Affirmative action: Makerere women grab majority shares

Makerere University

The Makerere University Main Hall in Kampala. 

Photo credit: File | AFP

What you need to know:

  • The recent graduations at Makerere University were “scientific”, as they say in Uganda.
  • The rest of the candidates had to follow the proceedings online, broadcast live on various television stations.

Makerere held her 71st Convocation last week, conferring degrees and awarding diplomas and certificates to nearly 13,000 successful candidates. This is as she glides quietly towards her 100th birthday, next year, with her Ivory Tower singed but not bowed. This year’s weeklong ceremony, distributed among the schools and colleges of the ancient edifice, was dignified and moving, but not as colourful and as joyful as those of previous years.

The recent graduations were “scientific”, as they say in Uganda, meaning that they strictly adhered to the country’s SOPs (standard operation procedures) imposed by health authorities in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Physical attendance at the ceremonies in “Freedom Square”, the lush green former cricket pitch just below the towering Main Building, was limited to only the essential university officials and candidates receiving doctorates and master of arts degrees, as well as first-class bachelor of arts degrees.

The rest of the candidates had to follow the proceedings online, broadcast live on various television stations, including our own NTV, and the University’s various network platforms. This format, called “hybrid” by the authorities, was in sharp contrast with the old university customs. In the past, graduations were feasts of colourful pageantry and joyful ululations from huge congregations of all the young scholars and their parents or guardians assembled at the Freedom Square. Many of the parents and guardians would be making their first and probably only visit to the Hill.

Anyway, amid the “new normal” developments, one significant statistic struck me about this year’s graduating class. It may not be for the first time in East Africa, but it was prominently reported that, of the 12,550 graduands, 6,433 (51%) were female and 6,117 (49%) male. I understand that, in business circles, if you own 51% of the shares in a company, then you have a controlling role in it. So, we can say that our sisters decidedly took over the Makerere University Company this year, if only in terms of the current graduating numbers.

There is no need to boast there, but certainly cause to celebrate and say “hongereni, dada zetu” (congratulations, our sisters), or as they say in Luganda, “mukulike nnyo!” The margin may be small, as Bill Clinton once said of a Congress vote, but the message is clear. Given a chance, our sisters will, and do, perform.

Showings like these are the fruits of a long and torturous route by active and imaginative advocacy and application of affirmative actions, like the 1.5-point advantage at one time granted to female applicants for university admission. Though opposed by some, including a few women scholars, who thought that it was “patronising” towards female candidates, the measure was supported by most knowledgeable observers and policy-makers. Denying the disadvantages faced by women and girls, such as endemic sexist discrimination, female genital mutilation and forced early and even child marriages, would be either ignorance or downright insensitivity.

In the case of Makerere, every triumph of female scholars is a landmark in the history of their struggle. They are called “Boxers” not only because they started their residence on the Hill, in the early 1940s, in a wooden house, which is now part of the Makerere Guest House. They are also indefatigable and unrelenting fighters, in the face of daunting odds.

First female students

You might have heard the story of the late Sarah Nyendwoha Ntiro, one of the first female students to be admitted to Makerere. She wanted to study Mathematics, but the male British lecturer adamantly refused to admit her to the course. “My class is no maternity ward, young woman,” growled the chauvinistic pig. Sarah went on to read English and History at Makerere, distinguish herself as an Oxford scholar and leading the struggle against the colonial government for equal pay between male and female educationists.

A contemporary of Sarah’s at Makerere, Joyce Mpanga, who also became prominent in education, public administration and politics, recently published an autobiography. To suggest the irony behind the sexist assumptions of the times and circumstances in which she grew up and went to Makerere, she gave her book the title It’s a Pity She’s Not a Boy. These were the regretful, and regrettable, words of her grandfather on realising how intelligent and quick-witted Joyce was.

The struggle is, thus, long and continuous. For a few days, after the arrival of Chief Justice Martha Koome on the Kenyan scene, it was beginning to look like there would be a woman leading at least one of the three pillars of government, executive, legislative and judiciary, in each of the original East African countries. But, as you might have heard, the new Ugandan Parliament has voted out its long-serving female Speaker.

Anyway, if it has been done before, it can be done again. Play your part, as Mwalimu Nyerere used to say. In this case, the part of those who care about female empowerment is to move the programme from affirmative action to assertive action. Affirmative action works by recognising the concessions made to the disadvantaged and making the best of them. But assertive action consists in proactively demanding one’s rights and entitlements and not resting until they are given.

A character, Amina (the Confirmer), in Marjorie Macgoye’s Coming to Birth tells her friend Paulina, “We make what comes and take the best of it.” I think this is a revolutionary feminist subversion of the meek assumption that we take what comes and make the best of it. Macgoye kept saying that she was not a feminist, but I think her writings contradict her.

I learnt from an online article that assertiveness comprises three Cs, namely, confidence, clarity and control. Knowing that privileged sections of society will not easily surrender their advantages to the underprivileged, those seeking gender equity must demand it in confident, clear and controlled or systematic terms until it is achieved.

Makerere’s motto is “We build for the future”. That future will be glorious if gender equity is part of it.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature. [email protected]

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