Little girl’s journey from Luzira village to academic pinnacle
When you first meet Sarah Namulondo, she appears shy or even timid, only reluctantly raising her bespectacled eyes; but given time you will discover a fascinatingly cheeky, funny, caring person.
In the opinion of a former university classmate, Sarah has this saintly, would-not-hurt-a-fly character and yet she is a rigorous scholar who would execute assignments with the ruthless precision of a stealth bomber aircraft.
On Saturday May 8, at the University of South Florida in America, Sarah Namulondo, one of the founders of The Observer, completed her latest assignment, reaching the pinnacle of academic achievement by graduating with a PhD in Literature.
It was a triumph of determination over challenges, of hope over doubt, of promise over uncertainty. A success story par excellence!
This story begins at Mulago Hospital where Sarah is born to Christine Namiiro Ssemasaazi, a primary school teacher, and Ahmed Nalumoso Mukasa, an accountant. She is her mother’s second child, but in her father’s large family, she is the third.
Her mother has five other children and initially, they have a typical, happy childhood, making ‘homes’ and dresses for their own ‘babies’.
“Sarah always played mother and I was her child and she would not hesitate to beat me up if I did not do things properly,” says Mariam Najjuka, Sarah’s younger sister, laughing. Now a primary school teacher in Luzira, Najjuka recalls that from a very early age, Sarah was exceptionally keen on books.
Sometimes, she would get lost from the party, only to be found in a corner, surrounded by pencils, scribbling away. When her elder brother started school, Sarah insisted she too goes.
In a rigidly gendered society where girls did all the chores while boys sat at the table, a suspicious Sarah rejected suggestions that she was too young.
“I think from an early age I was a fierce competitor, always desiring what my brother had and even better,” she said in an e-mail interview.
That competitiveness yielded success, for Najjuka recalls that Sarah often topped her class, literally threatening to run her mother broke.
“My mother always promised to give me a gift if I excelled and all my achievements never ceased to amaze her,” Sarah says. “When I embarked on the PhD, she was very excited, and I can’t imagine how proud she would have been to see me graduate.”
But Sarah’s happy childhood was almost shattered at the age of eight. She and her siblings were taken away from their mother to live with their father because he was the one picking their bills. Sarah missed her mother’s love terribly and to this day, she decries the injustice of that separation.
While she is thankful that her father educated both boys and girls without discrimination, she missed her mother, which drove her to find solace in reading – books like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre – and, later, writing.
“The fact that I didn’t have my mother around turned me into a sullen kid who saw a lot of injustices in the world. That cast a lasting gloom on my life. She was my best friend and because she was never around, I bottled most of the anguish within me,” Sarah says.
Yet these circumstances spurred her on. She worked hard at school, hoping to have a thriving career and shape her own destiny.
This steely determination, and the fact that she was the oldest girl in her father’s household, brought out the best in Sarah – focus, discipline and a motherly sense of responsibility for everyone.
In Luzira’s Lakeside village, where the Mukasa family lived, neighbours have vivid memories of the small-bodied, dark-skinned, quiet, polite, obedient, shy girl that has become Dr. Sarah Namulondo.
Sarah Nakangu, 45, whose home is barely 25 metres from where the Mukasa family lived, was in lower secondary when Sarah arrived. She recalls that little Sarah handled a lot of the family’s domestic chores and often asked her namesake for help. Luzira, then, was a village, with more banana plantations, gardens and bushes than brick walls.
“I am very proud of Sarah,” says Nakangu, commonly known here as Maama Jackie, before narrating how Sarah’s big heart made her cry for two days.
It was in 1997, and Sarah had just started working as a sub-editor at The Monitor. Then, Nakangu’s husband died. Sarah arrived after the burial to commiserate with the widow.
“For me, the only thing I can do is to pay for your first child’s education until university,” she told her older namesake.
Nakangu looked at this young woman making such a big commitment and she broke down. The child, Jackie, was in primary three. Today she is at Makerere University Business School.
Nakangu’s mother, Margaret Lubwama, who has outlived her own husband and both Sarah’s parents, says she takes Sarah as her own daughter.
She has seen her finish primary school at Luzira Church of Uganda before joining Kololo High School, Old Kampala S.S. and Makerere University for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. And now she has a third one.
“When I heard that she was to graduate, I was so excited because we raised her from a very small girl and now she has reached this level,” said Lubwama, 68, for whom Sarah often brings or sends a present.
“It is not easy to reach that level, especially for girls here. Many girls abandon studies and become pregnant or get married. But Sarah has remained focussed.”
Focus is what Dr. Aaron Mushengyezi, a senior lecturer at Makerere University, has known Sarah for. They met in 1992 at Makerere as students – and later, lecturers – in the Department of Literature.
“Once Sarah has set out to do something, she will accomplish it; she is a very disciplined, purpose-driven individual,” says Mushengyezi, who regards her as a sister.
“She is someone who knows what she wants in life. A PhD was one of her dreams and to see her accomplish it is, I would say, a dream come true.”
It was also at Makerere that Sarah’s friendship with Esther Nabukeera blossomed. They had both attended Kololo High School for O-level before Sarah moved to Old Kampala S.S. At Makerere, they became closer as old girls of Kololo High.
“What I know about Sarah is that she is a very ambitious lady,” says Nabukeera, who studied Statistics and is now a deputy director with a USAID-funded project.
“When she wants something, she goes for it. For instance, after our first degrees, while some of us stuck around trying to make some money, Sarah immediately embarked on her master’s degree studies.”
In 2000, three years after that master’s degree, Sarah joined the Literature Department as an assistant lecturer, while continuing to work at The Monitor as a sub-editor.
In 2002, she was awarded the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship, which saw her work in the St. Louis Post Dispatch newsroom in the United States for six months.
A sports fan (used to support Manchester United but has since switched to less ambitious Wigan to avoid title run-in heartaches), Sarah got to cover many college sporting events and, in the process, fell in love with American universities.
Her goal was set then: she wanted a PhD in America. By August 2004, Sarah had passed the Graduate Record Entry exams, got admission to the University of South Florida and secured a Fulbright scholarship, ready to take her place.
Her PhD dissertation is about something that has preoccupied her right from childhood, when girls and women seemed to do all the work and boys and men enjoyed all the privileges.
It explores how women negotiate for power in Africa, looking at cultural writings from Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Senegal and Nigeria.
“When women try to claim status as individuals, the cultural expectations act as constant bottlenecks to return them to their prescribed roles as subordinate beings,” Sarah says.
“There’s always a reminder that a woman’s place is to be found in the domestic sphere and her voice is not to be heard. But if, as French philosopher and postmodernist thinker, Michel Foucault says, power is never wholly expressed on a large scale, rather only at small sites in an endless network of power relations, then women in Africa, in very subtle ways, play a balancing act to imagine alternative realities from which they shed their constraints in an attempt to be free.”
Now, Dr. Sarah Namulondo will take the plane back home with a greater sense of freedom, having scored the goals and accomplished the assignment she set for herself in 2004.
For Sarah, who also worked as a graduate teaching assistant, it has been an exciting and stimulating six years, the exerting workload notwithstanding. The most difficult phase of her academic journey came with news from home, three years ago.
“I received a call saying that my beloved mother had passed on. It was the most agonising and frustrating moment and because of that, I missed an entire semester’s worth of work.”
Friends and family never cease to talk about how much Sarah treasured her mother. She had dreamed of flying her to America to attend her graduation, which would have been her first time out of Uganda.
“In my eyes, my mum suffered so much on our behalf and what hurts me most is that she isn’t around to see me at this pinnacle,” Sarah says.
But in coming this far, she has remained true to her mother’s belief in education – even if she is not around to give her a gift.
Her final message is to all those girls who have aspirations to higher education: “There are avenues and you can always make it.”
And what are Sarah’s plans for the future? “For now, I’ve not yet started thinking about the future. I know I will be returning to my teaching duties at Makerere University, but what I desire most is some rest. I’m so tired,” she says.