For Dr Ahmed Kaweesa Ssengendo, the rector at the Islamic University in Uganda (IUIU), life has been about work.
He decided early in life that if he did not have something, he would work for it and earn his keep the honest way. Dr Ssengendo started life in the little village of Bukanga in Isingiro district on February 6, 1959 as the son of the late Hajji Yunus Kaweesa and Zuhurah Kaweesa.
He joined Kyaluhambura Muslim Primary School, where his life was marked by hard work both in and out of class. His father was a coffee farmer but the family was financially challenged. To make ends meet, he started a cassava garden which he would tend before going to school.
During harvest time, he would sell roast cassava to refugees in nearby Nakivale refugee settlement. By P7, Ssengendo was only getting by with the bare necessities. To improve on his chances, his parents sent him to live with his aunt in Kampala, where he joined Old Kampala Secondary School for senior one in 1973. It was a memorable but tough existence at the time.
“It was in senior one that I got my first pair of shoes and this was because it was part of the school uniform. I remember it cost me Shs 29 and 99 cents from the Bata Shoe shop,” Sengendo recalls.
Because his aunt lived in Namasuba, he would walk to Old Kampala every day. After classes, he would hurry home to fetch four jerrycans of water for his aunt and another six for neighbours, earning money for school lunch.
Despite the hardships, Ssengendo was the best student in the school at his O-levels in 1976, scoring 15 points in his best six subjects. He later transferred to St. Henry’s College Kitovu, Masaka, where he studied Physics Chemistry and Biology for his A-levels.
When he joined Makerere University, he pursued a Bachelor of Science Degree in Botany, graduating with an upper second class degree in 1980.
“When I graduated, I went for a postgraduate diploma in education, but even then, I taught in two schools; Nyamitanga Primary and Secondary schools because I needed to make ends meet,” he says.
After graduation, he returned to Makerere as an assistant lecturer in the department of Botany, and also taught at Old Kampala SS and Bilaal Islamic Institute. Of the latter, he recalls that he helped introduce the formal curriculum, teaching Biology and Geography; previously, Islamic studies were Bilaal’s forte.
In 1985, the budding scholar went for a Masters degree in Education at the University of Kansas in the United States and, later, a PhD in Education, majoring in instructional technology, completing both at the tender age of 28 in 1987.
“It was the first time that I was fully involved with one thing; so, I concentrated on my studies,” he says.
For his PhD, Ssengendo compared the impact of group work and competitive learning in helping students learn better. He did his research at Old Kampala SS and found that students learn better from one another. When he returned, Ssengendo went back to Makerere University, but this time transferred to the School of Education.
However, he didn’t stay long. A year into this engagement, he joined eight colleagues to start IUIU in Mbale. The new university started with Prof Nsereko Gyagenda as Vice Rector and former Minister Abu Mayanja as Rector.
Ssengendo, who started as a lecturer, rose through the ranks to become university secretary before the authorities at IUIU tasked him to help start IUIU’s Kampala branch in 2001. From 2003 to 2004 he was Vice Rector (academics) before taking over the top job in 2004. IUIU, which now has four campuses, holds nearly 6,000 students.
Ssengendo says he draws inspiration from the early Muslim thinkers like Al Ghazal, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, who wrote about Islamic norms during the middle ages, as well as the inventors of modern Medicine.
However, he remains concerned that Muslim youth lack role models from within their faith. “There are very few role models Muslim youth can look up to and the few they look up to are not practising Muslims,” he says.
Ssengendo is particularly concerned that female youth are the most vulnerable with many protesting the Hijab dress. Consequently, he is now studying the reasons behind the poor performance of Islamic founded schools; a matter he believes is also tied to the lack of strong leaders in the Islamic faith.
“Unlike other faiths, there are very few highly schooled Muslim leaders,” he says.
Ssengendo has two wives and 13 children, four of whom are girls. On the rare occasions when he is free, he enjoys playing with his children. On other occasions, he gives inspirational talks to pupils in Luwero, in the hope that they would become good leaders.