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By Stephen Collins '74
For a schoolboy who regularly received three strokes of the cane for arriving late to school, C. Kenneth Ongalo-Obote '94 grew into a man with a knack for being in the right place at the right time.
Ongalo-Obote left his small village in Uganda to earn a degree in philosophy and government at Colby and a law degree at Boston College, and he modestly describes subsequent jobs--including helping South Africa make its transition out of apartheid--as the result of serendipitous timing. In January he returned to his country to run for a seat in the national parliament. Now, at 29 and with goals such as emancipating Ugandan women, he recognizes that he has grown into a leader who may be perceived as ahead of his time.
Serendipity certainly played a role in getting Ongalo-Obote to Colby. He grew up in the rural Kalaki region in northern Uganda. His father, a minister, made him walk 10 kilometers to get a better education than that available locally. Despite running to school every morning, Ongalo-Obote says he never made it on time. "For three years I was assured fifteen strokes of the cane each week," he said. He recalls thinking it was "traumatic, but normal." On weekends he and his friends would lead the family's cattle to pastures and water. He ranked third in his class and finished secondary school eager to study law, a three-year undergraduate program in Uganda.
Ongalo-Obote's father, who earned a divinity degree in Texas, quietly arranged for him to come to America for college. A couple the father had met in Belgium, the Rev. and Mrs. Worth Campbell, agreed to be Kenneth's hosts. In 1989 he left Africa for Massachusetts and enrolled in American International College. It was Rev. Campbell's brother, Levin, then a Colby trustee, who suggested that Colby might be more satisfactory.
The news that he would need to study liberal arts for four years before law school came as a shock, Ongalo-Obote says. "I was honestly devastated at first." He considered going back to join his friends in law school but realized he had lost his place in the Ugandan university and could not reclaim it. "A few months into it I really decided I liked it [liberal arts]. I was thinking of going on to do a master's in philosophy." At Colby he joined the track team, re-running the 10K dashes of his youth. He still corresponds with Jill Gordon (philosophy) and remembers Yeager Hudson, Dan Cohen, Pamela Blake and Cal Mackenzie as influential teachers.
In his last year at law school Ongalo-Obote heard a South African official lecture about the shift from the apartheid system to the multiracial democracy. The talk was so compelling that the law school established a fellowship in South Africa. Ongalo-Obote, bolstered by a recommendation from Bill Cotter, was the first fellow and went to work for South Africa's Portfolio Committee of Justice in 1997, researching a legislative resolution on the fate of 477 death-row prisoners who remained imprisoned after the death penalty was abolished.
In the corridor on his third day there, he looked up to see President Nelson Mandela headed for an ANC caucus. "I'd always thought of Mandela as this figure of mythical proportions. I never thought I'd see him in life," Ongalo-Obote said. "I just froze right there. He gets to within three feet of me and he waves to me, and I'm totally frozen on that spot. I couldn't even wave back."
Ongalo-Obote watched Mandela deliver his final state-of-the-nation address in 1998, and he says observing Mandela and William Hofmeyr taught him about leadership. "They led by listening . . . by allowing the people to lead them. It reminded me of when I was a kid and I used to herd the cattle. If you let the cattle decide, they would lead you to green grass and water."
When his fellowship ended he went home. Ironically, because the U.S. doesn't recognize the Ugandan law degree he originally planned to get, Uganda wouldn't recognize his American credentials. He tried everything, including appeals to friends in the U.S., Linda Cotter among them. Disheartened and ready to retreat to his village, Bululu, he finally received a fax from Donald Clark '69, then head of USAID in Kampala. Clark had learned of Ongalo-Obote's plight from Mrs. Cotter, but only after a delay caused by the embassy bombing in Kenya. He provided an introduction that led Ongalo-Obote to a job working on a domestic relations report and a bill to emancipate women, who are considered property in Uganda. Ongalo-Obote submitted the report to the attorney general in September 1999 and, "things being the way they are in Uganda . . . as far as I know that was the last time that bill was ever mentioned."
He returned to the U.S. and passed the Massachusetts bar exam and mustered resources for his parliamentary bid. Interviewed in Boston in January while awaiting the bar's swearing-in ceremony, he talked about his political ambitions, his opponents and major planks of his campaign (education, health care, infrastructure, microeconomic development and rural aid programs). Despite concerns about official corruption and lack of civil rights for women in Uganda, he remained optimistic. "I think of myself as my mother's son," he said. "If I get elected to parliament, I'm going to get that [domestic relations] bill through."
The parliamentary election was scheduled for a date no later than June 12, he said, but speculation about a possible run-off in the prerequisite presidential election in March, or perhaps even a military coup, cast a shadow of doubt over that schedule.
"All along my plan was to go back to Uganda," he said shortly before putting that plan into action. Win or lose the election, he marvels at the man he has become. "My constituents are mostly rural, illiterate people. To them I serve as an example of what somebody can be, even if you start from humble beginnings. . . . People remember me from long ago, when I was walking to school everyday. I don't think anybody would have thought then that I'd be sitting here today talking to you and going back to run for parliament. If someone had told me that 'one day you will do this,' I would have told them, 'thank you, but something is wrong with your head.'"
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