By Lillian Nalumansi
Father Damien Grimes (more popularly called Fr. Grimes) and Namasagali College are synonymous. It might be 23 years now since he retired as Headteacher of the once-famous college in Kamuli District, in Busoga region, Eastern Uganda, but to the Ugandan public, speaking about one without mentioning the other is unimaginable.
Upbeat at his 92nd birthday in Formby a coastal town in Liverpool in the UK in the company of a generation of his Ugandan students resident in the United Kingdom and who organized the event, Father Grimes reminisced on his time at the school whose fame is attributed to him.
Fr. Grimes addresses party team
As he relaxedly sat back and listened to his former students respectively recount the contribution he made in not just shaping their lives at maturation, but raising the school to the fame it acquired during his headship, Father Grimes in his acknowledgment, attributed his achievements to God.
“I tried to do what I did [for you], in order to please God, and in as far you have found that helpful, it is God you should think of and thank Him, not me. It was a pleasure for me to have done this work,” he said at his turn to address the guests gathered at the hall of Holy Trinity Church in Formby.
The birthday celebration was characterized by banter, dance, laughter, camaraderie, food, nostalgia, and tributes. Former students were from as far back as 1976 right through to the last years of Father Grimes headship in 2000.
Fr. Grimes, accompanied by priest friends cuts the cake
Speaking from Kampala, prominent businessman Patrick Bitature who has retained a close relationship with Father Grimes even paying for his trips to Kampala and hosting him when he still travelled, led Ugandan students in wishing Father Grimes a happy birthday over the set up live-stream connection.
Many of his former students were delighted to see Father Grimes in his known jovial self, tell jokes (he wondered if any of his students were among the notorious dodgers of class) and his mind still as sharp mind as it always back then. He sang the school’s national anthem with his former students, remembering it word for word and synching the spontaneous actions such as clapping as they would have been done when certain lines of the anthem were sang. He could still remember and recount the political challenges that he witnessed through his years he served in Uganda and during which time the country experienced political unrest and saw a change of leaders.
Father Grimes surrounded by his early 80’s to mid 1990’s students. On his immediate left is Maureen Mwagale, a Conservative Party Councillor in Tilgate and next to her is Ann Namiiro his former Personal Assistant and later Academic Registrar of Namasagali University and a long-term staff. She has been one of the consistent organisers of the UK based Namasagali Old Student Union (NOSA) events.
In its heydays, Namasagali College was attended by children of the day’s political leaders such as Obote’s oldest son Tony Akaki in 1985 and was a hotspot for children of the day’s exiled Ugandans returning home from the US, UK, Nairobi and Tanzania when the political situation improved.
Former students in attendance at the Formby birthday celebration included Maureen Mwagale who is a UK Conservative Party Councilor in Tilgate, a town in Crawley in West Sussex, Ann Namiiro a much recognized former student of Namasagali and once the Academic Registrar at Namasagali University when Father Grimes was the principal and Sandra Jones the main Creative Dance instructor in the 1970’s and behind some of the students crowd-thrilling dances moves at what became the sold-out National Theatre shows.
In his memoir ‘Uganda: My Mission’ published in 2016, Father Grimes tracks his appointment as Namasagali College Headteacher to 4th August 1967 a post he held till 2000 before he finally retired to his country of birth the UK in 2002.
Although more famously known as the Namasagali College Headteacher a post for which he was the longest serving in the school’s history, Fr. Grimes’s teaching career in Uganda did not start there.
He arrived in Uganda in 1959 as a teacher appointed to Namilyango College, Uganda’s first secondary school and built by the Mill Hill Missionaries, a British Roman Catholic missionary society that had ordained him, priest, in 1955, aged 24 years old.
“I was first taken to Namilyango College to which I had been appointed. It had been the first secondary school in Uganda, started by the Mill Hill Missionaries in 1902,” he notes in his memoir.
With teaching qualifications that comprised an Honors in Education from the University of Glasgow, a four years theology course from St Joseph’s College, Mill Hill, London, and a two-year Philosophy course from Mill Hill College in Roosendaal in the Netherlands, the young Father Grimes was well equipped to lead Namilyango College in its plan to set up an A level section.
“Namilyango was one of the leading schools but it had not been awarded the qualification of starting A levels as that qualification had been awarded instead to St Mary’s College, Kisubi the other leading Catholic school in Uganda and located near Entebbe. There was a good deal of rivalry between these two schools at the time,” he recalls.
Father Bernard , the Dutch Headmaster of Namilyango College at the time of Father Grimes appointment tasked him to set up A levels.
“With my British educational background, I was able to make arrangements to start A levels at Namilyango College. They began very small, but within a couple of years they were flourishing and became a normal part of the school’s academic structure,” he writes.
Following the failing health of the then Deputy Headteacher of Namilyango College, Father Richard Bone, Fr. Grimes gradually took over as Acting Deputy Headteacher of Namilyango College and joined the then headteacher Fr. Bernard Kuipers in performing roles such as selecting the best-performing students at Junior Secondary exams (as it was known then but replaced by Primary 7 results) that would join Namilyango Secondary.
“I would accompany Father Kuipers to the annual meeting attended by all the heads of secondary schools to allot places at Namilyango on the basis of the Junior Secondary examination results. Junior Secondary was later abolished and results were based on the new primary 7 results instead,” he notes.
A dance troupe including, old students, cheer up guests during the 92nd birthday party
From Namilyango to Kamuli
Father Grimes’s transfer from Namilyango to Kamuli College (later renamed Namasagali College) in 1967 would come unexpectedly and majorly caused by the transfer of the mission of the Mill Hill priests (to which he belonged) from the diocese of Kampala to Jinja.
Kamuli College at the time was headed by Father Patrick Neville on secondment to the Busoga District Administration, by Bishop Vincent Billington of the Mill Hill diocese of Kampala. Father Neville was not in good health and the time and following a letter from Mill Hill in London, Father Grimes was appointed Headteacher of then Kamuli College on August 4th 1967.
Upon taking over as Headteacher of Kamuli College at the beginning of the third term in September 1967 Father Grimes immediately realized the appalling status of the school which necessitated him immediately getting his hands dirty, to stand the chance of turning it into a respectable academic institution.
Kamuli College had been converted into a school from the ruinous railway and port site in Namasagali belonging to the East Africa Railways Harbor which closed its operations in the Busoga region in 1962.
The disused site was then bought by Busoga Local Administration and converted into a secondary school built as a remedy to take on local children that had failed to make the cut into the top government schools within Busoga such as Mwiri College and Wanyange Girls that were dominated by top students from Kampala.
“In the 1950s, the Busoga primary schools and junior secondary schools were of a very low standard. As a result, very few students from Busoga were obtaining entry into secondary schools since access to these schools was through a kind of auction system based on the marks obtained in the primary and junior secondary leaving examinations. For instance, Busoga College Mwiri was one of the best secondary schools in Uganda and was situated in Busoga, yet students with good marks from other areas won all the places to this school to the exclusion of students from Busoga itself,” he notes.
Realizing the plethora of challenges that he found at the little-known Kamuli College, Father Grimes got pragmatic in his solution to solving them.
In order to address the challenge of lack of good quality teachers, he embarked on recruiting good teachers from the UK where he went on a recruitment drive in December 1967.
“One of the things I embarked on was to improve the quality of the staff. I kept my good teachers, fired the student teachers and temporarily brought in some of my best students from Namilyango who had just finished their A levels and were about to start their university courses,” he notes in his memoir.
“I tolerated the three expatriates for a time but gently eased them out as soon as was convenient. Meanwhile, I went to the UK in December and recruited a number of good-quality staff. In addition, the British Council gave me two Voluntary Service Overseas (VSOs) volunteers. One of these was no less a person than Jonathan (Jon) Snow who is now the main anchor newsperson for the British television channel, Channel 4, and who was 18 years old at the time and had just finished his A levels,” he recounts. (Jon Snow adopted the name Muzira, which in Luganda and Lusoga languages means snow).
Father Grimes’s pragmatic management style eventually paid off and by 1970 Namasagali College had become so popular that its student population comprised students from top-tier schools such as King’s College Buddo, Mount St.Mary’s Namagunga, Mwiri College, St Mary’s College Kisubi, Namilyango, and Nyakasura Colleges.
By 1967, Namasagali’s student population rose from just over 300 students to over 1000 by the early 1970s. Its student population did not only continue to rise in the progressive years but the school became an academic giant as its students accounted for the lion’s share of some of the undergraduate degree courses at Makerere University, like Law.
Namasagali students’ experience with the legal profession could mainly be attributed to the innovative student government system that Father Grimes set up at the school and which put students at the heart of governing themselves in a court-like system similar to that of the U.K.
The school was famous for its unique extra-curricular student activities that ranged from swimming (it was the first school to have its own swimming pool and lessons were compulsory. Some of Uganda’s competitive swimmers such as Robert Kigobe are ex-students), chess, basketball, athletes, drama productions, elocution, poetry, singing, music, reading programs, and spiritual training.
It was also the first school to have computer facilities for its students, Father Grimes having in 1985, bought eight Amstrad computers complete with monitors, keyboards, and printers.
“Thus we were the first school in Uganda to introduce computer studies with this equipment in 1985,” he notes. So rare were computers at the time that Father Grimes recalls his secretaries being amazed when they saw him produce beautifully typed letters off the computers.
School legal regime
The other attraction at Namasagali was its unique student-led administrative system that was unlike the prefect system in other secondary schools in Uganda. Namasagali’s student government was split into a student cabinet of ministers (comprising 14 students), student judges (headed by a student Chief Justice and a Deputy and all together totaling 6 boy judges and six girl judges), and reeves (the school prefects headed by the Lord High Reeve (boy) and Lady High Reeve (the girl).
Student disciplinary matters were administered in the student court that was presided over by the student Chief and Deputy justices and had both criminal and civil jurisdiction. The judges wore purple ribbons and black gowns when hearing student cases.
Other student leaders also adorned official regalia of which Cabinet Ministers wore green ribbons and red gowns while the reeves wore red ribbons. Boys wore their ribbons on the shoulders while the girls wore theirs around the neck.
So effective was the school’s running legal system that Namasagali students accounted for two-thirds and more of those admitted for Makerere University’s undergraduate Law degree in the early 1980’s.
Uganda’s former speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga is one of the notable lawyers that studied at Namasagali College. More than just Kadaga, other former students of Namasagali College would go on to be influential in Uganda’s government and private sector roles. They include Faith Mwondha the Justice of the Supreme Court of Uganda and once Inspector General of Government; Miria Matembe (Uganda’s long-serving Minister of Ethics and Integrity); Patrick Bitature. notable private entrepreneur; the late Alex Ndaula once a dominant radio personality and a key figure in Uganda’s entertainment sector; Juliana Kanyomozi and Iryn Namubiru, two of Uganda’s best female music artists and Charles Mbire, Chairman MTN Uganda.
Father Grimes attributes Namasagali’s early rise to the establishment of A levels at a time they were in only in limited top schools in Kampala and leaving many unadmitted O-level students in limbo.
“As one observer put it, we had broken the mold,” he notes.
Father Grimes partly attributes his brand of holistic approach to education where academic teaching was combined with jam-packed activities for students to the type of education he himself received at his O levels back in the UK.
Father Grimes attended St. Michael’s College, a grammar school in Leeds (grammar schools in the UK are government-owned schools that only enroll academically good students who offer top-quality education and engage them in a range of well-financed outdoor activities).
While at St. Michael’s, Father Grimes like other students was not only engaged in the normal academic curriculum but plenty of outdoor activities that included sports, swimming, boxing, drama productions, music including singing, classical music appreciation, elocution, poetry, chess, reading programs and getting taken on trips abroad.
To charm up his retirement, Fr Grimes implored his former students from Namasagali, Namilyango College, and Mt St. Mary’s Namagunga, where he also taught, to write him letters. The letters should respectively come inserted with a photograph and the respective year(s) of study at the respective school. He said he is so keen to read about what his former students are up to in life, and their achievements.
The address is,
Father Damien Grimes
41, Victoria Road, Freshfield
L37 1 LW
His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and phone contacts are +4401704835863 and +447745664548 (mobile).
In 1991, the Queen awarded Father Grimes with the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) chivalry award for his long-term service to education in Africa while in 2022, the Uganda Government awarded him a medal for his outstanding services to Uganda’s education service in which he committed to staying with his students, even through the political upheavals that affected Uganda from the 1970’s.
Namasagali was Uganda’s first private school and was a force to be reckoned with in its glory days. His innovative approach introducing an international approach to the education his generation of students got was later to be copied and adopted by later schools that wanted to attract modern-minded, middle and well-to-do parents that wanted the same for their children.
As he takes enjoys a much laid-back life at the Mill Hill Fathers’ Home in Formby, Father Grimes is a living embodiment of the school’s motto ‘Strive Regardless’.
Editor’s note: This article was first published by Zamina
- AFCON 2027 awarded to Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania as Nigeria-Benin Republic bid fails - September 27, 2023
- After a protracted leadership row, Uganda’s NSSF declares 10% interest for its members - September 26, 2023
- Police should arrest those who are using the MK movement to terrorize Ugandans - September 25, 2023