A fool at 40 and when a leader pulls his son off the winners’ podium

Author: Gawaya Tegulle. PHOTO/NMG

What you need to know:

  • Daddy, a man of very few words, was feared by both teachers and pupils alike.

When a leader stays in power for very long, conflict of interest will inevitably and regularly arise, putting him in sticky situations. That is what bedevilled my dad – Davis Tegulle Gawaya – who for a whopping 22 years, was head teacher of the much-coveted Victoria Nile School, Jinja. 

Patterned after some ultra-conservative, aristocratic schools in England, it was meant for kids of the British colonial officers. In fact, it was originally called “European Government School” and admitted only Whites, until shortly before independence. It had its own culture and was peerless.

The first challenge came in March 1979, at the height of the Uganda-Tanzania war. Ms Ndawula, the tough-as-nails head teacher of the lower school, in clear distress, marched to daddy’s office in upper school and declared that two of her boys had become impossible: they were turning lower school upside down.

One of them, daddy learnt, was his son! The other, was Andrew Magona, a brilliant, ever-laughing, curly-haired fellow. Andrew’s father, Chrysostom, was a Mugisu, but the mom, Anne Beckett, was British. We were inseparable and nothing but trouble, leaving chaos and commotion in our wake. It was decided that one boy had to leave P3D and go to P3K.

Without hesitation, my father directed that his son be the one to leave. I packed my bags. The second test came later that year in the selection of prefects for lower school. The teachers arraigned their best five – Andrew Magona, Jomo Katabarwa, Judith Isabirye, Nina Kavuma and I – on the platform, at the assembly. 

We had scored equal marks, but only four prefects were needed. Daddy, who held the final veto, took a good look, rightly deducted one mark from me, on grounds that there was a blemish on my shirt - and knocked me out of the race.

But the biggest test came on sports day, 1981, when I represented my house – Masaba – in the 100 metres skipping race. Mr Julius Owino-Oloo, the house master, had chosen me, after an exceptional performance during practice; where I had proved able to come from behind, to win. 

I was set for the race, but lost my composure when daddy showed up at the starting point. I got nervous! I failed to skip properly and halfway the race, I lost it: I resorted to sprinting – without skipping my rope – to the finish line, coming first.

Mr Owino-Oloo was livid! Of course, everyone noticed my scam; but the race supervisor led me to the podium as the winner, with the second and third in tow. Daddy, a man of very few words, was feared by both teachers and pupils alike, for his no-nonsense approach to leadership; little wonder the supervisor didn’t have the guts to reprimand the boss’ kid.

The whole school held their breath as daddy calmly marched up to the podium and, without any ado, pulled me down, replaced me with the true winner and directed that the record be changed to pencil me down as having come last. I didn’t deserve to be on the podium, he said.

Daddy – who had just made 40 then, told me, years later: “If a man is not wise at 40, he will never be: a fool at 40 is a fool forever. Only a foolish leader can join others in applauding his son for getting what he clearly doesn’t deserve.

“No one would ever have respected me as a leader and nobody would ever have respected you as an athlete, because your fraud was clear. When people can’t protest openly, they will despise and ridicule you quietly.”

The story has a good ending, nonetheless. In 1982, (making sure I didn’t look at daddy) I masterminded Masaba’s win of the 100 x 4 relay, coming from a losing position, to overtake everyone, before handing the baton to Johnny Nabeta to put the icing on the cake at the finish line. 

So in my final year, 1983, when I was appointed house captain, Masaba, everyone felt I had earned it. I turned and looked in the direction of my father, but he pretended to be looking the other way.  This time though, he didn’t pluck me off the podium.

Mr Gawaya Tegulle is an advocate of the High Court of Uganda