At the 74th graduation of Makerere University, Namutebi Abishag Lilian Matovu was among the 132 students awarded the coveted PhD, climaxing a journey she never dreamt would end the way it did.
Like many children born to peasant families, education is never assured. Perhaps, this explains why every year in Uganda two million children are admitted in P.1 but only a third complete P.7. The story is replicated at every level. Matovu would have been part of that grim story, but she resisted even when all odds seemed to be stacked against her.
But even when she knew she would one day possibly graduate from a university, her dreams did not go beyond a bachelor’s degree; why would she ever need another degree, let alone a PhD? Uganda with about 45 million people, has less than 2,000 PhDs.
“I went for a PhD not really because anything was at stake but perhaps to fulfil Maslow’s theory of hierarchy of needs; self-actualization,” Matovu says.
Her husband of 25 years Vincent Matovu, with whom she has six children, was key in her going back to school. He was always telling her he knew she was very intelligent and capable of doing anything.
“One day we attended a graduation party for a friend of ours who had got a PhD; when he [Vincent] was given an opportunity to speak, he said his wife too, would one day be graduating with a PhD. We hadn’t discussed this matter seriously apart from his usual talk about me doing a PhD. In the car as we returned home, is when we had a serious talk about me studying for a PhD,” Matovu remembers.
She adds that during that time she had a friend who was already doing her PhD in Education Management. She talked to him about it and he was elated. Cutting the procrastination, he picked application forms for Matovu, paid for them and returned them to Makerere. He later told her she had been admitted for a four-year taught PhD in education management.
Now that she had been admitted, there was no turning back. Starting 2016, Matovu embarked on what she calls the most painful part of a PhD journey.
“My first topic was first rejected because they said it wasn’t in line with the degree I was pursuing. I had wanted to investigate the influence of infrastructure on one’s performance in a university. My supervisors said although it was a good area to investigate, it wasn’t very managerial,” Matovu says.
But like the saying goes, in a problem lies a solution; the troubles Matovu went through to identify an area of focus opened her eyes to the challenges that PhD students in universities go through, which stop most of them from graduating on time. Most PhD students spend an average of six years for a three-year program.
“In a secondary school, when you tell a student to repeat a class, it almost means ‘change school’; students just move from one level to another and on merit; very few remain in classes. But the story is different with PhD. What holds them, why can’t they move?” Matovu wondered.
This is what prompted her to research why PhD students were not getting out of the university pipeline on time. The title of her dissertation was “Examining Predictors for PhD Students’ Program Completion in Makerere University Using Tinto’s Model.”
Venturing into the evil forest
Although Matovu was investigating the issues holding back PhD students from completion, she witnessed them herself and actually contemplated abandoning the program.
“There was a time my supervisor read my work and told me, Lilian, if you were going to Jinja, you got lost in Namanve forest, in the middle of thorny trees, the other side there are all kinds of cats, and the other side there is a lake. You got lost in an evil forest,” Matovu remembers.
This was after she had already spent four years on the program and felt lost. But as luck would have it, the supervisor reread her proposal and then proposed the areas where she could focus. This meant reviewing new literature and rewriting her entire proposal. It paid off and she was able to defend her proposal at the Committee for Higher Degrees. In July 2022, she was allowed to proceed to the field and collect data.
“My unit of analysis were PhD students who had graduated four years ago at four colleges of Makerere University; and you know how scattered they can be across the country and abroad. Locating them almost made me withdraw from the course. When I went to the colleges to get their contacts, they told me they couldn’t give me that information unless I had permission from the Academic Registrar. It took me a month to get that authorization. When I got the authorization, the next trouble was to get the information of these people because some had stayed on the program for 15 years. We got flu from the dust that was on the files,” Matovu says.
Luckily, she was able to pull it off and started writing her book. This necessitated her abandoning her home and work in order to concentrate. She decided to pitch camp at Makerere University’s Dag Hammarskjöld.
“I had to run away from other responsibilities because I had a target to finish this thing in 2023. I’m a mother, a wife, a school administrator… when you step at school, you can hardly step out. So, if I was to complete this work, I had to abandon all those things that are very dear to me to hide in a hall with minimal basics of life. I don’t remember sleeping for more than four hours, sometimes I would work throughout the night,” Matovu says. While at Dag, she would switch off her phone to concentrate.
“When I handed in my book for examination, to say I was excited, would be an understatement. I was very relieved, I couldn’t believe this thing had finally come to an end,” Matovu says.
When the examiners returned her book, she was greenlighted to defend it, leading to her graduation last week. Of the 22 students who were admitted with her, only 11 were able to complete the taught session and only three have since graduated. Asked about what she is going to do with the PhD, Matovu says she wants to be a better manager, a better administrator.
“Now people come to my office and call me Dr, I’m like ooh, I’m now a doctor! It is a nice thing; it is fulfilling to see this journey come to an end.”
Matovu before the PhD
Matovu went to Nazigo Public School Kayunga for all her primary education. For secondary, she joined Kasawo Secondary School but dropped out in S.3 after her grandmother, who was looking after her, failed to get school fees. After dropping out, Matovu joined a vocational institution to learn cookery, tailoring and typewriting.
After almost two years, she graduated from the vocational institute and decided to look for her mother to tell her about her achievements. Her mother asked her whether she would like to resume school, and Matovu answered in the affirmative.
In 1989, she was admitted in S.3 at Ngogwe Baskerville Secondary School in Buikwe district, where she was the first girl to get a first grade.
“I had an aunt who had promised to pay my school fees at Gayaza High School if I passed, but unfortunately, we buried her on Christmas day of that very year when I sat my exams; I was devastated. I returned to Ngogwe for my A-Level which I passed and was admitted to Makerere University on government sponsorship for a Bachelors of Arts in Arts degree. Even when it wasn’t my desired course, I did it,” Matovu says.
After graduation in 1999, she enrolled for a postgraduate diploma in education specializing in Geography and Luganda. She was one of the pioneer teachers of Namiryango Secondary School. She later joined Vienna College Namugongo, teaching the same subjects before she resigned to start, together with her husband Vincent Matovu whom she married in 1999, Our Lady of Africa Secondary School Namiryango.
In 2006, Matovu enrolled for a Master of Science degree in human Resource Management in Education, and graduated in 2008.
Our Lady of Africa
If there is anything that brings joy to Matovu, it is the exponential growth of Our Lady of Africa Secondary School from having just three students to now having more than 4,000 students.
The school that had one block now boasts of multiple storied buildings no longer sitting on the 50 by 100 piece of land they bought at Shs 600,000, but on several acres. Not only that, the school has birthed two other campuses: Our Lady of Africa Mukono and Our Lady of Africa primary school Bukasa Kira municipality.
“I was everything; the bursar, the head teacher, the librarian, the lab technician, the storekeeper, the teacher for Geography and Luganda. I had left a job where I was earning Shs 450,000 as a teacher at Vienna College Namugongo in 2002 to earn Shs 80,000 as a head teacher. I would come to this school at 4am and would not leave until midnight. When I see this school now, I feel so rewarded,” Matovu says.
For all she has been able to accomplish, Matovu says, a lot is attributed to her husband. He has been everything that she ever asked for from God.
“Many men don’t want their wives to study, but mine has been very supportive; he paid my fees. He would tell me, ask what you want and you will have it; if I were a greedy woman, I would have bought land in a very prime area. But I would not inflate anything because cheating him would be cheating myself. So, in life people make decisions; some decisions may be fatal and others rewarding, but mine was a blessing,” Matovu says.
“For the last 20 years of working together, we agree on many things but sometimes we disagree; when that happens, we just agree to disagree and move on. Yes, we are co-directors, but I don’t even call myself a director; I’m a principal and that is enough for me. He is the man and thus he is the head; the Bible says the man is the head of the family. We started this school together but he is the man, I give him the respect he deserves as the director and I have never thought to overtake him,” Matovu says.
“I want to tell you this; you can’t have two men in a house. I get whatever I want; so, why should I struggle to be a man? That’s where I get my peace. I was born a woman; it was from his rib that I was made. Some women, when they acquire these academic titles, they become unruly, but I respect my husband now more than ever; he has made me what I’m now.”
Lilian Matovu was born Abishag Namutebi to Eriab Lumu Ssewankambo and Nassuna. She is the eldest of six children.