28th September 2006
St. Joseph's College Ombachi; riding the tide of achievement
By Jackie Nalubwama

All the way from Terego County in Arua, a young boy’s dream of joining St. Joseph’s College Ombachi was considered ludicrous. Sam Andema’s headmaster at Cilio Primary School advised his parents to make him give up his Ombachi quest.
Their efforts were futile.

Instead, Andema, together with his friends united under Inia Young Stars Revolutionary Association, took up odd jobs that paid for the paraffin, which lit their lamps for night reading.

Later in 1984 [till 1987], his parents sold a bull and other agricultural products at Shs 2,700, for his first term at his dream school.
“It was very expensive but also worth it,” recalled Andema. He added, “Going to Ombachi for a village boy was almost impossible. I have never read as hard before in my life as I did when I was reading for Ombachi.”

The complex building that has the library, typing room, Jerusalem (S.1 dormitory), Fine Art room, the mosque and the 'mayor's' office and residence

St. Joseph’s College has made many a hearts swell with joy at the prospect of being one of its students. Originally though, in 1949, it was a technical institute for World War II veterans, whom the British Government thought needed life skills after the war.

In 1961, Ombachi got the O-level status and A-level in the 80s, according to the deputy headmaster, Robert Ezama. Ezama said that to date the school offers technical subjects, which include metal work and woodwork. Past the Arua airfield, about 8 kilometres on Koboko Road, the school’s sports fields are sprawled on the roadside. This is a very unique feature because the rest of the school lies behind these fields.

From the fields one appreciates the freedom the students of the school have because they are not fenced off. According to Sam Elasio, in S.5 at the school, “you are free to get out because the field is open.”

However, the head boy, Joseph Alokan Nyoka, explained, “freedom is there. If students want to go to town, they get permission from the teacher on duty. But the time is limited [depending on the reason].”

The driving force

Currently, Andema is a lecturer at Kyambogo University, at the Languages and Linguistics Department. He is also the chairperson of St. Joseph’s College Ombachi Old Boys’ Association.

To him, Ombachi’s secret portion to achievement was, “everyone at the school knew what they wanted out of life. Some used to say they wanted to be doctors, engineers, lawyers and nationalists. I am a nationalist.”

Andema added that his headmaster, Hercules Abiriga, whom he described as a good administrator, was a source of inspiration for the students. During his first days at the school, Abiriga gave a most moving speech that shocked the students into obedience and focus on studies.

The excerpts of the speech, as told by Andema: “Young men, you might have been chewing your chicken legs with your parents at home, but here at Ombachi, there will be no special diet. Those of you who don’t want to eat potato [sweet potato], potato is a national food. In fact, potato is an international food. If you don’t eat it, your parents won’t support you, the minister won’t support you, and the Pope won’t support you.”

The school chapel

Looking back, Andema said, “it was a powerful message which prepares you.” Other old boys of the school concur with Andema on the school’s spirit of academic achievement.

Albert Orijabo is now the senior [water] engineer in Arua district. He was at Ombachi from 1986 to 1993. Responding to a question as to what makes Ombachi boys unique, he said curtly, “we are bright.”

To Orijabo, “people managed to struggle and pass with poor facilities.” This is because at the time he joined in 1986, the effects of the war were still evident at Ombachi, and the facilities were poor. “We used to read under [a wick lamp] because Arua used to have electricity till 10.00 p.m.,” said Orijabo.

However, he added, that state of affairs didn’t stop the school from remaining the giant that it is, albeit being a rural school.
Truth be told, Ombachi rocked the national academic stage in its good old days. For four consecutive years (1984-87), the school had the best students in the country, and the school was also among the top three.

As Andema recalls, in 1984 Richard Mutua [now an engineer] was the best student in O-level. Then in 1985, it was the turn of Patrick Okuni [now working in World Bank] to come on top. Lawrence Abileku (a consultant at Mulago Hospital) was second best in 1986, while Richard Idro [consultant paediatrician at Mulago Hospital] was the best student in 1987. All these were the best students in Uganda at one point and they are all from Ombachi.

The Ombachi way of life
For an S.1 student, the ghosts at the school must have caused them nightmares in their first week. Orijabo explain that “after Amin was overthrown, there was a liberation war, in which it was believed that a mass murder took place in Ombachi. That people sought refuge in Jerusalem [an S.1] dorm, where they were murdered.” Henceforth the dormitory was associated with ghosts.

But Orijabo believes that it was a myth because he didn’t see any ghost. However, he said that some classmates claimed to have heard ghosts in form of babies crying. To Orijabo, these were simply hallucinations.
“Even the cemetery near the chapel is believed to have aggressive ghosts,” Orijabo said.

Academic excellence is another custom of the school. According to deputy headmaster Ezama, the boys concentrate on their books.
“The older boys put notices on their doors like, ‘Busy heads at work. Please don’t make noise,’” he noted.

He too is an old boy of the school, who left St. Charles Koboko in S.3, 1982 because of the war. “Those days students would read hard. They knew what had brought them to school,” he said.

Ezama observed that students these days need a lot of pushing for them to perform well, despite the fact that they have the resources. The Ombachi freedom is still present. Nyoka, the head boy, says when the boys want to leave school, they simply ask the teacher on duty for permission.

However during Orijabo’s time, after class, there was freedom to get out of the school. They would return to school any time. “Roll call was a formality that wasn’t enforced,” said Orijabo. “The liberties we had those days were the driving forces to our success,” Orijabo added.

Bullying or teasing in Ombachi was as unique as it was hilarious. It was more like a word game between babies and grownups. The S.2s and A-level students would engage in debates with S.1s, where big [English] words would be used much to the younger ones’ consternation.

“In fact we used not to call it teasing, but challenging. The S.2s would read the dictionary and bombard us with words we were not familiar with like, juxtapose and jeopardise,” reminisced Orijabo.

Like other great schools, this giant of West Nile has its fair share of jargon. The students also develop their own colloquial tongue. Nyoka, as head boy, is called “The Mayor”. This term has been at Ombachi for a long time; both Orijabo and Ezama, the deputy headmaster, remember using it.

The S.1 & S.2 classroom block

‘Primus inter parise’ is the motto which means “First among equals”. It is from this motto that students derive the strength to succeed, according to Andema. This is because students had a healthy academic competition culture. And Nyoka said the motto still drives them to date.

The slump

Along the way, Ombachi declined tremendously. Andema says what happened is regrettable. “The school has disappeared because of the breakdown of discipline in 1994, when students marched the headmaster to the DEO’s [district education officer] office,” he noted.

Ironically, this is the headmaster Andema spoke highly of as a good administrator. Ezama told the story differently.
“In 1994, Hercules Abiriga, the headmaster, was chased in a strike. One morning the students, smartly dressed, stopped the headmaster from entering his office. And they marched him to the DEO’s office, who took away the keys from Abiriga.” Apparently the high-handed move was based on such trivial complaints as the cooks preparing bad food.

Paul Ogiramoi, an engineer working at the Directorate of Water Development, was at the school from 1994-1995.
Ogiramoi had just arrived at the school when the strike happened. “Students were complaining that the headmaster had [sacked] two economics teachers,” he said.

However, Ombachi recovered shortly after that, and reading continued.
According to Nyoka, the ‘mayor’, discipline remains a major goal of the school.

Ezama, who is also head of the Chemistry Department at Ombachi, says that decline in academics is due to the fact that students don’t have the drive which old boys had when they were at the school.
“Despite the facilities and resources, these boys need pushing,” lamented Ezama.

Headmaster speaks
According to Augustine Juruga, the headmaster since 1998, “the constraints in terms of infrastructure and the expectations from stakeholders, especially in performance, are a challenge.”
He explained that “parents pay [fees] in instalments and it is Shs 180,000 for each student.”

The school fees Nyoka pays today is much less than what Andema paid then, leaving the financially needy most of the time.
On the brighter side, the old boys are working to restore the school to the peak it once occupied.

Andema, chairperson of the old boys’ association, said that since its inception in 1996, old boys hold annual meetings to discuss the way forward. Last year, the meeting doubled as celebrations to mark the New Year in Arua.

Next week we visit Nyakasura school

School Anthem

Oh Lord! I am a bachelor boy
Oh Lord! I am a bachelor boy
From St. Joseph’s College Ombachi.

  1. Prominent old boys
  2. Hon. Alex Onzima
  3. Isaac Alidria
  4. Isaac Alidria Ezati
  5. Martin Andua Drani
  6. Dr. Stephen Ayiella
  7. Dr. Wiliam Worodria
  8. Dr. Alex Ijjo
  9. Dr. Titus Alicai
  10. Eng. Richard Matua
  11. Eng. Patrick Okuni
  12. Eng. Paul Ogiramoi
  13. Eng. Albert Arijabo
  14. Christopher Ojama
  15. Sam Andema
  16. Richard Anguju
  17. Timothy Ejate
  18. Denis Labalpiny
  19. Robert Anguzu
  20. Anthony Edemati
  21. Alias Atibuni
  22. Willy Ngaka
  23. Patrick Onen Ezaga
  24. Job Tabu
  25. Charles Draecabo
  26. Alfred Oyo
  27. Seraphine Alia
  28. Christopher Yikii