The pioneers of women movements in Uganda

The Uganda Legislative Council during a session in the 1950s. Pumla Ellen Ngozwana Kisossonkole and Sarah Ntiro who made a mark on women’s role in leadership in Uganda were among the first Black women to serve in the council. PHOTO COURTESY OF HENRY LUBEGA

What you need to know:

Struggle for equality. As we celebrate the International Women’s Day today, we look back at two women; Pumla Ellen Ngozwana Kisossonkole and Sarah Ntiro, who not only set the precedent for the women movement in Uganda, but made a mark on women’s role in leadership

Born in 1911 as Pumla Ellen Ngozwana in South Africa to Methodist church ministers, Pumla was educated at the mission school before joining the university college of Fort Hare. It was while at the university that she met her future husband Christopher Kisosonkole who was a foreign student from Uganda.

According to the book Guardian Angel by Dr Arnold Bisase, “Kisosonkole had been sent to South Africa for further studies by a group of teachers who had broken away from King’s College Budo to start Aggrey Memorial Secondary School. In sending Kisosonkole to South Africa for further studies, they were looking at having a foreign trained headmaster just like the school they had broken away from.”

An educationist by profession, Pumla devoted some years of her life to girl education, which is detailed in a pamphlet she wrote called Education as I saw it.

Writing in the 1963 edition of the Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, Nora B. Thompson says, “Her marriage to a saza chief brought her in the environs of Kampala. She engaged in voluntary work and she helped in teaching. After one year in England, she got into community development work.”

Having moved to Uganda in the early 1940s after her wedding in 1939 to Christopher, Pumla went on to represent Uganda on the international scene on top of serving as one of the first Black women in the Uganda Legislative Council (LEGCO).

In 1956 she became the second woman to join the LEGCO as the first Black woman at the council was British-born Barbara Saben. However, the two were replaced in 1958 by Sarah Ntiro and Frances Akello.

Just a year after leaving the LEGCO, Pumla went ahead to represent Ugandan women on the international level and became the president of the International Council for Women between 1959 and 1962. After her presidency at the women’s council, she went on to become Uganda’s first woman representative to the United Nations General Assembly from 1963 to 1964.

According to the Historical Dictionary of Women in the sub-Saharan Africa by Kathleen Sheldon, after Pumla’s time at the UN assembly she went on to become a literacy expert with the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Sarah Nyendwoha Ntiro
Sarah Nyendwoha Ntiro was the first woman in East and Central Africa to graduate with a university degree. But there have been reports disputing this fact, claiming Harriet Kawalya Kagwa was the first female in Uganda to graduate. However Kawalya got a diploma in Social Work from Hotmeyer College of Social Work in South Africa in 1951.

The daughter in a family of only two children, both their parents were teachers in Hoima District, and this could explain her academic excellence. From Kings College Budo, she was in the first batch of six girls to join Makerere College, now university, when it started admitting girls in 1945.

Talking to Financial Times Magazine three years ago, Ntiro said: “One of my teachers suggested that academically the course wasn’t stretching me enough, and that I should go to university. Of course, that meant going abroad, as there was no university in Uganda then.”

When she approached the British Council for help, her hurdle was lack of a second language besides English, though Anglican, she sought the help of the nuns from Virika to teach her Latin. And in 1951 she embarked on her History degree at St Ann College Oxford. Upon completion in 1954, she returned home and took up a job as a teacher at Gayaza High School.

Becoming an activist
It was while at Gayaza that Ntiro started fighting for woman’s rights. Less than a year after joining the school, she protested being paid less than her male graduate colleagues.
When the school administration did listen to her, she decided to forego her pay and work as a volunteer teacher. When word of her protest to low pay reached Ann Cohen, wife to the governor then Andrew, she intervened and Ntiro got her full pay like her male colleagues.

After four years of teaching at Gayaza, Ntiro became the second Black woman to join the Uganda Legislative Council (LEGCO) in 1958 until 1961. She later went on to become part of the country’s delegation to the UN General Assembly.

In 1958, she got married to Tanzanian Professor Sam Joseph Ntiro and the couple got two sons. During her time at the Ministry of Education from 1965 to 1967, she started the Teaching Service Committee which has now evolved into the Education Service Commission.

As one of the first people to join the women movements in Uganda, like the Uganda Council for Women and the Young Women Christian Association (YWCA), she went on to be a member of the executive of YWCA as vice president for Africa from 1971 for eight years.

In 1978, she fled to exile in Kenya where she started an education consultancy.
Sarah Ntiro was the first to cut the narrow trail of university education that has now become a highway of opportunities for Ugandan girls and women.

The Uganda Legislative Council
The current Parliament is a successor to the (LEGCO) before independence. The tradition of the LEGCO first started in 1606 when the British settlers in Virginia were granted a council. It was from there that it became a habit for Her Majesty’s government to rule through local legislatures as a way of devolving authority.

Before the creation of the LEGCO, Uganda not being a colony was governed under the Foreign Jurisdiction Act of 1890, under which Uganda was governed from 1902 up until 1920 when a provision was made for the setting up of executive and legislative councils by order in council.

Before the council came into being, there had been unofficial demands as early as 1912 when the newspaper of the time, the Uganda Herald, published a letter from a reader who was tired and felt frustrated with a series of “rash, hasty and uncalled for ordinances, and urged for the formation of a strong political association to keep a careful watch on the government,” according to the Uganda Journal volume 25 of March 1961.

However, the first official call for the creation of a LEGCO in Uganda came in form of a letter from the Uganda Chamber of Commerce to the chief secretary on July18, 1919. The letter headed ‘Taxation and representation’, stated that it was time for the trading community to have a voice in the government of the country and more especially in the areas of revenue and expenditure.

The governor at the time, Sir Robert Coryndon, took the advice of the Chief Justice, Sir William Morris Carter, to institute a legislative council before pressure was brought to bear.

It was on Wednesday, March 23, 1921, when the LEGCO’s first sitting was held in Entebbe. The first sitting had few members, all Europeans, chaired by the governor as president of the council.

Others were the chief secretary, attorney general, treasurer and the principal medical officer. The other two nominated non-officials were H. H. Hunter, a lawyer in Kampala, and the manager of East African Company H. E. Levis.

The Asian slot of the unofficial members was vacant as the Asian community in Uganda at the time wanted equal representation as the Europeans. At that time, according to T. W.
Gee’s article Uganda’s Legislative Council between the Wars, “By 1921 the Asian population in Uganda was 5,000 while the Europeans were 1,000.”

The governor decided to temporarily fill the post by appointing Maj A. L. Ranton, a resident in Kenya, only because he had plantations in Mityana.

The Indian associations in Kampala, Mbale, Jinja and the East African Indian National Congress in Mombasa wrote to the secretary of colonies in London complaining about their exclusion from the LEGCO. It was not until 1926 when the first Indian sat in the LEGCO. It took another nine years in 1933 when another Indian joined.

The Buganda government was left out of the LEGCO. In a letter written on March 21, 1921, by Kabaka Daudi Chwa, the kingdom expressed its concern over how far the powers of the council will stretch in regards to Buganda and its interests. Other signatories to Buganda Kingdom included Apollo Kaggwa, and the Mugema Tofiro K. signing on behalf of the Muwanika.

It was after 25 years from the first sitting of the LEGCO when on December 4, 1945, the first African members were admitted. They were Michael Ernest Kawalya Kaggwa, the Katikkiro of Buganda, Petero Nyangabyaki, the Katikkiro of Bunyoro, and Yekonia Zirabamuzale, the secretary general of Busoga.

Substantially increased
In the mid-1950s, the number of seats for Africans was substantially increased in that by 1954, 50 per cent of the membership was African.
Although the LEGCO operated as a parliament of some sort, important matters to do with Uganda remained in the hands of Her Majesty’s government back in London.

For example, when he appointed the constitutional committee, the colonial governor made it clear that “the size and composition of LEGCO and also possible size of the government....are matters on which a very special responsibility lies directly with Her Majesty’s government and cannot be settled here in Uganda”.

LEGCO was the first national legislature in Uganda. By all accounts it was a parliament of some sort but with no real powers of government since such powers were in the hands of Her Majesty’s government in London. This meant that it was a special club with no real importance for a very long time.

Sarah Nyendwoha Ntiro’s influence

At home, she started the Teaching Service Commission in 1965 before it became the Education Service Commission, taught at Gayaza High School, and was one of two women on the Uganda Legislative Council.

In these positions she exerted her influence to standardise education practices, and passed on her faith in the validity of girl’s education to her students at Gayaza High School.

Even exiled to Nairobi in 1978, she did not stop her advocacy for education, establishing an Education Consultancy of Higher Education for African Refugees. Family planning, associations of university women, alliances of young Christian women, name it and if it has anything to do with education or women’s issues, or a combination of both, she probably initiated it or was the motivation for it.

For instance, there is now a Sarah Ntiro Girl’s Vocational Secondary School in Hoima, a government-aided effort to instill in other girls some of the spirit that got her to the place where the Foundation of Activists for Women’s Education in Uganda (FAWEU) saw fit to bestow upon her a Woman of Distinction Award for using her achievement and status to promote girl’s education.

She shares the distinction with other movers and shakers like Lady Sylvia Nagginda, Justice Julia Sebutinde, Ms Rebecca Kadaga, Dr Speciosa Wandera Kazibwe, and Ms Angelina Wapakhabulo. FAWEU later felt that even with company of such pedigree, her efforts deserved more personal appreciation.

Thus the Dr (courtesy of a honorary doctorate from Spellman College in Atlanta, Georgia) Sarah Ntiro Lecture and Award Event was first held on December 12, 2000, at the Kampala International Conference Centre.