It’s been exactly 12 years since Ugandans woke up to the sad news that 19 children and an adult had died in an overnight fire in a primary school dormitory outside the capital of Kampala.
“At 2200 hours (1900 GMT), we were alerted that a dormitory caught fire in Budo Junior School. The death toll is now 19. It was a female dormitory with girls aged nine to 12,” police spokesman Judith Nabakoba told AFP after the incident that occurred on April 14, 2008.
At the scene in the morning of the fire were bodies and personal items of the children scattered and lying strewn in the grass while parents rushed in to search for their missing children.
The 19 dead pupils, who were all girls, occupied the Nassolo dormitory, which was previously a classroom. Witnesses later indicated that the death toll could have been higher had it not been for 10-year-old Yvonne Namaganda who sacrificed her life to save her colleagues from the fire.
When the fire started that night in the dormitory accommodating 45 pupils, Namaganda was awoken by a colleague, and with several other children, they ran out of the burning building in their night dresses.
But some were still trapped inside as the fire increased and had begun moving towards the door. As many were scared to enter the burning building to save the pupils, Namaganda, who was determined to save her friends, did the unexpected.
“By that time, at least one teacher had come to respond to our noise. With the fire almost at the door and some children still inside crying, Namaganda went in and started pulling some children out. She did this for about five times until she went in and never came back,” survivor Ketra Namubiru told the Daily Monitor in 2016.
Namubiru said there was no power in the Nassolo dormitory ahead of the fire outbreak that night as pupils usually used a paraffin lantern for light.
“As we went to bed that night, the lantern was put on the spare bed where the pile of pillows was. As was a routine, we went to bed and the matron also went to her room. In the night, I was woken up by heat and too much light coming from the fire on the decker where the pillows and the lantern were.
“I first ran out, then on second thought, I came back to wake up my friend with whom we shared the decker. Her bed was below mine. Together we started waking up our colleagues. The matron had not come out of her room yet,” she said.
“The late Yvonne Namaganda who was sleeping somewhere in the middle of the dormitory was woken up by my friend. Some of those who woke up went ahead to wake others up while others ran out of the dormitory in fear.”
But with incredible bravery and selflessness, Namaganda repeatedly went back inside to save more lives until the flames overcame her. Some parents later rushed to the school that night to pick up their children amid wailing.
Five years after the incident, the Ugandan government made a partial payment to the agreed out of court settlement with parents of the victims as compensation for the loss, according to a report by the Daily Monitor.
But the cause of the fire still remains a mystery. Authorities at the time said the cause could not have been a power surge since the school had not had power for about four days.
Many, therefore, suspected that there was a human hand in the fire. “From the police investigation, two people were arrested and appeared before courts of law. Some of them are still on remand,” police deputy spokesperson, Polly Namaye was quoted by the Daily Monitor in 2016.
While many Ugandans still wonder what really happened that fateful night, they would also never forget the massive sacrifice little Namaganda made to give others the chance to live. A class leader and a prefect in Buddo Junior High school, Namaganda was born to Paul Ssewanyana and his wife Rebecca in Gomba district.
A little girl with a big heart, Namaganda was celebrated for her heroism by the Ugandan parliament on June 9, 2017, and she was recognized as a national heroine. That same year, Namaganda was awarded the highest honor in Buganda kingdom – the order of spear and shield (Amafumu n’engabo) – giving her parents another reason to smile.
As an article on local media NTV stated recently, “Uganda needs to immortalize Namaganda and never forget that among us are those selfless enough to carry our burdens. Stories have to be told of her bravery, songs sung, statues raised and hearts warmed.”