First Person: Sarah Ntiro

Sarah Ntiro had to learn Latin from a Catholic priest before she was accepted at Oxford

My parents were quite unlike other parents, who were always saying I should get out of school and get married. They were both teachers here in Hoima in western Uganda. They only had two children, my brother and me, and they always encouraged our studies.

I am 86 now, and I’m sorry to say that levels of illiteracy in my country are still shocking. But in 1945, what was then Makerere College, in Kampala, began accepting girls, and I was one of the first six to attend. 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.

My school advised me to apply to Oxford university, so I went and discussed it with the British Council in Kampala, who helped people applying to universities in the UK. They told me that I would need at least two languages and asked me what I spoke besides English. “Runyoro-Rutooro,” I replied proudly. “What’s that?” they said. “It’s the language of the Bunyoro Kingdom.” They’d never heard of it. They hadn’t heard of Luganda either, so they advised me that I’d better start learning a second language, fast.

I decided to begin with Latin. In Uganda, the only people who knew Latin well were the Roman Catholics. In town the Protestants lived on one hill, the Muslims on another and the Catholics on another – it’s much the same today. I’m Protestant, but I boldly went to a Catholic church, and told the priest my problems. He agreed to teach me, and I passed my exams.

In 1951, I started a history degree at St Anne’s College, Oxford. People often expect that this move would have been dramatic for me, but it wasn’t. I had been brought up in a boarding school, with people of all classes and backgrounds, and I was used to seeing Europeans. Everything was new, but it wasn’t a shock.

I chose to study areas that I felt had some bearing on my life at home. So I studied England’s agricultural revolution, because I came from an agricultural area. I wanted to learn about the French revolution, because I was so proud of coming from Bunyoro Kingdom, and I wanted to know why anyone would be mad enough to overthrow their king. I was interested in English settlers in America, too – what inspired these people to make that journey across the Atlantic?

Of course, another new thing I learnt was how to ride a bicycle – everyone rode bicycles. At the weekends my friends and I loved cycling around visiting churches in Oxfordshire. They were so interesting.

When I graduated in June 1954, this made me Uganda’s first female graduate. I returned home by boat so that I could take my bicycle with me. My father was so pleased when he saw it. We went to visit our relatives, with me on my bike, and in Hoima there was a festival for about a week.

I began teaching at Gayaza School, Uganda’s oldest girls’ secondary school, and then in 1958 I was appointed to Uganda’s legislative council, as parliament was known then. I introduced a private members’ bill on pay equality between men and women. I’d still like every woman to know that you can fight any battle, if it’s worth listening to.

Somebody once pointed out that many of my friends were heads of institutions, and I replied, “You know what they don’t have? They’ve never had babies. They don’t know what it’s like to hold a little human being, who but for you wouldn’t be there. They have their Mercedes, I have my son.”

I am still very interested in education, however, especially if this can help women to be self-confident. Many girls here still think that a girl shouldn’t say no to anybody.

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