Her rise to become a mentor and an inspiration to many girls and women came out of a rather unfortunate incident, which occurred while she was growing up.
Sarah Nyendwoha Ntiro had just excelled in Mathematics, then a male-dominated field from King’s College Budo in Uganda and had become one of the first six girls to be admitted to Makerere College (now Makerere University).
While most of her female colleagues were offered “non-core courses” that were thought to be suitable for women, she choose to study Mathematics. In a class of 32, she was the only woman.
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But the worst happened.
When she first reported to class, the male Maths lecturer asked her if she thought she was visiting a maternity ward and went ahead to advise her to go for female courses like knitting and tailoring.
But Ntiro ignored him and took her seat. Infuriated, the teacher walked out of the class, and issued an ultimatum: he would not teach while “she polluted his class with her presence.”
Eventually, Ntiro, out of consideration for her fellow classmates than the teacher, withdrew from the class and opted for History, Geography and English. Her qualifications upon graduation in 1950 took her to Kyebambe Girls School, where she taught the 1950-51 class, exerting her influence and creating opportunities, either directly or indirectly, for one of the first group of young girls to pursue higher education.
It is documented that while teaching, Ntiro also became a student of Latin, studying with clergymen based in Bunyoro-Kitara, before taking the proficiency test at Fort Portal’s Virika Mission. Her results got her admission to Oxford’s St. Anne’s College, England and she would return to Uganda in 1954, as the first woman in East and Central Africa to graduate from Oxford.
Though that is said to be her claim to fame, what she did after her graduation should also be given equal attention as it has provided for equal opportunities for men and women till date.
After her graduation from Oxford University with Bachelor’s in History in 1954, Ntiro became a teacher the following year at Cayaza High School and despite having the same qualifications as her male counterparts, the colonial government tried to pay her less than the male tutors.
Instead of accepting this gender-discrimination policy, Ntiro took a radical stance – she rejected the salary and decided to teach without pay. The wife of the then Governor, Anne Cohen, later intervened and Ntiro was allowed to receive a salary equal to that of her male colleagues, setting the stage for parity that has been enjoyed till now.
During that same period, Makerere College realised its first female graduate in Eunice Lubega Psonansky, and a change in the attitude of the university, thanks to Ntiro.
While at the education ministry, the academic icon started the Teaching Service Committee, which came to be known as the Education Service Commission, a body that has championed education in the country. Ntiro further worked in the office of the Vice-Chancellor, Makerere University between 1970 and 1978.
The academician was also instrumental in Ugandan politics, as she served as one of the first African women members of Uganda Legislative Council from 1958 to 1961.
“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,” writes Brian Magoba in 2012 in an article entitled Dr Sarah Nyendwoha Ntiro: The Story of a Ugandan Rosa Parks.
Due to the above achievements, Ntiro is recognized as a ‘Woman of Distinction’ by the Forum of African Women Educationalists Uganda. The accolade is given to outstanding women leaders, strategically positioned to promote girls’ education by their achievement and status, according to Ugandan media, New Vision.
There is also the “Dr (courtesy of an honorary doctorate from Spellman College in Atlanta, Georgia) Sarah Ntiro Lecture and Award” event held annually in honour of Women Achievers who, despite the obstacles, have become an inspiration to other women.
The champion of women’s rights and mother of two passed away on October 22, 2018, at the age of 92.
Her role in uplifting women of Uganda by breaking the barriers of unequal pay and creating the opportunity for them to pursue higher education would forever be remembered.