Uganda: My Mission

ugandaUganda: My Mission
Author: Fr Damian Grimes MHM, MBE. (Editor: Andrew Lamb)
ISBN: 9780995544000
Price: £9.50
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Year: 2016
Publisher: Damian Grimes

This interesting autobiography is an example of the roles of missionary and local clergy and Religious in education in Africa, South America, and elsewhere. As a Catholic priest, the author led a multi-faith co-educational school (25% Catholic, 10% Muslim, and the balance from various Protestant traditions) which provided excellent moral, religious, and secular education - in line with Catholic Social Teaching and his personal example - to its pupils.

The author, Fr Damian Grimes MHM, was educated by the Jesuits in Leeds and then joined the Mill Hill Missionary Society, (founded by English Cardinal Vaughan just over 150 years ago). After further education at the Society's junior seminary and its senior seminaries in Holland, and Mill Hill, England, Fr Damian was ordained as a priest in that Missionary Society and then sent to Glasgow University, established in 1451, (the first Catholic priest student to go there since the Reformation).

My two brothers and I were pupils at St Ignatius Jesuit College, Stamford Hill, during the early fifties. Putting together our experiences, and Fr Damian's stated appreciation of his Jesuit education, we know that he would have been influenced in his subsequent educational work in Africa by the Jesuits' pursuit of educational excellence and their robust disciplinary style. After graduation, Fr Damian completed a post-graduate diploma in education. This was where he gained some ideas regarding student democracy and participation that he would put into practice later as a head teacher.

After ordination and university, Fr Damian was sent by his Society to Uganda, where he worked in the pastoral ministry of education from 1959 to 2000. After eight years of teaching and deputy head experience he was appointed in 1967 as head of the soon-to-
be famous local government-sponsored Namasagali College, which was about 100 miles east of the capital Kampala.

Fr Damian witnessed many political upheavals throughout his time in Uganda: from the country being a British protectorate to an independent but unstable country with numerous coups. In his book Fr Damian reveals the struggles and successes of managing a Ugandan co-educational (almost unknown in 60s Uganda) secondary school in difficult and complex circumstances. But he built up a school that gave a first class education,  finishing with good 'A' level results to many girls and boys from poor families.

In pursuit of student participation in school governance and as a wider lesson in democracy, Fr Damian set up a student cabinet that met weekly under his leadership and a six strong school pupils' court, where the head judge was always a girl and the deputy judge always a boy. As a result of giving authority and standing to his girl pupils, a woman Ugandan government minister criticised Fr Damian for not teaching his girl pupils to be subservient to their future husbands. Some of Fr Damian's former pupils went on to hold senior positions in government, trade, and industry.

Although a very few Mill Hill missionaries returned home (not always voluntarily) during the dangerous and brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin from 1971 to 1979, the majority including Fr Damian and my own brother, Fr Bernard Phelan MHM, stayed on to continue ministering and showing Christ to their people in Ugandan schools and parishes.

Fr Damian was an astute politician in his dealings with government bureaucracy (helped by the fact that Idi Amin and his cabinet had visited his school). He recruited young and idealistic newly qualified graduates from Britain as his teachers and paid them fair rates even during the financially impoverished Amin years. Young VSO volunteers, such as the now 69 year old newscaster, Jon Snow, of Channel 4 News, served one year stints in his school.

One of Fr Damian's teachers ran the school's farm which was used to build a micro economy with good employment opportunities and sales of produce within the village, as well as providing education in farming. Subjects as diverse as boating, boxing, creative dance, drama, music, and chess were included in the wide ranging curriculum, although he cut back later on boxing because of health concerns.

A school library was commissioned from the British Council. A pool was constructed and used for swimming lessons, to avoid drowning accidents in the nearby Nile. 'A' level exam results were excellent and led to many going on to university. In addition to religious lessons, Fr Damian gave weekly talks on art, music, poetry, history, philosophy, current affairs, and other disciplines. The emailed Guardian Weekly and Spectator were available to 'A' level students.

After retiring as headmaster of his school Fr Damian became a university lecturer before returning to the UK as parish priest in a small Welsh church.

Michael Phelan, Permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Northampton