Joyce Mpanga: It was by luck that I made it to Makerere

“Although there are a number of things today that don’t look like the Makerere I was in. The Makerere that I entered was extremely beautiful. We had beautiful lawns and there were very few but very beautiful buildings.”

At first, Joyce Mpanga wanted to become a nurse. But the dream never came to fruition as she was still young to get admitted, she had to stay at Gayaza High School and was automatically admitted to Makerere College in 1953, after passing Cambridge School Certificate that learners took after completing junior high school, equivalent to today’s O’level. 

Hon. Joyce Mpanga

Mpanga graduated first in 1957 with a Bachelor of Arts. She spent another year at Makerere doing a post-graduate diploma in Education which she obtained in 1958. She was hired as a part-time teacher in Makerere College and later faculty of education. 

A politician, women rights crusader and educationist in the past six decades, Joyce Mpanga is one of Makerere’s illustrious female alumni. As the university celebrates its centenary anniversary, it’s shining a light on alumni of her calibre. She is a woman of many firsts, including being the first female lecturer in the faculty of education at Makerere University and Gayaza High School’s first African deputy headmistress.  

Now in retirement and more than six decades after graduation, Mpanga recounted her times at Makerere in a recent interview. Makerere, she says, was a beautiful place. “I entered Makerere in 1953 and I graduated in 1958. I first graduated in 1957 with a Bachelor of Arts but then I did one other year of postgraduate diploma in education,” she says. Makerere College was at the time affiliated to the University of London, hence, the degree she received was from University of London. 

In the interview, she gives nuanced tells of her time at the hill: being the only female in her Bachelor of Arts class as well as a number of university and national events that took place during that epoch of her life. Mpanga was admitted eight years after Makerere opened doors to female students. In the interview, she also talks about how she earned a job at Makerere as a lecturer.

Mpanga who had joined Gayaza High School in 1947 from Ndejje High with another girl. At Gayaza for junior one to junior three. After completing Junior three and passing continuation exams which learners sat at the time, she went for interviews at Mengo Nursing School in 1949. Other girls who she had applied with were admitted and started nursing training because they were strong enough to carry patients. Mpanga was at the time 15 years old. “They told me that if I like nursing, I can go back and come back later,” she says. She wondered what to do. The other option was King’s College Budo which had started admitting girls in 1934 yet she never wanted to go to Budo. “My father wanted to take me to King’s College Buddo but I didn’t want to leave Gayaza,” she says. 

Entry to Makerere 

At the time, she was joining what we now know as secondary level. As her parents were pondering on what do, Gayaza decided to start senior secondary level which had to run for four years which she completed in 1952 after passing Cambridge School Certificate. At first, Miss Cox who was the headmistress of  Gayza didn’t know whether the students were good enough for Cambridge School Certificate. The headmistress took them to a girls’ only school in Kenya to compare standards which she found that her students were good. Miss Cox became confident thus deciding to present them to Makerere the exams which they passed.

When results were released, Ms Cox was confident that Mpanga and another girl would be admitted to Makerere. Indeed, they were admitted after submitting their certificates to Makerere.

“I remember when my father visited the school, Miss Cox told him that they were going to try and see if Makerere could take me,” Mpanga says. Makerere accepted to admit her together with another girl from Gayaza and one from Trinity College Nabbingo. 

“The headmistress sent a teacher to come to my home and inform us that I had been given a place at Makerere. Everybody was excited. The school was excited. My parents were very excited and so was I,” she says. 

At Makerere, entrants first did what is now known as two years of Advanced Level (A level) and then studied a degree or a diploma. Degrees were both for sciences and arts. And the diplomas were for education, agriculture and veterinary. In the second year of A Level, students who were to join the degree, London intermediate exams set by University of London while for the diploma, exams were set by Makerere College.

To sit University of London intermediate exams, a student must have passed  English at O-level, Mpanga says. “Being admitted for the intermediate exam meant that I had passed with a good credit in English,” she says. 

In the first year of A Level,  the three girls Mpanga entered Makerere with–one from Gayaza, another from Trinity College Nabbingo and a third one from Kenya–were told that they weren’t going to present them for the University of London intermediate exam. Instead, they were going to take the Makerere higher Arts and go into diploma courses. “They went into education for two years and came out with a diploma in education and that too was quite high for anybody at that time,” she says.

Mpanga sat University of London intermediate exams which she passed and enrolled for Bachelor of Arts. Makerere was then a college that awarded University of London degrees. For the degree, she studied English, history and sociology. 

Life as a student

With three other female students she joined with going for diploma, Mpanga became the only woman in the degree intermediate class. And it was the first time she was studying with males. But during the two years of intermediate for degree entry, everybody was telling her to opt for diploma arguing that she wasn’t going to pass. Male students were telling Mpanga that intermediate was going to be very difficult for her. They were also telling her it had even been difficult for  male students.

Hon. Joyce Mpanga

“The intermediate one was the first time I studied with men and of course the men who were discouraging us. All the time they would say that you are a girl and you can’t make it. They would just be surprised to see that you’ve made it,” she says. In the degree class, Mpanga says, “I was used to studying with boys. They used to tease me and I would tease them back.”

Mpanga contemporaries at Makerere included, Prof. Namboze Josephine, the first female student to graduate with a medical degree from Makerere University. She was also the first female medical doctor in Eastern Africa. “She was very hard working as I remember,” Mpanga says. 

Nambooze’s time at Makerere: 

At the time she joined, the University Guest House was the girl’s dormitory. There were only 13 girls in the university. They later moved to Mary Stuart Hall, whose construction started in 1947. When Mpanga left Makerere in 1958, there were about 50 female students. Male and female students were treated equally, Mpanga says, except that boys were allowed to get into their halls by midnight, girls had to be in their dormitory by 10:30PM. 

The famous undergraduate red gown was in use during the 1950s. It was mandatory for students to don the gown whenever they went out of their halls at night or wherever they went out of campus. Makerere students were very highly respected, Mpanga says. But they also respected themselves. “We had our own self-respect, I am a Makerere student. I can’t do this.  Like I see sometimes students moving from Wandegeya, eating maize on the way, how could a Makerere student eat while walking on the street? That was below us,” she says. 

Into University politics 

Mpanga was always interested in politics. There was a guild which was made up of representatives from halls of residences. Each hall had to send three or four representatives to the guild. “Since I was interested in politics from the beginning, I used to be one of the people who represented Mary Stuart in the guild,” she says. Students campaigned for leadership positions but she says they did not involve outside political parties as it is today. 

But as it is today, students took keen interest in national politics by following activities of political parties such as Democratic Party and Uganda National Congress (UNC), the first political party in Uganda formed in 1952. Political parties used to hold meetings where the old bus park is now, Mpanga says.  “There was a tree which they called omuti gwe dembe. Politicians from different political parties used to hold mass meetings there. And I remember we used to run and go and listen to them,” she says.

Unlike today when a semester can’t elapse without students’ demonstrations, there were no strikes at Makerere during Mpanga’s time.  The last strike had taken place in 1949. And that’s when Abu Mayanja was expelled from  Makerere for leading the strike over food. However, Mpanga says there were tense moments such as the deportation of the kabaka Mutesa II in 1953 that nearly led to a demonstration.

 On the day the Kabaka was exiled, she says, students were gated in their dormitories to ensure that they don’t move out. But male students forcefully moved out and went outside near the female students’ hall, calling ‘Abana ba BUganda, come out.’ The girls too moved out. They moved to the arts building lower lecture theatre and started shouting out what they were going to do. “We decided on a number of things. One was that we shall never stand up when they’re singing God, save the Queen,” she remembers. 

The Queen of England together with the duke of Edinburgh visited Uganda in 1954. As part of the trip, they were supposed to visit Makerere, open the Arts building and plant two trees in the Arts Building quadrangle. It was the reason why the Arts building was christened the Queen’s Court. The Queen’s Makerere visit never took place. Instead students were selected to go to Entebbe and meet the Queen and her entourage.  It’s the students who got the trees, brought them to Makerere and planted them on behalf of the Queen and the Duke. 

Loyalty to Buganda kingdom mattered for students like Mpanga, hence snubbing the opportunity to go to Entebbe and meet the Queen. “I was not one of the students who went to meet them. I can say that I was fairly political and politics outside concerned me. My kingdom Buganda had refused the Queen,” she says. 

Graduation, return to Makerere

Mpanga graduated in 1958 with a Bachelor of Arts and a diploma in Education. “And I remember one, one newspaper put in with  ‘a double smile for a double entry’ because I got my diploma for education,” she says. Mpanga completed the degree in 1957. It took a year between students completing the degree course and when they graduated because their results had to be verified and approved by London University. She spent the would be year of waiting studying the postgraduate diploma. Her graduation brought excitement in her family and village. 

Hon. Joyce Mpanga

“My family was very excited. In fact, I had a death in the family. One of my brothers died. If that didn’t happen, I don’t know what I would have done with all my relatives, because the whole village was saying, ‘we are going to hire a car and see how our daughter is being crowned.’ Many did not come,” she says referring to the graduation day. 

However, her mother and about ten other relatives attended the graduation. Each graduand would be given two invitation cards but Mpanga says she secured more cards from Tanzanian and Kenyan students whose parents were not coming for graduation. 

Mpanga had  got a first-class diploma in education. And she was quickly earmarked to start teaching immediately after graduation. “They gave me a part-time lecture. I was actually a teacher in Makerere College School, but I also taught students who were in the faculty of education,” she says. “It was sort of saying, don’t go very far. We want you to get a second degree and be able to be appointed as a lecturer.” 

It had been the same policy with other bright students such as Kenya’s former President Mwai Kibaki who was appointed part lecturer after graduation. Mpanga taught for one and half years and then went to do a masters degree in education at University of Indiana Bloomington campus in America. When she returned from America, there was no place in the faculty at that time. But Mpanga wasn’t short of offers because Gayaza wanted her as the first African deputy headmistress.

Mpanga took Gayaza high school offer but then after a short time Makerere advertised a temporary job in the faculty of education and the subject was exactly  like she had done. This was 1964. She applied for it. Before sitting interviews, she had to get recommendations from the faculty. First, she went to professor Tom Watson who had taught her, and who had advertised the temporary job. The professor told her  that the job had been advertised for a very experienced European woman. He told Mpanga that “you are already in  a very good first class school as deputy headmistress.”

She went to another professor called Lucas requesting a recommendation. Professor Lucas had been Mpanga’s personal tutor when she was in faculty education. He gladly accepted to give her a recommendation, saying, “if we haven’t produced anybody who can lecture with us, what have we done?”

Mpanga sat the interviews together with other three applicants. She passed and was given the job. “I think I can say I was the first African woman as the lecturer. They were African men who were lecturers. But I don’t remember any woman who was a lecturer at that time. I started as a lecturer in 1964.”

She adds; “I felt proud. I won’t hide that. I felt proud because how many African lecturers were there?” Prof. Yusuf Lule, Makerere’s first black principal, was excited to have the first African female lecturer and didn’t want to let Mpanga go.  When her 18 month contract expired, it was extended. 

Mpanga stopped teaching in 1967 and went to Britain to stay with her husband who couldn’t return to Uganda following 1966 crisis in which prime minister Milton Obote abolished Buganda kingdom. Her husband was the kingdom’s attorney general in the 1966 crisis.

Final reflections

“I am very proud of Makerere,” she says, adding, “although there are a number of things today that don’t look like the Makerere I was in. The Makerere that I entered was extremely beautiful. We had beautiful lawns and there were very few but very beautiful buildings.”

As Makerere turns a century old and starts its next century journey, Mpanga says, “Makerere should keep that name as beautiful and as dignified as we used to have it.”

“We used to be very dignified and you always felt proud to come to Makerere. And of course, even those who are there now should be proud that they’ve made it.”


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