His academic journey has been a moving episode interplayed in equal measure by tragedy, luck, resilience and hard work. You can say it is largely by twists of fate that Livingstone Senyongaâ€™s name has appeared among the top five students on Makerere Universityâ€™s 53rd and 54th graduation list.
Senyonga secured a Government scholarship to study Bachelor of Science with Economics and Mathematics after applying for mature entry in 2003. He has a Cumulative Grade Point Aggregate of 4.68. The highest is 5. Throughout his life, it is the first time he can sit back, smile and let the world pass by, if only for a while.
Before he was even born, he had to deal with problems. Senyongaâ€™s father abandoned his pregnant teenage mother. And when he was born in 1975, more problems awaited him.
When he was two years old, his mother had to return to school, leaving him in custody of his ailing grandmother in Mubende. From then on, his world shrank. There were only two people in it â€“â€“ his grandmother and himself.
â€œI hardly saw my mother. She had gone to a nursing school. When my father tried to get me, he was sent away,â€ Senyonga explains.
At four years, he was taken to nearby Katente Primary School to play. His grandmother needed a safer place for him to play while she tended to the garden.
Senyonga sat for some exams in the first and second terms. But in third term, he sat for all the exams. To him, this was a game, like in the previous terms. He came 12th out of 45 pupils and was promoted to P.2. From then on, he was required to pay fees like all pupils.
Although his grandmother struggled to raise fees by selling milk, Senyonga successfully sat for his Primary Leaving Examinations. He got aggregate 12 but could not go to St Edward Secondary School, Mubende, the school of his first choice because of fees.
â€œInstead, I joined Kiyuni Primary School, a community school that opened that same year. We studied from the council chambers at the sub-county headquarters. Whenever there was a meeting, we went under a tree shade. We had only four teachers and one class with 15 students. The school was expanding with no one joining, but some leaving.â€
By the time he sat for Senior Four final examinations, there were 10 students in the school and because the school had no examinations centre, they registered with St Charles Lwanga SS Mubende. Senyonga got aggregate 23 and was again admitted to St Edward SS Mubende to offer Mathematics, Economics and Geography (MEG). He again never went there because he had no fees.
He instead went to St Joseph Kakindu because his uncle was the bursar. However, the school did not offer MEG. There was no qualified Aâ€™ level mathematics teacher. A maths teacher from Oâ€™ level stepped up and the combination was introduced with three students.
Four months later, Senyonga lost his parents and grandmother. Then a week before sitting for his final Aâ€™ level exams, his uncle (the bursar), also died. When the results were released, he was the only student who had passed, with 10 points, scoring BEE and a point in General Paper. The combination was subsequently scrapped.
He was not eligible for a university government scholarship. He went to teach in Kiyuni PS while taking care of over 30 children in his late uncleâ€™s household. He was earning a salary of sh15,000 per month.
â€œLife was hard. In 1996, I decided to apply for a two-year diploma course in Education at National Teacherâ€™s College Kyambogo. I hoped to get a better salary after completion,â€ he says.
He was admitted on a cost-sharing scheme in which he was required to pay sh380,000. He sourced money from teaching and friends. He studied for two days a week, taught for three days and spent two days digging because he had to provide food for the family.
Unfortunately, after completing in 1998, he could not find the job he had hoped to get. He returned to Kiyuni and continued to earn sh15,000. He later switched to Sacred Heart Seminary Mubende, where he earned sh70,000.
The sh70,000 became peanuts when he got a wife in 2002. Then his turning point came when the school administration refused to heed to his continuous plea for salary increment.
â€œIt occurred to me that perhaps I was not getting a salary increment because I was under-qualified. I decided then to go back to school. I thought of scholarship options. An advert inviting applications for mature age entry at Makerere University was my only opportunity,â€ says Senyonga.
â€œThe deadline for submitting applications was September 30, but on September 27, my wife went into labour. I had saved sh40,000 for the application but I spent it in hospital. The headmaster refused to give me an advance under the pretext that I was going to fail the exams.â€
Senyonga managed to source sh60,000 and travel to Kampala on September 30. He failed to apply because the photocopy of his diploma certificate from Kyambogo could not be certified without the original documents, which he had left in Mubende. Fortunately, the deadline was extended to one more week because of the overwhelming number of applicants.
I spent all the money moving up and down and making phone calls to a friend in Mubende, requesting him to send me my documents and some money. I walked to Kabowa to a relative to get back the money I had spent buying forms and return to Mubende.â€
He eventually applied for a Bachelor of Science in Economics and Mathematics course and to his surprise, was shortlisted. He went for written exams. When he returned to Mubende, he had been dismissed from teaching at Sacred Heart.
Good enough, he had again been short-listed for oral examinations with over 100 applicants out of whom only eight applicants would be granted government scholarships. When the final results were released after three weeks, he was the best with the least mark of 86% in the three exams.
â€œI cried,â€ Senyonga says. â€œI imagined getting a degree and I could not believe it.â€
Now he has not just acquired a degree, he has a first class degree.
During the three years at Makerere, Senyonga sought the counsel of lecturers who helped him boost his self-esteem and get over the fear of failure that affected his first year performances. He read ahead of his lecturers. He also formed, joined and headed different discussion groups.
â€œI had one secret which my friends did not know â€“â€“ the more I discussed for them, the more I benefited. Exams were like revision,â€ he says.
But perhaps the most important decision he made was never to forget his background.
â€œAt campus, I was always aware of my peasant background. This helped me develop a philosophy that I was not supposed to have money. When I had it, I used it but when I did not have it, it reflected exactly who I am. I was not bothered.â€
His ill-fated life propelled him to a first class degree