Remembering the famed Ugandan mathematician who was killed under Idi Amin while pregnant

Mildred Europa Taylor Jan 17, 2020 at 03:00pm

January 17, 2020 at 03:00 pm | History

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

January 17, 2020 at 03:00 pm | History

Theresa Nanziri Bukenya. Photo: UG Pulse

It’s been over three decades since the regime of Uganda’s Idi Amin collapsed at the hands of Tanzanian Defense Forces.

Yet, many Ugandans still wake up disturbed and haunted by memories of his dictatorial rule.

The family of Theresa Nanziri Bukenya is one of them. Bukenya, a Ugandan mathematician and warden of the women’s-only hall of residence, Africa Hall, at Makerere University was killed by Amin’s regime for refusing to conspire with it in the killing of a student and the disappearance of another.

On the evening of June 22, 1976, Bukenya’s body was found with bullet wounds on the neck at the banks of a river. She was 37, had just married and was seven months pregnant.

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Bukenya was 37 and just married to Achilles Bukenya, who now lives in South Africa. Photo: UG Pulse

She would join a tall list of others who had suffered cold death at the hands of the Amin regime.

Many believed she was targeted by the regime as the brilliant mathematician was not only an inspiration to women and girls but had been a symbol of bravery against the state.

Several hundred thousand people are believed to have been killed during the 8-year regime of Amin, who has since been renowned for the wrong reasons.

After seizing power from the then president of Uganda Milton Obote in 1971, his dictatorial style of leadership made many see him as a monster.

He had come to power with good intentions for his people but as time went on, he became power-drunk and started abusing people, historians say.

Bukenya was at Makerere University during this period and had introduced many policies aimed at providing a conducive environment for female students to study.

“In a show of love to the girls and their education, she introduced security lights around Africa Hall and on the steps. She also provided hot water for the girls to bathe in,” Dr. Maria Musoke, the chief librarian at the university recalled in 2007.

It is said that her security lights were to keep government soldiers from “preying on female students.”

To promote girl-child education, especially in mathematics, she once accepted a post at a remote area.

“Nanziri [Bukenya] was a staunch catholic, very courageous, strong-hearted and straight forward. She was a very good mathematician- in fact, one of the best teachers of that subject I met in my study days back in the sixties,” Rosemary Musisi Kobere, a warden at Makerere University, recalled.

Later happenings at the University would cause Bukenya’s death. It all started on March 5, 1976, when a student at the University, Paul Serwanga, was shot dead by an army captain who was interested in his (Serwanga’s) girlfriend.

The killing led to a massive protest on the streets of Kampala, where about 4000 students and 3000 city residents demanded the overthrow of Amin.

A week later, Esther Chesire, a Kenyan student at Makerere University believed to be the girlfriend of the murdered Serwanga, was picked up by Amin’s security forces as she waited to board a flight at Uganda’s Entebbe International Airport to Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.

Chesire was never seen again, and many, to date, believe she was murdered because she had probably witnessed the killing of her boyfriend or had been behind the protest that followed his death.

Believed to be a relative of Kenya’s then vice president and later president, Daniel Arap Moi, Chesire’s disappearance caused tension between Kenya and Uganda.

This compelled the Amin government to set up an inquest to investigate her disappearance and possible killing. At the same time, officials of the regime were trying to shield the matter by insisting that Chesire never reported back for studies at the University at the beginning of the term, reports UG Pulse.

These officials were trying to force Bukenya to say the same when she appears before the commission but she called their bluff, saying that she would only tell the truth.

The truth was that Chesire had reported at the beginning of the term and even signed into her hall’s registration book.

But saying this meant Amin’s regime would be held on possible charges on crime against humanity and since it would have none of that, agents from the regime allegedly picked up Bukenya a day before she was to appear before the commission.

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Theresa Nanziri Bukenya. Photo: UG Pulse

The 37-year-old was murdered at the banks of River Ssezibwa, sending grief across the whole nation, especially female students of the Makerere University when the news broke.

“The university was so cold. Gloom hovered all over us and most of us girls felt really orphaned that day. It was a horrible scene seeing two bodies-Nanziri’s and her babies’ lying in the main hall,” Musoke who was a first-year student then, recalled.

“I traveled to Masaka (now Rakai) in Kalisizo to burry Nanziri. There was agonizing pain about Nanziri’s death- to her relatives and to all Ugandans and especially women. She was part of the new generation of educated women who as well supported fellow women to achieve in that area,” Rosemary Musisi Kobere added.

“Ms Bukenya was a woman of remarkable courage. Indeed what happened to her is one of the reasons why there will be no tears from me on the death of Uganda’s genocidal tyrant: Idi Amin Dada. He who once bragged about fearing “nobody except God” finally went to meet his maker,” writes George B. Seremba, the author of the award-winning play, Come Good Rain, and a PhD student at the Samuel Beckett Centre, TCD.

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