11 October 2018

Uganda: From Watchman to University Dean

"Our mother died when I was less than a year old and my father was only 36 years old. He took on the mantle of raising us and because of this, he never married again," Dr Joseph Ssekandi narrates. Born in a family of only two siblings, Dr Ssekandi was born and raised in Nkozi Village, Mpigi District, by a single father, Matia Nyakamwe.

Being a gateman

Dr Ssekandi attended St Mugagga Nkozi Primary School for his primary level education and later joined St Balikudembe Secondary School in Mpigi District where he completed his A-Level. However, although he had passed, his father could not afford to pay for his university education and the only quick option available was to work as a night watchman commonly known as "askari" at Uganda Martyrs University Nkozi, a job he did for three years.

He says it was not passion that drove him to this job but it was the only available opportunity to earn a living.

Working diligently without knowing the next step, Dr Ssekandi was approached by Evelyn Ayot, an employee in the vice chancellor's office. She was concerned that this energetic, vibrant and hardworking young man worked as a watchman instead of being in the lecture room studying. This was Dr Ssekandi's turning point.

Breakthrough

"She could not understand why I could speak perfect English without an education, so one day she asked me how far I had gone with my studies. I told her I had sat for my A-Level exams and passed but could not afford to go to university," he shares.

Dr Ssekandi says Ayot then asked him to have a word with Bernard Onyango (deceased), the then university registrar, but because he was afraid, he opted to approach the assistant registrar who advised him to apply. He says as he worked on securing his admission, a priest from their area (Nkozi) returned from the United Kingdom and was shocked to find Dr Ssekandi working as a watchman. When the priest went back to the UK, he got him a sponsor.

"He went back and shared this story of a young man who was very bright but had not been able to go further with his studies because he had no money, and Dorothy Whitworth, a good Samaritan, offered to sponsor my studies," he says adding that each year she sent £2,000 (about Shs9.8m) which helped him clear the university dues and also take care of himself.

While he initially wanted to do a science course, no one trusted him. They believed that since he had spent three years as a security guard he did not qualify for the course. Unlike other students, Dr Ssekandi was put on a special pre-university programme for one year.

"I was also required to continue working as a security guard. During the day, I would be in class with the same people I protected at night," he narrates.

Challenges

In the first semester, Dr Ssekandi was doing only two course units while other students on normal programmes took as many as eight.

To the determined young man, this was nothing to weigh him down or discourage him, but rather a propeller to help him prove his potential and brilliance.

After finishing the pre-entry course and scoring so highly, Dr Ssekandi embarked on the full course offering a bachelor's of Arts in Development studies.

He admits that during his studies, many students had a terrible attitude toward him and many could not associate with him.

"My job paid poorly so I could not afford many of the luxuries that other students had. Most of the students also saw me as an outsider because at night I would stop a number of them from entering the school gate if they had broken the rules," he recounts.

He also notes that he faced some tough moments with some female students who wanted to bring their boyfriends into the university hostels, which was against university policy.

"A number of students would bring their boyfriends to sleep in the hostel but because it was against university policy we would kindly ask them to go away and many would start fights with us," he narrates.

However, he persisted with his education and after graduation, his sponsor invited him to the UK. While there, he wrote a concept note to the University of Reading in Berkshire, England, who admitted him on a Master of Science programme and gave him a full scholarship.

"After graduating, I came back to Uganda to visit my family and although I had got a job in the UK working on a horse farm, I decided to join Uganda Martyrs University in 2009 as the administrator of the school of diplomacy," he says.

Doctorate

In 2013, Dr Ssekandi while attending a workshop in Kampala saw an advert in the newspapers calling for applications for a PhD, and he immediately applied. As fate would have it, his application was successful and he went ahead to study for a PhD in Dry Lands Resource Management at the University of Nairobi where he spent four years, graduating in September.

"After graduating, Uganda Martyrs University appointed me as dean of Faculty of Agriculture where I am working currently," Dr Ssekandi says.

Advice

Dr Ssekandi's success is not a surprise to many of the people who knew and worked with him while he still served as a university guard. He advises young people to be focused and grab any chance that comes their way and work at it with all their strength.

He believes everyone in life has a life changing moment that comes his or her way, however noting that more often than not, it never starts or presents itself as very attractive or grand.

"Certain jobs are a means to an end. That job you are taking for granted could be the transit to your next level. That education you are despising could be the road taking you to where you would wish to be. My simple message is; treat everything as if your life depends on it," he advises.

What they say

Evelyn Grace Ayot

"I am proud of Dr Ssekandi and I speak to anyone about his journey from guard to PhD holder. His attitude towards work is what prompted me to approach him about university education. What drew me to Dr Ssekandi was the way he took his job as a security guard, the attitude, the politeness and willingness to help."

Brian Mubiru, former student

"He was not just a guard, he was special kind of guard, he was quite exceptional because many of us were friends with him and we never saw him as a guard." Brian recounts that on several occasions, when he was scared of the dark, Ssekandi escorted him to his university room.

Agnes Nabisibo, senior administrator

"I have known Dr Ssekandi from the time he was a security guard up to his current position as faculty dean. This is one individual who has been so focused, very down to earth, humble and he is determined to excel in whatever he does."

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