Two weeks ago, the man who taught me Latin passed on. He left the world in very much the same way he had lived in it – quietly, uncomplaining, almost unnoticed.
Not many people outside St Mary’s Seminary IN Uganda where he taught for many years and rose to be Rector knew him.
This is not because he was too ordinary a man. He was, in fact, very remarkable both in stature and intellect, and I dare say, though I am not very qualified in these matters, in spirit.
Father Bonaventura Kasaija was a short man; rather round – the head, cheeks, and belly – you couldn’t miss him. His intellect, sharp and unequalled among his peers, was less visible but nonetheless remarkable. Any other person with half Fr Kasaija’s talents would have trumpeted them to the world. But not he.
There are perhaps several reasons for this. He probably chose to keep it so, like most brilliant people who seem to be embarrassed by their extra-ordinary gifts and are uncomfortable with any sort of attention.
Or it was because of his priestly discipline. Fr Kasaija was the quintessential priest, but alas, one of an increasingly rare breed – humble, obedient, kind and generous, devoted to his sacred calling and probably holy.
Also, many, including his peers, unable to match his intellect, brought him down to their level or even beneath it. Presumably, it made them feel a little easier about their own inadequacies and proved they were not very stupid after all.
And the good priest that he was, Fr Kasaija took all the spite, envy and jealousy with great humility and calm as if that was the normal order of things.
Yet he deserved more attention and even fame. He got neither.
Fr Kasaija was a great teacher who inspired many. When I became a teacher many years later, I found myself falling back on his participatory and task-based methods which were revolutionary at his time. He cured me of the confusion between ‘l’ and ‘r’ and I used the same therapy on my students who had a similar ailment.
He introduced me to the joys of literature, especially that of ancient Greece and Rome, North Africa and Asia Minor, and of his native Tooro. That paved for me the path for an excursion into Kinyarwanda culture and literature that continues to this day.
Fr Kasaija was a great composer of music. He composed and wrote hymns in Rutooro that blended evangelical messages with traditional Rutooro rhythms to produce sacred music that both Christians and non-Christians could easily relate to. His music has a distinct Rutooro flavour and a universal Christian message.
He was a brilliant poet, too. He wrote his poetry in Rutooro as well. His poems recorded and expressed the history, aesthetics and values of his people in a traditional poetic form and rhythm. In this way, he has helped preserve and propagate an important aspect of the culture of Tooro.
Yet in spite of all his exceptional intellect and talent, Fr Kasaija remained a humble and unassuming man. He died the same way – an unsung religious and cultural icon, unheralded prophet and a forgotten holy man.
This, sadly, is the way of the world. The brilliant and talented become victims of pettiness from the majority of people who are mostly mediocre. Most cannot stand intelligent and creative people because their brilliance shows up their limitations.
There is a tendency to put them down and when that is not possible, to ignore them altogether. In this way we promote a pedestrian attitude.
The few intelligent and talented people are a pain to most of us because they have better vision and show us the road we should take, but to spite them we take the wrong one, only later to return to the one not taken after so much loss of time, energy and resources.
They are so often way ahead of us, and because we cannot keep up or catch up with them, choose to pull them back and push them down.
Human history and the scriptures are full of examples of people of superior intellect and vision brought down by vicious but fearful tyrants, jealous colleagues, ambitious but ignorant rivals, or mindless crowds.
But history also has a way of maintaining some balance. Such people deliberately brought down or simply ignored have a way of springing up later and getting their due recognition denied them in their lifetime.
That too will happen to Fr Kasaija for he was an exemplary priest, great teacher, brilliant poet and talented musician.
Christians have a way of explaining this delayed recognition. They say that for such as Bonaventura Kasaija their rewards are in heaven. I will add that they are also here on earth, among those he taught, readers of his poetry and congregations who use his hymns as a means of getting to God.