On 8th February 2020, we paid a visit to Herbert House in Liverpool. Herbert House is a retirement home for Mill Hill Missionaries in Formby, Liverpool. Located 223 miles from London in a Cul-de-sac, 75 metres off Victoria Road, we were greeted by such serenity well deserving of our hosts. Our hosts were none other than Fathers John Sweeney and Damien Grimes.
On our delegation of four were; Stephen Mutekanya, Jimmy Can Kinyera, Robert Musinguzi and of course me, just as we were brought up at the college, we agreed that Stephen would lead us in his capacity as our elder.
Stephen was the only one amongst us who was taught by Fr. Sweeney at college in 1974, the rest of us belonged to the 1993 ‘O’ level admission. We counted on Stephen to strike a conversation with the fathers and we fall in.
On my part, I had only viewed a video recording of Fr. Sweeney praying and blessing all his former students from college at the back end of 2019. I believe the short clip was recorded by Namasagali College students who visited Herbert House just before Christmas last year.
It was this viral video that prompted our NACOBA President, Ronald Kamara to liaise with me as a member of the NACOBA UK Chapter to establish contact with Fr. Sweeney. I was honoured to take the lead in establishing contact with the Rector of Herbert House, Fr. Emmanuel Mbe. Fr. Emmanuel, like our hosts, spent a lot of his time in Uganda especially in Karamoja sub-region. He is much younger and is doing a great job of keeping the senior residents at the home cheered up, we owe him dearly for making this visit possible.
As we pulled over in the parking area, I quickly noticed a smartly dressed elderly gentleman on the pavement, he was closely watching us park in the reasonably large bays. I was quickly able to identify the gentleman as Fr. John Sweeny from the December video recording.
I got the feeling that Father Sweeney had been expecting us and was patrolling the parking area in anticipation of our arrival. We were excited to see him, and we all jumped out of the car calling him out and we huddled together in hugs.
After the hugs, Fr. Sweeney humorously asked each of us who we were. We individually introduced ourselves, but the key word was Namilyango College because we really wanted to stress our roots. I could see happiness and shock at the same time on his face like he was not expecting us. You could see that our presence meant a lot to him. He soon led us to the dining table, the table was well set like we were some very important guests! Within minutes of taking our seats we were served, Fr. Sweeney blessed the food and we needed no second invitation to swing into action. In typical English table ethics, there was silence except the sounds of weapons as we tucked in our food. Fr. Sweeney and Fr. Emmanuel sat quietly perhaps still surprised that his former school and students cared this much to look for him after so many years. We remained at the dining table for about 2 hours just discussing events at college during his times and our times.
Fr. Sweeney told a story about Idi Amin landing his helicopter at the college volley ball court in 1974, Stephen Mutekanya was a student at college at this time, he and the priest corroborated the Idi Amin story with such accuracy. Fr. Sweeny was at college from about 1958 until 1989 when he left to join Fr. Grimes in Namasagali College, he was chaplain at various schools and prisons before returning to the United Kingdom in 2007.
One of the moments Father Sweeney shared with us was about the last days of Fr. Kevin McKee, it was a sad tale which in many ways inspired us to plan a return visit back to Liverpool this summer. According to Fr. Sweeney, Fr. McKee passed on alone in his home when he returned to the United Kingdom, he did not receive any visitors or friends. Fr Sweeney, nearly tearful told how he was the last person to visit Fr. Kevin McKee before his death. He described Fr. Kevin McKee’s time and dedication to Namilyango College and that at some point her was referred to as Mr. Namilyango, yet he sums up the story by saying he died alone without visitors in a very sad way. It hit me hard how these gentlemen dedicated their lives, left their families and travelled to extreme ends of the world to serve, lost contact with their biological family members yet when retirement calls, they are nil for company. To that end, we promised to him that we will return in summer and we know to keep our words.
Prior to the trip to Liverpool, I had tried to do my research on both Fr. Sweeney and Fr. Grimes by speaking to their former students. NACOBA President Ronald Kamara was very helpful in this regard. Former Headmaster, Dr Peregrine Kibuuka provided the meat to the bones.
We exchanged a few messages on WhatsApp, telephone calls and a couple of emails. I learnt from Dr. Kibuuka that besides being the college chaplain and teacher, Fr. Sweeney was a tennis player with a pedigree of fitness. This was evident when we finally met him, now 89 years old and still very fit. He looked in fantastic shape and health, thanks to his sporting background. I noticed he had a hearing aid on, had a great sense of humour and beat a lot of us to the stairs while giving us a tour of the home. We presented him with a Namilyango College badge/shield which he cuddled with much pride, took pictures before placing on his table.
He then walked us to the first floor to meet Fr. Grimes who was in his room reading. It was a slow start as we introduced ourselves.
At first, he mistook us for Namasagali College old students, but we were not going to let him mistake us for another school. We soon got the correct tempo in our conversation and he told stories about his time at college before leaving for Namasagali College in 1960. He told us about his encounters with President Idi Amin in his various capacities as chairman of Uganda Amateur Boxing Association, headteacher and chaplain. We presented Fr. Grimes with a pair of signed boxing gloves in recognition to his contribution to boxing at the college. He put them on, and shadow boxed with Jimmy Can Kinyera, he shouted boxing instructions on how to keep left elbow up, and defences against hooks, upper cuts and jabs.
At this point I reminded him of his excellent memories as told by Dr. Kibuuka who said he was taught by Fr. Grimes. The latter was known for taking notes to class, but never referred to them throughout the lessons. Dr. Kibuuka had informed me that Fr. Grimes had written a book which should be a good read. We asked for an autographed copy from him, but there was none in stock. I was however, able to obtain a copy from Fr. Emmanuel Mbe. The book is titled; Uganda: My Mission by Father Damian Grimes and an excellent read.
We also asked about Fr. Stephen Botto and were informed that he is still very active in chaplaincy and currently posted in Durham, United Kingdom. We missed meeting him at Herbert House by just 2 days, but we do hope to meet him in summer when we return to Liverpool.
NACOBA United Kingdom Chapter
We are currently a loose collaboration of a WhatsApp group, founded by Jonathan Kamya about 3 years ago. The group has been instrumental in linking us up either individually or in the 2 gatherings we have had so far during this time. There are quiet several us in the diaspora, well positioned to make different forms of contributions to the college as a group. We need a strong united platform and leadership to do this.
I am equally aware that many of us are active on the main NACOBA WhatsApp platform, contributing regularly to college projects again singularly or through respective cohorts. I am therefore calling upon all diaspora based old boys to join us in building a strong base and strategy on how we can help each other and make contributions to Namilyango College.
Samuel Obura (Mukasa, 1993-96)
Tel: +44 7908 847283