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Goodbye Bernard Onyango: 1930 – 2013

By Ronald Musoke

Uganda’s favourite registrar bows out

Bernard Onyango, 83, passed away recently after distinguishing himself in a 30-year stint in the academic Registrar’s Office at Makerere University, and another decade as the founding registrar at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.

A his requiem mass at Makerere University’s St. Augustine Chapel on Oct.17, high-profile dignitaries literally struggled to outdo each other in eulogizing their departed colleague. Every one of them who spoke did so from the very bottom of their hearts.

In the four solid decades he worked to keep university education more credible; first at Makerere and Nkozi, he  certainly made many friends and had an influence on numerous lives.

Charles Onyango-Obbo writing in his Ear to the Ground column of Oct. 16, two days following Onyango’s death noted how he was disarmingly simple and averse to status and power.

“He didn’t seek it, he didn’t affect it, he didn’t dress the part, he didn’t walk it, he did not care for it, nor did he try to profit from his position— a perplexing thing considering that he was a pioneer in so many things and was venerated,” Onyango-Obbo, who married into the deceased’s family wrote.  Many described Onyango as belonging to the fast-fading breed of Ugandans who served their country selflessly and always worked with the belief that they were only a small part of something bigger; it was never just about them.

From the words of  those who got the opportunity to speak at St. Augustine, one could easily tell that Onyango’s name was synonymous with integrity, humility, and high achievement.  His Eminence Cardinal Emmanuel Wamala referred to him as an accomplished educationalist who was not only a conscientious man but also an incorruptible administrator at the institutions he served for many years.

Mondo Kagonyera, the current Makerere University Chancellor to whom Onyango was both a boss and friend, was impressed with the quality of people in attendance; members of Uganda’s judiciary led by Justice Benjamin Odoki, government officials, the glitterati of Uganda’s academia as well as members of the Democratic Party—his favourite political organisation.

This scene, he said, ‘told millions of words’ about the type of man Onyango was. Kagonyera told the congregation that during his time at Makerere, Onyango guarded jealously the university’s name, especially during the difficult times of Idi Amin and the early 1980s.

“When times are difficult it is easy for leaders to make mistakes,” Kagonyera said. But Onyango was never fazed.

One of the stories Onyango told numerous times was when he met face to face with a gun-wielding army man in his office. The soldier wanted his daughter to be enrolled at the university.  Of course he could not admit the girl daughter because she did not have the qualifications but the soldier insisted as he waved a note from the President’s office and a gun. He stood his ground until the girl just told her father to let go.

Born on Jan.11, 1930 to Rev. Andereya Opino Ochwo and Lakeri Ajwang Abbo, Onyango studied at Soni Primary School before moving to Kisoko Boys before joining St. Peter’s College, Tororo for his secondary education. In 1951, he became the first student from both St. Peter’s College and the whole of Bukedi District (Tororo, Butaleja, Pallisa, Budaka and Busia Districts) to join Makerere University where he did a Bachelor of Arts in History and Sociology and a one year Diploma in Education.

In 1956, he started work as a teacher at his former school, St. Peter’s College Tororo where he excelled to the extent that a dormitory is named after him. He also taught at King’s College Budo.

In 1957, Onyango married his wife Lucy Kahambo whom he took along a year later on the long ship voyage to England after winning a scholarship to pursue a Masters in Education at the University of London.

On his return in 1961, he was appointed deputy headmaster of Tororo College before being appointed deputy registrar at Makerere College—then part of the University of East Africa, two years later.  When Makerere became a fully-fledged university in 1970, he became its first academic registrar until 1992 when he retired.

Onyango’s Disco

In the 1970s, there was no semester system. Students studied the whole year and then had one chance to do examinations in March for promotion. This is what students who went to the university during that period referred to as going for ‘Onyango’s Disco.’ Getting ready for Onyango’s disco meant doing serious prep work if you did not want to come back in June, Vincent Owor Odoi, a retired banker who was at Makerere between 1979—1983, recalled.

The ‘June Conference’ was the period designated for supplementary examinations or in today’s speak ‘retakes’—a sort of reprieve for those students who had failed to garner the required marks.

Many of the mourners were ‘revelers’ who had ‘danced’ to ‘Onyango’s disco.’ It is often said that Onyango rubbed his virtues onto his students—a mark that remained evident long after they left the university.

After Makerere, he was asked to assist them set up the Registrar’s Office but they could not let him go; he ended up staying for ten years.

He finally went into retirement at the turn of the millennium.

Known to his village folk as ‘Jafungi’ or teacher, to his family members, he was simply known as ‘BO,’ a nickname he warmed to even more in 2008 when the first black US president, Barack Obama was elected.

“It has taken me 78 years to become famous. Now I share the same initials with President Barack Obama,” he mused.

May his soul rest in peace.

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