Forever friends of Uganda
Publish Date: Jul 01, 2013
The Mills in the 1970s and today
Keith and Jeanette Mills were teachers in Uganda more than 40 years ago. One visit back to a country they had called home in the 1970s, plunged them back into the lives of a people that have never left their hearts and minds. Stephen Ssenkaaba tells their story
You will never see your homes again!” Idi Amin’s soldiers screamed menacingly at Keith Mills and his Irish friend. They had gotten into an argument after Mills used the word “stupid” during a conversation. The soldiers thought they were being referred to and felt insulted. Eventually, however, Mills and his friend managed to emerge from the bar unscathed. The soldiers' threat was just that: a threat.
That was 40 years ago. Keith and Jeanette have since moved to France, but still hold very many vivid memories of Uganda. For the last 10 years, the couple have been regular visitors to Uganda. Their relationship with this country goes back to the early 1970s when Keith was an English teacher here. Their visit this year, like many others before, rekindles fond memories of his family’s time here, and traces back an important part of his career.
This year, they returned with their two children, Nick and Rogan Mills, who were toddlers in the 1970s when their parents first lived here. The Mill siblings were delighted to be back. “It was amazing to visit the place where I was raised as a child and I am grateful to my parents for the opportunity to do so,” Rogan said.
Keith and his wife took me on a refreshing walk down memory lane of their time in Uganda. It is a tale of survival set in the politically tense Obote and Amin times; when food rationing and unexplained murders were the order of the day.
HOW THE MILLS GOT HERE
It started with a search for an old friend — a school teacher called Charles Ssentamu.
“Ssentamu and I first met as students at Sheffield Teacher Training College in 1961 and we became good friends. As he returned home, we promised to visit him.” Nine years later, Keith’s application for a teaching job in Uganda was approved. Memories of his first days in Uganda in 1970 still linger. The Mills and the Sentamus
UGANDA IN THE 1970S
“Uganda looked different. I remember going to a bar and seeing lots of Indians, white people and Africans. I had not seen this in Zambia where I had taught before,” Mills says. He recalls a smaller, cleaner, but less developed city when he first saw Kampala. But nothing prepared him for his first teaching assignment at St. Charles Lwanga Secondary school, Koboko.
“The journey to Koboko was long and dusty, I thought we were going to drive on a murram road forever,” he says.
In Koboko, the Mills found a “very quiet sleepy little village” with only a school and a church as the main structures. ‘‘I remember going to a bar and finding no beer. Later, our own colleague would buy and sell beer to us,” Mills says.
With a simple house in the teachers’ quarters, the Mills family thrived on the simple offerings of village life. “We grew our own vegetables, raised chicken and twice a week, went to the village market. Amin, the army commander then, used to visit the area. He was a big smiling man, often surrounded by army men,” Mills recalls.
Mills enjoyed teaching and his students were keen to learn. But they did not understand why his wife, Jeanette, taught a higher class than he did. From Koboko, the Mills called England only once
a year, on a rationed radio telephone. “You had to book the phone in advance. Calls were on Christmas day at 11.00am.
“Without television, we relied on a small squawking shortwave radio. I used to hold it close to my ears to listen to the news and to follow the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.” To keep abreast with world events, Keith received a copy of the Sunday Observer newspaper once every week,” he says.
In 1971, Amin, took power. Curfews were imposed and going out in the evenings became dangerous.
Once, Jeanette got very ill and had to be admitted to hospital in Gulu. Every week, I had to drive about 250km to Gulu to see her. My car broke down many times. One time, I had to leave it in town to be repaired.”
After two years in Koboko, Mills was transferred to St. Mary’s College Kisubi (SMACK), an elite school near Kampala. Jeanette became a teacher at Lake Victoria International school, Entebbe, where a number of Amin’s children studied. “There was a president’s child in nearly every class. Twice a week, a teacher went to State House to teach Amin’s wives,” she recalls.
Jeanette drove a VW Combi to work, carrying her own and other staff members’ children, often driving past roadblocks. “You sort of got used to the soldiers until they stopped you. One time they ransacked through childrens’ lunchboxes, looking for God knows what. Another time, they asked for my passport because, according to them, my black hair looked Asian,” Jeanette recalls.
At SMACK, Mills worked with a great team of teachers led by Brother Anthony Kyemwa. “The students were great too,” he recalls. But he had to be careful — or so he thought. “I remember taking my class through Wole Soyinka’s ‘Kongi’s Harvest’ and being very careful about the references to dictatorship in the book. One Sunday morning six of my students came to my house.
They told me: ‘We see you are nervous about the theme of dictatorship in this book, we would like you to be free.’ Mills says that was one of the most liberating moments.
The Mills and their old friend, former SMACK head teacher, Anthony Kyemwa
Food and other household essentials were scarce but the Mills family were well catered for at the school. In 1974, his contract ended. He had to go back home. Mills joined Oxford University on a scholarship as his family settled back in England. They kept in touch with their Ugandan friends.
As part of their 60th birthday celebrations in 2004, Keith and Jeanette, who had then relocated to France decided to tour Uganda. “It was meant to be a sight-seeing, catch-up-with-old-friends kind of visit,” Mills recalls. But through their initial contact with Dream scheme — a UK-based charity, they came into contact with a Ugandan couple that were helping needy children.
“George and Berna Ssenyonga took us to Bubebere and showed us their projects,” he narrates. The Mills offered all the savings they had left on their trip and promised to send some more money — just once.
They went home, organised a garden party, a raffle draw and some entertainment for neighbours and friends. They raised 1,000 Euros which they sent to Uganda. And as their neighbours kept asking for more of such events, they decided to continue raising money for Ugandan communities that way.
FRIENDS OF UGANDA
In 2006, they formed a charity and called it Les Amis d’Ouganda (Friends of Uganda), through which they have continued to channel their support. Since then, they have been raising nearly 15,000 to 20,000 Euros every year by selling Ugandan crafts, organising charity runs, walks, story-telling and music sessions in and around their home in Normandy, France — and sending it to Uganda to support various projects.
Currently, Les Amis d’Ouganda, helps 73 children in primary schools, 13 in secondary school and three young women at the Nangabo Vocational Training Institute, through their supporters. They have also supported construction of school structures in Bubebere and hope to partner with some schools in the UK for exchange programmes.