After recent unsuccessful attempts to rise to the position of vice chancellor at Makerere University, Prof Eli Katunguka-Rwakishaya finds himself in the arguably hotter seat (for the moment at least) of Kyambogo University, where he currently serves as acting vice chancellor.
On 91.3 Capital FM’s Desert Island Discs with Simon Kasyate, Prof Katunguka shares his life story.
Good evening and welcome to Dessert Island Discs.
Good evening, Simon. I am proud to be here.
Professor Eli is a professor of veterinary medicine. In other words, he is the guy who eats his patients, except of course if they are cats and dogs. How is that description?
That is not a fair description because we always explain that by the time we eat these so-called patients, they are examined and found suitable for human consumption. They are no longer patients but animals [which] have been found to be suitable for human consumption.
How is Kyambogo University? We have heard that a number of courses are allegedly not accredited by the National Council for Higher Education. And every other day we read reports of a few pockets of rioters.
Kyambogo University has been stable now for some time. I joined Kyambogo in January 2014 and I took over the position of acting vice chancellor in February 2014. I came to Kyambogo from Makerere University, where I had served for close to 34 years.
I joined Makerere in 1976 and I did not leave until 2014. So, I have had a long experience in higher education provision and management. The history of Kyambogo has not been very exciting there has been a lot of rioting, staff discontentment and all that speaks to the leaders who come into the university to understand the history of the university.
Kyambogo was formed by the merger of three institutions what used to be ITEK (Institute for Teacher Education, Kyambogo), UPK (Uganda Polytechnic, Kyambogo) and UNISE (Uganda National Institute for Special Needs Education).
These were independent institutions on the same campus and government found it wise to merge them in 2003. But there was no period of nurturing to bring these people together and learn to work together in one entity.
Who are you, where were you born, when were you born and to whom where you born?
I was born in Igara county, Bushenyi district in a village called Kalaro Kyeizooba Igara to peasant parents. My father, Brasio Rwakishaya, was a peasant. Unfortunately he passed on in 1991. But my mum is still alive. She is now 88 years old. Her name is Mrs Rwakishaya Grace.
They used to grow a lot of coffee, potatoes, cassava and bananas. That is how they managed to educate us. They had 11 children and my father committed himself to educating most of us and he did that.
Did he have any educational background?
No, not really. He never went to school but he loved going to school. Our village, we were fortunate to have people who came from Buganda as gombolola chiefs and introduced education.
The man who was head of the gombolola was our neighbour and a good friend of my father. My father learnt the need to educate children from him. My father wanted to go to school but the day he went, he was arrested and sent home to pay tax because he was old, so his education was half day that is all he ever had.
But he educated himself how to read and write, how to multiply he was very good at mathematics. He taught us mathematics and how to write on a piece of paper and in the sand.
In fact, at night when they were cooking, they would push the ash and we would write on it. That shows you how keen he was on education. And he educated his late brother that is Katakari, my mentor.
One other thing I remember is that I am a sleeper I used to like sleeping – and up to know I can sleep even when there are challenges – but because my father knew we were weak and couldn’t stay late to do our homework, he used to sit with us.
He used to like his alcohol before he got saved, but whenever he would come home, he would sit with us and do our homework with him. He would bring a basin full of cold water for us to put our feet in so that we do not sleep.
But when you put your feet in cold water, it would only take time and it would be warm. Then he would take the basin and refill it with cold water again. I have not heard parents doing that cold-water-basin treatment. He told me he had seen it from that Muganda man called Saul Nnume.
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How did you balance your day to ensure that you had fun in fields, fun in class and achieve on both ends?
My parents were quite keen on getting us to work. My mother particularly was a hard worker. She used to dig.
We used to call her a tractor. She made sure we had enough food to eat. So, every morning before we went to school, we had to wake up to go to dig, come back wash our feet and go to school.
What time did you go to dig?
At about 5am. [But] one time mother wanted [to] broadcast [millet] seeds but she wanted the ground prepared. So she woke us up and, because we didn’t have a clock, we didn’t know the time. We went and dug but it wasn’t coming to morning. She got scared.
Those days she used to say, ‘the man’s children will be eaten by an animal,’ so we went back home and washed our feet and slept till it was morning. Looking back, she might have woken us up at about 1am and we dug up to 4am.
And then we used to have coffee and my father would give us portions to go and pick. For every tin you fill, you bring it home and he would give us some money for that. It was to encourage us to pick more. I wasn’t very good but the brother I follow used to beat us.
I used to like rearing goats. My father bought our first cow when I was in primary five and I was in charge of it. You would go to fields to look after the animals and play football with other kids from other homes and, sometimes, the cows would wander or some of them go home.
That used to happen quite a lot. But those were experiences of growing-up children which we really enjoyed. The story I remember about rearing cows was I used to like beating it just for fun and my father didn’t like it.
One day, when we were walking home, this animal refused to go. I beat it and it still refused. Then it went down completely and I ran home and told my father that the animal has refused to come. He beat me because he knew I had beaten it to death. We went to see it and it was in coma.
There was one man who used to have many cows around. He came and looked at it and said, ‘this is what they call three-day sickness.’ It’s a viral disease. The animal gets down and even if you do not treat it, it will get up after two or three days.
But these people would shoot it because [they] believed it is the blood that causes the sickness. He got a bow and when he shot it, the blood sprang out and it ran home and it never fell sick again.
So, it intrigued me and I wanted to find out what disease this was. But I later found out that this is a viral disease transmitted by insects, which I learnt when I was doing veterinary medicine.
Is that the point at which you decided to become a veterinary doctor?
No, I loved animals.
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Which schools did you attend?
For my primary, I went to Kalaro primary school. That is a church school very near home. We used to be late because we would say we would go to school when we hear the drum.
Then I went to Kyeizooba primary school [and] Kinyasano Secondary School, which is now Makobore High School in Rukungiri. From there, I went to Ntare School for my HSC and then Makerere University in 1976.
Did you have an idea of what you wanted to be in your primary or through your secondary school?
No, not at all. We had to go to school. You had to study and you had to pass.
So at what point do you get career guidance that started driving you to the profession you are enjoying today?
Well, it wasn’t until much later during my school days. In primary, my father used to come and inspect us at school.
You would be in class and he comes behind and stands in the window to see whether you are actually understanding, paying attention, putting up your hand and every night you went home he could actually look at your book. He could not tell what was in but he could tell a cross from a tick.
He could tell 100 per cent from 50 per cent so, we were actually pulled into excellence we had to pass.
You father was actually a hands-on person. How much time did he have to look after all these children?
Very much. I think there was division of labour at home. My mother made sure we had enough food, and my father made sure we were educated. My primary school was excellent.
I was the best at math, I used to get 100 per cent on a daily basis, to the extent that one time the teacher asked for those who had got 100 to put up their hands and I didn’t put up mine he beat me very badly because I was getting proud.
The desire to be focused came around HSC because I was given physics, chemistry and math. I had got a D1 in math. So, when I went to Ntare School and I was given PCM, my late uncle, Mr Katakari, my benefactor, said, ‘why are you doing math?
It has fewer options at the university because you can only do science and engineering but if you did biology, you have options of medicine, agriculture, pharmacy.’
So towards the end of the term, I went back to the headmaster in Ntare and told him I wanted to change to biology. He didn’t believe it because I was the best in their math class. Then he asked “but why do you want to change?” I told him the story of my uncle, and he said, ‘maybe your uncle is right. I will give you two weeks. If you still want to change, come back to me.”
I went back to him and I changed and did biology. When I was coming to Makerere, I was given human medicine. My first choice was veterinary medicine but when they went through the computer and saw the way I had performed, they said I could do well in medicine.
Then when I came back, I went and complained. I didn’t want human medicine. I asked for veterinary medicine. In fact I was one of the best students for veterinary medicine. Then they said, “The computer gave you medicine.”
I believed I didn’t have a calling in the hospital. I am an outdoor person, and my brother was in the medical school in Mulago and I didn’t want to sit in class with him. So what saved the day is that I went back to Mr Bernard Onyango, the academic registrar, and complained.
He said, “Can you go and be studying medicine for some time. If I get an opportunity, I will change you.” Then on my way out, I met a girl who was coming in and she was crying her head out. Mr Onyango asked her what was wrong.
She said, ‘I fear animals. I do not want veterinary medicine.’ Then Mr Onyango called me back. That is how we swapped and the girl went and did medicine.
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Before you came to Makerere University, had you been to Kampala?
No, I hadn’t.
Had you ever put on a pair of shoes before university?
Yes. When I was going to Ntare School and in my senior one my uncle bought me excellent stuff very good shoes, beddings that had stripes, a very good towel and a night dress.
A boy who grew up in the village wearing one long shirt to serve as a shirt and trouser and here I was wearing a night dress. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do with the night dress.
When did you finally hit the big city?
I came in senior four. We came to do a math contest, which was so hard. I have never seen such a hard exam like that. But I only came for one day and went back.
I do not think I scored highly. Then I came back in my senior six they had shortlisted us for a pharmacy course in Dar es Salaam and they wanted us to be interviewed.
Here you are at the university with a lot of freedom before you, unprecedented. How were you able to meet these new freedoms and also concentrate on your studies?
During our growing up, we grew up with girls and we used to interact a lot so finding girls here wasn’t very strange to me. And, again, my brother, who was two years ahead of me, lived with me in the same hall, Northcote. He made sure I didn’t do anything outrageous.
Then I had my cousin, Dr Richard Nduhura, [who] was one year ahead of me in veterinary medicine so, I was really shielded from these things. Veterinary medicine also was a very hard course.
We had to study from 9am to 5pm everyday and sometimes on Saturdays and Sundays we had to go to the field. So, there was no time.
Even for a beer?
Surprisingly, beer has not always been my choice. I can stay without drinking a beer and I do not die from it. When we were growing up, my father used to brew local beer and we took a lot of it growing up.
As if that was not enough, sometime we grew short of cash and started distilling waragi from that brew and sell it for money. Sometimes he would give us to taste. None of my brothers take alcohol because we were exposed to it at an early age.
So, you didn’t have a girlfriend at the university?
I did. They used to like us veterinary students because they thought we were very brainy and hard- working.
How would you even say you are a vet student in fourth year and have never had a girlfriend? How do you even sit within your peers? You had to pretend you had one even if you didn’t have one.
Is that the girl you later married?
That is a story for another day.
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So, where does life take you after you graduate?
When I graduated, I was posted to Ibanda, Mbarara district. I think now it’s Ibanda district. The conditions there were really bad. There were no houses. And when I was there, the dean of faculty for veterinary medicine then was Mondo Kagonyera.
He sent me a message and said, “Katunguka, can you come back here? I want you to come back and teach.’ It happened that I was the second-best student after four years, so he told me ‘I can’t lose you to the field.’ I want you to come. I will try and help you to get a scholarship for your master’s but I want you to come. I grabbed the opportunity.
I came to Makerere as a graduate fellow and I started lecturing people who were right behind me so, you had to have a high degree of command. But before four years went by, I got a scholarship to go [to] the University College, Dublin in Ireland in 1982 and came back in 1984 with a master’s in veterinary medicine.
By that time you still had no idea who you wanted to marry?
No. [Our Uncle Katakari] told us is, ‘do not marry beauty. The beauty you see in a woman is temporary. Look for a woman of good spirit who will carry you through your years. When you have children, disease, this beauty will not be there.’
So, from there I returned to Makerere and continued teaching. I took up some administrative positions and became head of department and associate dean and then in 1988, there was an aert for Commonwealth scholarships and I applied for one.
I remember we sat about 62 and they wanted three people. By God’s grace, I got the scholarship to get to the University of Glasgow in Scotland for my PhD to do work in the disease called African trypanosomiasis or sleeping sickness in animals.
At some point, I got married in 1987 and went away with my family to study abroad and God was very kind to me.
I had two children then so we went with my family because the Commonwealth would cater for my family. They would pay a stipend for each of my dependants. And my wife took an opportunity to study and did a master’s of philosophy in law.
You didn’t tell us how you met.
It was sometime in 1984 when I came back. We were moving with a couple of friends and met her around 1985 with a group of girls from Mary Stuart. I used to play tennis at Makerere guesthouse and these girls used to walk by.
There was a dark girl with a gap in her teeth and I said, ‘this is the girl.’ So we talked about it. I was really serious and I wasn’t looking at this girl for a relationship but for a wife, and it is 28 years down the road [now].
How was life for you when you returned from Glasgow?
When I returned, I went back to Makerere to the faculty of veterinary medicine which was low on staff. So I started teaching in 1992 then was appointed associate dean of the faculty and then head of department.
I continued teaching and doing research as well as publishing. I published five articles from my master’s and from my PhD I published 12 articles. I was appointed dean in 1997.
What gets you angry?
Failure to deliver on your promises, sloppiness.
If you were marooned on a desert island, who or what would you carry given chance?
I would carry my wife with me because with her we would be able to survive much better.
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Source : The Observer