EXCLUSIVE: Hon. Wolimbwa, Coop Movement icon speaks out on life fighting for unions
By Markson Omagor
MBALE: Born on the 2nd February, 1939, to Mzee Timiteo Bisagati and Mama Eseri Bisagati, Hon. Bernard William Wolimbwa is now 84 years old and unable to see but with a memory as clear as crystal. He carries the Title HONORABLE having represented Bulambuli County in the National Resistance Council (NRC) between 1989 and 1995.
NRC was the Fifth Parliament that was established following the end of the Uganda 1981-1985 guerrilla war.
Hon. Wolimbwa has lived an exquisite life in the Cooperative Union Movement from 1982 to 2000 seeing him rise to the apex of the Movement in the World.
The latest of his achievements was the Award for Service rendered to the Co-operative Movement given to him in September, 2023.
With this background, I set out to interview Hon. Wolimbwa with a view of bringing to life his vast experience in the Coop Movement.
Locating Honorable Wolimbwa at his second country home at Bushiende Village, Nabbongo Parish, Nabbongo Sub County in Bulambuli district was the easiest part of my mission since he is a household name in the area.
The harder part was however, to get Mzee Wolimbwa talking: First he needed to know who I was, my interest in his story, what media house I worked with, what my audience is and how far will his story reach when I run it. Simply put, I spent the first hour of our first meeting being interviewed and I patiently answered his questions and it worked! He accepted to give the interview but not before inquiring about the format of the interview.
Bernard William Wolimbwa was born on 2nd February 1939 at Bulago Sub County (Now Lushya Sub County) to a father who was a Church Teacher.
The name Bernard William was given to him by a White Missionary who visited his family when he was a child, carried him and while tossing him up said, “Musajja Mukulu.” He later suggested to his father the name Bernard William.
When he talked about his baptism name, something clicked. He didn’t seem very comfortable with it, it brought about nostalgic memories! He seemed to wonder how meek his father was that he could accept everything a Whiteman told him. Eventually, he is the only one in the family without a Biblical name.
“You know, my father was a very simple man. Imagine his father was actually killed by colonialists who came to Eastern Uganda with Semei Kakungulu,” Hon. Wolimbwa said.
He says his grandfather, Kibere son of Mumwa was a wealthy man owning cattle, sheep and goats. So when the colonialists came to their Sub County, they looked out for the wealthy men in the area with the aim of taking away their wealth. Which the Mzee resisted seriously, he was then arrested, beaten and tortured only to be released when he could not even walk. He died shortly afterwards.
“Can you imagine, when Rev. Zaake, a Muganda came looking for young men to train to become a Church teacher, and he accepted!” Wonders Hon. Wolimbwa.
Hon. Wolimbwa’s early education started with Primary One at Bulago Primary School at about 1947. But shortly afterwards, one of his elder brothers, who was also a teacher took him to Bugirinyanya Primary School where he studied for one and a half years.
In 1951, his elder sister, Rebecca Nadunga took him to Nabumali Primary School where she was a teacher while her husband was teaching at Nabumali High School.
It is here that he completed his Primary Six before joining Nabumali High School for his Junior Secondary School. However, before proceeding to Junior Three, something happened.
Junior Secondary education was scrapped and in its place, Senior Secondary Education with Cambridge School Certificate was introduced. Honorable Wolimbwa gets his first pioneer score: He was among the first pioneers of S.1 – S.4 education system resulting into attainment of Cambridge School Certificate.
It is also while here at Nabumali High School that he managed to be among the only 24 students who registered to compete in Oral English. Wolimbwa emerged the best and was the only one who got a certificate in oral English. When talking about this achievement, you could notice a warm smile spread through his face.
“You know my brother In-Law was the only man with a radio in the whole of Nabumali High and he encouraged me to keep listening to it in order to improve on my English.. and I think that is how I managed to emerge the best. I used to listen to Radio Brazzaville, Lebanon and Addis-ababa. They were the only radios we could access in Uganda,” he says.
This is a level he passed in Second Grade but was unable to proceed to A’ Level because there were few A’ Level schools in Uganda at the time.
The other option was for him to get a scholarship- which he got by the way. The scholarship was however, to an American College which his Headmaster (a Briton) advised against and refused to recommend him.
But by this time, he had already been admitted to Kyambogo University even before he sat for his O’ Level exams. The admission to Kyambogo was as a result of recommendation by his Head teacher pending release of S.4 results.
Hon. Wolimbwa joined Kyambogo Teachers College in 1961 graduating with a Grade III Certificate in Primary Education in 1962. Armed with his Grade III Certificate, he came back to teach at Nambulu Primary School for one year, then to Nabumali Primary school for also one year before joining Makerere University for adult education.
The journey into Makerere University started with the introduction of extra-mural classes, which was a weekend program by the University. He joined this program in 1964 while teaching and then proceeded to do a Certificate in Adult Studies. In 1965, he graduated with a Certificate in Adult Studies.
While pursuing the Certificate in Adult Studies, Makerere University introduced Mature Entry Scheme for students who had not got chance to go to A’ Level. He sat for these exams as pioneer students in 1965 and passed. He was admitted for Bachelors of Arts majoring in History, Political Science and Economics in 1966. In 1969, Hon. Wolimbwa’s long dream of attaining a Degree was realized.
However, this Bachelors Degree in Arts could not promote him into teaching at Secondary level. He needed a Post Graduate Diploma in Education. In 1970, he attained the same from Makerere University and thereafter proceeded to Masaba S.S as a classroom teacher.
In 1972, just a year into Secondary School teaching, Hon. Wolimbwa was appointed Deputy Head Teacher at Masaba S.S, a position he held until 1980.
The events that followed after 1980 catapulted him into the Cooperative Union world with lightning speed.
Hon. Wolimbwa’s entry into the Cooperative Union Movement started with his posting to head the newly created Bulago S.S in 1982. He says, when he went to Bulago S.S, life was hard: There were no classrooms and so they had to use the Primary School structures for the beginning.
To make matters worse, parents were unable to pay school fees because their coffee was lying in the primary societies’ stores without payment. He explains that this was as a result of a draconian law introduced by Adoko Nekyon in 1964 stifling the independence of Cooperative Unions to directly sell their products.
The law also prohibited Cooperative Unions from independently using money accrued from sale of their products. To access this money from the Cooperative Bank, authority had to be sought from Cooperative officials from the Central government.
Faced with a problem of parents unable to pay school fees, Hon. Wolimbwa organized for a meeting of coffee farmers under Bumwambu Primary Cooperative Society to discuss ways of having their coffee paid for in time.
During that meeting, members decided to elect him as their Chairman and Delegate to Bugisu Cooperative Union in 1982. Towards the BCU Annual General Meeting, the same year, something else happened; a cousin of his who was also MP Bulambuli, Hon. Wamoza Yutuko wanted to contest as Chairman BCU.
The cousin went to his home the day before the AGM and asked him to be his nominator at the AGM for the position of Chairman, which he accepted. However, there was a deliberate effort by the existing executive members to frustrate the nomination of his brother.
On day one of the AGM, the meeting was abruptly postponed by a simple trick; one member raised his hand and asked for adjournment citing fatigue and interestingly, there was a mob kind of support. And it was postponed to the next day.
Undeterred, they were at the venue early the following day, but not earlier than the opposing clique that had strategically positioned themselves at the front rows. When the time came for nominations, all the members seated at the front were jostling to nominate candidates of their choice and quickly seconding them. This was also done to ensure that the nomination of his brother was never to take place.
The position of Chairman was retained by the incumbent. There were however, other positions which were up for grabs. These were BCU Board Member (one vacancy) and BCU Representative to the Cooperative Bank and Uganda Cooperative Alliance (UCA). Hon. Wolimbwa had no interest in vying for any of these positions especially that he had witnessed firsthand, how his brother had been mobbed out of the Chairmanship race.
To his surprise however, one Delegate nominated him as BCU Board Member. The nomination was seconded unanimously and so he was voted as Board Member. Another surprise was coming his way; the meeting agreed again unanimously that he should be BCU’s Representative to both UCA and Cooperative Bank.
So whereas, his brother lost out on the race for Chairperson, Delegates compensated this with his election to the two positions; a move that marked the beginning of his rise in the Cooperative Union Movement.