Saturday July 26 2014

Kavuma was Gayaza High’s first Ugandan headteacher

Ruth Kavuma makes a point during the interview.

Ruth Kavuma makes a point during the interview. PHOTO BY Geoffrey Sseruyange and Joseph Kiguundu 

By Ivan Okuda

Ruth Nvumetta Kavuma is not your everyday teacher. She is a woman born in Ssese islands and bred in Gayaza High School. She walks and articulates confidence that comes from that pristine upbringing. Even more, she shares her experience in the education career with a noticeable streak of a woman who has not only headed one of the country’s most prestigious girls’ schools, but done so as its first black headteacher. Her academic life story is not exactly extraordinaire, but intriguing. First, she was not sure she wanted to be a teacher.
In fact, even after a stint as a Mathematics teacher in her Senior Five at Gayaza High (teaching Senior One students), hers was a mind not made up. “It (teaching while still at school) was not serious,” she says in a matter of fact tone.

Pursuing a different career
She joined Makerere University for a science degree in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics, only to drop Chemistry for Psychology. She was offered a job as an engineering trainee with Uganda Post Office and Telecommunication.
“I realised I did not like engineering. I returned to Makerere for a Post Graduate Diploma in Education (1979-1980),” she says.
It was at this point that she was posted to her academic motherland (Gayaza High School) until she retired into politics in 2001 as Kalangala District woman MP.
“Many people wondered why, with my Mathematics and Physics, I was not getting a job in the bank. People at that time were running away from teaching,” she says.
The same year she joined the school (as a teacher), she was nominated to the Parents and Teachers Association as a teachers’ representative.
“That opened doors for me so much that in 1983, I was appointed acting deputy headteacher and confirmed later in the year,” she says, with an I-knew-I-would-make-it-anyway attitude. And then came the blockbuster task for the school. Ms Sheelagh Warren, the school’s headmistress had clocked the retirement age of 60 and was returning to England.
“Everyone looked around for a possible replacement but for some reason they could not find a better person. They thought I was still young and they were right,” she says. She was just 32 then. As a secretary of the school board’s meetings, she was once asked to move out. She knew the subject matter for the day but did not know she was the gist of that meeting. After the lengthy meeting, “Bishop Miseiri Kauma (RIP) and Joyce Mpanga (both board members then), approached me and said: “Do you mind looking after the school as we search for somebody?”
“At times I say perhaps I was stupid to take up the role,” she says. Asked what she means, she says with a flashier tone: “Any sane person could not have accepted! Gayaza was and is the leading girls’ school. There was this public perception that now it was going to an African, who would run it down.”

Challenges as headteacher
Beyond the sphere of public perception were the teachers who had taught her and those she found already teaching. They had more experience than her. How would she manage them? “Having been Warren’s deputy gave me enough training. My father (James Lutaaya) was a prominent chief so that background boosted my confidence,” Kavuma says.
One time, in a staff meeting, a teacher remarked, “but you also used to dodge lessons with us!” That pricked her deep down to the spine. She asserted her authority and said, “If anyone here does not recognise that I am the headteacher, please walk out.” Four teachers showed her their backs for good. But did she care? “I let them go because in administration, you get more cooperation from employees you employ so I knew I would recruit more teachers,” she says.
When she got wind of a transfer from Gayaza in 2001, she looked around, saw an opening in politics and allowed the conservative in her play out. She retired from teaching before she clocked 60; after all, the Gayaza experience was just enough. The mother of four now works as a counsellor.

Her achievements at Gayaza

“I was the first Ugandan headmistress of the school and I did not disappoint. I am sure about that,” Kavuma states with pride.
During her tenure, she revived compulsory Sunday prayers, which her predecessor had made optional. “I felt there was a mistake. It was possible for a girl to study at Gayaza for six years and not go to church yet we are a Christian-founded school,” she emphasises. This worked wonders as she built a special bond with her students. “I was so free with the girls. The head prefect and her deputy had breakfast in my house every day and I preferred to continue teaching till I retired,” Kavuma says with nostalgia.
She adds: “Whenever I didn’t make it for assembly, students would come around and ask what was wrong and they would even tell me when I was smart or not very smart.”
In academics, the school topped the country a number of times, twice getting 100 per cent first grade in O-Level. Warren was so impressed that she wrote a personal note to her, wondering how she had made it.
“I also built another laboratory, the deputy head teacher’s office and refurbished the head teacher’s house, computer centre, and games field,” Kav, as she was nicknamed by students, says.
For Kavuma, such strides, coupled with the school’s academic star that continues to glow, only warm her heart as they are only a mirror of the foundation stone she laid, a formidable one.


Gayaza High School is an all-girls boarding school located in Gayaza Town in Wakiso District.
Founded in 1905 by Christian missionaries, the school opened in January 1905 with four girls and by July the same year, the number had grown to 43 girls. Originally, any girl, as long as she was a daughter of a chief in the Buganda Kingdom, was admitted to Gayaza. Later, even those from rich families were able to enrol. Eventually the system changed further so that one had to pass both their oral and written examinations to get into Gayaza. Today this is still the practice.

What her former students say about her

‘When you met her, you had to be organised from dress code to speech. We respected her for her brilliance, being a female Physics teacher at a time sciences were still not widely done by the ladies,’
Jacqueline Asimwe, activist and lawyer

‘She was strict but treated students humanely and equally and many of us saw her as a role model. Even when we met in Parliament, she continued to mentor me,’
Dora Byamukama, EALA MP