The Observer (Kampala)

13 November 2012

Uganda: For Sempebwa, 93 Is Just a Number

His age is just another number, yet not so many people have had a privilege to live this long.

When I visited him last week, he offered to lift my chair along with his to the gardens where we were to sit for the interview. "I will carry the chairs; just carry your bag," he said.

One would expect someone of that age to be in bed most of the time. Yet Prof Ernest Kiwanuka Kintu Sempebwa, 93, still drives his car to church and to the trading centre in Buwambo village, Matugga, Wakiso district.

He turns 94 on December 26, but his speech is still as fresh as that of a youth. His command of English and Luganda parlances is still far better than that of many young elite. His eyelids may be puffed up and the bald may have cleared three quarters of his hair but Sempebwa proudly says he still has "stamina". "I am old, but my understanding, speech and reasoning are still good," he says.

An old pupil of Budo Junior School, of the 1929 generation, Sempebwa delights in one thing: "I learnt to speak English better than the English themselves." He attended the then Makerere College, now Makerere University, for a Cambridge certificate in education in 1939. And he started teaching at Budo in 1942. Although he is retired, he still holds the mannerism of teachers: he talks a lot, and is quite humorous.

At one moment when he felt I had not framed my question well, he told me what he expected to be asked. His memory is also still sound. He remembers a host of verses in the Bible - no wonder when we sat for the interview; he gave me a lecture on the book of Deuteronomy.

And he keeps time, a virtue he says is particular with Budonians. As such, the professor can't go without his wrist watch. He gave me one hour to have finished asking what I wanted and he kept glancing at his watch. One hour into the interview, he asked me to leave - my time was up.

Sempebwa mainly reads newspapers and the Bible for pleasure and to keep up to date. He has started writing his memoirs, although he says he finds the task difficult because of a sight problem. "I write on sheets and when I try to look for the sheet I have just finished, I fail to see it," he says. On his table, lies a magnifier which helps enlarge the letters, but it hasn't helped either.

Education sector:

Sempebwa's meekness and free flow interaction with whomever he meets tends to shroud his achievements in the education sector. He has, nevertheless, left marks from the very lowest stratum of a teacher at King's College Budo to the pinnacle where he served as Chief education officer in the ministry of Education in 1972.

He also served as deputy head teacher at Budo and at the higher education and scholarships office in the Buganda kingdom. Last month, the Rotary club of Kampala recognised him for his outstanding service. The Buganda premier, Eng John Baptist Walusimbi handed him the recognition plague.

"It's my pleasure to hand you this award to recognise you for what you have done for this country, especially in the education sector," Walusimbi told the professor.

Peter Mulira, a veteran lawyer and one of Sempebwa's former pupils at Budo, describes him as a hardworking person, but also one fervent about the English language.

"You will never hear Sempebwa speak wrong English. He is among the few Ugandans who have mastered the art of speaking English better than the English themselves," said Mulira.

As a teacher, many prominent people went through his hands. These include Stephen Kamuhanda, former head teacher of Ntare School; Peter Mulira, a lawyer; the late Prince John Barigye of Ankole kingdom; Francis Drake Rammer (FDR) Gureme, a retired civil servant and John Sanyu Katuramu, the former premier of Tooro kingdom.

Buganda loyalist:

A son to one of the leaders in the Buganda Kingdom in 1918 (his father was a leader in Buwambo village where he was given a title of Sabalija, someone good at tying the Kabaka's cows), Sempebwa is among a few Baganda who speak their mother tongue with extra care.

For him, making a mistake in a language you are expected to know is an abuse to the kingdom and the Kabaka. This is the man who saw the burial of Kabaka Chwa at Kasubi and the coronation of Mutesa II.

"After [Kabaka] standing on the stool, the Kabaka told me, 'I thought I was going to fall' and I laughed at him."

In 2009, Buganda kingdom recognised him for his service to it. The Kabaka presided over the occasion. Today Sempebwa has a task of transcribing Kabaka's speech of Ebifa Mu Buganda recorded in Luganda into English. After the work, the English version will be sent to Western countries for people who want to understand Buganda and how it works.

Health woes:

Perhaps this is what comes with age. The once swift-paced teacher who chased students at Budo, now walks slowly with a stoop, although he does not use a walking stick. He has lost all his teeth. If he visited and you served meat, he would only have the soup.

During day, he sleeps for several intervals. For instance, when he sits for an hour, he has to sleep for thirty minutes to replenish his strength. During our interview, we sat for about half an hour and when I asked him the names of his children, he could only remember two. "I think I am tired; the names have escaped from my head."

After a heavy head scratch, he remembers only their surnames: Dr Wantante (RIP), Bazanye, Kiwanuka, Babirye and Kato.

Lonely at home:

At home, only sounds of birds from the trees in the compound make live a rather completely dull home. Sempebwa lives with the driver of his truck, who in any case spends most of the day in the field working.

All the children have grown and they live with their own families. "They come to see me when they want," he says with an intrepid smile.

He says his stepmother prepares him a meal - Sempebwa's mother and wife are deceased. But he would love to have people around him on his birthday. He says he will prepare a meal for the guests and read aloud the messages in the congratulatory cards they will give him. And what gift would Sempebwa like on his 94thbirthday?

"I am happy to receive any gift as long as they are given in good faith."

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