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George Austin Otim Laker: The beggar who took bread to another beggar - By Dr. Bbuye Lya Mukanga

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George Austin Otim Laker: The beggar who took bread to another beggar - By Dr. Bbuye Lya Mukanga

 

On 6 August 2017, the Laker family of Kati Kati, Alokulum and Entebbe lost a most loving husband, father, grandfather, brother, uncle, cousin, in-law and so many other monikers; the agricultural fraternity lost one of its pillar elders; a country lost a great patriot, one of its unsung heroes; and I lost an incredible friend. How and where does one start to describe George Austin Otim Laker?

 

By physical stature, George was a fairly small and trim person, a trait that caused his close friends to affectionately refer to him by the diminutive pet name of Ka-George. What George lacked in unwanted and unhealthy excess muscle and fat, was replaced by his extremely sharp, clean and attractive appearance; by a big heart that gave space, succour and tender loving care to all manner of people; by a keen intellect that gave him the ability to process and articulately share all manner of information, knowledge and ideas; and by a love for nature, culture and the arts. The latter was so well expressed in his appreciation of nature parks, trees and flowers, the fine arts and music.

 

George had a very strong sense of right and wrong, and was always caught up in defending and uplifting what he believed to be fair, just and honourable. Another thing that one can say right off-the-bat about George is that he was a stickler for time. He abhorred procrastinators. He made decisions quickly, but very thoughtfully, and he followed things through and implemented them with meticulous thoroughness. Being late was not in his vocabulary, and he considered it extremely rude for people not to keep time. George’s wife, Grace, made the statement that George always paid the children’s school fees during the holidays (before schools opened). That is such an apt description of George and the way he wanted and got things done.

 

I would like to share a little bit more specifically of my personal experience of what I saw and learned of the person that George was.

I am very sure that George started school at the age of three or three-and-a-half years old. If not, then he must have jumped at least three grades in primary school. When I first met George when the Laker family came to live in Entebbe in the 1960s, George was only a few months older than me; and yet he was already three years ahead of me in school. Thanks to one year that I skipped in secondary school, when I arrived as a first-year student at Makerere, George was in his third and final year – still two years ahead of me. Now, when I entered Makerere, I was a counter-dreamer, meaning that I was very sure of the professional lines that I did not want to pursue – I did not want to be any of a doctor, a veterinary scientist, an engineer, a teacher, an accountant or a lawyer. But I did not know and could not tell people exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up!!  Towards the end of my first year, it dawned on me that I no longer had the luxury to keep saying what I did not want to be, AND not saying what I want to be. The University Registrar was requesting me to either declare a major area of study or leave the University!!

 

In the panic, one of my first-year economics lecturers, Michael Tribe, took me by hand to speak to George Otim. George was part of a small pioneering group of students that were registered in two Faculties to study economics (Faculty of Social Sciences) and agricultural economics (Faculty of Agriculture). It was George who convinced me, or more accurately seduced me, to study and become an agricultural economist. Hence, I settled into my final two undergraduate years at Makerere. Meantime, George, my academic and professional godfather, went off and started working with the Ministry of Agriculture.

 

After I graduated, George and I found ourselves in the same Master of Science (Agriculture) programme at Makerere. By hook and by crook, I had managed to catch up with the three years academic lead that George had previously had on me! But, of course, George was and always remained a head above me and most people in experience and wisdom. It was during the eighteen months that I spent with George on the MSc programme that George and I grew very close to each other. George was the source of the wisest counsel, both in-class and out-of-class, to all of us in his batch of MSc students.

 

I particularly recall how George was the only person I ever knew who could, in five minutes, solve a farm management matrix with six or more simultaneous equations and a similar number of variables on the palm of his hand. The rest of us would spend days at the Computer Centre having the calculations done for us only to prove George’s answers! In his generosity, George taught me and made me practice his version of the “Simplex Method” of solving simultaneous equations. I must have become good at it, because when I went to graduate school in the US and showed my professors and fellow students that I could chew through a seven-by-seven matrix in a matter of minutes, I was applauded as a genius. Little did the admirers know that it was the hand of George that was working through the equations. 

 

A few weeks into our MSc study programme, George said that he wanted to have “an old boy’s conversation” with me and friend Sam Nahamya. George knew that Sam and I were receiving a stipend of US$ 400 per month as Ford Foundation Fellows at Makerere and also UGA Shs 2,000 (around US 300) per month as Teaching Assistants. In the mid-1970s, this was a regal amount of money. George told us that he wanted to let us know, as a friend, that money was a good thing when it was used wisely; and that it could also be an evil trap if used unwisely. He had three specific pieces of advice for us. One, George advised, do not spend money just because you have money; instead make sure that it is put to worthy causes for yourself, for your family and for your friends. Two, the guru continued, never show off that you have money. Three, he finished off, never use money to tempt a girl into having a relationship with you. He warned us that if we failed in these three areas he would find it difficult to walk with us as friends.

 

The third piece of George’s advice, about relating to girls, is an example of the high regard, respect and honour that George always reserved for the female half of the human population. George counselled us as his friends to make sure that we always treated women and girls in the same way that we would like to be treated. In my days at Makerere, many male teachers, administrators and students had a macho and abusive attitude towards women and girls. Many male conversations about and with women were sexualised. For example, there was continuous reference to women and girls as having “goods and services” that they had to “deliver” to men! The ways in which it was said made light of things and made people laugh. Yet it was not respectful at all. There was also frequent reference to sexual intercourse using violent, combative and selfishly acquisitive and possessive terminology, such as “doing [someone]”. George would have none of this. If anyone talked or acted in ways that did not accord women and girls honour and respect, George would speak up against such attitudes. I clearly recall the time when George told a group of us that it was not all right for people to go around having sexual relationships with girls just for the fun of it. Someone, asked George, “What am I supposed to do if I badly feel like it?” George gave the crisp reply, “You are not a dog! … Make sure that your belt is always on your pants, and make sure that it is done-up!” The point, George emphasized, is that any woman and girls is a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister and a friend to someone. If we did not accord them due honour and respect, it would be impossible to build a good society.

 

I really appreciated George’s humble and peace-building ways. When I arrived at Makerere, it was at the height of the immediate aftermath of Idi Amin’s overthrow of the Obote Government. In Kampala and around the country, people were being slaughtered at a faster rate than Uganda Meat Packers was slaughtering cattle. The tension between Makerere and Amin and the military was palpable. George was then the Editor-in-Chief of THE MAKEREREAN, then one of the most influential mass media organs in the country. As Editor-in-Chief, George had the capability to attack the Government through the newspaper and even to fan-up a student revolt. Resisting much pressure, George chose to act in a measured manner. He did encourage virulent anti-government sentiments and activities, but also, he did not turn the university newspaper into an instrument of Government propaganda. Eventually, after George had left Makerere, Idi Amin just banned the student newspaper.

 

The other phenomenon about the early 1970s at Makerere was that the student body and African faculty members were fractiously and bitterly divided in two main camps: “the progressives” and “the conservatives”. (I admit that I over-simplify here.) I always believed that “the progressives” were, wittingly or unwittingly, mostly a creation of, and originally sponsored by, UPC and the General Service Unit. On campus, UPC dressed in the garb of National Union of Students of Uganda (NUSU). NUSU’s leader was one Kisimba Matsiko, a cartoonish fellow that never left any doubt that there was a lot more brawn than brain to him. Most people on Campus, even the “progressives” that Kisimba spent his days serving selflessly, did not accord much respect and whispered uncomplimentary things and laughed at him behind his back. But I recall that George always had time for Kisimba, listened to him and did not disparage him behind his back. 

 

The “conservatives” seemed to be merely people who subscribed to the faction of UPC whose leaders (Grace Ibingira, George Magezi, Emmanuel Lumu, Mathias Ngobi and Balaki Kirya) had been out-foxed by Obote and incarcerated indefinitely in Luzira. I believe that neither of these student groups supported or sympathised with Idi Amin. Nevertheless, it took great wisdom and peace-building skills on the part of George to keep these factions from each others’ throats, and from turning THE MAKEREREAN into a mere trumpet of either group. George rose to the occasion as a voice of reason and peaceful co-existence.

 

During the 1971 Makerere Students’ Guild Elections, “the progressives” fronted Emmanuel Tumusiime Mutebile, a Political Science and Economics major, for President. “The conservatives” fronted Elly Karuhanga, a law major. A group of Christian students fronted John Sentamu, a law student who, years later, became the Archbishop of York; and some royalists fronted a Business College student named Mmiro Musoke. None of the latter two took any traction. However, Mutebile and Karuhanga ferociously slugged it out. There was danger of the election becoming politicised to an extent that would lead to internal violence (campus civil war) at Makerere and invite the interference of Idi Amin and the military. Again, George kept a steady hand on THE MAKEREREAN, so that, instead of being partisan, it became a voice of reason and moderation. George also walked around Campus talking to various groups and appealing for calmness, peace and respect for one another.

 

I will not say much about George’s work in the Ministry of Agriculture. That can be the subject of books. George was an incisive agricultural economist that played a leading role in keeping the Ministry ticking through some very difficult times. His numerous writings were mostly in the areas of policy and programme development. Just like the former editor that he was, George wrote clearly and incisively. A few years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find people in Northern Sri Lanka using a document that George wrote on goat production in Uganda to develop the goat industry in that far away part of the world.

 

A very moving and defining story about George was told to me by a staff member of World Vision (WV) in Timor Leste in 2015.  This person told me that some time during the conflict in Northern Uganda between the "Lord's Resistance Army” and the Uganda Army, George Otim invited World Vision to collect items that he (George) and his colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture had collected for distribution to the internally displaced people (IDPs) in the North. When the World Vision staff arrived in Entebbe, they found that George had organised not only his work colleagues, but the whole town of Entebbe to donate items to their suffering brothers and sisters in the North. World Vision spent days collecting items from various locations in Entebbe for distribution in the conflicted affected areas. The WV person said these words about George: “I have never seen any example of good citizenship and brotherhood than what George Otim did in caring about and actually doing something to meet the needs of brothers and sisters who were suffering through no fault of their own.”

 

My own family were the beneficiaries of George’s love and care. After being away from Uganda for almost twenty years, I often wondered how my parents managed to survive the perils of times and events of Amin, the Invasion, Binaisa, Muwanga, Obote II, Lutwa and the Resistance War. One day my mother told me, “God looked after us. Sometimes, we would be wondering where the next meal would come from. Then my son George Laker would show up with several kilos of rice and beans.” My mother did say that family members and friends also helped them in those days. But I recall how in her voice and body, she had a special love for George.

 

In his humility and love and care for others, George was not just the proverbial beggar who showed another beggar where to find bread. No, George went far beyond that. George was the beggar who took bread to other beggars and shared it with them.

 

George was an eternal example of someone who lived out the commandment that Our Lord gave to his people, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.”

 

George, rest in peace. This world is not an easy place. But you have led a blessed life and you have blessed many of us. I can hear you and the angels confidently saying: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

 

Level 3 (XP: 1000)
My brother Bbuye, this is a moving tribute to a dear brother that is also a great historical document of a bit of Makerere and Uganda. Thank you!

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