UGANDA: Abitimo Rebecca Odongkara (1933 - July 10, 2016) was a pioneer educator in Northern Uganda and an influential supporter of children during the long war in the region.
Abitimo was the first woman proprietor of a private nursery and primary School in northern Uganda. She founded the Upper Nile Institute for Appropriate Technology (UNIFAT) Primary School in Gulu, Unified for UNIFAT, an organisation supporting orphans.
Born in Ngariam Village, Katakwi district in eastern Uganda, to a father who served as a colonial administrator but quit to go into private business, Abitimo enrolled at Gulu Girls School, mainly to learn Acholi, which she could not speak since her father, though a native of Gulu, would be transferred from place to place around the country.
She was very bright at school, and during the sixth year, she and another girl were selected to sit for the General Certificate of Primary Education examinations at Madhvani Primary School. She passed well and was given a scholarship to study Junior Secondary Certificate for three years.
But when Abitimo went to her father, excited about the award, he recoiled. His intention was for her to learn Acholi and later stay home. When she was called upon to go back to school, he objected.
Her love of education and desire to achieve her dream of getting a degree inspired her to work out a plan to go back to school. She had left her personal belongings at school and requested her father to allow her to go and pick them up. He agreed. She went back to school and never returned home.
This did not please her father. However, Abitimo was lucky that her brother, who was working in Gulu as a medical officer then, defended and supported her through school.
She completed her Junior Certificate in 1951 but was diagnosed with TB and had to be admitted at Mulago Hospital in Kampala, a serious setback to her career. When Abitimo left the hospital in 1954, her father didnt allow her to go back to school. Some Asians in Gulu had secured a scholarship for her to join high school, but her father rejected it and forced her into marriage. She accepted on condition that she marry a man of her man.
By age 20 was married. Abitimo soon discovered that her husband was not keen on making the marriage work. He was an alcoholic and abusive. After failing to complete his studies in London, the couple returned to Uganda and parted ways.
She took a course in Home Science and also met her second husband, John Brown Odongkara, a police officer, who had been interested in her earlier, but she had turned him down when he asked for her hand in marriage.
She accepted Odongkaras second proposal, and they got married. Having had children from their previous marriages did not deter the determined couple from living a happy life until turmoil hit Uganda in 1971 when Idi Amin took power in a military coup; he took aggressive actions against those he suspected supported the opposition or worked in the previous government of Milton Obote which he had overthrown.
Odongkara fled to exile in Tanzania, leaving Abitimo
Behin. In Tanzania, Odongkara was imprisoned for political reasons. It took a personally written note from exiled president Milton Obote and seeking an audience with President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania to secure release.
Later, the Odongkaras sought refuge in Philadelphia, USA. There, her husband took a job as a security guard, and she worked at a baby care home.
She later decided to go back to school and completed her degree in Community Development, proceeding to acquire a Masters in Special Education from Philadelphia State University in 1979.
Amin was overthrown in 1979, and while the country continued to suffer from ongoing civil and military conflicts, Abitimo had the confidence to return home in 1983.
She stayed in Mbale, eastern Uganda, where her husband worked as a police officer. Having kept a low profile from active politics, she thought it more inspiring to start a school in her hometown.
She went to Gulu and surveyed the place to see where she could construct a school. After securing 200 acres of land in the Amuru district, she started construction work by making her own bricks. Since there was not enough money, she paid her workers in kind, giving them food, sugar and salt.
After President Yoweri Musevenis National Resistance Army/Movement guerrilla organisation took power in 1986 after a five-year war, insecurity was high in the villages in northern Uganda. Abitimo deserted the school site and joined her husband, who had been appointed district commissioner of Gulu.
The rebel Lords Resistance Army conflict that broke out in northern Uganda from late 1987 devastated livelihood, and children dropped out of school. Abitimo decided she must do something about it. She took care of about seven children and gradually introduced learning by teaching a class under a tree. Other parents got interested and brought their children to school. The number soon grew to about 30. That grew Abitimos dream of establishing a nursery, primary and secondary school.
In 1990, the security in northern Uganda improved, and the government urged the people to leave internally displaced persons (IDP) camps and go back to their villages. This was a challenge for Abitimo and her school, which she did not want to abandon. She looked around for space to relocate and finally got it. She hired some built structures from Uganda Railways to use for the new class. We also constructed grass-thatched huts to supplement the limited infrastructure she had. She named the school UNIFAT Primary School for Upper Nile Institute for Appropriate Technology.
The numbers kept growing, and the school graduated from nursery level to primary seven. The schools first candidates sat their PLE in 1993, and out of 42 pupils, 20 passed in first grade and 22 in the second division, and none failed. In the subsequent years, the school excelled in the region.
UNIFAT ranked top among schools in Gulu, and enrollment shot up to about 800 pupils, which paused a challenge for space. She acquired more land and gradually started constructing classrooms. The number of pupils swelled to 1,500, and the space was growing small each day.
UNIFAT received help from friends and well-wishers and expanded the school. For instance, the Bank of Uganda gave the school flushing toilets worth Sh2m, and later, the government also gave them iron sheets.
By 2016 the school had over 1,300 pupils and 45 teachers. It was also supporting over 200 orphaned pupils whom it sponsored.
In 2008, the government of Uganda awarded Abitimo a medal for best Woman Achiever in Uganda. President Yoweri Museveni awarded her a medal for caring for many orphans in Uganda.
Her Odongkara died in 2000. Abitimo left nine biological children and over 500 adopted children who all called her Mama. Abitimo is memorialised with a mural at the TAKS Art Centre in Gulu.
She died of pneumonia on July 10, 2016, at the age of 83.