Having officially opened her doors on June 9, 1893, this year Bukalasa Minor Seminary celebrates 125 years of existence.
This seminary, quietly located deep in Kalungu district in Masaka diocese, occupies a special place in the educational history of Uganda and in the annals of the Catholic Church in sub-Saharan Africa – hence this tribute.
Started by missionaries for the formation of Catholic priests, the seminary was the first formal school in Uganda – later to be followed by the likes of Mengo Senior School and Namilyango College. Indeed, it is one of the oldest seminaries in Africa.
But age in itself should not be an attribute for pride and celebration if a person or institution cannot show proportionate achievements. In fact, it is shameful to age in vain. That is to exist, not to live. As the Bible says, ‘you will know them by their fruits’.
The first African Catholic priests, Fr Basil Lumu and Monsignor Victor Mukasa Womeraka (ordained in 1913), went through the moulding of Bukalasa Seminary.
To this list of historical records, we may add that the seminary produced the first African Catholic bishop (Archbishop Joseph Kiwanuka) and the first Ugandan cardinal (Emmanuel Nsubuga) and retired Emmanuel Cardinal Wamala.
Since it is a seminary, it is certainly not news that it has trained many priests. But the list of alumni of Bukalasa stretches far beyond names of men at the altar. It also includes those of us that God ‘called out of the seminary’. Or so were some of us advised, to try our talents elsewhere!
Nevertheless, for most that have gone through the walls (muros – as we used to call it) of this humble institution, you often look back and appreciate that it indelibly touched you somewhere. At times, even before one mentions it, someone could already have guessed your background on the basis of demeanour, conduct, or life principles.
Of course, like any other great institution, seminaries don’t produce straight timber only. Exceptions will always be there; and exceptions they are. There was a notorious thief called Luvo that used to break into our dormitory at Bukalasa. We later learnt that he was an alumnus! Perhaps there was something he had forgotten there.
Seminaries have a reputation for very strict training – which is at times overstretched as to produce sheepish characters motivated more by fear than conviction.
This strictness has attracted so many exaggerated disciplinarian myths about seminary formation in the public psyche. Unfortunately, this at times makes us lose sight of the side of the numerous values behind.
Looking back at Bukalasa’s training, you realise that their focus was on training a person as a whole, not merely for academic excellence as is the key preoccupation in many schools today. School has come to mean ‘a head-filling institution’!
At this seminary, educational attention was given to the head, the heart, and the hands in almost equal measure. You prayed hard, sang hard, played hard, read hard, and worked hard in the gardens, plantations and expansive farm.
One had to learn to prepare the garden, plant, weed, slash, mulch, and harvest. When it was time for games, it was games. And no one was expected to be in class reading or in church praying.
With four soccer playgrounds, and several other games, they ensured that there was sufficient sports room to accommodate everyone – not only focussing on those of outstanding talent.
At Bukalasa, thanks to the more than 30 years’ dedication of Fr Dr Joseph Namukangula, every seminarian had to learn at least the basics of music.
We were exposed to pianos, guitars, violins, pipe organs, flutes, brass band instruments, drums, name it. So many Ugandan instrumentalists, composers, music trainers, sound engineers, and music producers have gone through this place – the most prominent one being the versatile late Tony Sengo.
Few talents did not find opportunity to shine there. Those of us who had interest in fine art may not have been so lucky, for the subject was not taught.
But still, Fr Namukangula had to dig into his own pocket to make an arrangement for me and Michael Ssenfuma (now a priest) to be taught on a special arrangement. This unusual gesture speaks of true ‘fatherly’ commitment to education. Which teacher does this?
The dining hall was not just a place where people gather for meals. It was also a space for learning table manners (etiquette), sharing, being considerate of others, and avoiding over-indulgence. Bukalasa is one of the few schools in Uganda (if any) where you find self-service at every meal.
When one filled a ‘tower’ of food on their plate, they would be sent to embarrassingly sit at a very high table that stood at the center of the dining hall.
These seemingly trivial manners mean a lot in public life. The fact that at most of our public events we have to be served says much about our sense of moderation.
Yet still we have to instruct those serving to fill our plates to the brim. Little wonder that this gluttony is extended to the management of resources in our charge.
Albert Einstein tells us that education is what remains after one has forgotten what they learned in school. Many alumni of Bukalasa may forget the Physics, Biology, Latin, Maths, Accounts, but so much that was learnt outside the classroom may forever remain subconsciously imprinted on their character.
As we continue to reflect on the state of our education today, especially the scourge of ‘obsession with examinations/passing’, there are so many lessons to pick from traditional schools such as Bukalasa Seminary.
Products of Bukalasa may not be the best either, and many have their weaknesses too, but there is clearly something for our schools to pick.
The author heads the Centre for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.