By Opiyo Oloya
This Friday, May 30, will be a day of great pride in the history of higher education in Uganda, particularly for many of us who had the good fortune to attend St. Peter’s College, Tororo, or ‘TC’ for short.
It is the inaugural day of the Bernard Onyango Academic Excellence Awards. The awards are named after the late Bernard Onyango (BO)—the longest serving Academic Registrar in Uganda with 21 years at Makerere University, and another decade at Ug
anda Martyrs University, Nkozi.
Established by alumni of St. Peter’s College Tororo, where Onyango was a student in the 1940s, the awards are significant in what they symbolise and what they promise. Symbolically, the awards honor the footprints in education left by indigenous Ugandan pioneers like Onyango.
They say very eloquently that today and tomorrow’s generation of young Ugandans have home-grown role models to follow and emulate.
This was true even in my time when I joined St. Peter’s College for A-level in 1976. Onyango was already a legend in the secondary school started by white Mill Hill Missionaries on May 24, 1941. There was, for example, the Bernard Onyango Hall in a school where all the other student residences had foreign names.
My hall of residence was called Resink then, but to this day, I do not know who or what it was named after. There was always the friendly ribbing from students in Bernard Onyango to those of us, the hoi polloi who resided in those residences with foreign names, that we were not authentic enough.
It was all in good fun, of course, but there was a point to it. Onyango was a Ugandan, one of us, and his name meant something to our native ears.
Even then, the young men residing in the Bernard Onyango House carried themselves as true followers in the footsteps of the trailblazer after whom the residence was named.
In any case, we were reminded daily of the legacy of academic excellence that he left behind as a student of the college and, it was on that account, that we flogged ourselves day and night, pushing books as hard as we could.
That is not to say it was all work and no play, but I will reserve the part about play for another day. When I joined Makerere University in 1979, Onyango, then registrar, lived up to his legendary status.
His focus on academic excellence was ironclad—you worked hard, passed exams and lived another day to enjoy the next cycle of exams, or you were toast. We chose to work hard, stay another day to learn, and make something out of our life in school.
All this makes the establishment of the Bernard Onyango Academic Excellence Awards all the more relevant, in that it drives home the importance of education to a growing nation like Uganda. But while the award gets respectability from its namesake, it gets its teeth from the cash awards offered to the deserving recipients that include former students of Tororo College, and the members of their supportive teaching staff.
The former Prime Minister and ex-Chancellor of Makerere University Prof. Apolo Nsibambi will honour the occasion with the keynote address during the inaugural presentation of the awards at the Main Hall at Makerere University. But the incredibly rich legacy that Onyango left survives beyond St. Peter’s College Tororo.
The reason is very simple. Onyango with foresight, wisdom and, above all, determination, set a clear path for all young Ugandans, not just those from St. Peters College to follow toward national and global citizenship.
If on Friday, in his name, young Ugandans are celebrated for their excellence in education, it is because he resolutely set the standards for all.
It makes sense, therefore, that the legacy of academic excellence that Onyango left behind must embrace other Uganda institutions of learning. The award should become a national programme that celebrates academic excellence wherever it occurs in the country.
This will only work with sponsorship from private businesses and individuals gifting generously to replenish the awards programme. It means expanding the reach of fundraising beyond alumni of St. Peters College, Tororo.
Let alumni from all the secondary schools and colleges of Uganda pool their resources in maintaining the name of Bernard Onyango forever through the sponsorship of the awards programme. Do your bit today, and make a difference. BO would be eternally grateful.