Sponge vendor graduates after 7 years at university 

Gerald Malinga, graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Biomedical Laboratory Technology from Makerere University on January 31, 2024 .PHOTO/ FRANK BAGUMA

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  • “My hope is that my story inspires and encourages a young person out there who might be on the verge of giving up. I got admitted but lost out on the first year because I couldn't afford tuition. I hawked loofah sponges at home and on the streets of Kampala, which is how I got the name Sponge Man. I also sold books just to survive. Without God, I wouldn't have attained this degree,” Malinga narrates

Gerald Malinga, graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Biomedical Laboratory Technology from Makerere University on January 31, 2024 during the weeklong Makerere University 74th graduation ceremony.  
While many graduates sail through university without a hitch, Malinga's journey at Makerere University was a tale of persistence, determination, and an unwavering, blind faith in God. After joining university in 2016, Malinga, also known as Sponge Man, finally donned the much adored graduation gown.  
“My hope is that my story inspires and encourages a young person out there who might be on the verge of giving up. I got admitted but lost out on the first year because I couldn't afford tuition. I hawked loofah sponges at home and on the streets of Kampala, which is how I got the name Sponge Man. I also sold books just to survive. Without God, I wouldn't have attained this degree,” Malinga narrates.

Born on 12 December 1983, in Katakwi District to a single mother, Malinga struggled financially from the start. His mother did her best to ensure Malinga and his younger siblings went to school. He attended Pioneer Primary School, Teso College Aloet for O’ level before joining Ntinda View College for A-Level in 2004 where he did sciences. Malinga aspired to become a doctor and hoped to secure a government scholarship after passing his A’ levels. 

A benevolent relative offered to pay his high school tuition but unfortunately, Malinga did not get the cut off points for government sponsorship for university.
“My uncle who had paid my fees in A-Level couldn't afford to pay for my university tuition on private. So, my mother convinced me to repeat A-level in 2006, and she offered to pay the school fees even though she was not doing well financially,” Malinga recalls.

However, even after his second attempt, he still did not make it.  
 “I was frustrated, to say the least. My heart sank when I saw that message from UNEB. My mother's hard-earned money had gone to waste. I was also embarrassed and did not know what to do next,” Malinga narrates.
Malinga sat home dumbfounded for months as he contemplated his next move. 

His dream of becoming a doctor seemed to slip further away from his poverty-stinking body. He and his mother had invested in a piece of land with her retirement package; grwoing cassava and a few other cash crops for sale. Despite the challenges, Malinga kept himself occupied with farm activities as he continued contemplating on the next course of action.
“Life was very hard. We ate cassava in all forms and all times—breakfast, lunch and dinner. Did you know you can eat raw cassava as a snack,” he recollects, laughing.

Malinga’s mother also desired better opportunities for her son. Through consultations with friends, she learned about the option of a certificate in clinical laboratory work. Initially hesitant, Malinga eventually embraced the idea.
“I did not seem to have a concrete plan on how I was going to get to university. I still believed going to university was the only path to success, so I was not open to other options but time was not my best ally,” he says.

One morning, Malinga’s mother took him to see a friend of hers who worked as a nurse. It was then that Malinga discovered his mother was suffering from a chronic illness.
“I did not know, so the news came as a shock to me. The nurse then told me that I was now an adult, and the responsibility lay on my shoulders to look after my mother, pointing to the fact that anything could happen to her. That is when I woke up to my senses and said I will take up any opportunity,” he narrates.

Malinga picked up admission forms for a clinical laboratory course, a few weeks later and was soon admitted for the two-year certificate at St. Elizabeth in Mukono.   
“My mother spent her last penny on that certificate. When I completed the certificate, I went back to Katakwi and was fortunate to be employed in a lab by a superintendent who owned a clinic,”he said.
Over time, Malinga saved up some money, bought a microscope, and set up a small clinic of his own with a nurse. He would juggle between both clinics, but he was not earning much. Due to pressure to survive, Malinga also started laying bricks given that he was pit against the need to meet the family needs as the sole breadwinner.

Gerald Malinga vending bathing sponges. He graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Biomedical Laboratory Technology from Makerere University on January 31, 2024 

“With the clinic, you only make money when people are sick, and if they are not sick, then there is no money,” he says.
While sitting at his clinic one day in 2011, Malinga got the idea for his first entrepreneurial venture.
“I heard people complain about overgrown loofah sponges, and a lightbulb lit up in my mind. I thought to myself, why don’t I add value to them and sell them! I had seen them in shops. I had better business ideas running through my mind but they required a lot of capital. The sponges were plenty in my locality; they were in people’s empty plots and unfinished houses and the villagers did not know their value ,” he adds.      
Malinga bought a simple sewing machine and hired someone to do the sewing. He learned how to sew as well.

“We would then cut the loofahs accordingly and attach a cloth onto one side. Then I would supply to shops. I still remember how much I earned after my first sale; it was 90,000 for 10 dozens,” he reminisces. 
On the other hand, Malinga’s mother was not happy with his new business venture given that she had invested “a lot” in his edication.
“She was disgusted, to say the least, and to make it worse, villagers were talking. They called me a madman. ‘How can a medical man start picking sponges?’ That is how I got the nickname Sponge Man.”
He says at its peak, he would make about Shs1 million in three months. Because the sponges were seasonal, Malinga would be out of business in the dry season.    
The business ran concurrently with the clinic from 2010 to around 2013, but Malinga was not content. His dream to further his studies had taken a position in his mind like a dusty book on a shelf.
“I felt I was destined for better, and that place clearly had no relevance to my destiny. There were no like-minded people, I was not going to develop,” he shares.
Malinga adds, that he was also too exposed to be comfortable, having gone to good schools and rubbed shoulders with students from well-to-do families. Some of his classmates from high school had gone abroad, and they had kept in touch. Others from St Elizabeth had gotten employment in government hospitals.  

In the search to figure out what to do next, the idea to author his first book, came to life, in November 2013. That month, Malinga, visited a friend, who narrated to him a funny story, about a dead body which had roared, in a neighboring village.   
“Right then, I thought this will be my first book, and the title came to me right there. ‘The Dead Man Roars,” he narrates.     
Malinga wrote down his story and devised all means possible, to have it edited and published by Fountain Publishers.  
“I used the small profits I earned from selling bathing sponges to publish my first copy,” he adds.  

 “Make a dummy first, then you will get support. You cannot say I am writing a book, and you ask people for funding, with nothing to show. That is how I have managed.”
The profits earned were injected back into the business to print more copies. Malinga has so far authored other storybooks, including a play. At the time, his bathing sponge business was still running. Malinga’s mother eventually came around and warmed up to the bathing sponge business. She sewed and sold them as well.

Along the way, Malinga got an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) from the National Library of Uganda. His social capital started to grow and the need to further his studies became even more urgent.                   
“People encouraged me to go to university. Whenever I sought employment opportunities, they told me I was an intelligent man with a great mind but because I did not have a degree, there was no way they could help me,” he said.

In 2016, Malinga decided to apply for a degree in clinical laboratory at Makerere. He did the mature entry exams and passed.
“Someone had promised to get me a State House scholarship, so they encouraged me to apply first. Unfortunately, their promise did not materialize. I reached out to them but in vain. So, there I was, admitted but with no tuition. I decided to get a job at a clinic, but the pay was very little. I was now staying at my auntie's place in Kampala,” he said.
According to Malinga, each semester cost Shs1,400, 000 minus other expenses. Malinga decided he would attend the classes regardless. He would vend books and sponges to get money for upkeep and transport. He recalls trekking from Kitintale to Makerere most of the time because he was broke.

“In the first semester, I attended all the lectures but could not take exams because I had not paid. It was very depressing. Colleagues would see me class jolly but they did not know what I was going through. I remember standing up in class and asking my classmates to support me with whatever amount they could. However, the money was still not enough,”   Malinga narrates.

Gerald Malinga, graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Biomedical Laboratory Technology from Makerere University on January 31, 2024 

During that semester, the university was closed indefinitely because of a strike. Malinga had hoped that when they reopened, he would have gotten tuition but he did not. The second semester commenced, and Malinga continued attending classes while desperately looking for a solution.              
“You know, in the journey of faith, you are not supposed to give up; that is what faith teaches us. If you want God to act, you continue, so that God sees that you are doing that walk of faith. My classmates were surprised to see me return. I also did not want to miss out on what was being taught,” he narrates while laughing.

That semester Malinga also decided to do a 40-day fast, and his prayer point was school fees. At this point, he knew that that academic year had been lost and hoped to start afresh in 2017.
“I would go to the streets, people's offices and schools to sell my books and attend classes as well while in communion with God, believing that he will make a way.”

Around that time, Malinga received a phone call from a Pentecostal Deacon called Papa Mikloth Ojaki, a retired examiner at Allied Health, who would play a key role in Malinga’s journey. Mr Ojaki happened to be an author who wanted to publish his books as E-books to sell them on Amazon. He went to the National Library of Uganda to consult and he was referred to Malinga.   
“I was well-versed with what he wanted. I agreed to meet up with him; I assisted him and he paid me. We eventually got acquainted. I told him about my university struggle and asked him to refer me to other business opportunities whenever possible,” he explains.

A week before the new academic year commenced in 2017, Mr Ojaki phoned Malinga asking to see him. When they met Mr Ojaki asked if he had paid his tuition, and Malinga responded in the negative.

“It was such an emotional moment for me. To this day, I still remember the exact words he told me. He said, 'Young man, you are an intelligent man and resourceful. I cannot help you and leave you to get wasted; I will carry the guilt for the rest of my life. I will stand by you until you finish your degree.' I could not believe my ears,” Malinga said.
That semester, a primary school made an order for The dead man roaring worth Shs1.4 million. His mother continued to send him bathing sponges to supply in shops.  
In 2021 general election, Malinga gave a shot at Ngariam County MP seat (Katakwi District) but lost to Mr Peter Ogwang who’s also the current Minister of State for Education & Sports (Sports).
“Covid-19 brought a lot of uncertainty. However, we were called back to do exams, towards the end of 2020, but I did not to go because I was busy with campaigns. Running for MP 2021 is something I had planned, even before I joined University, and this is also one of the reasons I wanted to get my degree. I did not want to get into politics without qualifications,”he said.
When he lost the election, he went back to the drawing board to figure out how he would fund the semesters left. 

“I could go back to ask Mr Ojaki; it just was not right. He had done enough for me. Although I had sought his blessing before going ahead to vie for that post.”
Malinga went back to Kampala, found employment in another clinic.
“I sought God's guidance again; I asked him not to penalize me for the decision I had taken to run as an MP so that we could finish what we had started.”

Malinga used some of the money to pay for the remaining semesters. As we speak now, he will be graduating today, after a couple of twists and turns.
At the age of 40, Malinga was among 12,913 students who graduated during Makerere University's weeklong 74th graduation ceremony that started on January 29, 2024.