In part III of Project success, where we trace former top students, Joan Nakayaga, the best UACE student of 1992, tells her story to Benon Herbert Oluka.
Watching her mother struggle to raise six children by herself, Joan Nakayaga knew there was no room to slip up. Her academic prowess ensured she didn’t need any.
While at Namagunga Primary School, Ms Nakayaga lifted some of the financial burden off her mother, who had separated with her father, by winning sponsorship from Primary five to seven. She emerged third in her Primary Seven class with five Aggregates.
By the time she progressed to secondary school at Namagunga, Ms Nakayaga says her mother, Geraldine Ssemulwadde, who worked in the defunct Grindlays Bank, was choking with tuition demands.
“She made sure we went to the best schools,” said Ms Nakayaga, her family’s second last born.
“From senior one, my Mum had to pay my school fees again. It was a challenge because sometimes we would all go at the same time.”
One enduring memory, which humbled and inspired Ms Nakayaga in equal measure, was watching her mother do menial jobs to make ends meet.
“One time, she sewed table cloths the whole night so that she could get money the next day. She washed them in the morning and ironed them until they were dry because she had to report to work with them,” she narrated. “I knew then that I had to work hard.”
After passing her O’ level with nine Aggregates in six subjects, the elements gave her another rude reminder when her mother got incapacitated by a motor accident. She couldn’t work with the bank anymore.
“All the time we knew she was there and would provide. We had that security that she is taking care of us,” Ms Nakayaga said.
“When she got that accident, she almost lost her life. It was a big jolt that my education could come to an end and that pushed me to work hard.”
“What helped us is that she had worked at the bank for sometime and she had accumulated some money over time and the bank supported us for about a year. Eventually, my sisters and brother started working so they paid for those who needed school fees and other requirements,” she added.
Ms Nakayaga’s moment of glory caught her by surprise. As she left for Namagunga to get her results, Ms Nakayaga told her mum she would only return quickly if her results were good. However, on learning of her good performance, she returned to town with a friend to celebrate.
“When I returned home, I found her nearly collapsing because she thought I had failed,” said Ms Nakayaga, “but when I told her my results, she got up from her wheelchair and did a dance. I don’t know how she did it because she had lost her leg in the accident.”
Ms Ssemulwadde indeed had reason to dance. Besides beating all her contemporaries, her daughter was also the first science student in her school to get three As.
For Ms Nakayaga, the victory tasted even sweeter because they were a laboratory technician’s error away from failing their chemistry exam.
“During the S.6 exam, the lab technician mixed up our chemicals. When our tests failed to yield anything, one student said things were not working. A teacher tested the chemicals and reported that they were wrong. We were given a fresh exam later that day,” she said.
According to Ms Nakayaga, her love for chemistry and mathematics made her decision to do pharmacy at Makerere University rather easy.
“I used to understand them so well that many times, I would just converse with the teacher when everybody was quiet,” she said. “I thought how do I further these subjects?”
At Makerere University Medical School, Ms Nakayaga continued her winning streak – coming top of her class with a second class upper degree.
She also won the heart of Paul Kalyango, who was one class ahead of her, and they got married in 1997 – one year after she graduated from Makerere. Today, they have two children; the first in senior two at Gayaza High School and the second in primary five at Lohana Academy.
After completing her internship at Mulago Hospital, Ms Nakayaga got into private practice for a year and then got a job at Rubaga Hospital (1999-2002).
While she says motherhood curtailed her ambitions, something she hastens to add that she does not regret, Ms Nakayaga has managed to further her education. She completed a masters degree in clinical epidemiology in 2004, courtesy of a scholarship from the German Embassy in Kampala.
Ms Nakayaga returned to teach at Medical School in 2004, a job she still does today – with mixed feelings.
“Sometimes I sit and wonder to myself; what do I love most, dealing with patients or dealing with students,” she said. “There is a synergy between the two because when you have the practical experience, then you are a better teacher.”
Currently, Ms Nakayaga is about to complete her second masters in community pharmacy, which she has been doing at the Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland, through a long distance learning programme.
Ms Nakayaga’s ambition, however, does not end there. Later this year, she says she will embark on her PhD studies, which is being sponsored through a joint programme between Makerere University and the Karolinska Institute of Sweden.
Not a bad climax for someone whose dream, while growing up, was to become a secretary.