Recently, Mr. John Bosco (JB) Mulenzi, my former chemistry teacher at Namilyango College, called me to invite me to a party marking his 70th birthday. I was excited! I even asked him to send me the budget so that I could mobilize other former students to contribute. So on May 26, we will be in Nakifuma, Mukono District, to toast the continued good health of a great man.
There’s an untold story about Mr. Mulenzi and me: My transcript shows that I actually got an F9 in chemistry. He was a fantastic human being and a very good teacher and our class produced some of Uganda’s best scientists; but I found chemistry extremely boring.
My brain is wired to argue, and there was no place for that in chemistry. So, while I was always enthusiastic about taking history, French, and literature classes, I struggled with the sciences, especially chemistry.
In fact, I found music lessons with Ms. Mukiibi much more exciting. The first music lesson the (very lovely) Ms. Mukiibi took us to was piano in the College Chapel and 38 years later I still remember the songs she taught us back then.
While scientists were complaining about the whole episode as a huge waste of time, I was over the moon! On the other hand, I found nothing exciting about the Bunsen burner and the mixing of those horrible chemicals in chemistry labs.
I was very disconcerted when the music lessons stopped at the end of the first one, 1984, because the only music teacher left middle school. It was the end of music in Namilyango. My heart bled when I was forced to drop out of French with Mr. Fred Wanyu at the end of secondary two, because the education policy was that I could only take French or literature, not two, in the last nine subjects. So there I was, my heart in French class, but forced to continue in chemistry!
The problem with Namilyango is that the sciences are glorified – and are required. However, the highest mark Mr. Mulenzi ever gave me – after I really tried to tolerate and study chemistry – was 55, at the end of the second secondary. I never touched a chemistry book again. I worked diligently on my literature books during chemistry lessons.
For my Uganda Certificate of Education (UCE) final chemistry exams, I quietly wrote down my name and index number – and nothing else – then revised for my history papers .
It was just by the grace of God that I was able to study music after my A-Levels, under the tutelage of legends like John Walugembe, Mike Mubiru (RIP) and David Ssebulime who brought me back to the piano; Rev Moses Ochwo (RIP) who introduced me to the guitar and, 21 years ago, Isaiah Katumwa who taught me the saxophone.
My life is therefore music, literature and law… in that order. It’s a great feeling to look in the mirror and be able to celebrate the person you see there! Now I have gone back to French class, because life has simply become deficient and unbearable without French. Pretty boring! But you see… it boils down to a system that forces students to adapt to what it dictates, regardless of what is inside the student and what the future holds for him.
If I had been allowed to pursue French and music, I most certainly would have marked distinction in each of them, and they would be more relevant to my career today. I suspect few people have had the luck, luck, or stamina to find their true selves in life, after the system threw them into things they weren’t designed or meant to be for. I suspect millions of people regret where they are and wish they could press a reset button!
Uganda needs to rethink its education policy and put children at its epicenter. While it’s great for children to enjoy a wide range of subjects, it’s important that their unique gifts and talents as well as possible career paths are considered when narrowing down the subjects they need to complete at O level. Parents and teachers should sit together and carefully weigh subject choices with students. For now though, we are having a birthday party for our JB Mulenzi!
Mr. Tegulle is an Advocate in the High Court of Uganda