  is now a tax attorney in the US, writes Abdul-Nasser Ssemugabi.

About 27 years ago, Ronald Kalungi, a teenage boy walked into The Monitor premises, then at Dewinton Road, Kampala, seeking help.

His single mother, whose husband had died in the NRA bush war, had done her best but could no longer afford her child’s education. The brilliant boy was on the brink of dropping out of school. The Monitor was three years old, trying to find its feet in media business, but it took in the boy.

Today, both smile with content. As Monitor celebrates its 30th birthday, with several milestones, Kalungi, the once needy boy, is a thriving tax lawyer, husband and father of two, living his American dream.

Kalungi, based in Maryland, USA, is an international tax director at Armanino LLP,  ranked 19th among America’s accounting firms, with clients in more than 100 countries. 

As a tax attorney, Kalungi, licensed to work in New York, Washington DC and Uganda, advises multinational companies and high net worth individuals, on tax matters and investment strategies that help them minimise the cost of taxes in doing business.

“I help them ensure that they don’t pay more taxes than they should under the law and I advise them on tax compliance issues.”

The Monitor comes in

Kalungi was born in Luweero. His father Josephat Kasujja, was one of the 500,000  that perished in the insurgence that raged between 1981 and 1986. The third-born of eight was too young to know the details of his father’s death. But, he knows the suffering it brought to his mother Kamiyat Nakandi.

“My mother was widowed at a very early age and struggled to pay my school fees,” he says. And to make the proverbial ends meet, she sold cheap consumer goods at the Old Taxi Park in Kampala. From the now-defunct Nabagereka Primary School, Kalungi was admitted to Old Kampala SS, one of the most affordable public schools, but still, his mother could not afford the dues, and sent him to Kampala Secondary School.

Kalungi with a friend upon graduating from Makerere University. 

In 1995, as Kalungi prepared for Senior Two, the fees burden  weighed down a single mother of eight.

“I nearly dropped out of school but God intervened in a miraculous way.”

As the future got bleaker Kalungi approached The Monitor, expressed his need to continue studies and through the paper, begged well-wishers to bail him out.

“I could not imagine dropping out and I had faith that God would use The Monitor to get me a sponsor.”

His faith was inspired by the story of Dan Ssemuju, a boy who was in equally dire straits but got sponsors through The Monitor.

Soon, offers came in droves. 

“And with the help of Uncle Wafula Oguttu [one of  The Monitor  founders] we agreed that the Tanzanian High Commission would be a better sponsor than an individual.”

Uncle Waf, as he fondly calls Oguttu, chose St Peter’s Nsambya SS, a day school then headed by his friend Rafael Bwire. The school was also a walkable distance from Kalungi’s home in Nsambya-Kevina, a Kampala suburb.

Meanwhile, The Monitor catered for his pocket money and scholastic needs. Safe from being sent home for tuition arrears, “It was a huge relief and my performance got better.”

And every term’s end at St Henry’s College Kitovu in Masaka, where Kalungi did his A-Level, he always looked forward to that envelope that had his transport fare from David Mukwaya, who coordinated the project that would later become The Monitor Bus,  funding needy children through education.

“As back-to-school time came, I would be busy: taking the children for shopping, getting uniforms, to fit in the shoes,” Mukwaya recalls, adding that while some failed to keep time, Kalungi was always punctual.

First job

Kalungi was one of the best UACE students in 1999, earning a government sponsorship to pursue Law at Makerere University.  But that never ended his affair with The Monitor. 

“The Monitor gave me my first job, as a front desk assistant,” Kalungi recalls.

Mostly on night shifts, he received and sorted mails; answered and transferred calls to different offices and ensured that every staff clocking-into the biometric machine to record their time of arrival and departure. “It was a tough shift.”

Mukwaya says not even once did anyone complain about Kalungi’s services. “You could think he was an expert.”

He also worked as a newspaper inserter, which enabled him to raise pocket money until the course became more demanding. Thanks to his performance, lecturers gave him research assignments during his holidays in third and fourth year, for a fee.   “Kalungi was humble and focused,” Mukwaya says, with a smile.

Tax lawyer in making

Kalungi says Law was not his childhood dream, per se but it was a passion he slowly grew into liking it, since Senior Three when he chose Literature over Physics and Chemistry.

In his A-Level, he was assured he would pursue Law. His experience with The Monitor  made him appreciate journalism “in a much deeper way” and made Mass Communication his second choice. But when he got sponsorship for Law, his first choice, he did not think otherwise.

At Makerere University School of Law, Kalungi read a variety of courses until the fourth year. Most of his colleagues chose to specialise in human rights and constitutional law, but he chose commercial law including revenue law and taxation.

He says he found tax law attractive because of its dynamism. “It is a practice that keeps changing. So as a practitioner you’re always challenged to think harder and keep up with current dynamics.”

For instance, he mentions the global trend requiring more transparency and ensuring that there are no jurisdictions where taxpayers can hide income from tax authorities and get away with it. “15 years ago it was a concern but there wasn’t much concerted effort against it,” Kalungi notes.

He also liked tax law because it is complex and deals with many variables in human nature and conduct.

“Because we are all taxpayers the moment we are conceived,” he says.

What he does

But while taxes are almost as certain as death, we all hate them, no wonder there are always disputes between the taxman and the potential taxpayer.

Kalungi says in Uganda, for instance, the mismatches can be out of ignorance about one’s tax obligations and rights due to inadequate tax education, while in the US it could be out of apathy, “that Uncle Sam is always right,” which is to the detriment of the taxpayer. Sometimes, the taxpayer can feel the tax assessment is unfair but he or she lacks the means to challenge the system.

Kalungi’s services come in handy. He says after educating the client about their tax rights and duties they suggest arbitration and mediation, as the first options to settle tax disputes.

“Litigation should be the last resort, because it’s very expensive and in most cases the outcome is uncertain,” Kalungi says.

Pursuing American dream

In October 2004, Kalungi graduated with a first-class honours in Law, and was among the best in the faculty’s history in terms of CGPA. He applied to Harvard Law School for his Masters in taxation law. The competition was stiff and he also applied to the McGill University in Canada and the London School of Economics.

His friend Frank Mugabi, now a tax partner at DLA Piper, in New York, had gone through the Harvard programme and highly recommended it. Luckily, Kalungi’s three applications succeeded and moreover, the Harvard admission came first.

Just when the future looked more promising, Kalungi’s mother died in February 2005, nearly a month before his admission to Harvard.

In addition to Harvard’s “generous grant,” part of which was a student loan from Citibank, Kalungi got a $10,000 merit scholarship from Coca Cola Uganda, an arrangement brokered by Patrick Mugenyi who worked with the company then.

Just as Kalungi completed his Masters in 2006, Mugabi was leaving PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) LLP for DLA Piper, a multinational law firm in more than 40 countries across the globe.

“He interested me in the vacancy and I gladly took it.” Just like that Kalungi’s first employer in tax law was PwC, widely considered the world’s most prestigious and progressive accounting firm. For nearly nine years he worked mostly with the New York and London offices.

“I cannot say it is always easy for foreign-trained lawyers to land such good jobs in the US, because the job market here is competitive and open to the best and brightest across the world. But networking both professionally and socially helps in connecting new professionals to good jobs.”

Kalungi is grateful for the opportunity to practice tax law in the US, the world’s greatest economy, with the best environment for specialists in taxation [law] like him. “By the time I graduated at Makerere, tax law in Uganda was in its infancy,” he recalls. “Most lawyers were jacks of all trades…and very few specialised in taxation.”

Mentored by  The Monitor

Kalungi equally credits The Monitor for shaping his career growth. “Monitor was one of those rare workplaces with a pool of highly talented, brilliant and ambitious young people.”

He mentions Julius Mucunguzi, Kyazze Ssemwogerere, Timothy Kalyegira, David Kibirige [RIP], Aggie Kwesiga Owomugisha and obviously Mukwaya, who inspired him to work hard, aim higher and not getting distracted by the freedom at the university.

This exposure also gave a boost to his  reading appetite.  “I would read The Monitor cover-to-cover which made me more informed—a must for any good lawyer.”

“I enjoyed those legal battles that resulted in landmark rulings on cases such as the Referendum and Other Provisions Act.”

He enjoyed the submissions by renowned lawyers such as Joseph Balikuddembe, which The Monitor published verbatim.”

 He says, being informed is a trait that keeps him afloat in tax trade.

 “I am naturally a hard worker but the kind of work ethic I found at The Monitor—from the founders to the entire staff—shaped my attitude towards work.”

Kalungi remembers the endless cold nights alone in law school library reading. “Whenever I felt the temptation to rest I thought ‘But Uncle Waf, Onyango Obbo and others, could also be working now.”

That is how he managed to succeed at Harvard, in a student-centred mode of instruction where a lecturer assigns readings for a particular topic, ahead of time for students to prepare to exchange ideas, as the lecturer plays a moderator role.

Meanwhile, Kalungi admits he would not have afforded his Bar Course at the Law Development Centre (LDC) without the assistance of Moses Adriko and Phillip Karugaba, then partners at Adriko & Karugaba Advocates, where he did his clerkship after his Bachelors.

“By then the government only sponsored 60 students from Makerere and paid only a certain percentage of the tuition. So, Mr Karugaba and Mr Adriko paid the supplementary funding that took me through the course,” Kalungi relates.