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UGANDA MARTYRS UNIVERSITY

PART 2. Departure and arrival

So on June 1 1993, I was at Brussels Airport with my suitcases and some of my siblings who had come to say goodbye and good luck. I was in a great mood as I was going back to a land I loved and starting a new project: Uganda Martyrs University.

The flight was smooth and without problems and we arrived, as foreseen, at Entebbe International Airport on the 2June at 9am. I was expecting my friend Hilary, coordinator of the university project steering committee, to be there to meet me. No way Sir! I stood there in front of a group of some twenty distinguished ladies and gentlemen welcoming me back to Uganda. They were all the members of the Steering Committee, which later on would be turned into the University Council, and they wanted to make sure, so I thought, that I received a welcome which would convince me that the project was worthwhile and that I would not turn around and run away!. I suppose they were all full of good intentions! Together we travelled to Kampala where a cup of coffee was awaiting us and then a few words of welcome and a big smile from all: GOOD LUCK! Well, as it turned out I would need it.

So there I was at the residence of the Missionaries of Africa in Kampala, with my friend Hilary and my suitcases. “What next?” I asked him. “Well I suppose you will need some time to rest after your long journey?” This put me off my balance as an eight hours flight was not excessively tiring, and I wanted to go to the campus immediately and start work. But no, I had to stay put because we were to visit the patron of the university, Archbishop Wamala, and some other members of the Bishops’ Conference and discuss with them the plans for the university. So my next two days were packed with visits and discussions. I also had the opportunity to meet the Chancellor of the university and, as I knew him from years past, our discussions were easy and without major hiccups!. But then the unexpected happened. In our discussions I asked if I could have a look at the finances of the university project. Hilary obliged and to my horror the accounts had been reduced to a pitiful 50 Dollars and a few Shillings! “What do I do Hilary?” “Well that is why you are here, to fundraise and get the university started!” Easy to say and I must have been living in another world as I just said “Well let us give it a go!” So this conversation brought me back to the reality and I soon realised what the “Good Luck” of the members of the steering Committee truly meant. I asked Hilary what he thought of it and his answer was quick “Let us work together and raise some funds!” To his credit I must say that the good man must have worn out a good number of pairs of shoes on the streets of Kampala to fundraise. His walking around and our visits quickly started bearing fruits, and this gave me the idea to visit an old Indian friend who had stayed behind during the Amin years and was still very busy at his industry. I went to see him at his factory and after proudly showing me around he simply said “Now what are you doing here after so many years?” “I have come to set up a university for the Catholic Bishops.” “Oh, are those the guys who run Interservice?” ”Well in a certain sense yes and you must remember our friend who was in charge?” “Of course that was that man who brought in so many goods via Mombasa!” Phew, we were back on familiar territory and as a result I left his place with a black plastic bag containing one million shillings in small notes. Standing outside the gate of the factory, with my plastic bag, I had to wait about half an hour for my friend Hilary to pick me up. Yes, I was back in Uganda and time did not really matter, as long as you achieve something. I must admit I did not feel comfortable standing there on the street with people staring at that big “mzungu” holding a bulging plastic bag. Luckily no police officer approached me to see what was in the bag, maybe a bomb or some drugs! But fine, I had made my first contribution in Uganda to Uganda Martyrs University. More adventures would follow in fast succession.

Now it was time to think seriously about moving to Nkozi, the proposed location. But Hilary announced “We do not know where you will stay!” “Listen man, I have to move and we will see what is in store once there”. So off we were in his little car, me with my suitcases and a bundle of plans and good will! And you must admit that things always fall into place and on arrival I was welcomed by an old friend Bernard Onyango, former Registrar of Makerere University and now Registrar of Uganda Martyrs University. Together we would work for years setting up the place, and these were good years with great collaboration and friendship. He had arranged for me to stay at the local hospital in the doctor’s house, which was empty for the coming months. This would give us some time to look around for permanent residence. In fact, works were going on to renovate and improve the former residence of the principal of the former National Teachers College, to become the Vice Chancellor’s residence. The college had been given by the Ministry of Education to the Bishops so that they would have a site to start the university. Good idea but the works which had to be done to bring the place to a decent status were enormous and you can understand why government was keen to hand over such infrastructures which needed massive investments. Fine, as time is not of great importance, we set out to tackle the task. I moved into the doctor’s house and it was more than what I needed for the moment. The problem was that I had nothing with me to do some cooking and other domestic chores. I asked the person responsible of the hospital if I could use what was in the cupboards but met a cold NO, this belongs to the hospital. Now how Hilary and Bernard managed to get the house but not the use of its contents will always remain a mystery to me. I had some past experience to live in the bush so I knew what I should get to make myself reasonably comfortable. It worked out and after a few days I could hold a first evening meeting preceded with a friendly Spaghetti Bolognese. Bernard came down with his secretary, the assistant registrar, who was a former staff of the college, the human resource manager of the university, the finance officer and the driver of the university! We enjoyed the meal and afterwardsI suggested that the driver take himself off as I wanted to discuss a few urgent points regarding the university. He left the room but stayed outside the door for the rest of the evening and must have heard all we discussed! No wonder news moves around fast in Africa!

Our main concerns were the first students’ intake and the date of opening. Now that I had had time to visit the site and assess the place, I saw that a few buildings were in reasonably good condition but needed a good cleanup and some paint, and so we decided that the first intake would be on October 18 1993 and not September as initially announced. Also the first group of students would be limited to 84, some for the Institute of Ethics and some for the Faculty of Business Administration. We made the selection of students that evening, even if another selection had been made earlier. The next morning new faces appeared on campus: the new dean of the faculty and two lecturers. They had been appointed before my arrival and I could do nothing but to welcome them on the team. Another person, formerly teaching at University College Dublin, had been appointed earlier in the year, and in fact she was the first formally appointed academic staff member. She would arrive at the end of the month and set up residence at my place because there was nowhere else to go.

So there we had the first staff of the university: five administrators and eight academics. We also had a small community of the Little Sisters of St Francis (cook, nurse, gardener) and some technical assistance: a carpenter, an electrician, a plumber and the driver. I think I can say at this point that this small group would turn out to be a team of marvellous dedication and I felt good to start the adventure on the ground and at the Equator. Yes the campus itself straddled on the Equator, one part in the Northern and another in the Southern hemisphere. We used to joke that we could have breakfast in the northern hemisphere and sleep in the southern hemisphere! I do not think there are many in the world in such location! But we were there and could start work in earnest, but also meet our first challenges of a magnitude I never expected. Luckily I had the people around me who were full of dedication and generosity. But this for the next time!

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THE AMIN YEARS

In my previous blog I have already mentioned Idi Amin. Let me recall some events where I encountered Idi Amin more closely or at least had dealings with his regime!

When he took power in January 1972, Kampala erupted in joy, a ”dictator” – they meant Obote – was gone. The man taking over was chief of the army and had been put there by Obote himself for the simple reason that he hoped that Amin would not cause any problems in the future. Amin was illiterate and his use of the English language was rather limited. One year, during his regime, he was invited to Buckingham Palace and at the state banquet, her Majesty the Queen is reported to have invited Amin to have a second helping. “No thanks Madam, I am fed up!” was the answer. I have no idea what Her Majesty thought! Many stories about his Kampala meetings can be heard in Kampala.

But, whatever Obote had hoped, the placing of Amin at the head of the Ugandan Army was a bad calculation. And yet that explosion of joy of the first days was not going to last very long. I recall a very highly-educated individual telling me after the takeover: “at last someone had given us our country back!” Maybe, but already in July 1972 the Indians (mostly successful traders) were expelled from Uganda. In July also some top army officers were planning a take-over but this was foiled by one of the conspirators. After that, things spiralled downwards at an incredible pace; the ones suffering under this were the little people and the have nots. Repression became the rule (in past blogs I have already touched on some of these aspects). The number of individuals who suffered death under Amin’s regime will always remain unknown, but it is estimated that at least half a million people died!

But there are some other aspects of the person of Amin (full title: His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, CBE, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular), which, when looked at today, make us smile. I remember one year he was to visit Ibanda and we had to stock up in whisky; his love for a good whisky was indeed great. But to see such a colossus of a man coming to you and grabbing both your hands in one of his hands still makes me shiver and conjures up ideas of repression. That same one hand was once shown in a newspaper article of him holding in it his latest newborn baby (and there was still space!). When meeting expatriates Amin had the habit of greetings them graciously with a big smile and a big “thank you!” We never knew what he really meant but we smiled back and said numerous “welcomes”.

When my parents visited me it was during the Amin years. I have already recounted their visit and it was during that time that I managed to find a full case of excellent Bordeaux in the industrial area of Kampala. Where the guy got it from remains a mystery to me. But we did enjoy it despite the other hardships we endured! One thing though that remains a semi-mystery: during all the long years of Obote I, Obote II, and Idi Amin, the breweries continued working!

Early in the Amin years there had been an attempt by rebels coming from Tanzania to invade Uganda via Mbarara. Again this failed but the day it happened I was travelling to Mbarara from Mushanga. Maybe it was my sense of adventure which put me on the road to Mbarara! I wanted to know what was happening, but we were stopped at the entry of town and were told to turn back as there was some fighting in the outskirts of town. We heard some shots and thought it was best to return to base. The man leading the assault would come back later on the political scene of Uganda and finally take over in 1986: Yoweri Kaguta Museveni who is still running the country today.

When the Indians were expelled Uganda degenerated into almost total chaos. In no time the economy collapsed as those who were running it were either leaving voluntarily or (mostly) expelled. For them it was certainly traumatic: on their way to Entebbe Airport, they were stopped at various road blocks and systematically all their possessions taken from them by drunk and drugged soldiers, so that many left empty handed with only their lives more or less intact. However, their industrious spirit would help them in their new lands of residence to emerge as new economic powers. Some even returned to Uganda to start all over again.

Amin had his own way of humiliating people, and one day he had a group of Brittons standing in front of him and they were told to kneel down and recognize him as their lord and master. They did so! One of them, Bob Astles, even became a top advisor in Amin’s government and by God he learned the tricks of cruelty from his master very quickly and was eager to enforce the erratic decisions of Amin. What was called the “State Research” acted as the frightening arm of Amin’s regime. Random imprisonment and death became the norm, and Nile Hotel in Kampala became the headquarters of the place of torture and death. It was said that Amin had a tunnel dug from State House Nakasero to Nile Hotel, which was not very far and that he occasionally visited prisoners to see “how they were doing”. I imagine the fear and fright on their faces when they saw him coming.

During that time a new airforce was created and a few old Mig Jets were bought from Russia. Russian pilots flew them but I have no recollection of any military activity on their part. I suppose those guys were staying in good hotels and enjoyed their time in Uganda. But all was not well for the people and especially politicians. Amin could not stand any criticism and the slightest hint of it would mean torture and death. Some people managed to get through it and save their lives. One case was a high ranking officer, in fact the first fully Sandhurst trained Ugandan officer, who lived through the whole regime. He was even appointed head of the Uganda Development Corporation. But his fate turned sour immediately after the overthrow of Amin and some soldiers of the new regime brought him down in front of his own family. Sad indeed!

For survival you sometimes do crazy things – I have already narrated the story of my car with an extra petrol tank! A flying bomb indeed! Living under Amin regime was not always easy, and you had to keep your head down to avoid trouble. However, sometimes trouble comes to you. On the way home from my teaching at Makerere University one afternoon I overtook some military vehicles. On reaching home, I was almost immediately surrounded by those same vehicles, soldiers spilling out with rifles cocked. I was saved by a large group of students who had heard the commotion. Boy, was I lucky that day! And so one can then imagine how the liberators were received in 1979 when they entered Kampala. Joy was the agenda of the day. I recall the weeks before the overthrow of Amin. I was living at Ggaba National Seminary and evening after evening we could hear shelling in the distance. They were called “saba-saba” and it became a habit, when the shelling started, to hear people shouting “more, more”. Once the Tanzanian army, together with some Ugandan rebels, took over Kampala the joy was real but very subdued. The Tanzanians, a very disciplined army, liberated the whole country and left Kampala in the hands of the rebels. This was going to be the beginning of another dark period for Uganda with five years of repression and military coups. It was only in 1986 that a more definite liberation came our way and since then we have lived in relative peace and prosperity.

Books have been written about Amin and even films produced. They all contain pieces of truth but I cannot assure you that all is as it had been. It was bad and the ones who suffered most were the ones who dared to raise their heads above the parapet. Sometimes it is best to live a “low key” life! But one thing is for sure: I really did live in interesting times.

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IBANDA HOSPITAL

When missionaries first came to Uganda one of their priorities was to be heavily involved in social work and the health sector was no exception. In 1968 when I arrived in Ibanda Parish, a big project was in the making: building a hospital for the region: Ibanda Hospital. The project was funded in its entirety by Misereor, a German Catholic Charity. Misereor also submitted a series of plans for the project. Being a rather curious person, I could not resist going down to the site to see what was brewing. In fact, I found an existing small medical centre: Ibanda Dispensary, run by Irish sisters. We have already mentioned them earlier when extolling their hospitality and culinary skills! Over the years they would show some more skills, I can assure you.
The project leader was a stout Swiss lady called Sylvia Probst, a member of the community of Irish sisters. She was a nurse herself and endowed with very developed organisational skills, not always orthodox but certainly result oriented! She had been given the task to see the project through to completion. To maximise her work and make it effective, she drove a small green Volkswagen beetle and always gave the impression that she was in a hurry, or at least the engine always seemed in a hurry. You could hear her coming from far away as the engine was revving at over-speed. We found out quickly that she was driving keeping her foot half-way down the clutch, thus creating the sound of a sports car! We took the habit of calling her “Mama Clutch!”. No wonder the clutch of the VW had to be replaced rather quickly!

Apart from that, she was a most charming person and could join any joke worth a good laugh. She showed me the plans of the proposed buildings, and I must say they were impressive. A series of low buildings inter-connected by covered passage ways and spread over a few acres, gave the impression of a friendly place where it would be good to be treated for any ailments coming your way! The hospital was putting up a theatre block, a private ward, two general wards, a maternity ward and a surgical ward. Good planning I thought, but then what did I know about medical facilities? Of course equipment would have to be purchased, a thing Sylvia had already done by that time, but first the buildings had still to come up. So she contacted various contractors and bidding started. At the end of the day, one came out first and was awarded the contract, Mr Charles Kimbowa. He had been to the site a few times to assess what would be needed for the works. On a Monday morning he arrived on the site with three workers, a pickup van and his old car. With them they were carrying an old concrete mixer, two wheelbarrows and some hoes and pickaxes as well as some shovels. And they had come to build a complete hospital! I learned very quickly that building could not start as he had no capital to buy raw materials such as cement, sand, stones, iron bars, bricks, and other building materials. Haggling started with Sylvia, but by the end of the day the contractor had won and received 50% of the total contract money. He must have been a very happy man as soon new equipment arrived on the site as well as a new car for the contractor, a car he proudly showed round! Building started within the same week. It was an opportunity to give work to the local people, and each morning dozens of young men joined the contractor and his team. I must say things went well and the foundations of all the buildings were dug in no time; concrete and a slab was cast, and so the rise of buildings could proceed, at least so it was thought. I had a hunch that something was not right and with Brother Francis we talked it through. One Sunday morning, we walked to the site and looked at it all. It seemed fine but something told us that things were not in the right place. We looked at the site plans and started measuring and soon we found the problem. We got a pickaxe and started digging at a corner of one building and found that the first course of blocks was a full foot outside the foundations resting on loose soil. The concrete slab had been cast a full foot and a half outside the foundations, so as to give it more strength, said the contractor! Strange way of looking at construction! We told Sylvia, who did not seem to worry and told us that the contractor was a professional and we were amateurs! We insisted on digging more places and the same conclusion came up each time: the buildings were being built outside the foundations. Sylvia had no choice but to ask the contractor to dig up his slab and peg the foundation correctly so that walls would rest on solid ground. This was done with great reluctance but in the end everybody was happy it had been done. In no time the buildings came up, and after eight months the full site was covered with beautiful buildings and the finishing touches remained as the main task to be completed. One year and half after the start of building, the official opening could take place, and an extraordinary person, Brigid, a fully qualified registered nurse and midwife was installed as the first matron of the hospital. She would run the place for some years with an iron fist and a broad smile and give to it a reputation worthy of the best.

But there was still a problem. In the mind of the people the hospital was not yet fully inaugurated. In their minds some medical practice had first to take place and they were convinced that the first patient who would undergo surgery would not make it. We tried to shrug this off but the people remained adamant. The Irish sisters running the hospital had obtained from a Dutch organisation that two doctors would be provided for the next four years so as to give time for one of theirs to join the hospital team. And believe it or not, the first casualty of the hospital was near to happening. One evening a young woman was brought in in a pitiful state. She had drank a full glass of “Gamatox”, a disinfectant used for cattle bathing. One of the doctors having examined her had detected a serious swelling in the abdomen and it was decided to open her up to see exactly what was wrong. The hospital did not yet have an X-Ray machine at the time! So surgery took place but the condition of the patient was such that she did not make it. Outside the hospital a good number of people had gathered, aware that the first surgery was gong to take place. When they learned that the patient did not survive, the rumour went round that this had to happen and that now the place was safe for medical care! What a rough start for the doctors and the hospital team! But things calmed down very quickly and normal hospital activities became the order of the day. In the weeks following this incident some seriously big crates arrived and a brand new X-Ray machine was delivered together with theatre lights. Two technicians had come to install the X-Ray machine. The theatre lights had to be installed and with Francis we used our imagination to fix these lights in a most solid fashion above the operating table and fixed to the roof structure. It all worked well and we were proud of our achievements! Ibanda Hospital was up and running and the region had top quality medical facilities at its disposal. Soon the place would be flooded with patients and the adjacent Dispensary would serve as the screening centre for the hospital. Good work had been done and one of the main aspects of missionary work had been put into practice: bring charity into social activities! All of us were very happy.
As time went on the place was eventually handed over to Ugandan sisters and local doctors. But the basis had been solid and so it was time to pass on the baton. Still today the hospital stands proud in an area which has grown exponentially in population; medical attention is, and remains, a service necessary in the region. Well done to our Irish sisters and their vision and hard work!

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PECAMEGA and MOTOR SPORTS

It is not easy to describe the type of life one has in Uganda especially when not everything is always rosy. But I would like to describe a few places and adventures I had during my first years in The Pearl of Africa. This period, from 1967 to 1982, was full of surprises with happy, sometimes difficult moments.

I must say that my colleagues in Mbarara really knew how to organise themselves, and at the diocesan headquarters there was a place called Pecamega for “Petrol, Carpentry, Metal, Garage”. To run such a place, which was at the same time a vocational institution, you need guys who have creativity and a lot of initiative, as their budget was rather limited. We have already mentioned some of them: the little man who had told me on my first day in Mbarara that Uganda was not the place to be, Louis who was as tough as a concrete block and never compromising but eternally complaining, and Karl, the artist, architect, and wood worker. Those three guys ran the show: the little man did the metal part comprising plumbing and electricity, Louis was in command at the garage and welding, and Karl led the carpentry department. The three of them had developed something unique and one could always go and ask for some assistance whenever needed.

I must say I always felt most welcome when I met them in their little world. The little man gave me lots of ideas to improve on electrical installations and did I use these over the years – in fact, I am still using them today! Plumbing tips were also part of our encounters. But I learned most from an old man who had been an initiator of Pecamega and was now living at the central administration: Brother Bonaventure. He was in his late seventies at the time and was responsible for the post office of the place. He himself was an architect, and over the years had developed various projects in the vast area of Mbarara Diocese. But he had his own ideas and never accepted that someone else would take his place in the carpentry workshop. But then with age there were certain things he could no longer do and eventually he had to give in. He showed me plans of his achievements, and what I noticed very quickly was the standardisation and monotony of his designs. All the shops he designed for Indians in town were the same: front veranda, front shop with an office and storage behind. This could be expanded at will depending on the space available. Practical but not very creative! I think that was the problem he had with Karl who, as an artist, wanted things to be lovely but also practical. And Karl was an exceptional wood carver which Bonaventure was not. He did one great thing for me though: he gave me a copy of his plans for a septic tank with all the measurements to cover the needs of the place where the tank was to be built. I would use this in Mushanga and other places as this item, needed for improved hygiene, was often non-existant. Louis showed me how to service a car, and over the years I developed rather good skills in that field, doing most of the services of my car, during the Amin years, myself. In another blog I will recall these years!

So, here was a place, full of activity and buzzing with enthusiasm, which was the practical heartbeat of Mbarara Diocese: Pecamega. God knows how we should thank these guys for the work they did. Karl especially did give me a hand in designing all the churches and schools we developed in Mushaga Parish. They were all unique on their own, practical and artistic. Doing all this work with Karl taught me many things in the field of construction and I will be eternally grateful for his generous sharing of knowledge and expertise. With all the young men and women trained by the three, in no time the region had a good group of skilled workers, and one could easily see the influence they had in the region: buildings were coming up based on sound plans and engineering knowledge. Kudos to those pioneering guys!

Strangely enough, my contacts with Pecamega led me to motor sport, rather strange, no? In town I had met, on recommendation of Louis, a very good Pakistani mechanic who was a fanatic of motor sports. We got talking about it and especially the East African Safari. In no time he convinced me to get involved in one way or another, and soon I was invited by the manager of Grindlays Bank, Mbarara, where I had my bank account, to attend a meeting related to the East African Safari. The hobby of this kind manager was motor sports, and naturally I got involved! The idea was simple: I could be in charge of the control post of the Safari, located at Ibanda where I was living. I accepted with pleasure, and on the set date I pitched a small tent along the road. We had to indicate to incoming cars that they had to stop and have their road log stamped, as proof they had passed the place. As from 9pm that day the cars started flying in, having their road card stamped and, zoomed off again. This lasted till 10am the following morning when the last car passed the control post. Rather difficult to win the rally when you pass the post some 13 hours behind! With a friend from the Secondary School of Ibanda, we manned the post the whole time. The inspector of the Safari, who became a very good friend, came by round 3am to see if all was well. Mission accomplished and I was happy to have been of service!

But my Pakistani friend did not leave it at that. As I had just purchased a new car, a Datsun SSS, he asked if I would be willing to enter the rally, he would be the driver and me the co-driver. I politely refused, arguing that I was not willing to put my new car at risk as yet. He understood and found another person willing to join the adventure. But for me and my friend from the secondary school this was not the end. I had to service my car and so we decided to drive around without an exhaust pipe. Well, all hell broke out on the hill and just like teenagers we zoomed around only to be told very rapidly and firmly by the matron of the hospital that we were noise polluters in the region. We looked at each other, had a good laugh, and fitted the exhaust back onto the car. It was great fun for us but maybe not for the others! Anyhow this made life more interesting and gave us a good break from daily routine. At the end of the day, missionary life can be full of the most unexpected things!

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MUSHANGA PARISH giving new life!

I think that this blog may be disconcerting for some readers, as I will embark in some theological thinking to remodel the way pastoral work could be done. Although we did face the scepticism of many, the bishop included, when embarking on a fresh thinking of our work, nonetheless, we did (I think) make a difference.

When you are two people to run a place the size of Mushanga Parish with a population of some 20,000 souls, it is difficult not to ask for the assistance of others. Of course, our two older colleagues were there, and one of the older men showed an openness to new ideas, which for us was a breath of fresh air. The fact that he was praying so as to allow us do our running around was a boost in what we did and thought. The other one continued his grumbling and reproach towards all what was new. He never said a word about the different experiments we made!

We were convinced that a shift in our activities was necessary and that the people to be consulted first were our immediate collaborators: the catechists. Their role became crucial and could not be ignored. Richard had already organized the 12 centres with the man responsible for Mushanga centre as the chief catechist. They met every two months for three days at Mushanga, the main centre. Two days were dedicated to thinking out the pastoral work and its implications for the community, the last day was spent discussing administrative matters. I was amazed at the sense of togetherness of all present and the discussions we had were frank and open. Nobody was more important than the other, and the chief catechist did have a real sense of collaborative work. Our task as pastors was made so much easier with such people willing to see the face of their communities rejuvenated.

It was during these bi-monthly meetings that an older catechist, in fact the dean of catechists, came up with an idea which would develop into something major that would give to the life of the parish a totally new dimension. His question to the meeting was: “could we not have our main centres, 12 of them, turned into Eucharistic Centres?” For him the idea was, if we could have a permanent church where the Eucharist would be kept permanently and distributed by the catechist, it would give to the community a greater sense of unity and togetherness. The seeds were sown for a radical change in our attitude towards the understanding of what a Eucharistic community would be. It was no longer a distant something which people would share occasionally, but it became a daily opportunity for each one to receive a boost in their christian lives. With Richard we sat down and discussed all options offered to us. It became clear that we had to rethink what our centres were and turn them into living christian communities, not just places where we would come occasionally and dispense teaching and sacraments. This would mean educating people, starting with the catechists. We were aware that we could not go ahead unless the Bishop agreed. We set out to convince him of the correctness of our thinking and mapped out the whole project. Catechists were trained in some sound theology of the Eucharist. They were given hints on how to behave and were made aware of the importance of their role as leaders of these communities. To our great satisfaction and joy the Bishop agreed to our ideas on condition that he himself would have some part and role in the setting up of these centres. At the end of the day, it turned out that his role consisted mainly in being physically present to install catechists in their new roles and ensure that the physical location of their community Church responded to what he considered as essential to vouch for his approval. I was amazed at how fast the catechists grasped our thinking, and soon all our centres were working hard to prepare their places of worship to receive a constant presence of the Eucharist and for the catechists to become the “ministers” of their people. Each centre set up a special committee to organize the physical infrastructure, another to arrange for the collection of funds to support the physical infrastructure, and another to teach the people the meaning of Eucharistic Centres. This gave us new wings and we were constantly on the road visiting our centres and talking to our people. I never before encountered such a sense of a living community – and with enthusiasm to burn! After one year of hard work, we could feel something new was coming, and the desire to help grew day by day. This first step was of immense importance, and seeing the enthusiasm of our people convinced us that we were really on the right path.

We called in the artistic and architectural skills of Brother Karl from Mbarara, himself an architect and artist, to help planning the 12 centre churches. They needed to be modified and embellished and turned into real places of worship. But my goodness did we run around the places as the requests from the centres were coming in each day for assistance and ideas. And so after a year and half of hard work and reflection, doubled with a serious dose of prayer not only from our old man but from of all of us, the bishop agreed to inaugurate and bless the first Eucharistic Centre of Mushanga Parish. The others would follow in the years to come. It was a day of great celebration and joy, and it is not often that you see such joyous crowds flocking to their church. New life was given to the place, and a permanent presence of the Eucharist in the centre made it a place attracting people for prayer and worship. The catechist realised his responsibilities and always made sure people would appreciate and understand the importance of the change in their local community. One of the major benefits of this setting up of Eucharistic Centres was that the sense of community grew and would definitely be the basis of all future developments. We have recorded some of our activities in a small booklet “Eucharist and Community” published by Ggaba Pastoral Papers. It is probably as rare as hens’ teeth these days so you are not likely to find it in any library!

However, taking such a major step was not without possible mishaps. Our catechists knew their role well, and we had provided them all with all the necessary training and tools to fulfil their duties. Each had a special satchel to hang round their neck when moving with the Eucharist to be taken to the sick or old people. Unfortunately, one day a catechist could not resist stopping at a drinking place and he put his satchel in a box tied to the back of his bicycle as he went into the “pub”. It did not take long for some kids to see this strange box and try to open it. The catechist was alerted by a well-intentioned fellow who told him kids were playing with his “box”. He came out just in the nick of time before the kids had helped themselves to the little wafers! News of the incident soon reached the head catechist who took swift action and our good catechist had his licence removed promptly. This was a good lesson for all of us and stricter security measures were taken. There are always risks when starting something new, and for us it was a steep enough learning curve!

In 1973 my friend Richard left for Canada for a holiday and I was left alone to cater for the place. But there was no doubt that I had at my disposal all the necessary tools to make the parish flourish. In fact, I was not alone but had 12 close collaborators to work with in this really marvellous venture. The fact that I suddenly became the man in charge gave me wings and over the next two years I would develop all our centres into small eucharistic communities. We would bring changes in the way our sacramental life would be lived and we introduced in our rituals a host of local traditions to make these rituals more than an external act and inspire the people about the value of their own cultures. There were so many elements in traditional practices which could be taken into our christian liturgies and we did not hesitate to use them to the maximum. Traditional music, dance, and new rites were introduced and suddenly we saw our people coming nearer to their Church and feeling that they were really part of it. We stressed especially the sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist and Marriage in our liturgical reforms. But I did know that pushing all these aspects of christian life were only the tip of the iceberg and that much more would have to be done.

One anecdote deserves mention here. We had organised a youth camp at the parish headquarters, and on the closing day we had invited the bishop to preside over the liturgy. I was in for a surprise and never expected such a reaction from the man who had given his approval to the changes we had introduced. He was welcomed into the church by a group of traditional dancers and placed on a traditional throne. During the whole liturgy we could hear a soft beating of drums accompanied by traditional dances, and when it came to the offering of gifts he was overwhelmed by bananas, fruits, chicken and goats. Proudly a young calf walked into the church and was brought to the bishop as a gift to thank him for having accepted that we move forward. I can still remember his face when seeing the animal walking flanked by six male dancers! Well, one could not let a poor animal run freely in the church! He hardly acknowledged the gift and proceeded swiftly with the rest of the liturgy. Without a word, having forfeited his lunch (which was a real feast!) he left the place and jumped into his car livid at the scene he had witnessed. I was summoned to the diocesan headquarters and told by the bishop himself that such expressions of gratitude (?) were unbefitting for a church. I tried to explain but to no avail! But it did not stop me in my enthusiasm, and “stubbornly” I would continue to implant the church into a readily fertile African soil. Years later, when I met him informally, he confessed to me that he was proud of what we had done and that being escorted into the church by a group of dancers was one of the high points of his episcopal career! So much for pride! But I had made my point, and Mbarara diocese slowly became the place to be where there was no fear of experimenting with our expressions of faith. What I have drawn from this experience is that when you give your people a chance to express themselves freely, even with a bit of guidance, you can move mountains.

But in 1975, big changes would mark my life and I was asked to go and teach at the National Major Seminary in Ggaba. There I would have an opportunity to use my parish experience in my teaching, and finally use my legal training for these young men preparing for ministry. My academic career got a real start in August 1975. But before moving to the big smoke of Kampala, I had the joy to receive my parents at Mushanga. In a next blog I will recount this epic visit. Watch this space!

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Parish life … Part 2

Rwera Parish

So there I was in a new place with a very specific mission to accomplish: putting the finances right! Rwera Parish is situated at the other extreme southwest end of the diocese. In fact it is at exactly the opposite side of the diocese compared to Ibanda Parish. Rwera parish is a long strip with a small population of about 10,000

Before going there I had to pass to the diocesan offices and meet the big man Roland, who handed me new accounts books. I looked at him with a puzzled air and said “what do you want me to do with that?” “Just fill them in based on what you will find in your new place, and bring them back to me. Good luck!” Luckily I had used these books earlier in Ibanda when doing some accounts and knew more or less what to do. My brief was: write the accounts for the last five years – the time when the parish priest took over – and compare with the statement I was given by Roland which is dated five years back.

When I arrived at the place the parish priest, Gaston (a fellow Belgian) welcomed me and showed me my quarters. In fact, the layout of the place was the same as Ibanda but much smaller. Someone must have been making the same plans for most of the parishes of the diocese! From the word go, he told me that his accounts were not in order, and knew that I had come to put some order in the business. Obviously news travelled fast! He handed me the key of the safe and some books which were supposed to be books of accounts! Then after a cup of coffee he told me, “I will be absent for the next ten days as I have business in my maize fields” I had no idea what he was talking about and would find out later what he meant. So, before lunch that day, I found myself alone at table and took a typically kinyankole meal: cooked bananas, some ground nuts and some green leafy vegetables. Although I would get used to this type of food on a daily basis, I did use my little culinary skills to tell the cooks how to improve the meals so as to have some variety. Fruits would become part of my daily diet, especially pawpaw and pineapples.

There I was, alone and wondering where to start! The reasonable thing was to organise my living quarters in a comfortable way, simple but practical! Then a brief tour of the place was a must; I have to say that compared to Ibanda Parish, I had landed in a very small place indeed. A parish residence built for three people, a small primary school and a hall for parish meetings and teaching people preparing for either baptism or marriage. Otherwise, there was nothing but silence and a green environment with a small road leading to the main road twenty five km away, which could bring me to Mbarara or Kabale at the extreme south western part of Uganda in Kigezi district.

Luckily I had brought with me a crate of beer and a bottle of Uganda Waragi (the local gin) So on my first evening I enjoyed a little gin and fruit juice as an aperitif, and a bottle of beer with my meal. I was indeed in heaven! As darkness sets in rather early in Uganda, and the parish had no electricity, I was in bed around 8pm on this my first day. Water was a scarce commodity, so I dutifully filled my water jug for my morning ablutions. I must say that I did not sleep very much that night and by six thirty the next morning I was up and ready to lead the church service at 9am. This happened in the presence of three old ladies and a few children. Not an impressive audience I must say! As I had no idea how the parish was organised, I asked one of the cooks who the catechist was. Soon an older gentleman appeared who tried, with a limited knowledge of English, to explain how the place was organised. He insisted talking in English, and it took me some effort to convince him to speak his own language even if it had to be simple and straight forward, and he did so thus helping me improve my knowledge of Runyankole. It became very clear that the man Gaston was not present very often and left the work to the catechist. This would give me my first taste of being responsible for a parish, but let it be clear I too left most of the responsibility to the catechist!

After this first initiation I went to visit the nearby primary school where the headteacher asked me bluntly: “What can I do, my wife has given me five daughters but does not want to give me a boy!” I tried to explain why this was so with my little knowledge in matters of genetics, but he rejected my explanation, and informed me that if this was the case he had no choice but to take a second wife who would give him a son. He did indeed take in a school girl as his second wife, and she became pregnant rather soon. She too gave birth to a healthy little girl! This was not to the liking of the man who dismissed the girl immediately as useless. What he did afterwards I have no idea, but he was transferred to another post very soon after this event. These little experiences taught me quite a lot about the way some people think and it would be for me an eye opener in understanding the mentality and way of thinking of our people.

I decided then that the best thing to do immediately was to get going on writing the accounts of the parish. I found stacks of papers: invoices, bills, receipts and other information which appeared to be related to finances. I dutifully sorted them, put them in chronological order and set out entering all things in my new books of accounts. I have to tell you it took a lot of patience to go through all this scattered paperwork. After some three weeks, I reached the end of all my paperwork, and, to my horror, I found that the parish had a shortfall of more than 20,000 USD. Where this came from was another matter of enquiry. It transpired that my good friend Gaston had mixed up his own funds, the parish funds, and the diocesan funds. My task now was to pass on my work to Roland who simply told me, after a quick glance at the books, “Good work! You go and tell Gaston that he should find the money to refund the parish for the shortfall!” This was easy for him to say, but why should I have to do it? But then, maybe I could pass on this bitter pill with a smile and the assurance that he was not going to be executed for it! So one day, when Gaston was at the parish residence, I went to see him in his office and laid the books in front of him. His immediate reaction was: “How much do I have to pay to settle the bill and reconcile the books?” I told him but had no time to explain; in fact, he did not want to know, and he made sure that the necessary funds were transferred to the diocesan treasury immediately. I have never had such easy settlement of financial matters! Gaston went on with his work in his maize fields which turned out to be a huge cooperative. He had with him some fifty farmers who had put their finances together, and set up a cooperative which turned out to be very effective and productive. Good for the man who considered this as his main task as parish priest in a small place in Ankole. But then, why not! I never had a chance to visit the co-op! In fact, he used it to instruct people on the values of human life and society, and he certainly did have an impact on the people he met. I doubt he passed on any knowledge of financial matters! I did not know that even finance management could be part of my life, but I had learned something precious: be careful when dealing with money. Always be transparent in disclosing matters financial! This knowledge would come in handy later in life.

My stay in Rwera would not be very long. After eight months I was due for leave, and flew back to Belgium for some rest and family reunions. My sister was getting married and I was happy to be part of the celebrations. On my return to Uganda six months later, I was placed in another parish where I would find a totally different life, much more hectic, but extremely rewarding. Next time!