As a Primary Three Pupil at St. Clement Primary School, Ntusi in Sembablule District, Betty Kivumbi Nannyonga survived being another child broken by bullying. Her classmates laughed at her and made fun of the way she spoke English. “I had problems with pronouncing some words and people laughed at me,” she recalls.
Her late father hoped school would help with her speech in vain. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, she sought solace in mathematics. She talked less and fell in love with numbers.
“I realised with maths I did not have to say anything or read a lot, I kept quiet and focused. All you had to do was grasp a concept, I realised you did not have to speak to do maths,” says Kivumbi who now speaks effortlessly.
Kivumbi is now on course to become the first female associate professor of mathematics in the country and is a senior lecturer in the Department of Mathematics at Makerere University. She credits mathematics for the transformative power it has had on her life and has committed herself to imparting its beauty to all children, especially young girls. She wants to be remembered for changing people’s attitude towards maths.
Kivumbi was the only female PhD student to graduate from the mathematical network East African Universities Mathematics Programme (EAUMP) between 2008 and 2013.
Kivumbi went through St. Clement Primary School in Ntusi, Blessed Sacrament School Kimanya Masaka, Christ the king SSS Kalisiszo before doing her A-Level at Trinity College Nabbingo. At Makerere University, she graduated with a Bachelor of Science-Maths and Physics. In June 1995, she enrolled for a Masters of Science in Mathematics.
In 2008, she started a PhD in maths at both Makerere University and Uppsala University in Sweden. She defended her Licentiate degree from Uppsala in May 2011 before defending her PhD later in November. After graduation in 2012, she got an offer for a post doctorate degree in Biomathematics from the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in South Africa. She got another post doctorate degree at the University of Cambridge in UK in mathematics education. She also added a post doctorate qualification in Mathematical Bioeconomics in Uppsala University in Sweden, and another post doctorate in Biostatistics at Linkoping Sweden.
Kivumbi is a researcher in applied mathematics, specifically the use of mathematical models to explain aspects of complex biological systems. More specifically, her focus is on the modelling of infectious diseases and development. She has done research on malaria, HIV, hepatitis E, sleeping sickness, helminthiasis, coffee wilt disease, banana xanthomonas wilt, nodding disease syndrome, and fistula, among others. She also designed a model that can be used to end student strikes in universities. Kivumbi has seen her students embrace maths and its applications in real life, working on alcohol abuse, corruption, and models assisting companies to decide whether to fire and hire or retain and train.
More recently, Kivumbi designed the Covid-19 working model with the Ministry of Health, Makerere University School of Public Health and the World Health Organisation. Kivumbi says mathematics can explain how the world works and make it better.
“Mathematics is capable of saving lives, assisting in policy and decision-making, and optimising economic growth,” she says. It can also be applied to help understand the universe and the conditions needed to sustain life. She identifies mathematics as the queen of science, an art and law because of its reason and logic, and an application everywhere. I long for a time to come when everybody is taking on mathematics and applying it,” she says. She gets intrigued by how people are yet to figure how vital mathematics is in our daily lives.
“It would be good one day to have a centre for interdisciplinary mathematics to serve as a focus for interdisciplinary studies by faculty, graduate and undergraduate students in Ugandan higher institutions of learning. This will showcase mathematical applications as solutions to real life issues and foster scientific interaction and collaborations between mathematicians and other scientific and technical institutes. It will also widen the use and appreciation of maths as an effective research tool among a variety of disciplines,” she says.
The maths wizard is still unhappy by the small number doing mathematics and is looking for ways to bring more girls in.
“In the classes we teach, you can have 400 students of which only about 40 are girls. By the second year, you will have even less than 10, so I wondered how to get the number up,” she says. Her mission to get more women into mathematics has seen her found two organisations she chairs, Uganda Women in Mathematics and the Eastern Africa Network for Women in Basic Sciences. She uses her platform to teach girls how maths is applied in day to day life, the opportunities in maths and what can be achieved from maths. There has been some progress since she started in 2013 but the journey remains long.
“We have tried but we still have a lot to do. We have had some impact,” says the educationist. Districts like Kalangala and Mayuge have been some of the beneficiaries of her drive. Using her networks, she organised the first RUN4MATH marathon in 2018, the first MATHCAMP in Uganda in 2020. She has organised conferences, workshops and seminars interacting with young girls in sciences, and advocates for equal access and success in the mathematics learning environment. Currently, the network is organizing the first E-MATHCAMP in Uganda, to celebrate Pi-Day - the International Day of Mathematics that falls on every 14th of March each year.
Outreach activities such as the maths marathons, maths camps generate funds before they are allocated to schools in chosen districts. Her trips to Mayuge and Kalangala have brought her face to face with girls in need of inspiration and empowerment. Many are either lacking scholastic materials or can’t even afford the little demands of Universal Primary Education (UPE). Limited funds mean only a few can be supported but there is more to the funds.
“These girls have to be empowered to use all the resources around them to become something. You can join education later in life,” she says. They have to understand where they are coming from. Why they are there. Be empowered to look at the positives in life and how to build from that. We teach them that when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade,” she says. The don says many girls lose interest in school and even drop out because they lack motivation and view their life as hopeless.
“You can find a girl with no motivation at all, she cannot even afford UPE and the parents are not even interested. It is why we also have sessions with parents too and talk them out of marrying off those girls young and implore them to give them a chance in life,” she says.
Including both parents and teachers helps create a conducive atmosphere for the girls to flourish. It helps that Kivumbi’s team has women who had harsh experiences as children and are ready to share their stories of overcoming their challenges to live successful lives. Such stories not only give young girls motivation and hope but they also provide well-wishers and role models for them. She also started an initiative that targets good students from underprivileged backgrounds. Kivumbi is happy with the initiative’s impact so far giving an example of Kalangala where two girls from the programme got distinctions in O-Level math.
“We have more girls doing bachelors of Science or Bachelors of Science in Education majoring in maths. Initially, we had a lot of girls in Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Science in Education and they would major in different subjects, not maths or physics,” she recalls. More girls are taking on physics and maths with master’s degrees being attained.
“Grants from different platforms have enabled girls to complete their masters’ programmes in different countries. Kivumbi who describes herself as motivated teacher, supervisor, and mentor with an eagerness to serve, hopes her passion and achievement will pave the way for the next generation. She mentors on the MasterCard Foundation at Makerere University, and is among the charter members of Lions Club Makerere, improving communities around the university.
She is quick to add that her life is not confined to maths only.
“Growing up on a farm in a family of 14, equipped me with farming skills. We took part in everything because our father was a hands-on person. He used to supply different schools with food which meant we did everything along with the workers,” says the happy mother of three.
Since graduation with a PhD in 2012, Kivumbi has supervised more than 25 students at master’s and PhD level, published over 20 manuscripts in peer reviewed journals, and won 11 grants to mentor, promote the success and retention of women in basic sciences, specifically maths and physics.
Still, Kivumbi feels there is more to be done, to make maths a hands-on subject embraced by everyone, especially girls, since as mothers, they assist with their children’s homework.
Kivumbi explains that mathematical proficiency is crucial, and major changes need to be made in mathematics instruction, instructional materials, assessments, teacher education, and the broader educational system. It is important that everyone must work together to ensure a mathematically literate society.
Kivumbi appreciates the Presidential Initiative on Science and Technology and how it has enhanced the development of science and research in the country. She also hopes to see that the number of science teachers streamlined as scientists is admirable after all they are the foundation of sciences.
She applauds how women have been successfully empowered and is advocating for equity in maths and science as a commendable step towards fostering laboUr market inclusion for women. Kivumbi implores government to continue its commitment to promote women in science by ensuring their growth and recognition upon success.