His is a story of a village boy, orphaned at the tender age of five, in pursuit of place in history. When I met Dr. Gabriel Ajedra Aridru, 48, he wore a lavender shirt, grey pair of trousers and exhibited success and happiness.
Self driven determination, persistence and focus are some of Aridru’s cardinal principles through which he has played out his life. From Ajono village in Arua to Kampala, through to Canada, Bahamas, Botswana and now back to where it all started, Arua, Aridru has jumped several hurdles.
At only five, in Ajono village in Vurra Sub-county Arua District, Aridru lost his father. The memories of his father are scanty; only recalling his mother selling porridge from market to market to raise school fees for her four children.
“My mum told us: ‘You don’t have a father, you don’t have relatives who will assist you; so, just study hard. You must fear God because the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.’ So, I took that advice very seriously.”
With no cows or land left behind by his late father, Aridru’s mother reminded them that it is through education that they would get a good life and afford to marry and start families.
“If you don’t want to go through this life that we are going through, then you have to study very hard,” she often reminded them.
Aridru stuck to those wise words from his days in primary school to adult life. In 1974 after primary he joined St. Joseph’s College Ombachi, he often watched children from wealthy families brought to school in luxury cars as he pushed his mattress and suitcase on a bicycle.
Rather than dampen his morale, the social divide in school simply encouraged him to study hard. During his O-level final exams, Aridru nearly caused his headmaster a heart attack when he finished his Mathematics exam in half the time allocated.
“He thought I had blacked out completely. He kept asking whether everything was ok. I said yes I am fine. He said are you sure? I said yes sir, I am very sure. When the results came I happened to be the best science student in the whole of East Africa.” During that time, Ugandans sat for East African Certificate of Education.
His headmaster, Rev. Fr. Mich Lino Marco, couldn’t help his excitement, preferring to deliver the news himself from Nairobi where he was participating in the marking process. He immediately offered Aridru a job as a Math and Physics teacher for Senior Three and Four.
In 1979, war broke out when Aridru was to travel to Ntare School for his A-level, rendering it impossible to cross the Nile to western Uganda. He settled in Mvara Secondary School. As the school library prefect, he took advantage of his position to read all the books at his disposal.
But when advancing soldiers of UNLA and Tanzania People’s Defence Forces reached Arua in pursuing President Idi Amini’s soldiers, the family fled to exile in Zaire (now DRCongo). For half a year, Aridru was in exile when he was supposed to be in Senior Six.
”You won’t believe, I taught myself Mathematics and Physics when in DRC. I did the entire syllabus from the beginning until the end. I did all the questions at the end of every chapter. By the time we came back, I had finished the entire syllabus for HSC.”
When he returned, soldiers massacred people at St Joseph’s College Ombachi. To add death to fear, soldiers broke into the family house and pointed a gun at him.
“To me, that was the climax of everything. I decided to leave the village for Kampala.”
So, he asked a missionary travelling to Kampala for a ride. He packed everything he owned, books and a few clothes, and ventured into the unknown in search of his cousin.
Armed with only her name, Margaret and her village Namulonge, Aridru arrived in Kampala to jumpstart life all over again. When he jumped on a bus from the city to Namulonge, it was night time and Aridru only relied on the assurance of a stranger who offered to show him where to disembark from.
Midway the journey, he turned behind his seat only to see Margaret seated. From that point on, the rest was history.
Rejected at Budo; excelled at Namilyango
After obtaining a recommendation letter from Ministry of Education to allow him admission as a student from upcountry, he went to Makerere College School and King’s College Budo but was turned down. He went to Namilyango College and was also turned away.
But on the intervention of a prominent person from Arua, Namilyango admitted him on condition that he would not shame the school by obtaining poor grades. So, he joined S.6 in second term, just a few months to the final A-level exams.
“When the results were announced, I was one of the five best students in the whole of Uganda. Our names were read on the radio. The minister gave me my first radio as a present.”
His good performance also came with a Shs 40,000 allowance on top of the allowance for government sponsored students.
At Makerere University where he was admitted to study Engineering, life dramatically changed for the best. But God had other plans and Aridru’s mother died when he was completing his first year exams.
“I finished the last exam at 3p.m and at 4p.m they told me; ‘By the way your mum died and we buried her about a week ago.’ That was the lowest moment in my life. It was devastating that there was no chance for me to even say bye to her,” he recalls.
On his first return trip back to the village in 1984 to pay his last respects to his mother, he arrived by plane.
Some of his peers who had dropped out went back to school after realising that one of their own, who had left a poor man, returned in style as a university student.
“They said: ‘wow, so, if you study very hard you can make it. This boy was just here and now he is coming back in a plane.’ By the way, I was the first student from Ajono to go to university. I was like a king; they kept asking questions. ‘When you are up there, do you go to make pupu and susu?’ And I said yes there are places where you do that.”
After graduating with a degree in Civil Engineering, he got a job with African Development Bank. In one year, he won a scholarship for his postgraduate studies to Canada.
At 32, he also acquired a PhD, emerging the best student of his class with a GPA of 4.8. He was then called to lecture in Bahamas where he worked for two years before the government of Botswana offered him a job in the Ministry of Works and Transport.
He rose through the ranks and was appointed Senior Presidential Advisor on infrastructure. After ten years, he decided to return his wife Josephine Finia Aridru and four daughters back to where it all started, Arua.
Here, he plans to contest for the Arua Municipality seat in 2011 on the NRM ticket.
“I want to give back some of my achievements to my people because I know what they are going through as I went through the same thing.”
During his free time, he enjoys rally driving and says he has driven from Botswana through South Africa to Uganda eight times, once making the trip in three days.