Ian Robinson and the alchemy that was King’s College Budo

John Otim

A large black Rolls Royce cruised slowly along the tree lined lane that lead up to the Big School. A lane usually closed to traffic. There it drew to a stop. Out came the Governor General of the newly independent State of Uganda, Sir Walter Coutts. And there to receive him was Ian Robinson Headmaster of King’s College Budo.

Sir Walter was a tall and erect fellow, the military type. His two years as Governor General of independent Uganda was winding to a close. He was here on a farewell.  Robinson was tall, broad of shoulders, the athletic type that rowed and played cricket for Cambridge. As the two men talked and walked together they presented to the viewer a perfect match. They inspected the School Hall and visited the splendid cricket grounds just behind the Big School, as Budo called its fine main building.

A few weeks later as we scurry between classes, a tall couple in the attire we knew about as West African strolled slowly along the tree lined lane, now in full blossom in the royal hues of the jacaranda. The couple was a splendor to watch, the man a six footer and the woman no less and a beauty to match. With the couple was Ian Robinson. We learned later that the couple was Nnamdi Azikiwe, the President of Nigeria and his wife, Lady Flora Azikiwe.

In the days of Ian Robinson, to those of us that were there, King’s college Budo might have been but a state on its own, and its headmaster, a head of state, receiving other heads of state and conferring and receiving honors. The Kabaka of Buganda Mutesa II came visiting in pomp and ceremony, recreating for us the sense of the proud traditions of his ancient kingdom. Other Ugandan royals and dignitaries came to the hill. Milton Obote, Prime Minister of Uganda, visited several times and gave talks.

There were endless numbers of academics from the nearby Makerere University: Barnard de Bunsen, Ali Mazrui, Okot p’Bitek, the Reverand Fred Wellborn and others. From overseas came many more: scholars, writers, artists and others. The Italian author and writer of The Woman of Rome, the novel that launched a whole new genre was a visitor. Our life at King’s College Budo resembled a page out of a fairy tale.

Every Saturday afternoon the school buzzed with visitations and activities. Many of the visitors stopped long enough to give a lecture or make a presentation in the school hall. One of the most memorable was a stage act mounted by no less but a professional English actor whose name is lost to memory.

Alone on stage, in the space of barely one hour the woman filled the stage to overflow and played many parts. The coach driver and her restless passengers, the high society hostess and her rowdy guests, a bunch of naughty school girls and their hapless teachers, and a company of wrought out factory workers trudging home at the end of a terrible day; the woman played them all, alone by herself. She created the illusion of a packed stage full actors and actresses, with herself as the dare devil centerpiece.

We had never seen such a thing. We clapped and applauded till our hands and our palms hurt. In the end as the curtains rolled and she bowed and bowed again we gave her a standing ovation, the most enthusiastic we ever gave. In turn she bestowed upon us the most endearing piece of gratitude anyone ever gave anyone. A beaming Ian Robinson stood beside her as she declared us, the best audience she had ever played to. What a night!

But we made our own show too. Camp fires in the nearby charmed woods, musicals, dances and theater. The most illustrious was a play scripted, produced and presented by a fifth former, Tom Omara. Omara’s Exodus, told the story of two brothers, Labongo and Gipir, and of the quarrel between them that split the Tribe. Omara’s play went on to play to great acclaim at Makerere University stage and was soon immortalized in Professor David Cook’s Anthology of Short East African Plays.

In the days of Ian Robinson there was never a dull moment at school. Television was there but television was not what it is today. This was the age of the big screen and on many Saturday evenings Robinson turned the school hall into a cinema hall. And there in our own charmed company we watched many great movies; including Serengeti shall not die, Born free, and from Earth to Moon. One time on the last evening of the school year we all sat there on the grass in front of the big school and under open skies watched and sung to Cliff Richard’s musical: Summer holidays. Those were thrill times.

Yet there were problems too at King’s College Budo. And there was a tragedy. One night soon after his play debuted, Tom Omara was abducted from his dorm room at Mutesa House as he slept and was never seen again. In embarrassment the school avoided any mention of his name. Macgregor’s very detailed account of the school does not mention Tom Omara nor does the school’s own long list of what it calls its high achievers.  

Be that as it may, how did Robinson do all he did and achieve so much at King’s College Budo in the space of eleven years?

Ian Robinson, the last White headmaster of King’s College Budo came to the school at a time of great transition in the country and in Africa. The spirit of independence was in the air. There were great tension and great energies in the country, positive and negative. Robinson connected to the whirlwind and boldly rode the whirlwind as one might a race horse. He squeezed out of it only the good and the beautiful, leaving behind the bad and the ugly.

Robinson assembled and put together a fine set of teachers and created for them an ideal environment in which to work. Robinson admitted to the school some of the best and brightest boys and girls Uganda had to offer and he created for them a fairyland. Teachers and students working together in concert, with the tireless Robinson at the helm, produced the alchemy that was King’s College Budo. Some say the man was humble and self effacing. But that is a lie.