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A simple man with an academic giant’s profile

In 2000, Dr Busingye Kabumba was the best A-level student in Uganda. Busingye studied law at Makerere University and then got other academic honours from Oxford University and Harvard University, two of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world.

Now a law professor at Makerere University, Busingye shares the story of his life with Desert Island Disc’s Simon Kasyate on Capital FM:

How can you best describe yourself?

I like to say that I am like Ragga Dee. A simple man with a simple profile (laughs); a law lecturer at Makerere University, a lawyer with Development Law Associates, a father, brother and husband.

You are now more famed for that weekly political commentary on NTV ‘Talk of the Nation”. Can someone also say you’re a political player, activist? How can we describe you from a political view?

I am non-partisan. I was about to say apolitical…(laughs). I try to be engaged in what happens in the country. I think it is a duty for all of us to engage and contribute in our national conversation.

But I try to do so as objectively as one can in terms of a purpose that looks to a system rather than an individual; so, it is not a project to destruct individuals but attempting to speak truth to power and speaking for persons whose voice cannot be heard.

When did this bulb light in your mind to be a socially-conscious human being that takes a bull by its horns and gets involved in matters civic but without taking sides, and sharing this on a national platform like television?

Actually, I didn’t set out to take out such a role. Problem is that you lose a certain part of anonymity/privacy that is very important to me. For example, the ability to enter a coffee shop or restaurant and have one’s drink without glances, etc. Honestly I didn’t set out to take such a role and I don’t claim such a role.

On the inside, do you regret?

I have thought about that question for quite a while and I would still do what I did. What I thought about essentially was, ‘can this platform be useful to people?’ I have a platform in class and it’s a very important one, and I use it a lot, and I have found that it’s producing results.

For example, [in] the debate that is going around about Uganda Christian University girls who were stopped from doing exams [for being pregnant], I can see that some of those views are being informed during classroom discussions; for instance, Pius [Katunzi Muteekani] of [The] Observer who was in my class a year ago, [wrote an opinion recently making a strong case for the expelled UCU girls], Suleiman Kakaire [a reporter at The Observer who is also studying law]; when he engaged with the president about the AHA [Anti-Homosexuality Act], he was informed clearly by caution law discussions.

I can see clearly that that platform is bearing fruit, but that’s a closed group because not everyone goes to class or university or law school. [TV] is a platform to share views and ideas with a broader category of people that I could not possibly approach; so, it’s privileged.

Away from what you are doing and what it has inspired; let’s get a closer look at who you are. Where were you born, and to whom where you born?

(Laughs) Very important; I was born on June 21, 1982 to Professor Ijuka Kabumba and Mrs Bazaire Kabumba, who are both teachers. I am the fourth in a family of five.

The first one is Masiko Kabumba, second one was Rukundo Kabumba, the third one is a gentleman called Kwesiga Kabumba, then myself, and then our baby is a girl Mbabazi Kabumba; so, now with the demise of my brother we are four left.

Share with us your childhood …born to teachers of course we can clearly imagine the household was one of adherence to discipline and strict adherence to rules. Can you claim to have been raised in a democratic society?

It’s a very interesting question (laughs). I wish I could say we lived in democracy. But the fact of the matter is, like all traditional households, you do as you are told but I must be extremely fair to my parents that we could speak. Particularly, I appreciate that from an early stage we were spoken to as adults.

They would sit you down and ask, ‘what do you think about this?’ I got my kiboko by the way. Children can distinguish between punishing and disciplining; so, I was disciplined and beyond the discipline we could sit and simply talk.

Perhaps [because of] my position at the bottom, I found siblings who had established that relationship, and then you can sit and listen into the conversation, not that I spoke all the time, and you learn a lot. I also learnt from my parents the idea of children being children for as long as they can be children because the world can be very difficult; so, you need again to prepare them.

Asks for ‘Olunaku Luuno’ by Silver Kyagulanyi and adds, “it’s a song I play every morning in my car as I drive off to work.”

Indeed as a doctor, there is no question you went to school; you may wish to share with us which schools you went to and the memories from there...

First of all, you are my OB from St Kizito primary school. I think you were the first guys and then we followed. It was amazing. Small, Catholic-run… I think there is something about schools run by religious committed institutions, a concern for spirituality. It wasn’t a place you fear to go to, it was a place you felt comfortable, intimate and a very good place to go to; definitely a firm foundation.

Going back to your schooling, do you think what you went through in school shaped much of what you are today?

I think for that level it was important to know that you wash your hands; otherwise, you will get diseases, and the districts which were few then, so it was easy to know which district is which, [the ministries and] the ministers that headed them and you could count them.

I mean, I didn’t expect them to teach us about separation of power and rule of law in P6 but I appreciate that every part of life prepares you for another part. So, I appreciate the foundation I got there.

What other schools did you go to?

There is a very funny story there. I wanted to go to [King’s College] Budo for my O-level but because I had brothers in Namilyango [College], my father thought it was financially wise for me to put it as first choice and even on visitation he would make one trip.

So, I appreciate the lesson that ‘you don’t always get what you want in life. You must be able to cut your cloth according to your size and be realistic’. Luckily, I got a four and was admitted to Namilyango. It was home-coming because I had a brother who had been there and was going back there in his form five.

At this point in time, did you have an idea of what you wanted to be in life?

No, at that point you move from class to class, to be extremely honest. Teaching is a calling. I did not know I would become a teacher but by P6 I knew I loved literature, I loved to read. I had read Lord of the Flies by P.5 so it was just a natural inclination towards literature but nothing about a professional calling.

So in Namilyango, you hit senior four and still then, you had no idea of what you wanted to do?

No. Senior four, still then I was entirely on a desert island. I think it was more of the idea that there are those who are going to do arts and others sciences. What I knew by S4 was that I didn’t want sciences and I was aware they were too impersonal for me.

I knew I wanted to do something in arts for better for worse. I wanted something I could enjoy. And I think the beginnings of a lawyer were just there but it was not something I paid attention to.

Asks for Ebinyumu Byaffe by Elly Wamala –“It’s a wonderful song and I listen to it every morning. I, as well, use it as a reference when I am teaching constitutional history because it refers to colonial times; how blacks were stopped from entering some bars. You see how history repeats itself, for example the allegations of racism at Bubbles and other places, and for me it’s very interesting.”

I like the way you don’t just choose songs for the bits or rhythm but for the message...

Songs are very personal for me every morning. They are songs that just set the day for me.

Away from music, back to your academics where by the look and sound of everything, you were stuff of genius. Where did you go for advanced level?

Yes, this time I could choose. My brothers were in university, my sister was in [Mt St Mary’s College] Namagunga and our finances had improved tremendously. I recall he said, “feel free to choose where you want to go.”

And just like that I filled in Budo as first choice and, luckily, I got there. For avoidance of all doubt, I appreciated Namilyango completely. I think it was where I was supposed to be for that time.

And I appreciate Dr Peregrine Kibuuka; he was an amazing man. Buddo became a change I had chosen because I felt they had a good tradition with the arts and my father too had been there, but it came as a shock on infrastructure but the freedom there was great.

Basing on this history of King’s College, [Budo], how come we don’t see leadership in this country held at very high levels by people who had that kind of training?

I think absolute power corrupts. If anything, we should have produced democrats from Ntare School and it seems like the most part, they were. I have no doubt that the current leaders were sincere in their beliefs when they began the regime; so, there must be something that happens along the way.

There must be something about unchecked power corrupting you absolutely. So, I think any of us put into that power can become a tyrant.

Did you ever get involved in any school activities such as sports, student leadership? Did you ever write love letters?

We all wrote these things (laughs). I can’t run away from my bookish approach but I went for sosh [social events], tried rugby [until] I suffered a very tough tackle by some guy whose name I still remember; he was Lee Newton Ogong, so I just decided to withdraw from sports. I was head of the literature and debate clubs. Then I wrote a play for my house that won us best play.

Did you ever get entangled with the law or become a demagogue of some sort?

No, I was very meek and I think my brush with the law came in senior one and it was still something to do with books. I was reading a book in the library and power went off as I was about to finish it and I told myself there was no way I could stop reading; so, I pushed it out of the window and a prefect got me and I was taken to Dr Kibuuka who told me, “I hope you have learnt your lesson, crime doesn’t pay”.

He could have changed my life completely but he chose to give me a second chance. That early experience with the law clued me in and I discovered I was poor at committing crime. I was unable to come up with a good defence of myself.

Asks for ‘We Are Young’. It’s by a band called Fun, featuring Janelle Monae.

Your name, even that of your father, mother and siblings, is quite peculiar; you don’t have an English or foreign language name; why Busingye Kabumba and not Peace Kabumba or even Simon Peter Kabumba?

Yes. I have the answers. I went to school, I found people with English names and I did not [have one], which I also found strange. But when I went home and asked my father, he explained to me that I had a Christian name, even when it was not [in] English; so, I understood it. I could have changed my name when I grew up but I appreciate the person I am.

Are you a Christian?

I am agnostic.

What is that?

It means I am not certain and still trying to figure out where I belong.

Have you been baptised in any faith and from where?

Yes, I was baptized as Anglican and raised that way. It was from a church in Kabale.

What are the names of your children?

My first born is called Agaba Rukundo Kabumba, the second Amara Busingye Kabumba. Third Asasira Ijuka Kabumba.

Did your wife drop her English name when you met her?

No, she kept her name Rosaline Nsenge when I met her, and that’s who she still is.

With your agnostic view of Christian faith, how are you raising your children?

I am on a journey of inquiry. My wife is Catholic but has raised our children as Anglicans.

When the kids are at church with mummy, what are you doing?

Normally I am at home watching pastors and preachers on TV or at office, especially in the afternoon.

When you say you’re on a journey of inquiry, from what point of view are you questioning whether this or that setup wasn’t a move for those who were carrying the flag to just simply flaunt the cross?

It’s a question from a personal perspective, meaning it is simply not a question of birth, and 95 per cent of the people I know take religion simply because of birth, and I think something as important as that should not be on the luck of the draw in terms of a lottery of where you are born.

Do you know religion is as engrained in us as our heritage, like tribe?

The problem comes when people take certain decisions based on religion which sometimes can be problematic. For you to take a step in life and be guided by a certain religion, the decision must be consciously determined.

Do you have any problems with the two greatest commandments, which are love your neighbour as you love yourself and love thy God with all thy might?

The most sincere gentlemen I know are atheist and the most problematic I know are people who are steeped in religion, so that again made me pause and think that if religion can drive you to certain extreme action (because the Lord has said so), then there’s something strange about that religion.

How did you receive the whole idea of being at Makerere University?

It was very liberating and, yes, I hit the discos from a strict disciplinarian home to this almost unfound freedom. But it wasn’t the first time I went to a disco – and this is the first time I am revealing this – my first time was in S4 when I lied to my parents that my paper was to end later than it did, so my friends and I went to [Club] Silk.

Did you engage in any cultural activities at university?

Funny enough, I spent only one semester in the university hall before I returned home. It was too squeezed. In Budo, I had a single room. Then one day my friend was telling me about a football match they had and he was using my towel to wipe his armpits (laughs). The rooms were crowded and my privacy was interrupted.

Asks for “Viva la Vida” by Coldplay – “It’s something about power and those who wield it, and how they forget. It’s a political one, that one.”

Now let’s get a bit more personal from a romantic perspective. Mind to share when and where you met your wife?

We met in law school in the library – I think you saw this coming (laughs) – so we began talking and thereafter one thing led to another. But whatever I said worked (laughs). She is a magistrate now and we have been together for 13 years.

As a lecturer, do you think students are learning? Are you giving them value for their money, or are they so entrenched in other extra-curricular diversions and at the end of the day parents are out on the losing [end]?

Students are doing their best. I think they do more than we give them credit for. They are really engaged and doing their best.

Let us give ourselves an outlook. Where will you be 10 years from today?

I work with two very committed gentlemen, we are growing a law consultancy firm, so 10 years from now I would like to see this baby of ours grow over the continent and I want to see my children grow to be a better father, better husband and keep taking my bits for this country.

If you were going to a desert island and given chance to carry one thing/person with you, who/what would it be?

If it were a book it would be One Hundred Years of Solitude by Garcia Marquez, and if it were a person, I would go with my wife.

What would be your last song?

Sounds of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel.

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