Delgado A-Z: Uganda

By: Dee Shedrick
On June 19, 1956, the Isaac Delgado Central Trades School (currently Delgado Community College) partnered with the Kampala Technical Institute in Kampala, Uganda to start a teacher technical training program. The program was designed to give instruction and teaching experience to students to become instructors. Marvin E. Thames, director of education of Delgado and A.E. Robinson, assistant superintendent for vocational education in Louisiana, took a trip to visit the institute in October 1957 to evaluate its day-to-day operations. They documented in their evaluation report that the only educational choices the people of Uganda had before the Uganda project were from Christian missionaries or secondary schooling.

Five members of Delgado's teaching staff taught classes at the Kampala Institute. They taught courses in electrical installation, automotive repair, plumbing, pipefitting, drafting, workshop, vocational teacher training, English, math, and science. All personnel, students, and their families were housed in dormitories on the campus. Along with Delgado instructors, there were two Ugandan teachers, two representatives from the United Kingdom Government, and a chief advisor who made up the entire faculty.

William J. McSweeney was one of the instructors who trained students in theory and practical electrical installations. McSweeney also served as a proctor; overseeing supplies, student finances, and dormitories. McSweeney travelled with his wife to work in Africa and his stepdaughter, Lee Grue, later travelled to visit the couple. Here is an edited recollection of Grue's travels in her own words:

"In the late 50s, my stepfather W.J. McSweeney was training electricians at Delgado Community College in New Orleans. While at Delgado, an opportunity came up for Bill McSweeney and other teachers at Delgado to teach in Uganda, East Africa, which was then still a British colony.  His job would be teaching African men to wire houses. Under his tutelage they would become certified electricians.

 … My mother and I were both terrible correspondents.  In spite of that, I read enough of her letters about Uganda to want to go there. … I was working as a hairdresser and going to college at night. …  I had no money to go anywhere, but I was determined to go. ... A strange thing happened right after I made my decision.  I received word that I had inherited $5,000. My Grandfather Meitzen, my father’s father, who had been estranged from his own family, had left me money. …  I flew to Uganda in a plane that rattled as if every bolt were loose. I walked off the plane with a big headache.  I don’t remember what month I arrived, but it was the rainy season of 1961.  

… Bill and my mother lived in a lovely house on a hill.  It was located in a large compound with other members of the New Orleans team. … My mother and Bill had many British friends, and since they liked to travel, we made many trips to national parks. … I had very few instances to meet with ordinary Africans as everything was very separate. However, the few people I did meet were especially kind and laughingly called me 'the mtoto,' which means 'baby' in Swahili, although I was in my 20s at the time.

 … Our other big trip was on a large rather spiffy looking boat that Bill McSweeney arranged to take us to Murchison Falls on Lake Albert. I must have had no real curiosity about geography at that point in my life, and I’m still very hazy about the route we took.  The boat left from Butiaba with the three of us, an Indian Captain, and a handsome man around 55, who wore a white uniform ( white shirt with epaulets and white shorts with knee socks).  The rest of the crew were Africans. I was told we were going up the White Nile to Murchison Falls. … We were traveling on a river where crocodiles by the hundreds slept on the banks and slid into the water as we passed (something you might see in a Tarzan movie). … The weather was beautiful, warm but not hot. … Good weather and good luck for the boat ride was what we expected and what we got.  

… When we finally arrived at the falls … The Indian captain warned us that at that time of the year, walking through the bush to the falls was dangerous as the elephant were in must, or heat. … Our party consisted of the Askari and spear carriers walking ahead and the four of us trailing behind as we walked toward the falls. … As we grew closer, we could see a beautiful elephant standing on the cliff.  He was magnificent with a great pair of tusks and huge ears. My mother and Bill both had cameras. .. She wanted a picture of the elephant, which so far, was the only wildlife we’d seen on land that day. We stopped. She peered down into the camera. … The elephant had other ideas, and came straight down the cliff to us. My mother was staring into the camera. I started pulling at her sleeve saying, 'Mama, Mama, Mama let’s go, let’s go,' as the elephant charged straight at us. The Askari, I think the bravest man I have ever known, personally stepped toward the elephant and raised his gun. The elephant stopped in front of us-- his huge ears raised.  We all seemed paused there forever, until the elephant changed his position and ambled off. 

We found out later that the elephant had to charge closer than 15 feet for the Askari to legally shoot him. I think the elephant was smarter than we were and stopped right where he wouldn't get shot. … Shaken, we all went back to the boat (all, being my family, the captain, and the Askari--the spear carriers had hightailed it).  The captain said, 'They only came for shillings not an elephant.' "  
Although the original purpose of the Uganda project and the mission of McSweeney was to aid in the economic development of the country, the faculty still found time for sightseeing. Also, feedback from the students in the previously mentioned evaluation report stated that they also enjoyed the extracurricular activities that the faculty members facilitated. The Uganda project ended up having a good success rate; out of the 57 students who enrolled in the program, 56 completed the program. It seems that when Isaac Delgado decided to give a boy a trade--it was not limited to New Orleans, but also the world.

Click on the images below for more pictures of Grue's time in Africa:

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