Log In

Reset Password

Music lover hands out piano lessons at 92

First Prev 1 2 Next Last
Favourite place: Dr Ada Nyabongo sitting at the piano (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

Ada Nyabongo has been teaching piano for almost 80 years.

Just about anyone who visits the 92 year old’s Hamilton Parish home is fair game for a lesson.

Don’t try to dodge it by saying you’re not musical.

“What do you mean you’re not musical?” is her baffled response.

Don’t mention you don’t have a piano.

“Well, how small can your house be,” she says in horror. “Here, just sit here beside me on the piano bench and I’ll show you where middle C is.”

She’s incredibly patient with those who think they are not musically talented.

“That’s it, put your fingers there …” she says smiling.

She has a doctorate in musicology from New York University, and many of her friends, family and students affectionately call her “Dr Ada”.

She was born in Bermuda, but raised by Bermudian parents, Harold and Naomi Paynter, in Brooklyn, New York.

“My brother, Edward, was born in New York, but I think my parents wanted me born on onion soil,” she said. “So my mother came back to Bermuda to have me.”

The family soon returned to Brooklyn.

“My father was a painter who was a Paynter,” Dr Nyabongo joked.

He was also an African Methodist Episcopal minister and started the Greater St Paul AME Church on Essex Street in Brooklyn when Dr Nyabongo was a child.

“They celebrated their 70th anniversary the other day,” she said. “They asked me to come along as the special guest since my father founded it.”

She started taking piano lessons at church as a young child, and was giving lessons by the time she reached high school.

“We lived in a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood,” she said.

“When I practised, parents would come to the door, because they wanted me to teach their children how to play.”

She fell in love with teaching.

“I never wanted to be a concert pianist,” she said. “I always wanted to teach.”

At 29, she met her future husband Akiiki Nyabongo, a Ugandan prince, when he gave a speech in Brooklyn.

In the 1950s, Dr Nyabongo, a university professor, frequently spoke out about colonialism and the ideals of Pan-Africanism, which is the belief that there should be a bond between all people of African descent.

“He was going to be a speaker at a church near me,” she said. “I was very excited to meet him and hear what he had to say, but from the moment he stood up to speak, I didn’t hear a word that he was saying.”

She was too besotted. After the talk, she invited him to lunch.

“He took me out to meet his friends in New York,” Dr Nyabongo said.

“We started dating. I remember one evening, my father was upset that he didn’t bring me back until after 1am.

“My father said it was past my curfew. I said I didn’t even know I had a curfew.”

After that, she tried hard to abide by her father’s rules and three months later Dr Nyabongo asked her father for her hand in marriage.

“I guess my father said yes, because he didn’t think by that time I was going to find anyone else,” she laughed.

“I was brought up at a time when Africa was looked down upon by a lot of people. My father always knew a good bit about Ethiopia and always prayed for Africa.

“He didn’t mind too much that I’d married an African. I’m not sure about my mother. I wish I’d asked her about it, but she died a short time after I got married.”

A talented seamstress, Ms Nyabongo made her own wedding dress in 1955.

“During the ceremony in Brooklyn, the minister couldn’t pronounce ‘Akiiki’,” Ms Nyabongo remembered.

“I was like, who is he talking about? I almost started to laugh in the middle of it.”

She became pregnant soon after they married, but before their son, Amoti, was born, Dr Nyabongo was called back to Uganda to help his country move towards independence.

She could not go with him because it was a dangerous time in the country.

There had been uprisings due to British colonial rule, and Dr Nyabongo was needed to help draw up documents for a new constitution.

In 1958, the British allowed self-government in Uganda and the country became fully independent four years later.

Dr Nyabongo went on to help other countries, including Kenya, with their constitutions.

She continued to live in Brooklyn while her husband was in Uganda throughout their marriage. They communicated mostly by letters and the occasional phone call.

Ms Nyabongo paid off the mortgage on their house on her own. She started teaching music in the school system to better support her son.

“I always preferred teaching privately,” she said.

“You could see the progress of the student, or lack of it, a lot better.”

It was 15 years before she and her son were able to visit Uganda to see their husband and father.

“I decided it was time for him to know his father,” Ms Nyabongo said. “We had a great visit. I couldn’t believe how fast Amoti got to know all of his relatives.”

Her husband died three years later.

In 1990, Ms Nyabongo moved back to Bermuda but retained her home in Brooklyn.

“My wedding dress is there, in a trunk, in the basement, I think,” she said.

She now lives near Francis Patton School in Hamilton Parish, next door to her son Amoti, daughter-in-law Janet and 11-year-old grandson Akiiki, named for his grandfather. Many other relatives live nearby.

She doesn’t consider herself to be retired.

“I still have three or four students here in Bermuda,” she said.

She still travels with her family, and visited Uganda two years ago, with the help of a nurse.

Back in Bermuda: Dr Ada Nyabongo relaxes at her home in Hamilton Parish (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)