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Namirembe Bitamazire reminisces about golden years of public service

Namirembe Bitamazire

Namirembe Bitamazire

GERALDINE NAMIREMBE BITAMAZIRE, 83, has served in all categories of the education sector before official retirement in 2011.

She is a professional teacher, former head teacher, and Woman MP for Mpigi, senior education officer, deputy chairperson of the Teaching Service Commission, and longest-serving minister of Education and Sports.

She served as state education minister from 1979 to 1980 and 1998 to 2004, and later full minister from 2005 to 2011. After more than 50 years of shaping the education sector, Bitamazire, a senior presidential advisor on education, reflected on her life with a profound sense of accomplishment, writes Yudaya Nangonzi.

She has diligently served the education sector and her name is not alien to Ugandans. We got positive clues when we made stopovers in Kiwafu-Kansanga for proper directions to her home. One boda boda rider was precise.

“When you take a right turn near a transformer, move upwards and make another right turn inside. You will find a gate opposite another heavily guarded one with uniformed police officers.”

As we approached Bitamazire’s modest home, nestled in a quiet upscale gated suburb, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of eagerness to meet an educationist whose work profoundly impacted the education sector. Bitamazire welcomed us with a warm smile, her eyes twinkling with wisdom and experience that only decades of public service can bestow. The lush green compound and blooming flowers were a joy to watch.

“I have lived in this house for more than 40 years. I have no security officers and being a teacher, my home is open to any good-hearted person,” Bitamazire said, as she walked us to her living room.

“While serving as a minister, I didn’t like security officers but was coerced to have one. Still, my officers were usually plain-clothed because I didn’t want to scare people.”

After exchanging pleasantries, Bitamazire, armed with a diary, visitor’s book, and eyeglasses, asked for a brief about the interview. She also politely notified me that there would be health breaks – given her age and health.

HAPPILY RETIRED

With a serene smile on her wrinkled glowing face, Bitamazire, clad in a white Kitenge and black sandals massaging her feet, said she was beautifully enjoying her retirement period. Before I asked to be pardoned, she made a quick apology.

“If you can’t hear me, feel free and ask me to repeat. I have a problem with my audibility. I have had this problem for about 10 years. I have been a cancer survivor for 12 years now and this affected my voice,” She said.

“I always fear to talk with people for fear of being judged. I used to be a vibrant woman and speak on every forum but after my treatment, I have since failed to restore my once strong voice. I thank God for my miraculous recovery.”

She may be slow in speech but her words were clear as the interview progressed. Bitamazire’s last major public appearances were during her time as the second chancellor of Uganda Management Institute (UMI) – a position she held for four years. Whereas her appointment by the president was criticized in 2013, Bitamazire was only grateful to serve a “mighty institution.”

With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, her movements were curtailed to date. Nevertheless, she doesn’t go past three days without receiving visitors or phone calls – mainly from connections she made while in active service. She has since introduced a visitor’s book “for me to keep in touch with people when I feel lonely.”

Bitamazire insisted that she’s a happily retired person – and not complaining – going by the frequent interactions with people of various age groups including her children who contact her regularly and grandchildren.

PASSION FOR EDUCATION

She may have retired from public service but her dedication and passion to education remains as lively as ever. Her illustrious career has spanned more than five decades.

Bitamazire’s journey began in the deepest village of Butambala where education was not just a privilege but a rare opportunity for the girl-child. Thanks to her parents who valued learning despite limited means, Bitamazire developed an insatiable curiosity and love for education.

“I have the education sector at heart because my parents could not afford much, but they ensured that I studied at the best schools and attained university education. To date, I read a lot because I got a solid foundation for what has become a remarkable career,” she said, pointing at her library filled with books and newspapers.

Currently, she mainly reads people’s biographies and autobiographies – with the hope that she will be inspired to write hers in the future. Some of the Ugandan authors that she has enjoyed recently are; Rhoda Kalema, Dr Sulaiman Kiggundu, Prof Austin Bukenya, and Irene Kauma.  

Bitamazire’s career trajectory took her from a classroom teacher to various administrative roles, and eventually to the highest echelons of the education ministry. During her tenure, she spearheaded several initiatives. When she was appointed state minister of Education. In 1999, she vigorously pushed the recently introduced the Universal Primary Education (UPE which earned her the title; Maama UPE.

This followed her passion for enrolling young children in schools and later supervised the Universal Secondary Education in 2007.

“I hear many people still referring to me as Maama UPE and I feel humbled. I traversed every corner of the country encouraging parents to send children to school. I dedicated my teaching career to this program and I believe that I left an indelible mark on both UPE and USE,” she said, emphasizing that the two programs opened doors for children who otherwise might have been overlooked due to their socio-economic backgrounds.

Whereas Bitamazire excelled in attracting more learners to UPE, the program still faces an uphill task in quality 27 years later. She maintained that UPE and USE are still in the right direction with room for improvement.

“I know UPE graduates who are running serious government projects. Isn’t this good progress?” she asked.
“However, UPE structures are still lacking in some parts of the country due to underfunding. I want to live long so that I see whether free universal education shall even be better when the oil money comes as promised by the president.”

What they say about Namirembe Bitamazire

Prof Patrick Kyamanywa – first born and Vice chancellor of Uganda Martyrs University Nkozi

We are fortunate to have her and of sound mind.  She has raised the bar so high for us to work towards not putting her name into disrepute.

Surprisingly, none of her children was named Bitamazire; each one of us has worked for their name and people discovered later that we are her children. So, people know us for who we are not our parents because we hardly front her or our late father. With more time at home now, she’s an ardent reader who will comb a book in less than three days and give you a summary.

I rely on her most time for my news briefs because she reads all newspapers between 8:30am and 11am. If there’s any story about me, she will call immediately to update me. For the bible, she has read it more than ten times back-to-back. This has kept her alert and informed.

Clare Regina Kabonesa – daughter and personal assistant to Bitamazire

For a woman of her caliber, it’s humbling to have her as a mother. The lenses through which other people see her are a notch higher but for us, she is just mum. A few times, we call her honorable but she remains the best mother that you could ever find.

While growing up, having maids was the thing but not for us; everyone did something to keep the home tidy including preparing meals. At 83, mum still believes in waking up to something. She has no maid at home but cleans the compound, does her laundry, fixes herself a meal, and I believe this has kept her alert most of the time.

Dr Yusuf Nsubuga – senior education consultant and former director of Basic and Secondary Education at the ministry

I worked with her for about 10 years. I am impressed that she is still mentally alert because she is extremely professional at work. Besides being a political head of the sector, she was highly knowledgeable about technical matters in education.

She diligently juggled both roles – thanks to her versatility. Despite her age, she was an ardent reader. I used to work over the weekend but you would still find her in the office all day.

She mentored most of us at the ministry and her approach was collegial. One time, I traveled in her car but she would not allow her driver to go past other vehicles in case of traffic jam. I was humbled by that simplicity which you can’t find with most VIPs. She was not greedy, corrupt-free, and doing just her work at the ministry. For those with shoddy work, she didn’t tolerate mediocrity.

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