Opiyo Oloya, an educator, activist and humanitarian, told graduating students of the Faculty of Education how going to school shaped his own life and how he hoped his story would underscore how vitally important their choice of vocation is in making the world a better place.
Oloya, who received an honorary doctor of laws degree during York’s 2012 Spring Convocation ceremonies, said he arrived in Canada 31 years ago with two other young and slightly bewildered men.
“We were coming to Canada as UN-designated refugees, meaning that we had no country and Canada was offering us a safe place to live,” said Oloya. He arrived penniless, facing an uncertain future, alone and without family.
“My parents instilled in us the discipline of hard work, never sparing us from the rigours of working in the field and looking after livestock,” he said. “As a small boy growing up, I spent many carefree afternoons with my brothers looking after family goats and cows. We rode on the backs of the bigger goats, often getting thrown down in the dirt. We’d get back on again. Like all the village children, we enjoyed the simple life of improvising our own toys from sticks and clay…We had a lot of fun.”
But what separated them from other village children was his parents’ insistence that they get an education. The primary school was 10km away, and that seemed even longer when they had to travel there in the cold rain, running barefooted on bushy trails, stepping on jagged stones and sharp sticks. They lacked supplies and used sticks to write the alphabet and numbers in the sand, and had to wait for the teacher to check the work before clearing the dirt with their bare hands to start the next exercise.
“Yet we felt privileged, learning to read and write…The power of education was highlighted to me during the brutal regime of Dictator Idi Amin Dada, who ruled Uganda from 1971 to 1979,” Oloya said. “Amin, who was barely literate, murdered thousands of educated people, forcing many young educated Ugandans…into exile. But Amin could not take away from us the love of learning.”
Despite the murders and the lawlessness, “education gave us great hope for freedom. After Amin was gone, there was optimism for a better life, respect for democracy and human rights. Instead, there was public lynching of victims accused of collaborating with Amin.”
One particular incident had a profound impact on him. Oloya and one of his brothers came across a group of men brutally assaulting a mother, while her two young children cried nearby.
“There I understood my own life is meaningless if I could not stop that attack and rescue the mother and her two children. Risking it all, we stood in the middle of a busy road, forcing to a stop a truck full of soldiers,” he said. They told the boys to get out of the way, but instead they lay down in front of the truck’s wheels, and finally the soldiers rescued the mother and her two children from certain death. Oloya’s decision to help the mother “came out of deeply held values instilled by education.”
But as Oloya pointed out, “You cannot have your human rights unless you’re willing to stand up for the rights of other human persons.” And that is what he has continued to do to this day.