PROJECT SUCCESS: The quest for academic excellence brought them together
In Part IV of Project Success, we trace former top students, Gladys Tumusiimirwa and Jonathan Tugume, two of the top UACE science students of 1998, who later wed and they tell their stories to Benon Herbert Oluka
Gladys Tumusiimirwa was feeding her two sons their supper when I arrived at their home in the city outpost of Najjera.
We had postponed the interview twice. But as she joked and laughed with her boys, my presence seemed like an intrusion on limited family quality time.
It was nearly 9pm and, at one point, I suggested that we again defer it. She turned down the suggestion.
The former Gayaza High School student scored three As in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics in the first set of Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education (UACE) examinations conducted in early 1998 – a performance she says shocked as much as exhilarated her.
“I can’t say I expected to be one of the best students but I felt my efforts had been rewarded; those nights of discussions and reading,” she said, adding that it also vindicated her headmistress whose unwavering faith in a seemingly limited student ultimately paid off.
Ms Tumusiimirwa had not even scored enough points, at O-Level in Mbarara’s Mary Hill High School, to secure her dream subject combination at Gayaza.
“I wanted to do sciences. I pleaded with the headmistress and she allowed me to do sciences. It was out of the normal to do a combination for which you had not got distinctions only. She said try it and if you do not perform well, you can revert to arts,” she explained.
She persisted, even having the temerity to apply for pharmacy and engineering – two of Makerere’s most coveted courses – despite getting three Cs in the mock exams.
Ms Tumusiimirwa says the transition to the medical school was no smooth sailing either. Unlike her, most of her course mates had studied biology, a key subject in pharmacy, at A-Level.
“I was barely passing to get to the next level. But in the second year, I woke up. My grades improved because I knew my strengths and weakness,” said Ms Tumusiimirwa, who eventually graduated with an upper second degree.
While completing a one-year internship, Ms Tumusiimirwa also worked at Makerere as a part-time teaching assistant. She then secured a job in Jinja District with Uganda Pharmaceuticals Ltd as a company pharmacist.
She, however, relocated to Kampala after marrying Jonathan Tugume in 2004 and soon got another job with the National Drug Authority (NDA) as a drug quality analyst. She worked there until March 2008 when she made what was, according to her, the most difficult decision she has made to date.
“I had to travel a lot in and out of the country and yet I have a young family. I thought it wasn’t the right time to have such a job so I moved out to where I can be in the country 99 per cent of the time to make sure that I have the evening and the night for the children; to be a mother. I can’t substitute that role for anything else,” she said.
Ms Tumusiimirwa intends to pursue a masters’ programme in the not-so distant future, but is taking her time choosing a course tailored to her career ambitions.
As the interview comes to a close, Ms Tumusiimirwa reveals the lessons she has learnt since 1998. “It doesn’t matter what grades are on your paper,” she said. “I think where we are going as Uganda, your being employable will depend on your capacity to perform.”
For her own children, Ms Tumusiimirwe says her biggest challenge is to help them realise their potential in any of the talents she indentifies.
“I want my children to appreciate every stage as they grow,” she said. “I don’t want to pressure them into being excellent because I wouldn’t know if they will all be ‘A’ students. But I would love them to pursue what everyone’s strength is. Like I have seen my first child is good at music. He loves music. Every time a song plays, he picks a guitar and tries to play. So if the child is good at music, then you guide them along that path.”
Achievement: Best UACE female science student (1998)
School: Gayaza High School.
Combination/Score: Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics (PCM)/AAA.
Current Job: Pharmacist (Paediatric Child Treatment, Care and Research), Baylor Uganda.
All Jonathan Tugume prayed for when sitting his A-Level exams in 1998 was to score sufficient points to enter Makerere University under the government sponsorship scheme.
He got his wish – and something else beyond his wildest dreams.
When Uneb released their results, the St. Mary’s College, Kisubi student had scored three As in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics.
He emerged the country’s fourth best science student that year.
“Although I had performed well in previous exams, being the best was not my objective. I just wanted to get admission to university on government sponsorship because I didn’t expect my mother, who is a midwife, to pay fees in the university. I wanted to do civil engineering,” said Mr Tugume, who added that their father, a former miner, “was not actively involved in our lives.”
Mr Tugume says even his tenure in Kisubi was fortuitous. His O-Level tuition was footed by the defunct Uganda Commercial Bank, which offered him a scholarship as the best pupil at Primary Seven in Kasese District.
During his O-Level, Mr Tugume scored Aggregate 11 in eight subjects.
However, it was at Makerere where his resolve faced its biggest test. In between satisfying his sons’ craving for their father’s attention at his two-storeyed, incomplete but habitable, flat in the city outpost of Najjera, Mr Tugume admits that he nearly lost his drive at university after qualifying for the course of his dreams.
“Here I was at the university; free and at large,” he said. “I had wanted to get on the government sponsorship scheme and I had got it so I was about to settle for the bare minimum.”
The apathy festered in Mr Tugume for a while, until he had a life-changing experience. He became a born-again Christian.
“That meant a lot. I had to make certain choices I would not have made and avoid certain choices. This kind of checked me. I had to slow down because in vacation I had become too excited,” said Mr Tugume.
One of the major choices that influenced the direction Mr Tugume’s life took to this day was whether to concentrate solely on getting good grades or – as he puts it – “get my life started”.
“Early in my life, I opted to do road engineering so I chose to start engaging with contractors and building roads as a trainee and not as a student. I would spend my holidays on sites,” he said.
“I wanted to get into field activities early and establish tentacles there and get a job in future. I realised life was not all about academics. You should know what you want to do and what kind of work you are best at.”
The decision to focus on research, where Mr Tugume found the highway and transport project to be the most exciting part of his academics, eventually paid off. His research project emerged the best in his entire class. “I did research in reinforcing soft soils; how to strengthen soft soils with a plastic called geogrid,” he said.
Mr Tugume may have missed a first class degree by 0.02 points – which disappointed his lecturer, Prof. Albert Rugumayo – but his research report had won its own admirers.
One of them was Eng. Francis Odenigbo, the project director of KOM Consult-Uganda, who retained him after university as Data Manager for the Uganda transport master plan.
With the experience he had gained from eight months at KOM Consult, Mr Tugume confidently applied for one of the jobs that the Works Ministry advertised in late 2003.
“When I got in there, I was sent to bridges section where I met Eng. M. M. Odongo, currently the executive director of the Uganda Road Fund. He mentored me and taught me most of the work I know. I worked there for five years,” he explained.
As bridges engineer, Mr Tugume’s docket included assessing conditions of bridges and building bridges across the country – a job that gave him the opportunity to do something he had always been passionate about because of the intricacies involved in designing different bridges.
In late 2008, Mr Tugume was one of many engineers moved from the Works Ministry to the newly formed Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA), besides his administrative role as Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, Mr Tugume also got an additional technical role as bridges engineer.
“I wanted a transition from being only a technical person so I took up monitoring and evaluation. It cuts across and I can have information from all sectors. It was my objective to learn how all other sectors work,” he said, adding: “In life, we should be flexible enough to allow our contribution to spread across.”
The Director of Planning at UNRA, Eng. David Luyimbazi, who is Mr Tugume’s immediate supervisor, says the quick rise of his protégé is down to the fact that he has managed “to translate his academic prowess into professional prowess” – which he says many academically brilliant people do not often manage to do.
“Jonathan has risen very fast; he is rising faster than many people his age because of his ability. The position he is holding is supposed to be held by people with 10 years’ experience or more but he doesn’t have that. That shows he is accelerating fast,” he said. “What has helped Jonathan is that he has a clear idea of what he wants to do and he is pursuing it aggressively. That is his strength.”
Eng. Luyimbazi’s comments do not seem flattering, if Mr Tugume’s plans for his future are anything to go by. Already, although he says he is giving his all while serving UNRA, Mr Tugume is thinking of life after his current employer – never mind that his immediate supervisor thinks the sky is the limit for him at UNRA.
Mr Tugume’s plan includes returning to school sometime this year to pursue a masters’ degree in an engineering-related course and then return to UNRA for a second three-year contract before venturing into private practice.
He reasons that while working in the public sector would assure him of a stable job, it is unlikely to offer him an opportunity to explore all his potential.
“I am doing all this to build capacity financially,” he said. “As an engineer, I am limited because I am paid professional fees. Creativity and imagination is limited in the public sector but with your own work you can use up all your potential.”
When he eventually leaves the public sector, Mr Tugume, says besides running a private engineering consultancy, he intends to marry his skills and those of his wife Gladys, who is a pharmacist, so that they can venture into the manufacturing of drugs.
That kind of diversity seems to characterise the life of a man who excelled in school but has struggled to forge a life that is not defined by his feat in the UACE exams.
Achievement: Fourth best UACE science student (1998)
School: St. Mary’s College, Kisubi (Wakiso)
Combination/Score: Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics (PCM)/AAA
Job: Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, Uganda National Roads Authority