Mr Tony Woods, a lay missionary of Irish roots who came to Kitui in 1968 aged only 24, recounts an amusing experience during his time as the principal of St Charles Lwanga High School in Kitui County.
“We had dairy cattle in the school but did not have good fencing, and so occasionally the cows would stray into our neighbours’ farms, but the most memorable was when the school was sued for crops damage,” he said.
One of the neighbours, Mr Elijah Muveva Kilombe, went to court alleging that the cattle had eaten his tomatoes and he wanted to be compensated for the loss, but the case was dismissed.
“We didn’t have money to hire a lawyer, but we won the case because when my turn came to defend the school, I told the court that I have often seen cattle eat shrubs but I have never seen them eat tomatoes, so the farmer’s vegetables must have been eaten by other animals and not my school cows,” he said amid laughter.
Mr Woods is best known for the close to three decades he spent at St Charles Lwanga, which he built literally from scratch to an academic powerhouse in the country.
He dedicated his entire life to not just teaching but moulding generations of students, some of whom ended up as prominent personalities in government, the military, the Judiciary, the private sector and also in the diaspora.
Two current MPs from the county – Makali Mulu (Kitui Central) and Gideon Mulyungi (Mwingi Central) – are old boys of the school, which has produced many other notable figures in the country including well-known lawyers and captains of various industries.
In an interview with Lifestyle on the 50th year of his stay in Kenya, Mr Woods said it has been a wonderful and very fulfilling journey.
“Every time I come to Kitui, particularly to Lwanga, I feel it’s like I am getting a fresh injection of hope, especially when I meet my former students from all over the country, I feel very contented,” he said.
He narrated how he was pleased to watch his former students who are now top lawyers in the country representing the Jubilee and Nasa coalitions in last year’s presidential petition at the Supreme Court.
Old boys, including Eric Mutua, who rose to become the chairperson of the Law Society of Kenya, and Nairobi lawyers Karori Kamau and Mwikya Musyoki were involved in the presidential petition and other high-profile cases.
“These are the things that delight me. What these old boys have done to me is more than a gesture to me. I’m very grateful to them for the wonderful gift of a retirement home,” he told the audience in a ceremony to hand over a new house to him.
He told the story of an outstanding journey of great sacrifices that could only have been possible with sheer determination and passion for service to humanity.
His monthly salary for all those years went into helping needy students from every corner of the country and he never acquired any properties throughout his working life.
After he left St Charles Lwanga in 1996, his passion for tithing and giving his all to worthy causes was evident when Mr Woods surrendered his entire pension to the school he loved, which was used to build staff quarters.
According to Mr Fred Mbua, who served as deputy principal under Mr Woods for 11 years, his passion for academic excellence was unmatched.
“We succeeded in establishing the best traditions of hard work and comradeship at Lwanga, where we encouraged old boys to join us after university to help in mentoring the young boys and that custom still stands,” he said.
Mr Mbua recalled how Kitui leaders, including Governor Charity Ngilu, former Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka, who was then the minister for Education, and the late Kitui Catholic Bishop Boniface Lele were all involved in finding a suitable replacement for Mr Woods.
The leaders prevailed upon the then Teachers Service Commission Secretary Jackson Kang’ali to appoint Mr Woods’ deputy, the late Charles Kitunguu, to take over the headship of the school.
Mr Woods took up the role of administrator at Mutomo Mission Hospital for two years before proceeding to Lodwar Catholic Diocese.
Recently, old boys of the school held a parents’ day-cum-party to welcome back Mr Woods, in an event that was mainly about celebrating the missionary who spent three decades teaching at the school. The bash also coincided with the annual commemoration of St Charles Lwanga, the Ugandan martyr whom the school is named after.
The chairman of the old boys association, Mr Michael Nzule, said the former students came together last year and decided to build Mr Woods a befitting retirement home, in recognition of his immense work in mentoring others.
Mr Nzule, a finance director with leading freight company Mitchell Cotts who left the school in 1990, said students’ discipline was at its best when Mr Woods used to engage them and debate any sticky issues until an agreement was reached.
“During our schooling days, students never required any teacher’s permission to go out. Our leave-out sheets were signed by prefects on duty and all we were required to do was to be in full school uniform,” recalled Mr Nzule.
He said Mr Woods hardly used the cane but diplomatic engagement and counseling. He would go round all dormitories every evening to check on the students and see if they had any concerns that needed his attention.
What still perplexes most of the students, Mr Nzule says, was their principal’s compassion and unyielding passion ensuring the needy students remained in school even when their fees balances were overwhelming.
The former student used to raise funds from well-wishers locally and abroad which he then credited and cleared fees owed to most students.
“Under Mr Woods’ leadership, St Charles Lwanga emerged the fourth best school nationally in 1981 and maintained top honours especially in the Ukambani region throughout his stay there,” he said.
NEVER BOUGHT A CAR
Surprisingly, for those 28 years, Mr Woods never bought a car for himself or a school van. The school survived with an old Yamaha motorbike registration number KUD 750, which was the principal’s best.
“He used that motorcycle to take sick boys to hospital, do shopping for the school and run all errands, including fetching water and picking up mail at the local post office,” he explained.
Mr Nzule told Lifestyle that it is this selfless devotion to duty and service to humanity that pricked the old students’ conscience to reward Mr Woods with a posh retirement home, within the school compound.
Old boys willingly contributed cash and donated building materials, including roofing sheets, timber, and cement and this enabled the alumni to complete the project in six months.
The house has seven bedrooms for him and his helpers, who will be hired to take care of him in old age. His aides will include a chaplain, who will offer him spiritual nourishment, a personal nurse, maids and a gardener.
Mr Woods was born in 1945 in Doon village in the County of Limerick, Ireland. The firstborn in a family of four siblings, he left his home country at the age of 22 to begin his life’s journey as a lay missionary.
His brother, Finbar Woods, left Ireland and settled in Seattle in the United States while his two sisters, Mary Elizabeth and Anne Franches, live in Europe. Both his parents are deceased.
The missionary, who until this year was working as the Chancellor of Lodwar Catholic Diocese, has no intention of going back to Ireland after retiring and has accepted the offer to enjoy his sunset years in Kitui.
In an interview with Lifestyle, Mr Woods recalled other interesting happenings at the school.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in October 1993, a group of Form Two students at the school caused a scare that is still etched in the memories of the local community.
The students had been ordered by their principal to clear some bushes in the school compound and burn them as punishment for being naughty but left without putting out the fire.
ACROSS THE FENCE
Across the fence on the western side, some 50 metres from the school, stood a newly built magnificent house for the then area member of Parliament, Mrs Ngilu, now the governor of Kitui County.
The typical punishment for errant schoolboys almost turned tragic when the students rushed to the dining hall after the lunch bell rang, leaving the fire unattended, which easily spread and burnt down Mrs Ngilu’s fence.
Mrs Ngilu, who had been elected the previous year (1992) as MP for Kitui Central on a DP ticket, wasn’t at home when the incident happened.
According to Mr Woods, other than the bushes that were cut, the grass was dry, helping the fire to spread unnoticed until it reached the fence.
“We nearly burnt Governor Ngilu’s new house. Fortunately, we quickly mobilised all students to put it out, but the fire had already consumed her fence,” recalled Mr Woods last week.
Twenty-five years later, on the same grounds where the Form Two students were clearing bushes as punishment, a new imposing seven-bedroom house now stands as a retirement gift for Mr Woods, courtesy of Lwanga’s old boys.
A stone’s throw from Mrs Ngilu’s Ithookwe village home, the former students gathered last week to hand over the bungalow that cost them Sh10 million to build. All its bedrooms are en suite, with a living room large enough to accommodate 40 visitors.
In a remarkable reunion, the Ngilu family henceforth has a new neighbour in the 73-year-old Mr Woods – a highly revered figure in Kitui County and an old friend who lived in their vicinity for three decades.
“I can’t wait to have a neighbour in Tony Woods. He’s a wonderful person who has lived a very purposeful life. He has brought up more than 75 per cent of all those top brains in Kitui. He is a blessed person,” Mrs Ngilu said of her new neighbour.
Two unsung heroes in conversion of community day school into a national academic giant
The story of St Charles Lwanga High School cannot be told without invoking the immense contribution of three key men, who grew the small community day school to a national academic giant.
The school, which was established by European Catholic missionaries in the early sixties to provide education to bright students from poor backgrounds, overtook older schools from the region that had existed for two decades.
Named after a Ugandan saint who was killed for standing up to a brutal King in 1886, the school has produced some of the finest intellectuals not just in Kitui County but across the country, thanks to an enviable tradition of a self-motivating reading culture established since its inception.
This culture took root in the early 1970s, a few years after Mr Tony Woods, a lay missionary from Ireland, was appointed the headmaster.
While the immense sacrifice by Mr Woods – fondly referred to by students as Miti, Kamba for woods – that saw him spend 28 years at the school is well known, two of the deputies that worked under him are also the institution’s unsung heroes.
The first was Mr Fred Mbua, who worked under Mr Woods for 11 years until 1982 to shape the school’s academic path in the formative years.
He was a strict disciplinarian who ensured that there was order among students, some of whom were older than their teachers, through counselling and dialogue.
After his early retirement in 1981 to take up an administrative job at the Kitui Catholic Diocese, Mr Mbua was retained on the school’s board of governors and continued to provide support and leadership to the school.
Then came the late Stephen Kiliku, a man who earned his place for his efforts in motivating students to work hard and maintain the academic record set by their elder brothers in national examinations.
A humorous teacher nicknamed Muthokoi by students for his uncanny habit of cracking jokes to achieve consensus and resolve tricky disputes in the school, followed the footsteps of Mr Mbua in ensuring discipline was never compromised.
According to Mr Thomas Muli Kilonzo, a business studies lecturer at Machakos University, more than 50 per cent of St Charles Lwanga old boys are working as accountants for government and various firms across the country.
Mr Kilonzo explains that most students took keen interest in accounting after it was introduced in the school in the early eighties because it was being taught by the principal, Mr Woods, and his two top lieutenants, who were the biggest motivators.
“During our time, Mr Woods and his deputy, the late Kiliku, were greatly loved and admired by students. This genuine affection for them led most of us to choose accounting in our upper classes and later in colleges,” the lecturer told Lifestyle.
Mr Kilonzo, who did both his O Level and A Level studies at Lwanga between 1980-1985, recalled how students would enrol for external courses like the Accounts Clerk National Certificate (ACNC) and other related courses while still preparing for their secondary examinations.
This was after the Kenya Accountants and Secretaries National Examinations Board (Kasneb) established a centre at the school – the first in the Ukambani region.
On extracurricular activities, the school isn’t a powerhouse. For many years students believed that their teachers used to bribe sports judges to fail them in the zonal games competitions to stop them from “wasting their time”.
Mr Woods said that over the years, he had to fight a funny conviction among students that whenever their teams were beaten by neighbouring schools, especially in ball games, the matches were fixed by their Lwanga teachers to stop them from progressing to the district or national levels.
However, academic standards at the school have fallen significantly compared with the 1980s and 1990s, despite efforts by old boys to keep the mentoring spirit.
Long after Mr Woods and his legendary deputies exited the scene, needy students continue to benefit from the exceptional compassion and empathy that has seen thousands access university education.
Ishmail Mbithi, a medical student at Maseno University, is among the latest beneficiaries of this charity from a network of local and international willing donors who support the overall agenda of St Charles Lwanga.
Interestingly, his tuition fees right from Form One to university was paid by Mr Woods, through the old boys association, and he isn’t aware of his actual sponsor because that’s how the former principal prefers it – keeping his philanthropy as secret as possible.