Every once in a while, someone comes up to show that there is hope for those who go out of their way to succeed, confounding the cynics. At Makerere University, Dr WINSTON TUMPS IREETA is one such person, as Baker Batte Lule found.
In 2009, Makerere University witnessed the rise of its youngest vice chancellor ever – the then 39-year-old Prof Venansius Baryamureeba. Many agreed that he had made a fast ride to this position. He would leave two years later – a fast departure as well.
Like Prof Baryamureeba, Dr Winston Tumps Ireeta, an associate professor of physics, is making a fast approach to "things".
Born on January 8, 1979 in Kampala to Norah and Jonathan Ireeta, he is the first born in a family of three children; one girl and two boys. His father passed away in 1986.
In his short stint at Makerere, he has already gained the confidence of his peers, winning a slot on the University Council, where he is one of the representatives of the Makerere University Academic Staff Association (Muasa).
Last November, when Makerere University was still under indefinite closure following a strike, he found himself among a group of lecturers hurdled to plan how to end the industrial action in a positive manner.
The strike had been called by the Makerere University Academic Staff Association (Muasa), after lecturers protested the late payment of allowances.
During this time, there were major divisions among the 1,500-member Muasa, and he emerged as a voice for the “viable alternative”. This involved holding meetings with senior government officials, culminating in the final decision to reopen the university and conclude the controversy over allowances later.
Ireeta started his education at Nakasero primary school, one of the best primary schools at the time, from 1985 to 1991.
“It was a positive experience, we learned so much and exuded the positive influence that we got from our teachers,” he recalls.
For his O-levels, Ireeta was shipped off to Ntare School in Mbarara, where he studied from 1992 to 1995.
“My mother wanted us to get a good education, while keeping in touch with our roots,” he says.
His father Jonathan Ireeta hailed from Kamwenge in western Uganda and was a chief accountant in the Coffee Marketing Board. On the other hand, his mother Norah was a nurse until she was posted upcountry to Ibanda hospital, in the early 1980s, when she elected to be a housewife.
For his A-level, Ireeta returned to Kampala, this time studying at St Mary’s College Kisubi from 1996 to 1998 and passed highly enough to gain admission to Makerere on a government scholarship. There, he would study for a Bachelor of science in Physics and Mathematics, completing his studies in 2001.
“I was the best student in my class and about the third in the whole faculty; so, I was kept around [after graduation],” Ireeta declares fondly.
He adds that after graduating, his mentor, Prof Elidad Banda, insisted that Ireeta pursues a career in academia.
“He said he would do everything possible for me to join the university teaching staff,” Ireeta says. And Prof Banda was successful in his mission. I was posted to the department of distance learning as a programme coordinator for the Bachelor of Science in Education, external,” he recalls.
FAST TRACK IN ACADEMIA
“I worked there for one year and then Prof Banda and Prof Livingstone Luboobi secured a scholarship in Norway for me to do a master's in Physics at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in 2003.”
During this time, Ireeta’s siblings completed their studies at Makerere. Sharon Ireeta, his sister, is now a branch manager with Dfcu bank, while the last born, Edison Munanura, is a lecturer in Pharmacy at Makerere University.
On his return from Norway in 2005, Ireeta became a fulltime member of academic staff at Makerere University, teaching in the department of Physics. He taught there until 2008, applied to the dean of the faculty of Optical Fiber Communications at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa, for a phD and, “after two weeks, I got an email … I had been admitted to do a PhD”.
In January 2009, Ireeta left for South Africa to embark on a PhD programme. And just like Prof Baryamureeba earlier, it was a breezy two years instead of the stipulated three years.
“[In December 2010], I finished my degree early because of my family ... I had married in May 2007. By the time I went to South Africa, we had a one-year-old baby,” Ireeta says. “I missed them.”
However, he offers a further explanation for what happened at the end.
“In South Africa, there are three different ways of finishing your PhD; first, they can send your thesis to three external examiners outside South Africa. If all of them pass you; you don’t defend it. If two of the three pass you, then they set up a committee where you’re required to defend your dissertation and if only one passes you, you resubmit,” he explains. “In my case, all three passed my thesis without requiring any corrections.”
Indeed, this writer saw an email from his supervisor, Prof Andrew Leitch, stating, “At a meeting of our faculty committee this morning, your doctoral thesis was approved. Congratulations! So, you will graduate at our graduation ceremony in April,” the email says in part, adding, “You have worked very hard, and I’m really proud of what you have achieved. All three reports from the examiners for your thesis were unanimous that you had completed an excellent thesis, and that it must be accepted as it is (ie, without the need for any changes).”
Like Prof Baryamureeba, Dr Ireeta has been working nonstop for years now. In order to reach the highest ranks in the academic world at Makerere, one must teach, supervise students and publish books or papers in peer-reviewed journals.
When Ireeta completed his master's in 2006, he was promoted to assistant lecturer. And his publishing works speak louder than anything this soft-spoken don can do.
“By the time I finished my PhD, I had more than 10 publications in peer-reviewed journals. When I came back [from South Africa], I applied again to become a senior lecturer; they required eight publications; I submitted 10, then I was promoted,” Ireeta remembers.
Since then, he has been on a roll, supervising over a dozen students and doing research with funding from a South African research foundation.
“I also have collaborations in Tunisia, Italy, and Malaysia; so, it always helps me to send students to do research in those countries,” he explains. “This helps a lot in the promotion.”
And the results are there for all to see. Apart from making it to the University Council in 2015, he was recently promoted to associate professorship after supervising about 10 master’s students on top of authoring 21 publications. We asked him why there are many pure science academicians rising through the ranks compared to their colleagues in the humanities. Dr Ireeta has a simple answer.
“[Lecturers in the humanities] have very many students they teach; so, they don’t have enough time to do research … it is also partly due to insufficient funding for research in the humanities.”
Dr Ireeta’s colleagues at the department of Physics describe him as very bright and ambitious. We started off with the influential Prof Eldad Banda, who Ireeta refers to as his mentor. The elderly Prof Banda, who has been teaching at Makerere for over 40 years, says Ireeta has been one of his brightest students.
“His brightness is manifested in his PhD that he finished spectacularly in just two years. He is a very hardworking young man and a very good researcher; attributes key in the academia,”
Prof Banda, who looks at Dr Ireeta as his heir in the department, says he is very comfortable with Ireeta being the head of department.
“I know we are headed in the right direction,” he concludes.
Down the corridor, Dr Florence Mutonyi D'ujanga, Ireeta’s immediate predecessor as head of physics department, has affable words.
“He was my student and I can say he was one of the very best. Perhaps this explains why he has managed to attain the level of associate professor at such a young age,” said the fellow associate professor. She is particularly happy about what she calls Ireeta’s good leadership qualities and his ‘good’ ambitions.
“He knows how to deal with situations however tough they might be. When he was in charge of welfare on the Muasa executive, he brought out so many things that were affecting the teaching staff. For that, people trusted him and that’s why they elected him to represent them at [university] council,” D'ujanga said.
Prof Banda and D'ujanga are not alone in her admiration for Ireeta. Even Ireeta’s students speak warmly.
“He is a man you will find taking juice while walking and not bothered at all. He is very simple, generous, and easy-going but also principled. When he gives coursework and he says this is the deadline, he entertains no stories,” said Bosco Okello, a third-year Bachelor of Science in Education student.
For Denis Agaba, another Bachelor of Science in Education student, Ireeta’s simple dress code stands out for him.
“I have never seen him put on a tie or suit. If you find him with students, it is very hard to know that he is the lecturer; an associate professor at that. He likes being himself,” Agaba said.
Even as he is paid glowing tribute and speculation swirls as to any further ambitions, in Prof Baryamureeba’s line, Dr Ireeta says he is focused on his work for now. Refusing to entertain any further questions, he says he focused on growing his family.
Like many in academia, Ireeta is married to another don, Doreen Karungi, a lecturer in the department of Architecture at Makerere.