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Bernard Onyango: passing of a big man with charming modesty

Tears are markedly a symbol of loss especially of a loved one.

But for mourners at the requiem mass of the late Bernard Mary Ayepa Onyango at St Augustine’s chapel in Makerere University, it was all smiles as many celebrated his life. As speaker after speakerfondly remembered the man, one would be forgiven for thinking Onyango was actually seated in church, watching them. Instead he was lying in a casket before them.

First off was Prof Charles Olweny, the vice chancellor of Uganda Martyrs University.

“We are here purposely to celebrate the life of a great achiever in academics; who was never corrupted,” he said, leading many in the church into laughter, including the widow, Lucy Onyango.

It was a loaded statement for someone, who became the first academic registrar when Makerere University became a fully-fledged university in 1970. He continued in office until 1992. Later, he helped start Uganda Martyrs University Nkozi, serving as academic registrar until he retired in December 2000.

Others, like veteran editor, Charles Onyango-Obbo, (the elder Onyango was his father-in-law), were taken by his integrity, humility and simplicity.

“He didn’t seek it, he didn’t affect it, he didn’t dress the part, he didn’t speak it, he didn’t walk it, he did not care for it, nor did he try to profit from his position,” Onyango-Obbo wrote in Daily Monitor. “For someone who was a pioneer in so many things, and was so venerated, it was perplexing.”

Later, it sounded like a song, when former Makerere University Vice Chancellor Prof George Kirya took to the podium.

“The words cannot differ; a meticulous person who has served this country as far as academics is concerned; all words will be the same for my brother Onyango,” Kirya said.

And when the family got up to speak, we heard from Makerere University Law professor, Joe Oloka-Onyango, who admitted that he had been forced into studying law by his studious father.

Accompanied by two brothers and one sister, he wore a warm smile too. He said he did not regret his father’s insistence on law.

“I had to like the profession, I discovered that even my dad wanted to be a musician but was forced into education by his mother, which I think he does not regret too,” Oloka said. “In all countries I go to and people realise my name is Onyango, they are suspicious that I’m Bernard Onyango’s son.”

He added that this gave him the zeal to keep his father’s integrity intact, in everything he has done.

Man of nicknames

According to his friends and family members, Onyango earned nicknames and he was happy with them yet many people don’t take kindly to nicknames. Prof Oloka-Onyango said his father used to walk four miles from Kayabwe town to Uganda Martyrs University, where students nicknamed him a walking registrar.

In his village of Tororo, people used to call him Jafwongi (to mean teacher), family members called him Kwara (grandfather), Disc Jockey (in charge of what was known as the Onyango disco – to mean annual exams) and MC, among other names.

However, according to Oloka, his father’s favourite nickname was BO. When asked why he preferred that, Onyango told his son that it had taken him 78 years to be famous and his nickname shared the same initials with the US President Barack Obama.

Who is Bernard Onyango?

Onyango was a renowned academician, best remembered by some of his protégés for his consistent support to higher education. According to one of his nine grandchildren, Kwame Ayepa, now working on a biography, Bernard Onyango was born on January 11, 1930 to Reverend Andereya Ochwo and Lakeri Ajwang Abbo. Onyango had ten brothers and one sister.

He started school in Tororo, first at Soni primary school before joining Kisoko Boys. Money was a challenge to their family but his parents never lost hope in the resilient but mischievous young man.

“He had dreams of becoming a famous musician like kadongokamu maestro Christopher Ssebaduka - a local musician. They gave him money to pay tuition to the bursar, but he decided to buy a guitar which his mother [Lakeri] broke and took it back where he had bought it,” Oloka-Onyango said in church.

Onyango later moved to St Peter’s College Tororo. In 1951, he enrolled for a Bachelor of Arts in History and Sociology at Makerere University and later a one-year diploma in Education, launching his long career in academics and administration. In 1956, he started working as a teacher at his former school, St Peter’s College in Tororo for two and a half years, leaving a dormitory named after him.

Onyango later got married to Lucy Kahambo in 1957, and according to Prof Oloka-Onyango, she was their father’s biggest inspiration. In 1963, Onyango was offered a job at Makerere College as the Deputy Registrar, but he only took up the job in 1965 up to 1969.

In 1970 when Makerere became a fully-fledged university, he became its first registrar. During his time at Makerere, he became more famous to students for the Onyango disco (the annual exams).

“Everyone looked at Onyango disco with fairness, purity and transparency. No appeals were made by students after the disco, we knew our marks were all right,” said Dr James Shinyabulo-Mutende, who was a student from 1983 to 1987. Mutende is now the minister of state for Industry.

After retiring from Makerere, Onyango agreed to work at Uganda Martyrs University, eventually retiring in 2000. After his retirement, Prof Oloka-Onyango says their father was in and out of hospitals for the last 10 years with his wife Lucy, always at his side.

The academician had been battling hypertension and several ailments, before passing on at his home, near Makerere University in Kampala, last week. He was 83 years old.
Onyango was laid to rest at his ancestral home in Kiyeyi, Tororo, on Saturday.

“Fare thee well Mr DJ, BO,” Oloka said. “Keep playing your song wherever you are, a ‘big man’ with a simple taste and modesty.”


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