Meet Richard Tumukunde, Latin's New Cafeteria Cashier

Frani O’Toole Staff Writer A lot of choices are made in the cafeteria; the guilty smirk after picking cookies over fruit, the sigh of resignation when choosing salad over pizza. Latin’s new cafeteria cashier, Richard Tumukunde, who rings up our choices everyday, has made far more complicated, life-changing choices of his own. His series of decisions have landed him thousands of miles away from his birthplace in the impoverished heart of Africa, to the opportunity-rich heart of America, Chicago. Among them, Richard made the choice to turn his life around after losing his father to HIV/AIDS, to apply for a green card -a permit allowing immigrants to permanently work and live in the US- with the help of a Southern Illinois University professor, and to skip his train ride south to chance an interview at the Latin School of Chicago. To those who doubt that our choices are what define us, Richard’s story holds the proof. His have guided him through misfortune and tragedy, demanded perseverance and sacrifice, and instilled, Richard adds, a deep belief that “there’s someone out there that keeps me breathing.” Born in Mbarara, Uganda, Richard calls his home country a “rose growing from the concrete”; its beauty has weathered tumultuous economic, political, and tribal climates. Uganda received worldwide attention with the viral “Kony 2012” video released earlier this year. Richard likes the video, and the awareness it has spread about Joseph Kony’s crimes against the northern Ugandan people. Sadly, Kony’s story is one Richard knows all too personally. His grandmother, whom he was very close to, was murdered in cold blood by Kony’s rebels on her way to a displaced people’s camp. Richard says that as a Christian he forgives Kony, though he believes “a day of reckoning comes for every criminal and that every criminal has to be brought to justice.” Thirty years ago, another Ugandan criminal, ruthless dictator Idi Amin, declared Uganda an Islamic state, and murdered countless people of different faiths. Among the victims was Richard’s mother’s fiancé. After his death, Richard’s mother wished to go to a convent and dedicate her life to God. Soon after her fiancé’s death, however, she was married to Richard’s father. Frequently coming home drunk and beating his mother, Richard says he did not grow up with a good male role model. By the time he was a teenager, Richard had become very rebellious and was involved with gangs and drugs. Though his father may not have been a good role model for Richard when he was alive, his death from HIV/AIDS was the reason Richard reevaluated his life, and chose to dedicate his life to God. Church, Richard said, was a “place of refuge” and gave him a “positive outlook on life” while he was witnessing friends and family die of HIV/AIDS. At 19, with the help of religion, Richard had turned his life around, forming a Christian hip hop band and earning diplomas in music, dance, and drama. In 2009, a Southern Illinois University professor applied for green cards for Richard’s class and promised a flight to America and his help in finding a job to whoever got one. Though the professor dismissed him as simply being arrogant, Richard predicted he would be the only one selected. When the news of Richard’s acceptance to the US reached him, the professor said, “You must be a magician.” Finally, he had realized his dream – the dream of a kid who “everything about was American,” a kid who always wore his favorite Chicago Bulls t-shirt backwards to emulate American rappers. Aside from an impressive knowledge of the Bulls, various American musicians, and English -which he knew because, as his parents were from different tribes, they could only communicate through English- he knew little of life in America. Walking off the plane, he entered a new country with no idea who was going to pick him up from the airport, and with only two dollars in his pocket. Luckily, with the help of his professor, Richard established himself in America, and since arriving in 2009 he has been able to return to Uganda for several extended stays, one being a honeymoon with his wife, whom he is trying to get a green card. On September 7th, less than three weeks ago, Richard returned from a trip to Uganda and was planning to take a train back out to Sotuhern Illinois, where he had stayed previously. The night before he was scheduled to leave, Ben, a traffic controller at Latin, asked him if he’d like to interview for a cafeteria position at the Latin School of Chicago. Taking a chance, Richard said yes, and several days later was a welcomed member of the Latin community. Richard says he feels welcome at Latin, and in the United States itself. “When you’re different and come to a place,” Richard feels, “people recognize you more than the people they are used to.” The hospitality he’s enjoyed has inspired him to be a “better person.” At one point, he was at O’Hare, and asked a lady to borrow her phone to call his ride, to which she kindly agreed. Remember hearing Mawi mention O’Hare, and that if you saw him there, and told him his talk had inspired you to do something, he would give you a sandwich? O’Hare -a place that represents going somewhere new, making a change, and the culmination of choices- sticks out in both Richard’s and Mawi’s minds as a place where they felt welcomed by others’ kindness and generosity. In a way, high school is like O’Hare. We’ve got a lot of stressful decisions and opportunities ahead of us, and it’s easy to look at it as irritating and uncomfortable. But if we look at it in the right way, in the mindset of Mawi and Richard, we may just feel at home. Sidenote: If anyone’s interested in hearing some of Richard’s Christian hip-hop, check out his myspace page at!]]>