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The simple words we tell people can have lasting impressions on them

By Julius Mucunguzi

Shaka Ssali and Andrew Mwenda: My two mentors

On Sept.20, while in Washington DC for the annual meetings of Commonwealth finance ministers, I met two men who have been my professional mentors: Dr Shaka Ssali of Voice of America, and Andrew Mujuni Mwenda of The Independent Magazine. Here I was with two great men, who gave me the motivation to study journalism, media and communication—and I was meeting them in one place.

After the meeting, I reflected on my journey from a student who was headed to study sciences to do human medicine, but ended up in the newsroom asking politicians and people in power questions for stories. My mind also raced to the process of making the choices we do while growing up—to determine what we finally become.


Choosing what to study at university is often one of the most challenging choices a student in Advanced (A) Level has to make. In fact the struggle starts even earlier—at determining which subject combination to offer after Ordinary Level. I faced that challenge, after obtaining good grades in both arts and science subjects in my Senior Four exams from Lake Bunyonyi Secondary School on Bwama Island, in Kabale in 1993.

Because of the pressure from parents, relatives and friends, I was made to apply for a science combination—PCB—Physics, Chemistry and Biology—to please the people who felt that a student who performs well must either become a medical doctor, or an engineer.

I was offered PCB with Sub Maths at Kigezi High School in Kabale, as subjects to pursue in A level. But deep within my heart, I had this strong conviction that although I could work hard and pass sciences, deep, deep down in my heart, I was more at ease with arts—writing, communication, storytelling, generally community based issues.

I would later, after one term in the science class, gather the courage to tell the late John Birihanze, then deputy headmaster for academic affairs at Kigezi High School , that sciences were not for me, and that I wanted to change the combination.

I can still see the look on his face. He was like: “what the hell is wrong with this young man?” He in fact asked me if I was in my right sense of mind.

“I cannot understand what your problem is—because I believe you should be able to do PCB,” Birihanze said.

I assured him I felt within, that I could not pass the combination.

He looked at me, and declared: “The only option you have is to do MEG—Mathematics, Economic and Geography. That is the only transition from sciences to arts, you can have.”

But leaving PCB, to do Pure Advanced Mathematics, was like the proverbial jumping from a flying pan to the fire.

For the first term that I did PCB, I was struggling with Sub Math—a supposedly lighter version of advanced mathematics, which all science students are required to take to enable them handle the calculations in Physics and Chemistry. The paper in Mechanics was fair, but pure math was tough as a stone—those conversant with the dy/dx, integration and differentiation equations will know what I am talking about.

I accepted the offer to MEG as a strategic transition, and only did it for one term. Economics and Geography were fine, but Maths! Oh Maths! It was one hell of a difficult subject for me.

It became very clear to me after one term of MEG that I could easily excel in Economic and Geography and fall flat on my face in Math. Or that in a bid to struggle to get the Maths right, I could fail all the three subjects.

At the end of second term, I was back at the door of Birihanze, telling him that I wanted to change the combination—again.

“What do you want to do now?” he asked me.

“I want to offer pure arts—History, Economics, Geography and Divinity,” I replied.

He looked at me—weighed me—looking at me above the rims of his wide spectacles, and said: “Julius: It’s your life, its your future. Do what you want. If teachers allow you in their classes in third term, go ahead.”

He added a proverb in Rukiga that “ Nyantahurira akarya erisho rye” which loosely translated means that a person who doesn’t listen to advice was so foolish and ended up eating his own eye.

I thanked him and left—happy, but worried, whether I was making the right choice.

I then walked to the history teacher, who told me point blank that I could not catch up, and told me to try my luck elsewhere.

Next, I approached the Divinity teacher, Mr Kakaabaale. I explained to him my situation. And in his soft voice, he said: “young man, if you think you can catch up, you are welcome to the class.” That was such a relief! I was clearly now in business. I had a combination: DEG—Divinity, Economics and Geography, plus the compulsory General Paper.

I borrowed notes from my classmates, and from friends who were studying in other schools—and hit the midnight lamp—reading, doing `winter’ as the school slang for reading at night was called.

But there were two other challenges. One: It had become clear at the time, that for one to make it to Makerere University on government sponsorship, you had to at least have four principal subjects—which you still had to pass with very high grades. The competition for the 2000 government scholarship slots was getting stiffer every year. So, the task was to identify another teacher to target and seek permission to join his/her class.

The second challenge—perhaps the most important one was: what kind of course would I be able to do, if and when I made it to university. Could anything good come out of studying divinity, geography and economics?

I addressed the hurdle of the fourth principal subject by pleading with the then Fine Art teacher, Onesimus Assimwe to allow me in his class. And there I was, drawing pictures, landscapes and painting.

As if God had been listening to my woes, a group of former Kigezi High School students who were now at Makerere University, returned to their old school to give career guidance. And the good news was that, Makerere University had changed its admission criteria for some courses: Anyone one could now, apply to do Law or Mass Communication, the most highly rated and prestigious arts courses at the time—irrespective of what combination of subjects one offered.

Before that, one had to have offered at least History to do Law, and Literature to do Mass communication. The barrier was now off—and someone like me could effectively apply for either of the two, if I had the necessary grades.

And there comes Andrew Mwenda

Andrew Mwenda who came to Kabale to discuss a paper by Muhoozi Keinerugaba, President Museveni’s son at a seminar which was organised by students from Kabale district who were then at Makerere University. At the time Muhoozi was a student at Nottingham University in the UK. The theme of that seminar focussed on the root causes of Ugandan’s problems.

After Muhoozi’s presentation, a small young man dressed in suspenders sauntered onto the podium and literary tore through Muhoozi’s arguments. It was Andrew Mujuni Mwenda. I was amazed, how this small man, could gather the guts to dress down the President’s son. After the debate, I walked up to Mwenda and asked him what made him tick and what his secret was.

Mwenda told me that he was a second year student at Makerere University, doing the `best course—Mass Communications.’

“If you want to do Mass Comm, you must excel, get very good grades—not less than a B, and then the training will give you confidence to face anyone and make your case,” he said.

He also said that he was a reporter, writing for The Monitor. Indeed, after the seminar, Mwenda published a story in Sunday Monitor, titled “Only the rich should rule, says Museveni’s son”

A few months later, sometime in 1995, Shaka Ssali came to speak to A level students at Kigezi High School. I was in the hall. Shaka took us through his own amazing story—of dropping out of school, joining the army, moving to America, and going back to school—to obtain a Degree, a Masters and a PhD!

It was just one roll coaster of a story. Very inspirational. He was then an editor with the Voice of America.

“What do we need to do to be like you?” one student asked.

“Simply hit those books really hard. Make sure you always aim to be Number One. And always, always, Keep Hope Alive,” Shaka replied.

The words were powerful. .

But Shaka was also a very simple man—full of humility. He had no airs around him. In fact, he wore simple blue jeans, with a matching cap with words “Kabalekid.”

The challenge now was how to be Number One. That was the task.

When we completed `A’ Level, I was Number One in the Arts class, with 21 points—enough get me into the Mass Communication Class at Makerere University.

Mwenda was pleased when I met him at Lumumba Hall, after the Senior six results had come out—to tell him that I would be doing the course he had recommended.

And there and then, he told me, that I had to work hard in class—to get good grades, but most importantly, to start writing for newspapers right away. I would later follow him to The Monitor as a reporter.

For Shaka, another opportunity came in 1997, when he came to Makerere University to address journalism students. Again, I was in the room. He told us of his journalism and academic journey. When he finished speaking, I walked up to him and said: “I am one of the chaps who were in the room at Kigezi High School, when you challenged us to be Number One. And here I am.”

And in his deep authentic kikiga accent, he declared: “I will not be surprised if a few years from now, you call me and say: Shaka, I am in downtown Washington DC, when can we meet up?”

And prophetic, again, he was—for in May 2000, two months after graduating from Makerere, I got a scholarship to do an internship with a public policy institute in Washington DC, and true to form, I called Shaka and told him that I was in `downtown Washington DC.”

He picked me up in his Mercedes Benz and took me for lunch and for a tour of Voice of America studios.

I was later to be among the first guests on his Straight Talk Africa programme in August 2000. The simple words we tell people can have lasting impressions on them. This has been true in my journey.

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Julius Mucunguzi is an assistant spokesperson for Africa at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London. Email: [email protected]

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