February 1, 2020 found me in Mbarara, at Katatumba Academy, once the epitome of educational class and glamour. I could not help but marvel at the perfect execution of a dream by consultant architect Dr George William Katatumba, the school’s proprietor.
While the 78-year-old basked in the success and set a standard, he has lived to see his dream go down the drain. While the rest of us enjoyed a ‘normal’ of posho and beans, crowded dormitories and corporal punishment in public schools, we also heard about the Katatumba Academy children, who spoke with foreign accents and were being flown to their Mbarara campus by private jet, and about their life of great food, horse riding and laundry services, among other five-star treatment.
Go to the academy today, and alas! It is but a sad story. While Katatumba remains optimistic about returning to the high standards he set, the algae-cloaked tiny, round classrooms, rusted roofs, broken electricity sockets and light bulb holders beg to differ.
Perhaps the neighing and trotting horses around the school, the expansive manicured lawns, swimming pool and tennis courts offer a slight ray of hope. When The Observer visited the school, an eerie quiet engulfed the school; never mind that it was almost the start of a new term. According to Katatumba, the school currently has about 300 students, more than double the 180 the school accommodated before its downward spiral that commenced in 1997.
But Katatumba Academy was never built on numbers; rather, on quality, connections and affordability. At $3,000 (about Shs 11m) per term back in the 1990s, only a handful of Ugandans could afford to educate their children there.
Located in Rwenkoma, Nyakayojo division, Mbarara municipality, the school was founded in 1984 in memory of Katatumba’s father, Joseph Bwitirire Katatumba, murdered during Idi Amin’s regime. In a 45-minute interview, Katatumba said the academy was founded because he was tired of travelling with his children to Kenya for school.
“One term I said to my children, ‘you’re not going back to Kenya, I am going to use that money to build a school here’,” he said.
Katatumba was just 41. Whereas he admits he has never known poverty – after all, he is heir to the Katatumba estate – the academy still set the bar very high.
“I had just finished a few years working after university and started having my children. I took my children to Kenya to study in international schools. I wanted them to have a good education. I did not see it in missionary schools, because they had already been run down when they became nationalized,” he said.
Katatumba blames Milton Obote’s government for running down Uganda’s education standards. It is during Obote’s first regime, he says, that the education system started crumbling.
Missionary schools including King’s College Budo, Gayaza High, Mt St Mary’s College Namagunga, St Mary’s College Kisubi “got diluted” after politicians started planting their children and administrators in the schools.
“Those schools had very high standards. [Obote] removed them from the hands of missionaries. Government [officials] used them to [educate] their own children, because previously the standards were not for everybody.”
“When Amin overthrew Obote, the situation became worse. So many parents who had the means took away their children because the missionaries had run away. Those who remained behind were helpless,” he said.
After paying for his fifth child $3,000 per term (he is divorced, but has nine children), Katutumba realised the money, $9,000 (Shs 33m today) per year, per child, could be used to start a school with similar standards in Uganda.
At the time, there were about 30 Ugandan parents educating their children in Kenya and he convinced them to relocate.
“When we started, because we had high standards, the school had a name because we marketed it in Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda. Those who heard about us on the radios that were interviewing me started bringing their children from Kenya, Sudan...and from other parts of Uganda – Arua, Jinja, Mbale.”
Parents would fly with their children from Entebbe International airport or Kajjansi airfield to Mbarara airport (Nyakisharara) and then get booked into Katatumba Resort to first recover from jetlag before embarking on the registration processes the following day.
Due to the bad roads then, travel by road from Kampala to Mbarara took about 12 hours and very few rich children and parents could endure that. During visitation days, fatigued parents would be booked into Rwekishokye Country Club. It is at this club that the students would go for swimming.
But the greenish water in the pool, broken tiles, broken taps and showers tell a story of past glories. Behind the club is Katatumba’s own home and the stable for the famed horses.
“That school had more white children than Ugandan children,” said a local mzee, who did not wish to be named so he could speak freely.
“We envied them but couldn’t afford to take our children there. Their teachers and students fed well, they had such a wonderful brass band that used to go from the academy to [Rwekishokye Country Club]. We would not work that day as we followed the band up to the club and then waited outside for it to come back. The students and their teachers were very friendly and they seemed to also enjoy having us follow them in the march,” he said.
In 1986, the school applied and was swiftly granted a Cambridge international examinations centre after growing from 30 students to 100 students and after inspection by the British Council in Uganda.
“The children who were coming here had the means. I had the facilities, everything was imported, from English teachers to the food,” Katatumba recalled.
Simon Tendo Kabenge, a respected and successful lawyer with Simon Tendo Kabenge Advocates, was a student at Katatumba Academy between 1986 and 1991. He told The Observer he was aware of at least 20 different nationalities at the school at the time, including students from Rwanda, South Africa, Greece, Russia, England, Tanzania, Liberia, etc.
He said the school taught them to be self-reliant and self-sufficient and independent. Kabenge is proud that all Katatumba Academy alumni are thriving.
This was echoed by Katatumba, who said none of his former students is directly working in government as a minister, or permanent secretary. And that is not accidental.
“We never brought up politicians. Most of our children have never entered politics,” Katatumba said.
“They are professionals, they are independent, they are prosperous, they are not begging for yellow envelopes, they are not crooks, they are not corrupting. They are highly disciplined. That is my pride to bring that sort of character. That is what we’re missing in Uganda. You go to these schools – Namagunga, Gayaza and at the end of the day you become a politician; you’re the minister of this, minister of that; you’re the secretary of this… But our children are job creators. Never politics, never government. None of our former students that I know of is in politics. None.”
So, what went wrong at the school that inspired so many? The previous giant is now a complete shadow of its former self. The only thing ‘international’ at the school is perhaps the horses – about 19 – and the confidence with which students still carry themselves. Otherwise, the school museum and its artifacts are all coated in dust, while the tennis court and swimming pool are in desperate need of renovation.
Katatumba believes more money coming into Ugandans’ pockets and a thriving economy in the 1990s spelled doom for the academy, killing its monopoly.
“1997 is when things started moving and the economy started improving,” he said.
That is also the time Universal Primary Education was coming into effect, rendering formerly excellent government schools overcrowded and impossible for a growing middle-class, thus forcing an explosion of good private schools.
“Some schools sprung up in Kampala, many international schools and of course many undercut their fees. It dropped from about $3,000 to about $700 and more people could afford. Parents did not see any reason to come from Tanzania by air, go to Entebbe and come this way, when one could go to Kampala. That is when my school started to go down...but my satisfaction was that I had set an example.”
Apart from Lincoln School (now The International School of Uganda in Lubowa), which was then a small day school on Buganda road, only Katatumba Academy offered that standard of education in a boarding school setting. Katatumba said the previously rundown Namagunga, Budo, Gayaza all once pitched camp at his school for notes on how to run a school.
“Even those international schools [that ironically ran his academy out of business] came here to study,” he said.
And if medals were given on merit, he said, he would be among those recognised for transforming the education sector. But the locals say his micro-management style may have worked well when he was in his 40s and 50s, but cannot work now when he is 78.
He is accused of not listening to advice and being paranoid, suspecting everybody of trying to fleece him of his estate. Yet for Katatumba, micro-managing is the best style, because no other person understands and can execute a dream like the person who envisioned it.
He certainly has the assets to call on to rescue the school, given the enviable ‘old money’ the family is known for, including real estate, two cattle farms. But one thing that those close to the family know is that George William is the one Katatumba among the five Katatumba brothers who never sells family or personal property.
If anything, he is the Katatumba brother who always buys back family property sold by his now-deceased brothers.
NOT ALL GLOOM
He has also resisted attempts and offers to turn the academy into a university.
“Although it is not an international school now, it is purely UNEB [Uganda National Examinations Board]. I’m waiting to see things stabilise and people having some bit of money to afford better education…At that time I will revert to being an international school, but for now I am purely UNEB, but with international standards…horse riding, swimming, tennis, rugby, hockey… Our centre with Cambridge still stands and is still valid. Any time we want we can revert to being an international school.”
Their primary school achieves 100 per cent first grades in PLE and the secondary section is not too shabby either; the academy has since also erected some new buildings.
“In Mbarara we are the best for the last three years and in the whole of Uganda we are number 17. The secondary school is lagging behind, but is 137th in Uganda,” Katatumba, said.
Some have alleged an indirect government hand in the fall of Katatumba Academy, given the frosty relationship George William, in particular, has with President Yoweri Museveni.
Whereas Museveni was once a family friend who studied with Katatumba at Ntare School and even stayed at the Katatumba Resort for some time after the bush war, Katatumba’s support for the restoration of the Ankole kingdom has never been well received by Museveni who has made no secret of his opposition to Obugabe.
George William Katatumba is the prime minister of the Obugabe (kingdom). When Ankole monarchists installed Prince John Barigye (he died in 2011) as king in 1993, the coronation was declared illegal by government despite the fact that similar coronations were okayed for Tooro and Buganda kingdoms.
Katatumba says he has been approached by some government officials to talk to Museveni and sing his praises and seek financial help, something he scoffs at.
“One day a high-ranking politician bemused me and said, ‘but Katatumba, your family is the only family that is not benefiting from government’, and I said ‘but I don’t need to’. If I went to Museveni tomorrow and said I am NRM, dressed in a yellow shirt, I would be a minister. I don’t want that, I am sorry. I studied with Museveni in Ntare School, he knows me, but I can’t go begging. I am satisfied with what I have. I am simple, humble, I don’t need people to follow me and all that. No. I am happy...If Museveni wants to give me a job, he can contact me; as to whether I will take it, that is a different matter. But I don’t want someone to plead for me for a job.”
For now, the old man enjoys the beautiful countryside and the company of his now adult children whenever they come home from different parts of the world. As for Katatumba Academy? He has not stopped dreaming, still.