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How rubbish dump came to play host to top school

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The entrance to Green Hill Academy in Kampala. PHOTO/STEPHEN OTAGE

In the 1980s through to the 1990s, the Kibuli hill land on which Green Hill Academy squats was a garbage dump that once upon a time was a cemetery in suburban Kampala.

It was in 1993 that James Serufusa met two sisters Gladys Wambuzi and Janet Mdoe (both deceased). At the time, they were teachers at Kampala Parents School. 

“Would the sisters be interested in joining forces to start a school that would more than rival Kampala Parents School?” Mr Serufusa asked.  

While their eyes lit up almost in tandem, they were a bit apprehensive since they didn’t have land within the capital to establish the school. Mr Serufusa had land, but it was on a squalid and overcrowded urban street. 

Upon surveying the land, the sisters were impressed. It’s worth mentioning that this took place in Wabigalo during the 1990s. At that time, Wabigalo was not yet a designated residential area, as the present-day 8th Street in Industrial Area only extended as far as the location of the Total Head Office. The roads leading to the current Monitor Publications Head Offices and Kibuli Hill did not exist at that time.

Early groundwork
When they settled for the idea of setting up the school, the most logical thing for them to do was to establish 8th Street and the Kibuli Hill Road. It would enable access to the land.

That’s how Rhoda Kalema Nsibirwa, a sister of Janet and Gladys, entered the fray. She had good people skills, and they would come in handy. Her role was to help with the physical planning, engaging, even coaxing, the Muslim-dominated community to accept the project. 

Serufusa, a founder member of Green Hill Academy, says they initially used the rubbish dump as the kitchen. The biggest challenge they faced at the time was convincing then Kampala City Council (KCC) to relocate the graveyard and dump fill from Kibuli.

Luckily, KCC accepted their request. Garbage from Kibuli would be relocated to Wakaliga. It was in September of 1993 that what Mr Serufusa calls “the real work” started. It initially involved ferrying of more than 80 trucks of garbage. They then constructed five unipots that acted as offices and classrooms in preparation for the opening of the school in February 1994.

When Gladys and Janet left Kampala Parents School, they took with them some of their pupils. They also successfully courted Ms Emma Negesa Lugujjo, the erstwhile deputy headmistress of Makerere College School. Her affirmative response in essence green-lit the starts of the Senior One section.

Laughing no more
The school started off with 45 learners. That number meant that building toilets was important. They approached an expatriate manager of Barclays Bank for a Shs20m loan. The manager, thought it was a joke. “All that money to build a toilet,” he chuckled. When the chuckle died out and he was met with straight faces, the Barclays Bank manager asked to be taken to the site where the toilets would be erected.

It was a Saturday when the bank manager went to inspect a project that was intended to address the school’s hygiene. It was a blue sky day, and, much like the weather, the bank manager warmed up to the plan. “Could the team collect the money on Monday,” he inquired. Mr Serufusa disclosed that “every shilling of this loan was put on the project.”

After checking the toilets box, next up were the dormitories. If the toilets didn’t come on the cheap, the dormitories would cost an arm and a leg. 

The team members thought the East African Development Bank (EADB) would be able to help. They reached out with a proposal for a Shs700m loan. Like the white bank manager, EADB laughed off the request. ‘‘What would a development bank be doing propping up a small school project?” one official asked. Yet, after poring over the details of the proposal, the same official reached out a week later. Surprisingly, EADB expressed interest in having a seat on the Green Hill Academy board as an additional incentive for finalising the loan agreement.

The Green Hill Academy team later discovered that EADB’s sudden interest in the project stemmed from its desire to replicate it, particularly in financing the construction of private schools across the region. 

Muslims join 
Mr Serufusa says the school’s Christian roots initially made it difficult to settle into the predominantly Muslim community of Kibuli. Relations thawed when Muslim students started joining the school.

“We are a Christian-founded school and we start the day with prayers. We insist that every student begins the day with prayers. The Muslim parents were diehards, but when they started seeing the outcomes from their children, they started insisting that their children attend the prayers,” he says, adding that the support they received from residents of Kibuli over the three decades was instrumental in enabling the expansion to Buwate.

When asked about other factors contributing to their breakthrough, Mr Serufusa credits parents who believed in their vision. Reflecting on their humble beginnings, he remarks that the journey felt miraculous. Initially, when the school started, all the basic structures were based on families which made it easier for them to work together.  
“If we invited other people to join us, we invited them as families. Our rector is in the second generation, the CEO is also in the second generation. Time will come when I will also step back knowing that all is well,” he says.

Expansion plans
Ms Joy Veronica Maraka, the rector of Greenhill Schools, says the school has empowered more than 20,000 students from various East African countries. 

She recalls 2009, when the school had many students on the waiting list in the nursery section and the primary school was already full to capacity. The board, she further reveals, assigned the school management team with the responsibility of crafting a business plan for a new school to address the escalating demand.

Together with the finance director, she hit the road in the pursuit of suitable land for the next campus. They explored options on Mityana, Entebbe, Masaka and Bombo roads before settling for Buwate in Kira Municipality.

Green Hill Academy campus in 1994.  PHOTO/COURTESY

Ms Emma Lugujjo, the founding headmistress of the secondary school section, recalls that Wambuzi and Mdoe were her teachers at Budo Junior School. When they came up with the idea of the school, as previously stated, she was the deputy headmistress of Makerere College School. They held several meetings, brainstorming on the name of the school, type of uniform, and the kind of school they wanted.

“I did a lot of running between the school and the Ministry of Education. They asked me how much acreage we had. Luckily, we had reasonable land that the ministry accepted,” she says.

Ms Lugujjo adds: “Mukwano had land here and when we said we are setting up a school, he surrendered it. Shell owned the land where the school parking [lot] is. We bought that land. We got all the requirements the ministry wanted.”

Progressive growth
Ms Lugujjo recounts that upon receiving the school registration, they commenced teaching using unipots.

Drawing from her experience as a deputy headmistress at Kololo Secondary School and Makerere College School, they seamlessly began with Senior One, initially with only six students, and Senior Five. As they embarked on teaching, the school experienced steady growth. By the time she left 14 years later, the secondary school boasted of more than 600 students..

Prof Eriabu Lugujjo, her husband, recalls while teaching at Makerere University, and helping students with coaching, the late Ms Wambuzi (Gladys lost her battle to cancer in 2005) knew him as a teacher.  In October 1993, she approached him expressing her desire to establish a school. She informed him that the school was scheduled to open in February 1994, and true to her word, it did.

“This was a dumping ground for KCCA. They had to make some excavations. I thought to myself that you cannot start a school without children. I decided to take my children to Green Hill as well and we started the school,” he says.

Prof Lugujjo attributes the school’s growth primarily to its core values of integrity. He emphasises that Green Hill has consistently urged its teachers not only to teach but also enrich their work by imparting life skills to pupils and students.
“The teachers have to train students to become role models. You don’t tell lies, you don’t cheat. The alumni are in big places and we always tell them not to embarrass us. Green Hill is now strong in areas of Science Technology and Mathematics,” he tells Sunday Monitor.

The school urges its teachers to take keen interest in government programmes such as the national development plans. 

Upon completing Senior Six, students at Green Hill Academy are equipped with an understanding of national needs. The school also implements programmes focused on environmental stewardship, utilising and preserving natural resources. Wherever its students go, they are encouraged to plant trees.

Prof Lugujjo advises other schools to prioritise instilling integrity in students. He believes that combating corruption is essential for national development, as a country cannot progress if its limited resources are squandered.