Carl Segan said: “ One of the greatest gifts adults can give to their offspring and to society is to read to children.”
As far as I can remember, we used to spend our long Christmas holidays at our home in the village, 75 kilometres along the Kampala / Fort portal road. Our home was built on a hundred acre mixed farm surrounded by rolling green hills. It was a big house, had a concrete tank at each of the four corners, to harvest rain water, there were fruit trees everywhere; mangoes, avocado, pawpaws, soursop, jack fruits, oranges and lemons.
We used a gas cooker to cook in the house and firewood in the outside kitchen. My young siblings and I and my mother enjoyed helping on the farm in the mornings, harvesting ripe coffee , cotton and maize. We could never have enough of the fresh passion fruits, pineapples and gooseberries. In the evenings we could go to the kraal watch the milking of the cows and carry some milk to the house.
The best part of our day was the time just before supper. Without any reminder, each one would quickly shower , change into clean clothing and gather in the sitting room. We would sit closely together with our father- dressed simply in a white tunic and slippers, under the bright light of a spirit lamp.
Eyes wide with expectation and ears as long as dogs’ ears , we would listen attentively and intensely to our father as he told us numerous Ganda folklores. He would use stories to explain why maize was called Kasooli, a goat – embuzi and many other items. With simple, spellbinding eloquence, he would explain to us how Nambi, the first Ganda woman, brought sickness – Olumbe to her own people. I would be fascinated by these stories and I would ask many questions for clarification. Some days we would read the Ladybird series of books together. We also had a big, well illustrated book entitled The Holy Bible and You. He taught each one of us to read stories aloud to the others and to retell them after reading books . It was great fun that was only interrupted by the BBC World Service News at 8pm.
On other days, he would just teach us to recite our lineage in the Leopard-Ngo clan and our specific jobs in the Kabaka’s palace. Those of the Ngo clan are the grandfathers of the Buganda kingdom so they never do any manual labour. We just decorate the place where the Kabaka holds court and weave the traditional crown that is worn by the new Kabaka at his Coronation.
I have known this since the age of six and I do not think that it has changed in any way. Actually, I remember in July 1993 just before the coronation of Ssabataka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi 11 as the 36th Kabaka of Buganda at the traditional site at Naggalabi near Buddo, my cousin, Robert, who was by then the Katikkiro of our clan was on tenterhooks until some old men had hunted a leopard whose skin was to be used with the throne. A new Kabaka has to use a new leopard skin as a carpet.
My father also taught us to write legibly but writing Luganda has never been easy for me.When I close my eyes now, I can see my father and us engaged fully in a conversation about a book or a story. Later in adulthood, we would discuss the news and books written by African Writers like Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o , David Rubadiri and short stories written by Ugandan writers like Erisa Kironde.
The most interesting story that our father told us was about him- how for five years he walked barefooted to the most prestigious boys’ school of the time: Kings College Buddo. This school was opened in 1906 by the Church Missionary Society of Britain to educate the princes and sons of the chiefs in Buganda. It is located about eighty kilometres from my father’s parents’ home.
My father would take three days to get to the school. Before setting off, his father and mother and him would meticulously plan for the three days journey. Each night he would stay with a known relative along the road. His mother would pack roasted sweet plantains and groundnuts as a snack to be eaten along the way. He was expected to be where he had to be on a particular night. He was doing all that in the quest for knowledge. We would excitedly ask many questions about his journey and beg him to tell the story over and over again. He enjoyed himself in our company and used it as an opportunity to motivate us to work hard and smart at school for a better future.
By then I was in a boarding school at Gayaza High School. My father’s story taught me to value education and admire its power to change one’s life. After Kings College Buddo, my father had gone on to get a top job as a clerk in the Resident’s office of the British Protectorate in Kampala. Later, he held positions of great responsibility in both Buganda and Uganda government.
By hearing and understanding his unique story, I shed off the sense of entitlement, I stopped getting irritated when the driver came late to pick us at the end of each term. I willed myself to become an all round student academics, sports, just as my father had done. He had been the top student at the entrance interview and the best at graduation. The white headmaster had selected him to stay and teach at Kings College Buddo as part of the staff development programme but he did not want to become a teacher.
Later , when I read the story of some of the pioneer students who attended Kings College Buddo from the Kyigezi region about 430 kilometres southwest of Kampala, my father’s three days trek to Buddo hill seemed like a walk in the park. They took a minimum of two weeks to walk to Buddo!
They had also gone on to become the architects and managers of Uganda’s expanding civil service. They also educated their children at Kings College Buddo and Gayaza High school.
About forty years after the regular story telling by the spirit lamp, my daughter would fly from Botswana through Johannesburg to the University of Cape Town, South Africa. On many occasions, I could hear my father telling us his story. I would always appreciate how education had changed his life and later ours and now those of his grandchildren. Each generation has gone on to stretch the limits as they try to offer the best available education to their children.
We are because our father was.
Nelson Mandela, the first president of a free South Africa and one of the great icons of the 20th century, never underestimated the power of education. He said : “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
The time I spent helping on the farm , reading and story-telling in the evenings, taught me how to work with my hands and brain and have the heart to be human- compassionate , engaging in the world around me fully. I was given a priceless gift.
I became a voracious reader; reading for pleasure, reading to study and reading to explore things. By the age of twenty five years, I had become a global citizen at the price of a novel! This was long before the invention of the Internet – which shrank the world to a global village!
I can never thank my father enough, for starting me on this adventurous journey of a lifetime. My school which had a big library always made me feel like a kid in a candy store. They say that a book is a gift you can open again and again.
By writing short stories and fiction novels , I am continuing the tradition that my father started in my childhood. Yes, I told stories to my own children and have continued to this day. I cannot wait to tell them to my grandchildren.
As a medical doctor I use facts and information to answer many people’s questions and through my own experiences I help people improve their own lives.
During this almost two months COVID-19 pandemic Lockdown, I entertain myself and keep going strong without falling into despair by devouring novels , writing short stories and polishing some manuscripts.
“There is no substitute for books in the life of a child.”- May Ellen Chase
“The greatest gift is a passion for reading.”– Elizabeth Hardwick
QUESTION: Did you develop the culture of reading early on in your childhood?
How has it contributed to who you are today?
Are you passing on this useful culture to your children and other members of your community?