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Why Sarah Ntiro remains a woman of her own pedigree

Dr Sarah Ntiro

Dr Sarah Ntiro

Though she died in 2018 aged 92, Dr SARAH NYENDWOHA NTIRO remains an irresistible reference point in our history, with memorial lectures, awards, schools and other institutions having been named in her name before her death and even to-date posthumously.

In similar vein of recognising her never-fading impact, Makerere University honoured her with a memorial lecture at Yusuf Lule Central Teaching Facility auditorium and a dinner to her family on December 1, 2022.

Ntiro was not only a trailblazer but a breaker of barriers, grounds and ceiling as well, a selfless carrier of bold ideas and novel actions who offered her individual agency while building networks and institutions throughout her life, as John Musinguzi writes.


For her numerous daring actions and wide-ranging achievements, Makerere University devoted the ninth of their Mak@100 public lectures to the memory of late Dr Sarah Ntiro, an alumna and former staff.

Former minister and women’s movement activist Joyce Mpanga was the ‘distinguished speaker’ of the function giving a keynote address on the topic that was the theme of the lecture, ‘Bold ideas need system support to thrive: The case of Sarah Ntiro’. The function was so elevated that its master of ceremonies had to be the University Secretary Yusuf Kiranda.

The university also served dinner to the family of this outstanding alumna and staff member of Makerere. The family was led by her son Joseph Kakindo Ntiro Amooti and her niece who grew under her care, Enid Kiiza. Kiiza gave a speech on behalf of the family, to shed more light on the unofficial side of Sarah and to thank Makerere University for the honour.

Enid Kiiza speaks on behalf of Sarah Ntiro’s family

She announced that an autobiography of Sarah titled, Dr Sarah Ntiro Memoir: Emboldened, will be published in less than six months’ time. Mpanga and all the members of a five-female panel described Ntiro as a woman who pioneered many things, traveled lonely journeys as a woman of great courage and one who laid an honourable foundation for women’s education and empowerment in East and Central Africa.

Kiiza and Mpanga narrated how Ntiro had had fate favour her; she was identified as asthmatic in her youth, so her father prohibited her being close to the kitchen smoke; she ate with her father at the table while the siblings ate seated on the mat on the floor. This taught her that she was destined for a different life, no matter the obstacles.

At the memorial public lecture, mention was made of Sarah Ntiro High School in Mayuge district and the Sarah Ntiro Lecture and Awards organized by Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) since 2001, whose 11th edition was held in 2021.

The discussion panelists Dr Sarah Ssali, Patricia Twasiima Bigirwa, Susan Opok, Dr Euzobia Baine Mugisha and Anna Reismann all stressed the importance of individual agency in realizing dreams.

“In spite of challenging and negative cultural circumstances, and regardless of the support from institutions or presence of professional and career guidance, we all need individual agency to push ourselves forward. Moreover, one’s personal choices very much influence one’s future performance and achievements,” Reismann submitted.

The panelists drove home the message that every girl-child and boy-child has to know that there are no easy fixes in life; they must become self-conscious – who you are and what you want.


As part of the first female cohort of six to join Makerere College in 1945, she may share in the joint accolade of having brought about the sudden and quiet change of Makerere’s 23-year- old patriarchal motto of ‘Let us be men’ to ‘We build for the future’.

Nyendwoha was the only girl going to study mathematics. The math lecturer could not stand seeing a girl in his lecture room. He advised her to register for what he called ‘female courses’ such as knitting and tailoring.

The lecturer ordered her to vacate, but she refused. He then gave an option: “either you move out or I move out”.

With her standing the ground, the lecturer was the one that moved out! It was only out of consideration for her male colleagues, that she ceased to come back to the course; she registered for History, Geography and English. However, by her stubborn action, but she had made a bold statement. Later, she was the first woman to graduate with a diploma from Makerere College. With this feat, she set on her journey of inspiring girls to pursue their dreams.

After completing Makerere, she sought to go for further studies at Oxford University. Although she was fluent in speech and proficient in writing Runyoro-Rutooro and Luganda, she could not be admitted with the reason that she had to be proficient in another language besides English.


She left comfortable Kampala and went to teach in Fort Portal so that she learns Latin at the nearby Catholic mission at Virika. After mastering Latin in two years, she was admitted at Oxford!

With her bachelor’s degree acquired in 1954, she became the first black female graduate in East and Central Africa. Returning from her studies at Oxford, she chose to travel by sea, because she wanted to come with her bicycle, a journey of three months up to Mombasa. She again opted to travel by train from Mombasa to Kampala. What a woman of mettle!

Arriving home in Hoima town with her degree, there was a full-week festival!

As a graduate teacher at Gayaza High School in 1955, the colonial government attempted to pay her less than her male counterparts with the same academic qualifications; she categorically rejected the idea. Instead, she offered to teach for a full year without a salary so as to pay back for her scholarship and then look for employment somewhere else where she would be paid equal salary.

When the governor’s wife, Anne Cohen, heard of the story, she invited her for a discussion which led to the former intervening and ensuring that the female teacher got the same salary as the male teachers. It was a precedent that has never been reversed to-date.

During Idi Amin’s rule, she shielded and assisted many threatened Ugandans such as Olara Otunnu and Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile; she too eventually fled to exile in Kenya.

This is the one and only Sarah Nyendwoha, the pride of Bunyoro, Uganda and East and Central Africa. Born in present-day Hoima district in 1926, she married the Tanzanian academic and diplomat Sam Joseph Ntiro in 1958, thereafter adding Ntiro on her name.


She challenged, disrupted and upset the status quo at more than one occasion, leading to creditworthy reforms in policies and institutions. Despite having a degree from Oxford, UK and having taught in urban schools like Gayaza High School and King’s College Budo, Mpanga observed, Ntiro was that rare woman of simplicity and humility who would offer herself to teach in rural schools like Kyebambe Girls School in Kabarole district and Duhaga Junior Secondary School in Hoima.

Mpanga described Ntiro as a very brilliant and selfless woman with a soft voice. She could not exhaust her long curriculum vitae. Ntiro was a school teacher, university support staff, education policy maker and administrator, consultant, political legislator in the Legislative Council (Legco),

In her last days, Mpang said, Ntiro devoted her life to forming and nurturing civil society organisations dedicated to educating and socially uplifting the girl-child, realizing women’s rights and empowering women. One of these organisations which still exist is Action for Development (ACFODE). She worked with other women such as Mpanga and Rhoda Kalema who was present at the lecture.


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