The Freedom Circle

By Carol Kagezi

I grew up in a household where we spoke English for the most part. My mother tongue is Luganda but it was always much too hard to speak when we visited grandpa over the weekend or over the long school holidays.

He was once an educator so he spoke the “Queen’s language” flawlessly. He often read to us and told us of his adventures in English. However, he always made it a point to teach us the mother tongue by issuing us commands in Luganda. He would say “Mugende mu sene amazzi” to mean go and fetch water but he used this phrase rarely because like most grandparents, he spoiled us and did not want us hanging around the communal village well. He however often used the phrase “Kati saawa za kwebaka” to mean it is time for bed and we all often heeded. It never really bothered me. In fact, listening to my mother tongue roll off his tongue always gave me some sense of security. I adore my grandpa immensely so I always waited on him hand and foot waiting for the next Luganda phrase. It is from him that I learned the most of my language.

I went to a boarding school almost an hour and a half out of the city centre, Kampala. The never ending hills of tea and the small yet efficient trading centre signified that school was around the corner. Mt St Mary’s College Namagunga sat at the corner of the close in all its might. It is a school well known for producing the best behaved and most hard working women in the country. Our teachers always told us that we were the “crème de la crème” so we had to act accordingly to avoid embarrassing our parents of which most of our mothers were alumni.

The school was ran by nuns so we always had to dress decently, keep kempt, sit with backs straight and importantly, use the English language in all modes of communication. The school was ruled with an iron fist by the senior students in their A levels. On that cabinet was the speech minister who ensured the use of the English language on school grounds. We were expected to speak English all week and were only allowed to use our different mother tongues on Saturdays for a maximum of two hours. It is a multicultural school but more often than not, those two hours on a Saturday were spent speaking Luganda since a greater part of the student body was most familiar with the language. It is actually on those Saturdays that I learned more about my mother tongue and subsequently my heritage.

Every class had a speech representative who also doubled as the assistant class prefect. On Sundays, the speech minister would dispatch blue manila cards to her respective representatives. These would circulate around the class if anyone ever used their mother tongue or slang outside of the allocated time. These were only returned to the minister on Thursday night so she would have ample time to deduce who the biggest speech offender of the week was.

If your name appeared more than a certain number of times on the speech card, you would be punished either immediately or at the Friday assembly. We had assembly every day. Most of the times I was not attentive during these gatherings because at a point in my first year at the school, they became redundant. We talked about the same girls violating the same school code, the same noise makers were always summoned to the stage to serve as a lesson to the rest of us.

Friday assembly was different. For starters, it was much longer because that is when we would receive the news bulletin. This was of course after singing the school and National anthems. After sitting through current affairs and sports news, the school news would be read to us. Just as the speaker at the podium announced the commencement of the school news, the speech minister simultaneously approached the front stage. She would then read out the speech offenders of the week. The person whose name appeared most on the speech cards was summoned up to the stage and reprimanded in front of us all. She, the speech offender, was then adorned with a speech necklace that was so big anyone could see it from a mile away.

Just like in the Scarlet Letter, she was then paraded around the school and made to stand in the Freedom Circle where all the naughty students stood for the rest of the morning under the blazing sun.

The Freedom Circle was the worst punishment one could ever receive in this school. We preferred scrubbing the pit latrines or burning the incinerator or even scrubbing the tarmac road, anything but the Freedom Circle. We all detested it because of its location. To the west of the circle was the communal dining area, to its north were the senior O-level classes and the staff room, to its east was the administration building and the main gate and to its south was the assembly hall. It was the worst punishment because of the visibility it gave its temporary inhabitants. It was the worst form of punishment one would ever receive on a Friday because that is when most parents visited the school to check on their children’s academic progress.

I never stood in the Freedom Circle but, in retrospect, had I been given the opportunity to learn my language through using it continuously and freely, I would have a better understanding of its works. I would now have a better understanding of my own culture and heritage but unfortunately I do not.

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