Dr Opiyo Oloya is a Ugandan who has been living in Canada for the past 34 years. He went into exile in 1981 as an outspoken university student being hunted by the Milton Obote government. He talked to Capital FM’s Simon Kasyate on Desert Island Discs about his life story.
Dr Opiyo Oloya. Good evening and welcome to Desert Island Discs.
Good evening, Simon.
How is Toronto?
Toronto is good. Very warm. As you know we are now officially in summer, we are having a very hot summer. Some days are 35 degrees Celsius. You can imagine from our winter of -35 is a complete opposite of that. So, it is a warm summer, sometimes warmer than here in Uganda.
Dr Opiyo, we know you write from Toronto. But what do you do in Toronto?
Simon, many people know me as a writer. But in Toronto, I involve with education. My entire career is that of an educator. I started as a school teacher with the York district Catholic school board, just north of Toronto. I became a school principal and now I am superintendent of schools. So, I am in charge of about 22 schools within the district, these elementary schools.
I get the chance to visit and interact with the kids…
I am still a teacher in the sense that I love to teach, I don’t teach anymore actively because as a superintendent, there is ... a lot of coordination but when I go to a school, I walk into a classroom and whatever the subject might be, the teachers are very happy to see me, so we team-teach.
When you look at the education system in which you ply your trade and you know that Uganda’s education is one where a lot ought to be done, don’t you sometimes get a sense that you should be back here…?
The idea of coming back, I will come back. But I have also found out that where I am, I can still make contribution and you know that I continue to critique our system here. Whether it is in education, agriculture or politics, every week, without fail, I show up in New Vision and I get to talk about issues I feel very passionate about.
But in terms of education system, certainly there are things I think that we can do better… And by the way I do visit schools when I am here… the very next day that I arrived here was to visit Kampala Parents and I talked to the kids and it was a big experience… Whether I am travelling upcountry or here, I try to get into a school first before I do anything else.
What is with Opiyo Oloya?
My name was actually, right from the get go, Opiyo. Opiyo is such a good name as you know it is usually the first born of twins in Acholi culture. In my case, I was not a twin but I inherited the name from my grandfather. So…I always wanted to be called Opiyo.
And then Oloya: what does it mean?
Oloya is my father’s name and essentially the direct translation could be, it defeated me, or I was not successful at it, or it escaped me. But it is not as negative as it sounds…
So, you didn’t have any Christian name; did you ever get baptized?
I was baptized and Joseph was the name that I was given… But I always felt like Opiyo. That is the name I was called at home and that is what my friends call me.
Is the Opio with a Y or ...?
Ohhh no. That is something that I am very particular about. Anybody who drops that Y is gonna get a drabbing from me. Some editors used to drop the Y; they could do anything with my article but you could not drop that Y. But with my children, Ochieng and Ogaba, I have got two boys, with them, that is the name they were baptized with.
Ochieng Oloya and Ogaba Oloya; so, they don’t have any other name. When we went to baptize Ochieng, I remember the priest…he asked: ‘does he have another name’ and I said no, that is his name. He said okay, he went ahead and blessed him…
Asks for any song with ennanga; Simon chooses Anjolina
We are working backwards; how did you get into Toronto, to teach and get widely accepted and respected?
The story begins right from Makerere University just after the war that kicked out Idi Amin. I am a first-year student at Makerere, I come in and we are really happy to feel a sense of freedom. And then of course Uganda went through those quick succession changes, Lule, Binaisa and now we are beginning to look into elections of December 1980.
So, we are students, we organize ourselves and we become involved in politics. At some point, I was elected the guild president. One of the things I was passionate about was that I wanted to see a Uganda where people are free to move around, interact, freedom of political association …but I did not get the sense that that was happening.
And that bothered me because we had just come from a dictatorship... We moved towards December 1980. The election was done on December 10 and we felt, as a group of students, that it was fraudulent. After that, there were a series of events at campus, the culmination of which was on February 24, 1981 where a group of armed security people moved on campus; a number of students were arrested.
I escaped… first stayed with a lecturer of Makerere who took care of me that night and then took me to this safe house in Kamwokya the following day and we stayed there until March 6, 1981. On the 10th day we, with other students, John Oryema, George Otto (both medical students) and Grace Ggalabuzi (now a professor in Toronto), got on the back of a white pickup truck and moved towards Jinja, then to Busia.
There was a roadblock and then we were asked for our IDs. Luckily, the fellow who was asking for identification cards happened to have been a friend of my brother; they went to school together in Gulu High. He mistook me for my brother and he said ohhh, we went to school together. So, I played along and he said you guys don’t have to worry, just go along.
So, we went but between Jinja and Tororo, we ran into another roadblock…I showed my passport, which did not tell that I was coming from Makerere or who I was. But another student, one of the four, showed his Makerere ID and immediately he was put on the ground, with a gun to his head and he was threatened with being shot.
The only thing that saved him was that he said ‘I am not running away, I am going to see my uncle who is in Tororo’; and he gave the name of the uncle who happened to be a police officer… Then we went to Kenya on March 6, arriving in Nairobi the following day.
So, you get to the border and cross, no incidence?
Yes there was. At the border in Busia, Ggalabuzi and I went first. Usually, you have to have your passport stamped on the Ugandan side, but we could not afford that. We were afraid that we might get caught. So, we crossed somehow. We waited until there was a crowd and moved in there. But once we reached the Kenyan side, they told us that you need to go back and get stamps.
So, we said okay, we did not protest, but instead of going back we went further into Kenya…meanwhile Otto and Oryema were able to get somebody who was kind enough and stamp for them so that they were able to come in without any incident.
Plays any Lingala song by Franco
But what was your game plan?
There wasn’t much of a game plan. We knew though that we needed to stay alive because whatever we left behind was not very, very safe. We needed to tell our story to someone so that we can begin to look for an opportunity for sponsorship. We went to several embassies.
We got help from friends of Ggalabuzi (he had friends in Nairobi and was the only one with money on him); we met some friends as well that were from the Gulu area who were very instrumental in giving us financial support so that we at least had something to eat and a place we could rest our heads.
What course were you doing at the university when you fled?
It was political science. I met one Victoria Britain. I think she was writing for the Manchester Times in the UK. She wrote our story of how we got to Kenya and we used that story as a basis to approach some of the embassies. One of them was the Canadian High Commission in Nairobi.
They picked up our story and they said we will look into how we are going to help you but in the meantime we are going to send you to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees… So, we went to UNHCR in Nairobi and now we were getting official support, food and a place to sleep. Meanwhile, our papers were being processed very quickly.
Within a short while, we understood that we had been accepted to go to Canada... So on June 6, 1981, we boarded Air Italia flight, I still have the stamp of the ticket for that flight, the seat where I sat, I have all those stamps… Ggalabuzi incidentally remained in Nairobi. He came a few years after.
In fact the very next day, June 7, I began my studies at Queens University. I finished my first degree, then I went to a teachers college, I finished that and then I went to do my master’s and began teaching.
What was your love life like?
You know at the beginning, it was very hard because I had to understand how to negotiate relationships. And the majority of students were bazungus...later on, I did have a few friends, the relationships, some of them were very good.
But I still had the ‘Africanness’ in me, the Acholi in me… and that did not happen until much later in 1997 when I met my wife Emily and she is from Kenya, Mombasa. But she is a Luo; so, we speak Luo at home.
Plays any love song from Kenya.
Let me take you back in life, where were you born?
I was born in Gulu town but I grew up in a little bit of Bwaise of Gulu, Paminiayi. It is about 17 kilometres as you go west of Gulu, towards Lacor, then you branch off towards Alokorum seminary... My home is there in Paminiayi, Nwoya district.
How was childhood like? Are you the only child?
The Oloya home was a big home. My father had two wives, and additionally acquired other wives… We were a large household but it was a beautiful household, really. We had freedom because we had so much space and the pleasure to be able to eat in any of the homes. We attended the early stages of primary in Gulu primary school, which is closer to Gulu town.
So, we would be ‘tractored’ (on trailer of a tractor) to school and when holidays began, we would be ‘tractored’ back on the same trailer. But later on in primary four, I went to Paminiayi primary school; that is where I learnt the love of reading, the beauty of language….I tried primary leaving twice and I failed.
The first time, out of the three subjects, the passing score for three subjects was 180 and I scored 178; I failed by two points. The second time, the passing score was raised to 205, out of three subjects, and I scored 203; it was at the third try that I finally got going. The thing about me was that I was not interested in cramming; I was more interested in reading and knowing. Don’t be afraid of failure, embrace it...
Let’s get back to Toronto, recollect how it was like walking into your first school to take a teaching job?.
Even before I went into teaching, at Queens University, there were occasions when they brought children to speak to foreign students. So, I would tell them about my Acholi culture and Uganda as a country. So, these kids were always enthralled by the stories I would tell them. Some of the professors started saying, ‘you know what, your true claiming is teaching, the kids love you’.
So, when I began teaching, I did not have a lot of trouble. One of my experience, I walk into this classroom, there are the four-year-old kids. They are all white kids... So, I began telling them a story, and I was making it up: Afwoyo the rabbit….and then at the point where I said the rabbit was so sad because he had no friends, no one to hug him, you know what, 25 of these little kids came and piled on me, wanting to give me a hug...
In north Toronto… I taught mostly Italian children… and the main thing that set me aside, besides the fact that I am black, is that they knew that if you did not do your homework, Mr Oloya is going to come to your house, knock on your door, sit on the kitchen table and he will not move until the work was done. So, the word spread to all my students and the parents loved it…
Did you actually use to go there?
Absolutely. And when I am walking; I would leave my car and then just walk on foot. And then they would wonder which house he is going today…
Didn’t you experience a bit of racism with people saying I can’t have my kids taught by this…?
Not to my face, though. I had a couple of challenges. One incident, the student actually told me the story. That my dad said that he didn’t want me to be in your class.
Then I asked him what he said about it. The kid said ‘I told him I don’t want to be in any other class except yours’. So, the kids would come and tell me some of these things.
How do you actually get the time to put an article in the newspaper every week?
Teaching is my first love but writing is a passion…I am right now working on a book on regional security, which has taken me to South Sudan, [and] Somalia. I read a lot. I read American online newspapers, European. I do read French but I don’t speak it as well, and then all the Ugandan English newspapers.
One of my biggest regret is that I stayed in Kampala too short to learn Luganda… I need someone to teach me Luganda so that I can converse with them… Certainly American politics moves me, Ugandan politics [too] but there are some other things like when we talk about genetically-modified crops. I feel so strongly about it
Against it or ...?
Against it of course. It is unbelievable that there are such foods that are manufactured and engineered because the way that food is now produced in North America, those who can afford it, you eat what Ugandans eat in the villages. In other words you eat organic vegetables, free-range chicken, the price is usually three times the regular manufactured chicken.
My question is, if my mother and those people in the village in Paminiayi are eating what the rich people in Toronto are eating, why do I need anybody to come and tell me that my mother needs manufactured food?...
I think you became a sellout when you started speaking about the boots on the ground in Somalia!
My fist article came out on February 20, 2007. I said Uganda was sending troops to Somalia, the Americans were there, and Canadians were there. On October 3, 1993, Americans were thoroughly beaten, Black Hawk Down. Why are we sending Ugandan troops there? I was against it. So, I wrote my piece and I said you know what; our troops will be DOA, dead on arrival.
Then in 2010, I run into the current CDF, General Wamala Katumba, and he had not forgotten that. He invited me, and said ‘you know Opiyo, you come and have lunch with me, I wanna show you something’. He showed me what Ugandans were doing, the humanitarian gestures for Somalis, and it changed a little bit of what I had in mind. And he said I want to do more.
I want to invite you to come with me tomorrow to Mogadishu. I said I don’t think my wife would say yes. Then he said don’t tell your wife. Call her when you arrive in Mogadishu. And that is exactly what we did. We flew out and I called my wife and she said are you crazy?
Precisely as Katumba had said, I found Ugandans engaging in what I would never have imagined, working with the Somali civilians, humanitarian gestures…from that day I said I don’t care what people will say about whatever I will put out, I will always speak in support of the work that the UPDF is doing. And to this day, I am putting together a book that will be published in May of 2016 and I am calling it Black Hawks Rising...
Why don’t you come back home?
That is my plan. I work in a way that I will make sure that I ease myself and I come back home. But come back home, you are talking about the physical presence, because I never really left. My work here in newspapers dates back to the 90s where I began writing and I have never stopped writing.
What gets you angry?
I don’t like to see people being abused in a way that is inhumane. I got so upset, there was an incident involving a former UPDF General Kazini when he was killed. Something happened, I don’t know the rest of the story but the suspect was arrested and she was restrained in the back of a police vehicle and a long seat was put around her neck. And I said yeah, she may have done it but please treat her humanely. That gets me really, really angry...
If I was to host you at my house, what will your taste buds..?
You know what, everything traditional. Whether luwombo, Marakwang, ebinyeebwa with matooke, those are foods that I eat without reservation and sometimes I over eat.
And how would you like to wash that down?
I don’t deal in liquor. I do wine. I have a large collection of wine thanks to the Italians whose children I taught. Over the years, parents have given me many bottles of wine which still languish in my house, undrunk.
What is the future plan, ten years from now, Opiyo Oloya and his homestead?
I think the plan of coming physically home is very appealing to me. I don’t know for Ochieng and Ogaba because these are Canadian kids. They understand they grew up from an African household; so, they will continue with their education… But we have tried to often bring them home... But we will have a home here and if they want to find refuge in a quiet beautiful home surrounded by loving people, they will come back to Uganda.
In Gulu or in Kampala?
It will be in Gulu. That, I am very particular about.
You left the country on political grounds: do you have any plans in that direction?
I don’t know what the future holds and if God grants health, I can’t rule out that. I leave it wide open because I enjoy rigorous debate, I think there is so much to offer.
I believe that the key to the success of Uganda as a nation is that we begin to sell some of our organic food we eat in the villages. Find a way to package it and sell it to the Canadians, Americans, Europeans and to everybody else. If South Africa can sell grass to the world,… surely we can sell our mangoes, pineapples, etc.
Finally, Dr Oloya, if you were marooned on a desert island and asked to carry one item or one person. What or who would you carry.
You know I really like Jose Chameleone’s music. He is a great singer. A passionate Ugandan, passionate like I am. So, I would carry my Jose Chameleone disc with me.
Plays Wale Wale by Chameleone
TRANSCRIPT: JOSEPH KIMBOWA