Dr. Sarah Nyendwoha Ntiro
Years at Oxford: 1951-1954
College: St. Anne’s
Course: History (Bachelor of Arts)
At Oxford: First female Oxford University graduate from East and Central Africa
Outside Oxford: Founded Education Service Commission in Uganda in 1965, Founded Higher Education Consultancy for African Refugees during exile in Nairobi in 1978, Pioneer member of the African Rural University – an all-women’s University in Kagadi District, Western Uganda, amongst others.
Dr. Sarah Nyendwoha Ntiro was a woman of many ‘firsts.’ She was born and raised, in Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom, Western Uganda at a time when the place of women in society was simply in the kitchen. Growing up, her parents were both teachers and she witnessed how knowledge through education was a powerful tool that created opportunities for common Ugandans. At a very young age of 10, she was transferred to Kings College Buddo to follow in her father’s footsteps. Later on, she was admitted to the prestigious Makerere University college in 1945, where she studied History Geography and English. During her time at Makerere University College, she came face to face with a male mathematics lecturer, who insisted he would not teach if Dr.Ntiro remained in his class. He advised her to go and enroll in the female courses like “knitting” and “tailoring”. Being the revolutionary that she was, Dr.Ntiro stood her ground and the face off ended with the lecturer walking out of his class issuing an ultimatum that he would not teach with her ‘polluting’ his class.
In 1954, she became the first female Oxford University graduate from East and Central Africa. She graduated from St. Anne’s College with a bachelor’s degree in History and she received an Honorary Doctorate from Spelman College, Atlanta, Georgia. Upon returning to Uganda, she used her experience and resilience to champion work on education issues, especially focusing on how a quality education could be made available to girls and women across communities. In 1965, she founded what is known today as the Education Service Commission. When she was exiled to Nairobi in 1978, she not only continued her advocacy for education but went on to establish a Higher Education Consultancy for African Refugees.
Dr.Ntiro was a living manifestation and advocate for equality for women. She taught at three of the leading secondary schools in Uganda. She worked with the Uganda Legislative Council (LEGCo) from 1958-1961, she was one of the first two female members of the LEGCo which was previously composed exclusively of Europeans. She introduced a private members’ bill on pay equality between men and women.She also served in Uganda’s post-colonial Ministry of Education as a Secretary to the Teaching Service Committee and later on the Makerere University Council.
Sarah was an advocate for education and equality. Even while in the diaspora she helped natives access scholarships to go and study. She believed in empowering women, herself having overcome so many barriers in her education and work. While teaching at Gayaza High School, she engaged the British Colonial Governor Sir Andrew Cohen and asked for equal pay for women teachers. This was unprecedented in the 1950’s more so in a British colony. Sarah did not understand why she was paid less than her male colleagues and yet they did the same work. She protested, she worked for six months without pay. During those six months she refused any payment that was not equal to what her male counterparts were being paid. Her demands were reluctantly met. The first of many victories for women in Uganda.
She was also concerned about the gap in the quality of education in rural and urban areas. She thus strived to ensure access to education for all by serving in different capacities on several boards of non-governmental organisations and the Uganda Council of Women. It was in one of those roles that I met her. I met Dr.Ntiro when I was about 12 years old at the Uganda Rural Development Training (URDT) girls school that is located in Kagadi District, western Uganda. The URDT girls school is a unique school that offers a free education to talented but disadvantaged girls. Many of us were first generation high school students who got the opportunity to know Dr. Ntiro up close and personal. She was known as a role model across campus and relentlessly advocated for the education of a girl child. In 2006, she became one of the pioneer members of the African Rural University an all-women’s University in Kagadi District, Western Uganda that trains women as rural transformation specialists. Today, the Sarah Ntiro Girls Vocational Secondary School in Hoima western Uganda is an attempt to instill the spirit of hard work and determination Dr.Ntiro embodied.
In her obituary, it was stated that “Sarah’s big disappointment has been the loss of good quality education in rural Uganda. She has been concerned that the education available is neither good enough to ensure high academic grades nor can it provide a foundation for self-employment. Since 2016, Sarah has talked to many people to encourage them to do something to reverse education inequality in rural Uganda and elsewhere. And this is the challenge that Sarah leaves with us all”.
Dr.Ntiro died aged 93, on 22nd October 2018. She was a wife and mother to two sons one of whom is also deceased. Dr.Ntiro is remembered as a beacon that led the way for women to rise in Uganda, and a bold timeless icon for girl children and equal opportunity.
Reference / Source: Many thanks to Kulusum Hasakya from Uganda Rural Development Training Centre (URDT) who provided material and stories from the organization about Dr.Sarah Ntiro Akiiki.
Joel Basoga, Uganda, Bachelor of Civil Law (BCL) 2018-19 at the University of Oxford
Catherine Namwezi, Uganda, MPhil Development Studies 2017-19 at the University of Oxford.