When I grew up in Bumwalukani village, I had no idea that I would end up where I am today. But I had great hopes and dreams, and our dad encouraged those dreams without pushing us too much. He taught us good values and the importance of education. He allowed us to listen to his radio when we were very young and we came to hear about far off places and people that way. He encouraged us to read books that he had bought over time, many of them from Canada and England. We read stories about the Royal Canadian Mounted Policemen at an early age, without ever knowing why they were called “mounted” or “royal”. We read about Jack and Jill and how they went up the hill to fetch a pail of water, and ended up being very confused because in our village, we knew that you went down the hill to fetch water. At school, whenever one of us came first in the classroom, our dad went out of his way to get for that child bread and tea with milk, a real rare treat in the village those days as there was no bread in the village. It had to be bought in town 30 miles away. In the evening mother cooked chicken for the family in celebration, again a rare meal for kids. Needless to say, every child in our family strived to come first in his class, because that ensured a really decent meal for everyone that day.
Were we any different growing up? No. We woke up every day at 4:00 am to go the fields to dig in the morning. But unlike most other kids, father allowed us to go to school at 7:00 am, while other kids spent most of their time helping their parents in the fields all day. What we did not complete in the field in the morning, we did in the evening after we returned home. On the weekends, we did what all other kids did – work in the fields, collect water for the family, wash clothes at the river in readiness for the new week, and help our parents with household chores. When all these were done, however, we sat around the kerosene candle to read father’s books.
At school, there were many times when the headmaster sent us home because we had not paid fees. It was often humiliating because the headmaster always announced in front of the school assembly that so and so had not paid fees, and he sent you home when everyone was watching. Some kids never came back. But we always did, even when we did not have fees. Sometimes, the teachers allowed us in the class even when they knew the headmaster would disapprove. Whenever I go home now, I visit all my former teachers and buy them presents to thank them for breaking the rules on our behalf.
I was able to successfully complete elementary school, the only one from my village who gained admission to a secondary school that year. My two elder brothers had accomplished the same feat a few years earlier. Secondary school (the equivalent of middle and high school here) is by necessity a boarding school, about 30 miles away. Our parents had taught us well the art of self discipline and goals. While other kids got taken up by the freedoms and splendor of life in a boarding school, we did our school work well. Our only hitch again came in school fees, because, always, Dad never had the money. He sold pieces of land, sold his produce, and even one time sold the furniture in his house (including a prized table with a glass top that he used when there were guests). In all these, we saw the determination in his mind to get us a good education, and we did not want to disappoint him. In all those years, he never bought anything for himself. Always, whatever money he got, he spent it on us, for our fees.
Eventually, two of us successfully finished secondary school. We got admitted to university, my brother for a law degree, myself for an accounting degree. At that time, through the generosity of government, university education in Uganda was free. There was only one university, admitting only 1,500 students a year, so the expense on government was not too great. My brother and I went on to graduate from university and are to this day the only college graduates from my village.
I feel immensely lucky. I could have dropped out of school, like 99% of my childhood friends. But I didn’t. My dad could have stopped or failed to pay my fees. But he didn’t. The smoky candle I used for most of my early childhood could have burnt my eyes, or blinded us. But it didn’t. And now, looking back at all these odds, how can I forget? I feel like a guiding hand led me through all the upheavals in my childhood, and I feel a responsibility to help where I can because I am in a position where no one else in my community has ever been. If I turn my back and look the other way, it may be generations before another person climbs the same steps and reaches a similar position. If I am there for the other kids in the village now, maybe it will be a little easier for them to climb those steps. I have been there. I know how hard it is. I know how tough help is to come by in that village. And I know the consequences of failure. But I also know the potential that exists there. There may not be 100 kids who can go all the way. There may not even be 10. But there may be 1 or 2 or 3. If we throw the net wide enough, we may be able to get that 1 or 2 or 3. And if we can get these few going all the way, and in turn helping others back there, little by little, we may make a difference. It would be nice one day to have every kid enjoy bread and tea with milk, once in a while, without having to come first in a class. It would nice for them to know that despite what others tell them, there is a guiding hand in this world. You, and many others here, are that guiding hand.
I was born in 1969 to Mr. Charles and Loy Butala in the village of Butinduyi in Bupoto sub-county in Eastern Uganda. I was the third among eight children in my family. I started school in 1977 at the nearby Matuwa primary school, a crumbling local village school with few facilities and even less of an academic record. In 1979, I joined Bupoto Primary School, a slightly better school about three miles away that my older sister and brother were also attending. My dad wanted us to get a better education in a good school and at that time Bupoto was the best performing school in the area. However, the distance to Bupoto was too much for me. I was allergic to the cold and got skin swellings from walking in the cold for that long. I was not very athletic, fell sick too frequently, and became a burden to my sister and brother who had to take care of me. In a short while, my parents made a decision to send me to boarding school. I was sent to Magale Girls Boarding Primary school in 1980 when I was in fourth grade. I spent the next three years in Magale, where I eventually sat for the Primary Leaving Exams. I passed well with 7 aggregates and was admitted to my first choice school at Tororo Girls School (TGS).
TGS was one of the most prestigious schools in Eastern Uganda. It was a very hard school to get in. I was the pride of the village when it was announced that I had passed well enough to join TGS. Everyone knew it was expensive and it was much further away from home. We did not know how we were going to pay for my studies there. Although my dad was a local village chief, he made very little money. He supplemented his income by growing vegetables on his various plots of land. It was the money from these vegetables that paid most of my school fees. This income, however, was not reliable and there were many times he had to sell his cows or parts of his land to raise the money for school fees for my brother and myself. Both of us were in secondary school at that time. Whatever challenges he faced, my dad assured us that he would do whatever it took to keep us in school. That was a great assurance and being a child, I knew that all I had to do was work hard and my dad would keep us in school. Over the next four years, my dad sold many pieces of land to keep us in school. This was very unusual and was seen as a waste of resources by many people in my village. Land was a treasure reserved for the boys when they grew up. My dad never treated his girls any different from the boys. My school was almost twice more expensive than my brother’s school. He would sell one cow to take my brother to school for one term, but I needed more than one cow. Sometimes they tried to brew malwa (a local beer) to raise money, and sometimes they bought and sold coffee beans from local villagers with the hope of making a profit.
After four years at TGS, I sat and passed Senior Four exams. I passed very well and was admitted to Iganga Girls School, about one hundred miles away from home. At that time, I stopped going home for holidays and stayed with a distant aunt who took me under her wing in Jinja town. I lived with them during the holiday breaks. Even when I completed high school and went on to college in Kampala, I stayed with this family during holiday time. My parents were still responsible for my tuition, but my aunt did chip in for the daily needs at school and encouraged me to do my best too.
Once at university, we got a little break – university education was free. This was a huge relief. I was able to focus on my education better at that time. I got my first temporary job while in my first year at college working with the census bureau. I used my first salary to buy myself and for my parents a new blanket. By now, I was spending less time in the village, but my dad wanted to know how I was doing even at college, so he came and visited whenever he could. Many people in the village, especially my relatives were wondering why I was still in school. They were afraid that I would grow old in school and it would be hard for me to find a good husband and get married with all that education.
At this time, my older brother was also at college. My elder sister had dropped out of school to get married, while my two young brothers and young sister were in secondary school. My brothers and my sisters were my biggest cheer leaders and wanted me to do well. By the time I reached high school, I was viewed by many people in the village as successful. No girl from our village had gone that far. College was just an added bonus. I quickly became a reference point in the village for parents who sacrificed their land and their animals to educate their children.
Through it all, my parents never complained about selling land or how hard they worked to send us to school. My dad encouraged us to work hard at school; he always checked my books and corrected my handwriting. He always made comments on some of the stories I wrote. When we did not perform well, he encouraged us to study during holidays so we could catch up the following term. At home, we did not have electricity, so we tried to do most of the reading after we came back from working in the garden. Sometimes we could do some night reading using a kerosene candle. The candles were made from empty soda tins, with a hole on top to pour in paraffin. A small piece of cloth that worked as a wick was inserted through the hole.
By this time, most of the girls of my age in my village were married or crossed over to Kenya to work as house girls. My older sister had dropped out of school after an early pregnancy, a common occurrence to girls in the village. Because of this, she always advised me to stay away from boys. She said they would ruin my life and my future like they did to her if I associated with boys. She encouraged me to postpone having a boyfriend for as long as I could until I finished school. I always told her nothing would stop me. She was glad though that the cows and fines that her husband paid for her as bride price helped my dad to pay for my tuition in high school.
I was also deeply religious and got involved in our local church a lot. I began a youth group that thrived and put on Christmas plays for the village people. I would literally take the script of plays we did at school back to the village to teach the youth at my local church. We formed youth groups to grow vegetables for the church as well as take care of cleaning church on the Saturdays. I attribute a lot of my success in school to my own family encouragement and also loving God and putting him first in every situation I went through. I would know that wherever I was, he was watching over me and I did not want to disappoint him. All these things coupled with family encouragement helped me to successfully go through school.