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Byanyima was a jack of all trades

By Vision Reporter

Added 24th November 2008 03:00 AM

IN today’s world infiltrated with gender movements for equal rights and women empowerment; with numerous laws and policies to shoulder the ‘weak species’, the female folk still battle with balancing family, career, politics and serving their God and the community.

IN today’s world infiltrated with gender movements for equal rights and women empowerment; with numerous laws and policies to shoulder the ‘weak species’, the female folk still battle with balancing family, career, politics and serving their God and the community.

By Felix Basiime
and Irene Nabusoba


IN today’s world infiltrated with gender movements for equal rights and women empowerment; with numerous laws and policies to shoulder the ‘weak species’, the female folk still battle with balancing family, career, politics and serving their God and the community.

But for Gertrude Kabwasingo Byanyima, wife of former DP chairman Boniface Byanyima, the saying that ‘women are the family’s and nation’s fibre’ was truly embedded in her womanly will to choose her destiny in a male-dominated world.

Byanyima, who died of brain haemorrhage last week at Mulago Hospital at the age of 75, lived a balanced life as a supportive wife, a mother of six (among them prominent politician Winnie Byanyima-wife to FDC president Kizza Besigye), a politician, gender activist, entrepreneur and a servant of God.

Born in 1934 in Kaikoti, Kiruhura district, Gertrude lost her father when she was five years old. She was picked up by her uncle with whom she lived in Kamugungunu, Bushenyi district. When Rev. Father John Miller visited their village in 1940, she had stayed with her uncle for only one year.

Gertrude was suffering from an eye disease, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as Miller offered to take her for treatment and to educate her as well. Miller the Good Samaritan took the orphan to his home in Nyamitanga village which housed the Catholic regional headquarters and treated her and enrolled her at St. Helen’s Primary School in 1941.

She later joined Butare Burigita Senior Secondary School in Buhweju, Bushenyi, in 1948, then Kinyamasika Teachers’ Training College in Kabarole district in 1951 where she qualified as teacher. She taught in Kabale until 1954.

By now, she was a devoted Catholic, having converted from Anglican faith while staying with Miller.

She had signalled assertiveness, independence and a strong will with that one step of religious conversion because then, women, on their own, had no religion. They were either born in it, or ‘married into it’.

Besides, during the colonial times, it is the Anglican religion that ruled in Ankole. Catholics were a minority. Apparently, all Bahima were Anglicans due to their loyalty to the Omugabe (king of Ankole). They reportedly used to say—Ninshemba eky’Omugabe meaning “I back my King’s faith”.

But with Gertrude, came a long lineage of Catholic faithfuls. She won several Bahima to the church, including her sweetheart to whom she was betrothed in 1956 against all odds-because of her ‘alien’ faith.

She met Boniface Byanyima in 1950, then a teacher at Mbarara High School. “My parents and relatives tried to stop me from marrying a Catholic girl but I believed that both Catholics and Anglicans were the same,” mzee Byanyima says.

“I thought I would convert her back since she was a Muhima. But alas, I failed. Even my children followed her. I later found that the Catholic Church had good values for my wife and children,” he adds.

The union turned out to be a give-and-take, with influence on either side because she too became a politician and a gender activist until her demise.

Gertrude, who was a member of the Ankole royal family, served as the head of the DP youth wing at the time Dr Paul Ssemogerere was party president. She is remembered for her unwavering faith in the party and her loyalty to Ssemogerere when DP was facing pressure for reforms from the youthful wing.

She later headed DP women’s league until 2005 but even after her exit from active administrative politics, Gertrude has been mobilising women until her death.

DP President, John Ssebaana Kizito described her as a disciplinarian. “She was a disciplinarian and she loved to see discipline prevail in the country where corrupt officials walk away with impunity. Unfortunately she has not been able to see her dream,” Ssebana says.

He says she recruited several women for DP, including Sarah Muwonge Nkonge and Maria Mutagamba. “She was a hardworking vocal mobiliser,” he says.

Winnie fondly remembers her mother, who was instrumental in her 1994 Constitutional Assembly elections, not only as a gender activist but also as a gifted entrepreneur.

“My mother excelled in whatever she did. In the 1970s, she was one of the first Ugandan to open a shop — Muyogoma— on High street in Mbarara town when commerce was dominated by Asians,” she says.

“It was a wholesale and retail hardware shop, the first in the region to be run by a woman. “It is this business prowess that the business community trusted her to be the leader of the Mbarara Business Association then,” she adds.

A teacher, politician, entrepreneur, businesswoman, mother, wife, home-maker, community organiser, grassroots women rights activist…. Gertrude was a jack of all trades.

Call her strong, because her attributes do not sound like the typical Bahima women who are known to be very ‘soft and weak’.

“It’s from her works that I draw my inspiration to fight for women’s rights,” Winnie says. At her age Gertrude could still dig in her gardens in Ruti in Mbarara and Rwempogo in Kiruhura district. She had her own assets; land, farms, a salon car and a lorry.

She also ran several women clubs in Mbarara that passed on literacy skills besides generating income for women. But most importantly, Gertrude walked with the Lord.

“The Catholic catechism states four main values of the church: To know God, love and serve Him, and to be happy with Him until eternity. Gertrude achieved all these values,” says Archbishop Paul Bakyenga of Mbarara Archdiocese.

“She looked for people who shared her vision well because she could not accomplish it alone. To serve the Lord well, she had to join parties and clubs” Bakyenga adds.

Her children; Winnie, Edith, Anthony, Martha, Abraham and Olivia echo similar sentiments. “She was deeply rooted in the church, she had a strong devotion to the Virgin Mary,” Edith says of her mother.

The Byanyimas celebrated their golden jubilee wedding anniversary in January this year.

Byanyima’s life at a glance
1934: Born in Kakikoti, Kiruhura district

1940: She was adopted by Rev. Father John Miller after her father’s death in 1939

1941: Joined St Helen’s Primary School

1948: Joined Butare Burigita SSS in Buhweju

1951: Qualified as a teacher from Kinyamasika
Teachers’ Training College

1954: Left the teaching profession

1955: Married Boniface Byanyima, then a teacher at Mbarara High School

1970s: Was the first Ugandan and woman to open and run a hardware shop in Mbarara town where commerce was dominated by Asians

1950s-2005: Served as the head of the youth wing and later headed the women’s league in the Democratic Party (DP) . She used to mobilise and recruit women into DP.

2008: Passed away at Mulago Hospital on November 13 aged 75. She is survived by husband and six children; Winnie, Edith, Anthony, Martha, Abraham and Olivia

Byanyima was a jack of all trades

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