Life in Uganda


In 1982 I had been “kindly” requested to leave Uganda. So on 11 August 1982 I found myself onboard a Sabena flight to Brussels, and I arrived there in the late hours of the day. The reception was low key, no flowers nor red carpet! I explained in simple words what had happened and everyone accepted quietly! So for me the main thing was some days rest and then make plans for the future. I will not recall everything in detail but just highlight some events that were to have significance for my future life back in Uganda.

My initial instinct was to make a tour of higher educational institutions on the great island, Britain. If you can read Bill Bryson’s marvellous book Notes from a Small Island, you will realise that there is a lot to be experienced from living on the island! I planned to travel to Edinburgh, Dundee, then Glasgow, and finally Oxford, where I had already been some years earlier, and explore what options were available for me. In Dundee I was met by two marvellous people, Jim Robertson of the Law Faculty and David Ward, the university chaplain. They used all their charm, and with the help of some local “brew”, they persuaded me to stay in Dundee and take up a teaching position at the university. I accepted and never looked further to Glasgow and Oxford. I quickly learned about the richness and warmth of Scottish hospitality and had no problem to integrate into the life of the “Faculty of Law and Accounting”. Strange combination but then why not? I took on some lectures in Comparative Law, Roman Law, and English Criminal Law. This made sense as the Scottish legal system is based on Roman Law, and the use of English Criminal Law in Scotland is wide. I had some really nice colleagues and all of them were more than happy to assist me in settling down. Jim did not take long to introduce me to the immense variety of the Scottish golden liquid (uisge-beatha, literally, the “water of life”). I have no idea how many types there are but certainly one for each day of the year. The pub not far from uni was called the “Town and Gown”, and often we congregated there for some serious legal discussion under the cloud of vapours emanating from the bar. After these sessions Jim often took me back to his home, where Anne, his wife, knew how to put together the most sobering meals!

During my stay in Dundee some family members visited me, and this gave me the opportunity to visit this beautiful land, Scotland. I have never fallen out of love with Scotland although my most frequent visits in the last thirty years or so have been to that other great island: Ireland. But this idyllic life was about to change: one day in 1985 I received a phone call from Louvain University where the Dean of Theology/Canon Law asked me to come to Louvain University in Belgium to take up the position of professor in Canon Law. I hesitated but Jim convinced me it was a good step in an academic career. This was a decision I bitterly regret because when I got to Louvain some two months later, I was informed that the position had been given to someone else and that I could teach one subject a year! Now as a blow this was one of seismic proportions. Having nothing else on my plate and no options in Dundee where I had resigned, and so I bit my lip and settled at Louvain University. But things can change very quickly and, quite unexpectedly, in no time I had a full time teaching load and settled in a very nice apartment in town. This all gave me new opportunities and new contacts with international organisations which later would support me when back in Uganda.

During my time in Louvain (the new campus was, in fact, called Louvain-la-Neuve), I was asked to be visiting professor at Fribourg University in Switzerland. The Swiss are amazingly well organised, and not a single thing was left to chance to cover the work I was doing there: twice a month from Thursday to Saturday – all in all eight hours of teaching. Travel expenses, by plane, were covered, and my imparting of some knowledge to young people which resulting in me remunerated handsomely in hard Swiss currency! I learned to appreciate real Swiss cheese fondue accompanied with a good Swiss white wine. And a must was a visit to Gruyère itself, an exquisite little place, where in winter you have the best cheese fondue in the world, and in summer the best strawberries with fresh cream. All to die for! I do not think that the Swiss can easily be upset by anything as they take everything in their stride and everything in its correct time!

So here I was full time at Louvain and visiting in Switzerland. I thought I had achieved a good status and that I would continue my academic career in peace in Belgium and Switzerland. No sir, someone was watching me, and one day I received a phone call from the Vicar General of Malines-Brussels Archdiocese in Belgium. I was summoned to his office the next day at 11 am. What did I do to receive such an urgent call and especially to appear before the man responsible for good order and discipline. It was with some trepidation that I appeared in front of the little old man, Monsignor Paul Theeuws, who told me to sit down and listen. What was coming? I recall here his exact words. “You are young and well qualified, and you speak French and Flemish fluently. I am an old man and after fifty years in this job I wish to retire. So I am telling you that you have to take over from me as soon as possible.” You can guess my surprise! “I am taking you to Cardinal Danneels to introduce you immediately. He will appoint you as my successor”. Not much choice was given but I managed to get 24 hours to think it all over. The next day I was back in the same office and told the old man I accepted. Within the hour I sat with my new boss who, with a smile, told me: “how can I say no to the old man, he has been running this place for so long and knows all the ins and outs!” And that’s how I was appointed President of the Ecclesiastical Court of Appeal of Belgium with immediate effect. For the next five years I would work there, continuing my teaching work at the university. I must say I got used to this task, in fact I enjoyed it, even if it was sometimes nerve racking. At that stage of my life I truly did have full time work with my teaching both in Louvain and Fribourg, plus my work at the Tribunal. I must say that I had a really fine team to work with and after two years I had the first woman judge appointed to the Court of Appeal. It was a big step forward, and I am sure that even today people will think we were far-sighted for our time.

But all this was not without small problems, especially on the part of my dean at the faculty in Belgium. He tried one day to tell me that I needed his permission to teach in Switzerland and to be President of the Court of Appeal! I wondered why he said this, as nowhere in the university statutes was it stated that this was the rule. So I ignored him and he ignored me, but in fact made my life difficult in many aspects. I held out for five years till in mid-1992 I received a fax at my office in Malines. It came from Uganda and a certain Hilary Tibanyenda. I had known the man in Mbarara, and he had called to ask me to do some fundraising for a planned Catholic University in Uganda. How could I do this for a project I had no knowledge about? I knew the idea had been floated as far back as the early 1940s, but to talk about such a project in a time where the local situation was anything but stable and strong, seemed to me daydreaming. So I wrote telling him that I didn’t see how I could assist him. But the man was stubborn and did not give up. Some weeks later he wrote back submitting a project document for a university. “Maybe this could help you to raise some funds”, having just ignored my previous rejection of the request. Since he was so persistent and did not give up on me I wrote back telling him that I would see what I could do. I went to see my boss Cardinal Danneels and told him the story. His answer came immediately and very clearly “If you want to go back to Africa I will not stand in your way and will give you all the support you may need!” The final blow came some weeks later in another letter from Kampala, where the chairman of the Steering Committee of the planned university offered me the position of founding Vice Chancellor of the planned Uganda Martyrs University. In his letter he wrote: “We are aware that your teaching contract with Louvain University is ending in March 1993, and the same is true for Fribourg University.” How on earth he knew this I don’t know, but it was indeed a fact that both contracts were due for renewal. Sometimes you wonder how things happen in life, but in mine it seemed that things certainly happened in mysterious ways.

So there I was at the end of 1992 with an offer for a new project and it just stirred something in me pushing me to move in that direction and accept to change the course of my life. I talked to some colleagues at the university and all stood behind me and offered whatever support they could give. In November 1992 a colleague from the Faculty of Philosophy at Louvain introduced me to an Irish philosopher visiting Louvain. We talked about the whole project and she offered to come and help me in Uganda for one year. Today she is still in Uganda but in a different position I must admit! Immediately I got back into contact with old friends who had assisted in fundraising in the 1970s and 80s and soon I was well on the way to making the project a reality. Hilary had won! By March 1993 I had completed my contracts with Malines, with Louvain, and with Fribourg, and was free to move in the direction I thought best for me. This forthcoming project would become an important part of my life in the years to come. But this is another story and some blogs will follow to meander through all the intricacies of setting up a university on The Equator in Africa.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s