There are tough teachers and then there are t-o-u-g-h teachers. Canon Joyce Nima most probably belongs to the latter group. Hers is a trademark coined around strictness with a typical no-nonsense attitude. Betty Adio, for instance, first heard about Nima in her Primary Four. She was a little girl whose sister studied at Tororo Girls School. “Her uniform always had to be neat and she always told us stories about this tough headmistress. We grew up yearning to meet her,” she says.
Today, Adio works with Nima at the Uganda Joint Christian Council (UJCC) where she is deputy executive secretary, programmes. At UJCC and even on the day of this interview, Nima is now an effigy of a calm but principled woman. She is 67 years old but paces about with noticeable vigour and verve.
Falling in love with teaching
For her, teaching was the natural career path. She says: “My father, Mr Erinesti Okiria, inspired me a lot and made me appreciate how much teachers can make a difference in society. He literally took education to Sebei land by establishing Sipi Primary School.”
Indeed after her high school studies at Nabumali High School and Nyakasura School, a degree in Education at Makerere University was her pick from 1967 to 1970. She later pursued a Masters degree in Education Management from the UK. At the time, she recalls: “Makerere trained teachers and doctors, Nairobi trained vets and economists and Dar es Salam trained lawyers. I did teaching practice in western Kenya and everything was fine because East Africa was one.”
Upon her return from Kenya, she was briefly posted to Iganga SS. She particularly remembers Nakawa High Court judge, Faith Mwondha as being a sharp debater and principled student.
With experience from the Institute of Teacher Education Kyambogo (ITEK) where she was a tutor, she was appointed headteacher Kyembabe Girls School in Fort Portal in 1976. This was a test. A hard test. As she waited for her predecessor to hand over, she resided in a hotel in Fort Portal town and whoever she told of her designation at the school pitied her. She was told she had to be a magician to run the school.
“Indiscipline in the army was at its peak. The girls would escape from school and return as and when they wanted. In fact at the hotel, I was shown Kyebambe girls partying,” she reminisces, adding, “I took my first outrageous decision”. Nima reported to office as headteacher on Friday and expelled 15 girls the next day.
“On my first day, I asked for a night check on all beds. Everyone was shocked because escaping had become normal. Fifteen girls were missing and the next day, I sent them home to bring their parents,” she recalls, adding: “I summoned the board which sat the next day and recommended their expulsion. When I went to the Ministry of Education, everyone was asking why I was risking my life.”
The 15 girls were girlfriends of soldiers, including a notorious commanding officer. Teachers and parents alike feared for her life. “Instead, when he received the news, the commanding officer, who was admitted in hospital in Kampala at the time, was bitter with his soldiers for taking out his girlfriends. He transferred them and supported me in restoring discipline in the school.” In one month, the school was back to normalcy. In fact, she started a school farm and removed barbed wire from the school fence to instead fence the farm.
After a year at Kyembambe, she was transferred to Tororo Girls School.
On today’s headteachers, Nima says they do not have as much authority as they had and there are several challenges. “Where did ghost teachers come from?” she wonders.
By and large, with a broad spectrum of fairly successful Old Girls such as KCCA executive director Jennifer Musisi, former presidency minister Beatrice Wabudeya, Uganda Federal Alliance party president Beti Kamya and legislator Rebecca Otengo, Nima is a woman satisfied, content that her toughness was, after all, not in vain.
Her time at Tororo Girls School
Her transfer to Tororo Girls literally stirred a tremur. Ms Margaret Akullo Elem, a teacher-cum gender activist, shares that resentment welcomed Nima at TGS, as the school is fondly known.
“She was really tough. She would take you to her office for canes,” Akullo says. All this she did in her early days at the school.
In her first week at the school, she expelled two girls who were an army officer’s girlfriends for escaping from school. In retaliation, a plot to kill her by the soldier-boyfriends of the girls leaked to the army and the culprits were transferred. “When that happened, everyone feared me. They said I must be connected to Amin because you could not take action on soldiers and remain alive. But I had no connection, I was just brave,” she says.
For Akullo, the streak of a woman known widely for being tough was now only in self-revelation mode but beyond the strictness was a headmistress who cared for her students to the letter. “When eight of us were admitted to Makerere on government sponsorship, some girls were to be non-resident but the moment madam Nima learnt of it, she went to Makerere and persuaded the university to accommodate all of us in the halls of residence. She told them we were not used to hostel life,” Akullo reminisces with fondness. In fact, she adds, Nima personally sent telegrams to her old girls in different parts of the country, informing them of their university admission. For those who failed to make it to Makerere, she saw to it that they were absorbed by other institutions.
Nima remembers the 1979 ouster of president Idi Amin that made girls from western and northern Uganda unable to cross to home, with the soldiers invading the school to rape them. Nima, who then had a baby, coordinated their evacuation to Kenya.
“At the time I joined TGS (in 1977), parents would take away their girls after Senior Two but in no time, girls were competing for places at TGS and studying there up to Senior Six. The number rose from 600 students to 1,200 by the time I retired in 1991,”she says of her academic record.
Her former students also laud her for introducing office practice and secretarial studies on the A-Level syllabus, which even though not examined at national examination level at the time, left them with practical skills that made them employable even without a degree. These innovations, in addition to her emphasis on discipline, which to Nima is integral in the smooth running of a school and for academic excellence, impressed the government in 1985 so much as to task her to establish the Uganda College of Commerce (UCC) in Tororo, as an appendage of TGS. She was the college principal and TGS headteacher at the same time before retiring from the school in 1991 to concentrate on the UCC job, which she left in 1993 to serve as executive director Family Planning Association of Uganda and a string of other roles in the civil service.