PROJECT SUCCESS: An ‘average girl’ headed for a PhD

DETERMINED: Ms Kiwanuka headed for the academic pinnacle. PHOTO BY ISAACKASAMANI

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With her PhD and masters programme having run back-to-back, Ms Kiwanuka says her children have paid some of the price for her academic pursuits – in spite of her best efforts to strike a balance between the two equally demanding aspects of her life.

In Part XIV of Project Success, we track down Monica Kiwanuka, Uganda’s fifth best in the 1993 UACE Arts exam, who is now pursuing a PhD at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. She tells her story.

Early yesterday morning, Monica Kiwanuka returned her daughter to school in Kampala. She had requested the school administration to allow her spend the weekend with her daughter, having returned home from the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa where she is pursuing a PHD.

Because of her busy schedule, Ms Kiwanuka offered less than one hour for an interview that took place at Kabira Country Club in Kampala before she travelled to western Uganda for her other engagements.

By tomorrow, she hopes to be back to Kampala and off again to South Africa later in the week.

With her PhD and masters programme having run back-to-back, Ms Kiwanuka says her children have paid some of the price for her academic pursuits – in spite of her best efforts to strike a balance between the two equally demanding aspects of her life.

“I am always a mother on the phone. I take time talking about what’s going on. Of course it would be nice to be home but you weigh what is more important,” Ms Kiwanuka said.

“I need to finish this PhD. I am sure I will be more beneficial to myself and to my country when I finish this and I can manage to take care of my children even when I am away.”

Relentless determination
That kind of dogged determination has come to define the life of a lady who emerged Uganda’s fifth best UACE arts student in 1993 from Trinity College, Nabbingo.

Ms Kiwanuka says she had not even qualified to join Nabbingo after their O-Level results came out, having scored 28 points in her best eight subjects. However, she went to the office of the headmistress at the time and pleaded with her for a place in the school.

“I went to Nabbingo to ask for a place myself. I had not passed very well. I was far away from what they wanted, but I told the headmistress, ‘Look, I will make a promise to you. I will be one of the students who will make you very proud in the end. Just give me the place,’” she said.

“I suggested, ‘Can I sign here and hang it up there and we wait for the time when we finish exams?.”
For some reason, the headmistress was convinced and offered Ms Kiwanuka – who studied her O-Level at Kihembo Hill Memorial College in Fort Portal – a place at Nabbingo.

“I knew my marks were bad but I decided to go to one of the good schools with the strategy that it would help me to pass. I really wanted to be at Nabbingo not because of how famous it was but because of the way the school was performing,” explained Ms Kiwanuka.

When the A-Level results were released, Ms Kiwanuka had come good on her promise with 23 points, having scored A in Luganda, A in Economics, A in Divinity and C in Literature in English.

But Ms Kiwanuka says that performance shocked even herself.

“I have never been among the best students but I was always among the best,” she explained. “My performance was average but my teachers always saw the potential in me to do better and everywhere they would say, ‘You can always do better. We have faith in you’.”

That faith eventually emboldened Ms Kiwanuka to strive for the best. By the time she sat for her senior six, Ms Kiwanuka says she had found her calling in life.

“I was motivated by my own self that I needed to pass because my aim was to do a job that would enable me make a contribution, even if it was one per cent, and I really wanted to be a social worker. It was my main motivation,” she said.

At Makerere University, Ms Kiwanuka did a Bachelor of Social Work and Social Administration, which she passed after three years with a second class lower degree.

Helping refugees
She graduated in January 1997 and sought do voluntary work for six months. Thereafter, she got a job with the Red Cross in Mbarara District as Community Services and Education Coordinator. While in Mbarara, she returned to school and earned a diploma in counselling and guidance.

“We were implementing programmes for humanitarian assistance for refugees in Nakivale, Orukinga and Kyaka refugee camps; about 40,000 refugees,” she said.

In November 2004, Ms Kiwanuka joined the International Medical Corps, where she was involved in gender based violence work at the same refugee camps in western Uganda.

Picking a niche
“I thought I needed to specialise and I was mainly overseeing implementation of the programme, assisting in designing training manuals, and participating in training of service providers,” she said.

Between May and July 2004, Ms Kiwanuka went for short, migration-related courses at the United Nations University in Tokyo, Japan and at Oxford University in the UK. It was while there that she made a professor from Wits University, who encouraged her to apply for a masters programme.

At the end of her one year contract in September 2005, Ms Kiwanuka joined the American Refugee Committee as Gender Based Violence and HIV Advisor. During her one year tenure, Ms Kiwanuka was based in Moyo District and sometimes in Southern Sudan. In late 2006, Ms Kiwanuka received a message that Wits University had secured for her sponsorship for the masters in the Forced Migration Studies programme that she had applied for in 2005.

“I didn’t even sleep that night. I was so happy,” she said. “I loved my job; I really liked to assist in the repatriation programme but I had to resign in January and then early February is when I went back to study. I specialised in urban migrant women and gender. I was looking at how migration impacts on domestic violence.”

Good performance
When she finished the one year programme, and buoyed by the merit award that Wits University awarded her for good performance, Ms Kiwanuka was encouraged by her family to aim higher. She applied for the PhD programme and received more funding from the University.

Currently, Ms Kiwanuka is in the first of her three-year PhD programme and says she hopes to return home “to be a proper mother.”

Asked if she has ever told her children of her feat at A-Level, Ms Kiwanuka says she prefers to lead by example.

“I have not always considered myself a top student because it does not mean much when you have nothing to show for it,” she said.

Patriotic goals
Ms Kiwanuka says her academic efforts will only mean much to her when she eventually makes a contribution in her area of expertise that she will be proud of.
“I would like, really, to do something with my PhD in my country if there is an opportunity for me to find where I will use my skills,” she said.

“I will teach a little. I have been trying to see if we can get the Forced Migration programme into the university and I hope to teach part-time. But I am more interested in research, consultancy, and policy advocacy.”

Best A -Level students, 1993/ Arts
Edward Katongole ..........St. John Bosco Seminary, Hoima

Barbara Bugayaza..... Trinity College, Nabbingo
Joseph Garuhanga....St. John Bosco Seminary
lHumphrey Rugambanengwe....Kigezi College,Butobere
lMonica Kiwanuka..........Trinity College, Nabbingo

Best A -Level students, 1993/Science

lMuggaga Kaggwa.... St. Mary’s College, Kisubi
lSamuel Balyejjusa.....St. Mary’s Colllege Kisubi
lAndrew Kataryeba.....St. Mary’s College, Kisubi
lAlex Twinomugisha....St. Mary’s College, Kisubi
lPaul Bwanika Mukasa....... Namilyango College