Kampala, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | In 1944, Evangeline Sarah Nyendwoha, might not have imagined it, but she was about to make a move that would change her life and that of many women in Uganda. At the time, she was a 19-year old student at the prestigious King’s College Budo. She had joined the school from Budo Junior when she was 13 years old. In 1944, she was in the last of her six years and possibly unsure of her next move. The only institution of higher learning then; Makerere College admitted only male students. And to reaffirm its point, its motto was simply “Let Us be Men”. So Nyendwoha considered herself locked out.
Despite offering only post-school certificates and no degrees, 22-year old Makerere College was regarded the center for higher education in all of the east African region; which comprised pre-independence Uganda, Kenya, and then-Tanganyika (now Tanzania).
Nyendwoha was possibly bitter that, for her gender, she could not join this prestigious institution which was later to morph into present day Makerere University Kampala. But change was coming.
In 1945 the Makerere College motto was suddenly changed to “We build for the future”. It went on to admit its first female students. Among the six was Nyendwoha.
This girl from Hoima in the Bunyoro kingdom of western Uganda was surely born lucky. Her parents; Erasto B. Nyendwoha Akiiki and Jane Nsungwa Nyendwoha, were teachers, which meant they were relatively educated, affluent, and liberal. At a time when girls were only good for marrying, Nyendwoha’s parents found nothing odd about sending their two children; a boy and girl to school. A bright child, she easily excelled and was admitted to King’s College Budo which had only started admitting girls five years earlier in 1933. She stayed there for six years starting 1938. Then in 1945, another barrier against women was torn down and she joined Makerere College to train as a teacher.
A story is often told about how she preferred to train as a math teacher; since that was her favourite subject, but she was rejected by a British tutor who considered her better suited for “female subjects” like knitting and tailoring.
According to that story, the tutor refused to teach the class when the teenager refused to leave. So, for the sake of others, she reportedly submitted and left the sciences section for the humanities where she studied history, geography and English. She also did teaching practice at her alma mater, King’s College Budo and Kyebambe Girls School.
However, in an interview in November 2012 with the Financial Times newspaper titled `First Person: Sarah Ntiro’ she said simply that one of her teachers suggested that academically the course at Makerere was not stretching her enough, and that she should go to university. Of course, that meant going abroad, as there was no university in Uganda then. She was advised to apply to Oxford University, was admitted, and in 1951 started a history degree at St Anne’s College, Oxford.
She explained that she chose to study areas that she felt had some bearing on her life back home. She studied England’s agricultural revolution because she came from an agricultural area and the French revolution because she was proud of coming from Bunyoro Kingdom, and wanted to know why “anyone would be mad enough to overthrow their king”. She also studied English settlement in America to understand what inspired the settlers to make that dangerous journey across the Atlantic Ocean.
But, she said, the other big new thing she learnt was how to ride a bicycle – because everyone rode bicycles Oxfordshire.
When she graduated in June 1954, she became east Africa’s first female graduate. And she returned home by boat so that she could take her bicycle with her. She recalled that in Hoima there was a festival for about a week. She also recalled riding her bicycle as her father took her to visit relatives.
Then she began teaching at Gayaza School, Uganda’s oldest girls’ secondary school, and another legend around her life was born. It is said she realised that, as a woman, she was to earn less that her male counterparts. And she protested, arguing that she deserved equal pay for equal work. When that failed, she offered to teach without pay; as a volunteer teacher. Her protest reached the wife of the colonial governor, Ms Anne Cohen, who intervened and she started to receive equal salary with men. Her stay at Gayaza was short as in 1958 she was appointed to Uganda’s legislative council, as parliament was known then. She recalled that she immediately introduced a private members’ Bill on equal pay for men and women.
That same year, she married Tanzanian Prof. Sam Joseph Ntiro, a renowned artist and one of the founders of the Margaret Trowel School of Fine Art, Makerere University. Joseph Ntiro went on to become Tanganyika’s High Commissioner to Britain and Nyendwoha returned to Britain. Her husband was a commissioner from 1961-64. They had two sons.
When she returned to Uganda, she joined the civil service in the Ministry of Education from 1965- 1967and was instrumental in starting the Teaching Service Commission. She also worked for Makerere University. Her life’s work, however, was devoted to fighting for equality for women. She founded many organisations to support women. She became an inspiration and mentor for many girls and women and won man accolades for it. In 2000 the Forum for African Women Educationalists – Uganda (FAWEU) started the Dr. Sarah Ntiro Lecture and Award Event to celebrate her achievements.
“I’d still like every woman to know that you can fight any battle, if it’s worth listening to,” she said in the 2012 FT interview. She might have been born to the right parents at the right time, but she also was a warrior for women’s rights.