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Florence Lubega and other pioneers: who will tell their story?

Florence Lubega and other pioneers: who will tell their story?

Mrs. Florence Alice Lubega, who departed Earth on October 28, just eight days shy of turning 104, may well be the last member of independent Uganda’s first parliament to die. My uncertainty reflects the awfully inadequate documentation of the lives of our immediate post-independence leaders.


That was a generation that enjoyed well-earned reverence. Not only were they pioneers in that important role, most performed their duties with dignity, humility, and evident commitment to their contracts as representatives of their constituents.  


Sadly, searching the internet for mention of that generation of leaders yields a blank for most of them. This includes people who served as cabinet ministers in the 1960s. Lost records, poorly archived documents, relegation to irrelevance by their successors and our aversion to recording our complete history have conspired to bury these men and women into a black hole.  


It is not too late to rectify this. Besides records that may be available in Uganda and the United Kingdom, the offspring of that cohort are still alive. Some people who were young government officers in the 1960s are also alive and endowed with clear memories. Our historians should tap them before it is too late.


I am especially interested in the stories of the women leaders of that period. At independence in 1962, Uganda had a small and efficient national assembly composed of 82 elected and 8 nominated members. Of the 90 members of the national assembly (MNAs), only two were women. 


One woman, Sugra Haiderali Allidina Visram, was a Pakistani-Ugandan, a member of Kabaka Yekka (KY), who represented Kibuga, Kampala. The other woman, Florence Alice Lubega, was a Muganda-Ugandan, also a member of KY, who represented Singo Northwest. 


Mrs. Visram, who died in London in 2012 at the age of 89, has a fascinating story that invites scholarly interrogation by our historians.  For starters, Visram, who was adopted by the Mamba clan of Buganda and was given the name Namubiru, was quite an anomaly. 


Fond of wearing busuuti (Gomesi), this Asian woman, who was born at Nsambya hospital in 1923, was reported to have been fluent in Luganda, Kiswahili, English, Kutchi, Hindi, and Gujarati. 


Visram’s early political activism, starting with membership and leadership in the Uganda Council of Women (UCW), the Uganda Muslim Women’s Association, and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), culminated in a prominent role in national parliamentary politics. This ended in her resignation from parliament during the 1966 Crisis, a courageous act that set her apart from the vast majority of Ugandan Asians.  


A businesswoman, Visram left Uganda during the forced Asian exodus of 1972. She lived in England, resurfacing in Uganda in the 1990s when President Yoweri Museveni appointed her a special assistant on inward investment. Her three sons are still alive in the United Kingdom. Her records are probably more accessible to scholars than those of most of her peers. Her full story needs to be told.


The second woman, Mrs. Lubega (Kabaka Yekka, Singo Northwest), deserves a thorough biographical treatment that will bring us her story of several firsts. She was the first African woman member of the Makerere College Council, to which she was appointed in March 1954. She was the first African woman member of the post-independence national assembly. She was the first woman parliamentary secretary (deputy minister) in independent Uganda. 


Like Mrs. Rhoda Kalema, one of the greatest and most impactful Ugandan women since independence, Mrs. Lubega was a daughter of a Katikkiro (prime minister of Buganda.) Her father, Samuel Wamala, was appointed Katikkiro after the resignation of Martin Luther Nsibirwa (Rhoda Kalema’s father) in July 1941. 


Wamala served for four years before being replaced as Katikkiro in July 1945 by his predecessor, Martin Luther Nsibirwa. It is one of those interesting details in life’s fascinating canvass, that the daughters of the two Katikkiros of mid-colonial Buganda went on to become highly respected Ugandan parliamentarians and deputy ministers of community development. 


Rhoda and Florence excelled because of their great intellectual endowment, nourished by education in excellent schools, and an exceptional determination to compete and succeed in an unforgiving male-dominated society. Mrs. Kalema’s fascinating story is told in her excellent autobiography that was published last month. 


Florence Lubega, who was born to Erina Nantongo on November 5, 1917, received formal education at Gayaza High School, Buloba Teachers’ College, Makerere College and Oxford University. 

On returning to Uganda, she taught English at Makerere University. She married Saulo Lubega, a junior secondary school teacher who was appointed to the Legislative Council in 1954. 


Five years later, Mrs Lubega herself was appointed to the same Legislative Council, becoming the third African woman to hold that position.  Reporting about Mrs. Lubega, The London Guardian of Wednesday September 14, 1960, wrote: “Her maiden speech, a passionate plea for more and better educational facilities for girls, received an ovation from the whole Council.”  She was one of the relatively experienced legislators when she took her seat in the National Assembly in May 1962.


At the time of her stepping onto the national stage in the 1950s, very few women were part of the formally high echelons of Ugandan society. Consider that in 1952, only 5 girls obtained the Cambridge Overseas School Certificate. In 1959, the number rose to only 57 girls. 


Less than ten years after independence, Mrs. Lubega was widowed (in 1969) and became a refugee in England, after the military coup in 1971. It is said that Idi Amin had proposed marriage to her, an offer she declined with flight from her beloved homeland. She vanished from the national stage, until she was honoured by parliament a few months before she turned 100. 


Mrs. Lubega was one of a rare breed of trailblazers, great women upon whose shoulders we stand. Unfortunately, most of them are either dead or retired, their stories hardly known by the younger generations.  


In addition to Lubega and Visram, my very incomplete list of great Ugandan women that were household names in the 1950s and 1960s includes Dorothy Barbara Saben, Pumla Ngozwana Kisosonkole, Frances Akello, Eseza Makumbi, Rebecca Mulira, Sarah Nyendwoha Ntiro, Mary Senkatuka, Irene Bisamunyu, Rhoda Kalema, Tereza Kabahita Mbire, Dr. Josephine Namboze, Joyce Masembe Mpanga and Janet Tingu Wesonga. 


The last five are alive. Kalema, Mbire and Mpanga have published their autobiographies. The others, like hundreds of their peers, are silent stories receding into a misty past, unknown to us, sure to be lost to posterity. It will be our fault.




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