TIMELINE: NTARE (1970 -1971)

"Learning from Crichton"

The journey to Ntare was exciting. Mbabazi woke up at dawn, prepared his small suitcase and was mindful that he had to be at the bus stop on Kabale Main Street by 6:00 am or else he would not be able to report to school on time. His days at Butobere were over and he was now officially a “Musiniya” (senior student). This was the title that all Butobere alumni gave themselves when they graduated from the school. He had graduated with flying colours, much to his delight and the expectation of the Headmaster, Mr. Lamplaugh.

Travelling to Mbarara meant that he would be crossing the Rwizi River that his maternal grandmother Ruth Ndataga had always talked about. The first crossing was at the border between Mbarara and Ntungamo. The second crossing was at Nyamitanga which is on the border between Mbarara Municipality and rural Mbarara. After the Nyamitanga bridge crossing, the road branched off to the left. The first thing that would strike you as you reached the school boundaries was that the school had no permanent enclosure, very much like the schools philosophy.

Mr. William M. Crichton, a Scotsman to the letter was a tough, principled and very perceptive man. He had been the headmaster of this school since its inception and he had preferred an atmosphere of no formal rules. The only rule that applied was that there should be respect for each other and personal discipline. Here Mbabazi would set his own boundaries with regards to discipline.

Crichton was also politically nonconformist and his character would impact on every student in the sense that it allowed them to examine the political spectrum from a position where all ideas were welcome. Surprisingly, his methods of management not only ensured discipline, but Ntare then had distinguished itself as a top academic school, producing some of Uganda’s most outstanding citizens.

As Mbabazi walked into the school compound, the first sight of any activity would be at the lawn tennis court. O’ level students that had already reported and settled in were playing tennis. Besides the court was the rugby field. Mbabazi recalled the previous year’s injury to his leg that had prevented him from participating in the inter-school games in United Kingdom. He was part of the national rugby team with his friends Emmanuel Gasana who always played fly back and Michael Odeke. They were also reporting for senior five. They were Ntare old students having done their O’ levels there and passed.

As Mbabazi walked further into the school compound, a building with a red tin roof indicated where the headmaster’s office was. This was where all new students reported for a small talk with William M Crichton. Being his first term, Mbabazi needed to check in with the bursary to ensure that Kigezi local government which was responsible for paying for Kigezi students’ books and uniforms had indeed made the payment. After he verified that the school had received their payment, someone directed him to the headmasters’ office. When he walked into the office, Crichton looked up and in a matter of fact way said;

“John Patrick, you must do sciences.”

It was a statement and Mbabazi was taken aback. He stood there for a while wondering what to tell him, then he said;


It was Crichton’s turn to look taken aback. He never expected that this student would have the nerve to question his decision. He observed Mbabazi for a few minutes and then told him to go and think about it. They would have a discussion again later.

As he left the headmaster’s office, someone directed him to his dormitory. He had been posted to Stanley. The mundane routine of the students involved waking up at 5:30am and reporting to the dining hall at 6:30 – 7:00 am for a breakfast of tea, porridge and bread with butter. They had to be ready for class by 7:30am. The A-level students wore grey trousers and white shirts with a tie and blazer. Cleanliness was very important to the students.

The first day of class, Mbabazi reported to the Arts stream, he had no intention of studying sciences. Crichton sent for him and asked that they take a walk together. During the walk, Crichton who was calling Mbabazi his son, told him the reasons why he had chosen sciences for him.

Crichton the previous year had been to Butobere and Mr. Lamplaugh had shown him all Mbabazi’s previous exam scores. He knew that Mbabazi was an outstanding science student because those days one could not take pure mathematics unless they had an aptitude for sciences. Mbabazi was also good at arts, but he knew and felt that Mbabazi was stronger at sciences.

Crichton asked him why he had got a lower mark in Physics compared to his exam scores throughout Butobere. Mbabazi not being one to tell a lie told him that after his (Crichton’s) visit to Butobere and the interview where he seemed to be leaning towards sciences, Mbabazi had decided not to pass the exam with a distinction. Crichton had suspected as much given that Lamplaugh had reported that Mbabazi had expressed disinterest in pursuing sciences at A’ level when Crichton left. Why did Mbabazi want arts he asked?

Mbabazi explained to him that shortly before independence, his father Kezekiah Bagwowabo had been involved in a land dispute in Kihihi². His neighbor had stolen his land and he took the matter to court. Back then, the chief magistrates’ court was in Mbarara so he had to travel there. When he got there, the neighbor had come with a gentlemen dressed in a black robe. This is the one who did all the talking. Kezekiah Bagwowabo lost the case thus he lost his land. He was livid because the judge seemed to be saying exactly what the man dressed in black was saying.

When he got home, he said; “Omutabani wangye aratekwa kuba lawyer!” meaning my son must become a lawyer. Mbabazi intended to take those subjects that would enable him become a lawyer. Crichton asked him to reconsider because Uganda lacked scientists and he had the skill to handle such difficult subjects but Mbabazi flatly refused to go for sciences. So Crichton gave up and let him enroll in the arts section.

Mbabazi ended up doing History, Economics and English Literature. He had the option of geography which he loved very much but when he learned that Mr. White had moved from Butobere and would be his geography teacher at Ntare, he thought it wasn’t worth it studying in a class of someone who just couldn’t give you full marks. Mr. White was angry with him for refusing to join his class for such a reason.

The conversation with Mbabazi was not strange for Crichton. For each new group of O and A level students, he had been identifying young men who had potential to be outstanding students. He would cultivate them with a view that they would become leaders in their various fields. These he would also appoint to leadership positions in the school prefect council.

This policy of Crichton was being replicated across the country in all the government aided schools. Robinson was doing it at Kings College Buddo and Lamplaugh was doing it at Butobere. The colonial government’s education policy from the very beginning included identifying potential student leaders who would fill the lower administrative posts in government. Post-independence, the focus of the English head teachers that remained was ensuring that Ugandans had the right skilled people to fill out the vacancies created by departing British citizens. Crichton and his colleagues post-independence had the task of building critical mass of potential leaders to work at higher levels of administration. In Crichton’s view, the field of sciences was lacking in leaders and they needed to fill the gap.

It is this capacity building background that the pre-independence governor Sir Andrew Cohen had in mind when setting up Ntare and Butobere in the Western region. By the time Mbabazi joined Butobere, he did not know that this identification program was ongoing and his entry into NUSU, his exam performance, his behavior, etc were being reviewed for this purpose.

The students at Ntare were an interesting mix in terms of character. There were a few studious characters that woke up at 4:00am and they earned themselves the nickname “Zivunda” for their zeal to study. Another student that had a nickname was Michael “embogo” Odeke. This young man was always up to something crazy, he was the life of the A’ level section of the school, he was one of the best rubgy players, he did things in extreme and never seemed to read, but when exam results came out, he would pass with distinctions. He was one of Crichton’s favourite sons. Code names were also used by the boys when they wanted to talk about a teacher while the teacher was in the vicinity. The teacher never could tell that they were discussing him. The idea of code names became quite set in Mbabazi’s mind.

Ntare School was a representation of Uganda because it had students from all corners of the country and Mbabazi learned that Crichton who the students had fondly given the code name “Matu” had been to various parts of the country looking for outstanding students to join Ntare. They called him Matu which means ears in Rukiga/Runyankore because his big ears were the first thing you noticed when you met him. He knew they had given him this nickname and he ignored it.

When Mbabazi joined Ntare, it was rare for a new student to come and assume a leadership role.  Selection of the student government was strictly the duty of Crichton who preferred to groom the student leaders starting at O’level. Mbabazi was one of the few exceptions.

In August 1970, the Senior five students would campaign for the posts of President, Vice President, Treasurer and Secretary of various clubs. Mbabazi competed for the post of President of the geography society and he won it. Ntare at that time had student societies or clubs organized as some form of debate club. These were the Scripture union, History and Geography. There was also another important club which all the boys were part of precisely because it allowed them to go out and meet up with students from other schools for entertainment purposes. This was the entertainment club.

Mbabazi, who had developed a keen interest in politics from his Kigezi High school days, was instrumental in establishing the Current Affairs club, of which he became the first president. So he held the position of geography and current affairs President concomitantly.

The leaders of these clubs were influential probably because they had demonstrated that they could command the attention of their peers through the voting process of the clubs. It was from these elected leaders that Crichton picked not just the Head and deputy head prefect, but all other prefects.

William M Crichton was duly impressed by Mbabazi’s victory in the geography club and his initiative to set up a new club so he appointed him the Deputy Head Prefect. Cyril Rwabushenyi who had been in the school since O’level was appointed the Head Prefect. The head Prefect was given the privilege of having a room all to himself and this suited Cyril’s friends just fine. Mbabazi and Cyril struck up an interesting bond that lasted decades.

To the students who did not know Cyril and Mbabazi, they appeared stone faced, serious leaders but to their inner circle of friends, they were just fun loving boys often cracking jokes and getting into all sorts of mischief. The mischief was restricted to Cyril’s room. Outisde those walls, the two boys maintained a formality even with their circle of friends. The pair often had heated debates in this room about the goings on in the country. Mbabazi’s reading and following of the news was making him more radical and Marxist in leaning.

Crichton took them under his wing wholeheartedly and unreservedly. He was also the kind of character who if he took a liking to you, he would assign you extra responsibility as long as you understood that you had to be responsible for your actions and any attempt to abuse that position would yield the same result as every other student; a punishment.

It was a great honour to be called Crichton’s son. Crichton whose family had remained in the Scotland would leave school during the long holidays to spend time with his wife and children. When he did, he left his house and his Mercedes Benz with his sons. Driving to town in Crichton’s car would mean that the whole Mbarara town would be talking about it after the incident. Interestingly, these prefects never stepped over the invisible line drawn by Crichton.

Mbabazi was not only Deputy Head Prefect, he was appointed dormitory captain on top of holding leadership roles in the Geography and Current Affairs club. It wasn’t just the prefects bonding with Crichton, but every student he knew by name and he became very protective of them.  On 25th January, 1971 for example, the day that Idi Amin overthrew President Obote, Mbabazi was at school. The announcement that there had been a coup d’etat and that Uganda had a new president came over the radio. Idi Amin had declared himself President and just like that, the lives of the students changed. Mbabazi was incensed and vowed to his friends that he would not go to class until Amin was removed. As soon as Crichton heard this, he sent for Mbabazi and gave him a fatherly lecture. He told him he knew how he felt and that he felt like fighting the overthrow of rule of law, but Crichton’s only wish was that Mbabazi could focus on his studies and finish his A’ level exams.

Crichton warned the boys to be careful with what they said. He feared that infiltration might occur and specifically he would say, nothing good would come from the regime. He was very perspective because soon the killings of the Acholi and Langi began. The students from Northern Uganda were affected by all of this. Crichton would not let them go home for the holidays fearing Amin’s execution squads. He was right because a few parents of students lost their lives. Since all prefects stayed at school during the holidays, Mbabazi spent time with these students. He got to see firsthand the negative impact of a murderous regime. Crichton chipped in where he could by getting the boys scholarships and giving them pocket money when they needed it.

A few months after President Idi Amin overthrew President Obote, he would send his newly appointed Minister of Education Hon Abu Mayanja to talk to the boys about the country and the good work that the government was doing. The direction the country was taking. It didn’t feel like it was headed in the right direction. President Amin had just decreed that he was the only President in Uganda and anyone else using that title was to stop forthwith.

As the President of the geography and current affairs clubs, Mbabazi would have to go by the title of Chairman. All the schools in Uganda complied with Amin’s decree and overnight the title Chairman was introduced in the clubs across the country. Looking back, Mbabazi felt that that single action defied logic that a Head of State would feel particularly angry that others held that title. This was of course part of the paranoia of Idi Amin that Ugandans became accustomed to.

Through various leadership roles, Mbabazi’s character came through quite visibly to the rest of the students. Where he was not leading, he was participating actively. The entertainment club during his stay at Ntare once had a dispute. The Chairman of the club was being discriminatory when selecting who would go for the dances and such social events at other schools. So one day the students rose up and protested. He refused to listen to them and Mbabazi and his friends convinced the others that they should walk out in protest and leave him in the club alone. The students left him to manage a club with no members.

In the geography and current affairs clubs, Mbabazi enjoyed organizing debates both at school and on away trips. One particular trip, the whole geography group travelled to Jinja to debate and they were all very excited when they got to the equator. The looked at that spot that marked the Northern hemisphere from the Southern hemisphere as though it was magical.

For school debates, Mbabazi’s duty as chairman was to set the topics for debate and to moderate. There was no shortage of guest speakers for the current affairs club. Debating clubs were mini incubators of political groups so many people wanted to speak or debate as proposers or opposers. During his tenure, there were guests such as Chango Macho, Yoweri Museveni and Eriya Kategaya. The old boys of Ntare never quite left the school. More importantly, the debates became a conduit for spread of political ideology as students were introduced to Marxism, Capitalism and a subject that Mbabazi was passionate about; slave trade.

Ntare was a melting pot of ideas, but while this was all well and good for his political development, Mbabazi did not lose sight of the fact that he still had to sit for his A’level exams. In August 1971, a new team of student leaders were chosen to lead student government and various clubs. At that time, Mbabazi was focusing on the final exams that he had to sit in November. His primary goal was to get admission into the great institution of Makerere. If he pulled it off, he would be the first son of Kezekiah Bagwowabo that made it to University.

His performance in history during his A’ level exams was outstanding and he enjoyed economics and English literature. Not so for his Final Cambridge History exam. He was expecting for his exam to answer questions on Napoleon, instead that year the question was on slave trade. Mbabazi Having read and converted to Marcus Garvey’s radical Pan Africanism ideas wrote and wrote until the teacher asked them to put their pens down. He had just poured out his radical views on the slave trade. He suspects that the English man or woman who marked the paper may have not been comfortable with the way the question was answered. He passed nevertheless and would enter Makerere for the Bachelor of Laws degree. Before Makerere, he had a nine month vacation in which Crichton had got him a teaching position.

Crichton had recommended him to the headmaster of Nyakashure Primary school to teach. While Mbabazi was posted to Nyakashure, Cyril remained at Ntare teaching O’levels. Their teaching salary was five hundred and nine shillings a month. This was a phenomenal amount for students in those days. When Mbabazi was paid his first salary, he was exhilarated little knowing that he was just about to land into his Headmaster’s trap.  

As he was jumping for joy at his first paycheck, the Headmaster invited him along to the bar to celebrate with a pint of beer. Upon arrival at the bar, the headmaster asked Mbabazi to celebrate by buying everyone in the bar a drink so that they could all toast to his success. He obliged and before he knew it, his entire paycheck was gone. Mbabazi left the bar deflated and determined never to fall into that sort of trap again. The headmaster though was happy seeing as he was the owner of the bar and had made a good day’s sale.

Teaching at Nyakashure was wonderful but the months sped by quickly and before long, September arrived.  Mbabazi boarded the next bus to Kampala ready for the next chapter of his life.

² Kihihi is in Kanungu district. The Bagwowabo family had moved there in 1959.


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