In 1964, a major accident occurred, involving students of St Mary’s College Kisubi.
Today marks 50 years since that tragic day, and there will be a memorial Mass at Christ the King church in Kampala at 5:30pm. Joseph Kimbowa revisits the events of that day through the eyes of a distinguished witness and a survivor.
John Ssemanobe vividly remembers that Saturday! On the pitch, it was one of the brightest days for a budding footballer. An hour later, however, it erupted into the darkest moments of his life at St Mary’s College Kisubi (SMACK).
It was a sunny afternoon of November 14, 1964, at Wankulukuku stadium in Kampala. Defending champions SMACK were facing their old rivals from St Henry’s College Kitovu, in the football finals of the Buganda Senior Cup. The first half was a nervous affair. Despite lots of innovation on the pitch and ‘lungs’ of motivation from both sets of fans, the stalemate held.
In the second half, Joseph Tomusange gave SMACK the lead, but their joy was short-lived, as Kitovue qualized, with a penalty from Polly Ouma. Oftentimes, big occasions demand big players. John Baptist Ssemanobe was SMACK’s star left winger, who had just been called up to the national team.
With barely ten minutes left, he won possession on the centre line, passed the ball to his right, and instinctively started sprinting towards goal. By the time he reached the Kitovu box, Charles Otim Kibi’s cross from the right was also arriving.
“I met the ball with my stronger left foot,” Ssemanobe recalls. “Their goalkeeper caught what he could of the ball, but he fell into the net with most of it. He only narrowly missed crashing into the post.”
So, 2-1 it ended. The trophy would return to Kisubi.
“It was a memorable moment for me and the entire team,” recalls Ssemanobe, who would star for the Uganda Cranes, and went on to become president of the Federation of Uganda Football Associations (Fufa).“Everyone on the pitch was shouting on top of their voices and I could only see blue blazers being waved everywhere.”
Ssemanobe remembersthat as far as he and his teammates were concerned, nothing less than victory had been deemed acceptable.
“Imagine losing when we had come with two buses, two trucks and all teachers’ cars, while Kitovu, I think, had a single bus! We also couldn’t afford to lose to an O-level school,” he says.
The jubilating SMACK contingent did not leave Kampala till dusk. Normally at Kisubi, S1 and S2 students used trucks, while the buses would carry S3-S6 students.
“But because of the excitement, many boys from junior classes sneaked into the bus that would take the trophy. This forced some students from senior classes to use the trucks,” he says.
One of these ‘misplaced’ seniors aboard a truck was a 20-year-old lad named John Baptist Walusimbi.
Walusimbi, who later became an engineer and a Buganda prime minister, this week told The Observer what happened when their truck reached Namulanda, where Kisubi High School is located.
“Everyone was sharing their experiences of the day. I was talking to a friend when I immediately heard a bang on the side of the truck. Everything happened so fast but I remember the truck skidding and throwing me from the back towards the front.
“As the truck fell, its roof came off and I landed on the tarmac. I heard my friends crying and I saw blood coming from my head and knees. I managed to stand and run to the nearby bush in shock. I met a man living in a mud-and-wattle house and I told him that my friends needed help. He went and checked and told me that we had been hit by a military truck and there were soldiers everywhere.
“He went back again and told me that my friends were being helped. He took me back to the scene and I was transported to Kisubi hospital where my wounds were dressed.”
Ssemanobe was in a bus behind this truck and says they could not hold tears back when they reached the scene.
“We saw SMACK blazers lying in the road and blood everywhere. One senior player, Emmanuel Ssebavuma (RIP), mobilised us to go and help our colleagues. We collected all dead bodies and those with severe injuries and put them on one of the other school trucks that took them to Mulago hospital,” he says.
While all this happened, Ssemanobe says, the army officers, who had caused the accident, just stood at the periphery and never offered any help or first aid. Instead, according to other accounts, they stopped one teacher and the school head prefect, George Bamuturaki, from helping the injured.
“The political atmosphere was tense then. It was a time when there had been chaos at Nakulabye and the Buganda Katikkiro Kintu had just been removed,” Ssemanobe adds.
Some accounts say that some security officer around Kibuye mistook the jubilant students for pro-Buganda agitators, and then called the army in Entebbe to meet them head-on. Ten students died on the spot while two others died on arrival at Entebbe hospital.
Having earlier been the hero of the day on the football pitch, Ssemanobe was called on a few hours later, this time to save fellow students.
“I was in S3 then and I had never even come near a dead body. But here I was lifting bodies of people that had earlier been hugging me,” Ssemanobe says, wondering where he got the courage to rescue those that were stuck in the wreckage.
When word reached him, the then school headmaster, Br Paul Bourget, is reported to have said: “Thy will be done.”
Walusimbi, too, cannot forget what followed, especially when beds of their dead friends were removed from respective dormitories.
“These are lads we had lived and shared dormitories with. It was hard to believe that they had gone forever,” he says.
It was a very cold weekend at Kisubi hill. Moreover, it was examination time.
“The S4 candidates were supposed to start exams the following Monday. They were not even able to go for the burial of their classmate that had died,” Walusimbi says.
After postmortems at Mulago hospital, Br Bourget secured services of all available cars and asked staff members to carry the bodies of the dead students to their respective homes. Life had to go on, however sadly. But November 14 has remained a black day at Kisubi, marked with High Mass solemn hymns.
On the school’s part, a memorial library was constructed, launched in 1965 by UK’s Princess Margaret Snowdon. Fifty years later, Ssemanobe’s blood runs cold whenever he reaches this “fatal spot”.
“It feels like it happened yesterday,” he says.
The same can be said of Walusimbi.
“Whenever I reach that spot, I just remember that I almost lost my life at the age of 20,” says Walusimbi, expected to speak today at the memorial mass at Christ the King church in Kampala.
According to the acting SMACK head master, Charles Mwaka, the event will be marked in earnest next year.
“The school will send a delegation of student leaders, choir and staff for this mass. But the general [commemoration ceremony]is likely to take place next year when the memorial library has received a comprehensive facelift,” Mwaka says.
He adds that the commemoration should remind Ugandans to support co-curricular activities.
“These were passionate young supporters who perished for the love of sport. Besides academics, we should all join hands and promote co-curricular activities in schools,” Mwaka says, giving the example of Ssemanobe, who starred for SMACK and for Uganda Cranes.
The tragic twelve – as remembered by their classmates
Michael Owot (22) was born in 1942 in Gulu. He attended Gulu Catholic School and Gulu High School for two years. In 1956, he was admitted to St Mary’s College Kisubi in S1, but his stay was short-lived because of financial problems.
He joined Fatima Primary Teachers’ Training College, qualifying as a primary teacher. He taught for a year, and went to Ngora TTC for upgrading. In 1963, he was re-admitted to SMACK, in S3. Exactly a week before sitting for his Cambridge exams, he was called to the Almighty God.
Philip K. Kirumira (19) – S3. Son of John Kibirige of Lyantonde village, Kabula county. Had his primary and junior secondary at Lubaga. In 1961, he was admitted to SMACK. At school, he took great interest in swimming and was soon a star of the College. He represented his house (Kakooza) at various sporting events, of which football was his favourite. He had been nicknamed “Jolly Boy”. His sister, a teacher at Lubaga, was his benefactor.
Moris J. K. Kitimbo (19) - S2. Was son of Cipriano Kitimbo. He was born on September 22, 1945, at Kamuli Mission. In 1960, he joined Kamuli Junior Secondary School, and joined SMACK in 1962. He proved very religious-minded. He was member of YCS, the chapel choir, the music society and served in mass.
Remigio Ssemakula – (18) - S1. Was born at Kiweesa village, about 20 miles from Masaka town. He started his studies late, but managed to pull through. In 1964, he was among the 33 students from Savio who were admitted to SMACK.
He had wished to be an engineer. He liked reading novels, music and Kiganda dance. He had courage and concern about the welfare of others, which he practised even at his last hour when he helped some of his companions who were involved in the accident before he succumbed to his injuries.
Francis Bbosa (18) - S3. Born in 1946 in Busujju. He lost his father when he was five years old, and his poor mother took to care for him. At seven years, he went to Malangala primary school and later had his junior education at Katende. In 1962, he was admitted to SMACK. He was committed to his work and admired by many students.
Joseph Yawe (19) – S2. Yawe was kind, obedient, jolly, generous, honest, tolerant, simple, cooperative and friendly. For his PLE, out of 64 pupils in primary six, he was first, and also the best in the whole of Singo county. He was a member of Lourdel house. In class, he used to help whoever called for his assistance since he was good at nearly all subjects. He tolerated disturbance by fellow students. He was good in athletics, chess and football.
M Victor Kagaba (16) - S1. Was from Kigezi district. He was simple, cheerful and many students loved him. He had funny jokes with the tutors and was polite as well as obedient to them. The senior one class lost one of its cheerful, good-mannered and well-behaved boys.
John Kayira – (14) - S1. He was a cheerful boy. He attended Kamodo primary school in Teso and Savio Junior School, before he was granted a state scholarship by the Uganda government.
Unfortunately, he enjoyed just a fraction of his grant! He had extra interest in swimming and table tennis. He used to call friends by their nicknames. He had given himself the name Electric Boy, and one time he tried to make an electric bell. He had real love for Physics.
Egidio Obella (17) - S3. Born on August 16, 1947. He was the eldest in his family. He was from Atutur, Kumi county. His father Faustino Lyama was a tailor in Bukedea and Kumi. He began studies at five years at Tororo primary school.
He later went to Kaconga primary school, St Lwanga’s Junior Secondary School at Bukedea. In 1962, he was admitted to SMACK. He ranked among the brightest students in his class. A very sociable person who always wore a smiling face.
Jack Vincent Oryema – (16) - S1. Was a son of Cirilo Olange, a police constable in Mbale. By the time of his death, he was 16 years old and came from Acholi. He was accepted at SMACK in 1964. During his ten-month stay at SMACK, he was pleasant, cooperative, kind, and a lover of music. His favourite sport was football.
Romano K.K. Nsobya (18) - S2. He was born in the county of Gomba, at Bukalagi, the first born in his family. He went to Bukalagi primary school at the age of eight and later Savio Junior Secondary School, where he was head prefect. He joined SMACK in 1963 in Mugwanya House.
He was soon found to have an outstanding talent in football. He was much more of an arts student, and more often than not used to be 1st in English Language, English Literature, History and Religion.
On Saturday 14 November, Romano made his last appearance in class in the afternoon; he was revising Biology to make up for the time he was going to lose that evening. Romano was destined to meet his death that evening!
Ladislaos Kamya – (18) - S1. He was born in Ssese islands on Buggala island, near the sub-county headquarters. Had his primary school at Bumangi in Ssese, then went to Kitovu for his junior secondary education, which he completed at Savio School.
He then joined SMACK. He used to smile a lot and had good jokes and was popular among students, and would attract crowds. He had good memory of classwork with favourite subject as Mathematics where he spent good time solving numbers.
He was good at swimming and liked volleyball as well as athletics. He had his God at heart and was very active at the Holy Mass, and would rarely miss the rosary.