Many of us from Africa didn’t see women in high places of anything, not even academia. Today, Savannah is a Mathematics lecturer at one of the biggest universities in Uganda;
Hi Savannah! It gives me so much joy to write about you. You are the first Ugandan whose name I heard of when I joined AIMS. Seeing where you are today makes me very proud
Hi Winnie, haha. Thanks for the compliment. We thank God for the journey.
Kindly introduce yourself to our audience
My name is Savannah Nuwagaba from Uganda. I am a Mathematics Lecturer at Kyambogo University in Uganda.
Please walk us through your life journey and how you joined Mathematics
I grew up in a small village called Bumbaire, in Bushenyi district. I was born to a primary school teacher; my mother, and my father who is a peasant but did a lot of other things like men usually do to make ends meet. I went to Bumbaire primary school where my mother was a teacher in Primary Seven (P7). After the P7 final examination, I adjudged the overall best student with an aggregate score of 9, which was an excellent grade back then.
I so much wanted to go to one of the prominent girl schools in my district – Bweranyangi Girls – but with an aggregate of 9, I could not be given admission. Fortunately, the headteacher of Ntare School then was my father’s distant cousin, so he was able to persuade them into giving me a place at Bweranyangi Girls. My story at Bweranyangi Girls is a long and inspiring one that is interlaced with struggles and achievements. I once gave a TEDx talk about that journey.
So from Bweranyangi, I joined Makerere University to train as a teacher in Mathematics and Chemistry. I graduated as the best female student in the Mathematics department, and one of the professors who were interested in my affinity for mathematics not only introduced but also recommended me for a scholarship from the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS).
At AIMS, I had the opportunity to meet and work with different lecturers and researchers in different fields of STEM from different parts of the globe. My mind was opened to the many exciting opportunities that I could explore and this was one of the many determinants that encouraged me to venture into public speaking. Public speaking, not as a profession, but a tool for the communication of scientific work.
Consequently, I have had to undergo training in this aspect due to the passion I have for it. I am happy to say that, AIMS, became a significant stepping stone and opened doors for me to continue with research at Stellenbosch University in Mathematical Modeling, where I worked on Ecological Systems for my Ph.D.
After the Ph.D. at Stellenbosch, I returned to Uganda to give back to my people all that I had received from my time in Uganda, AIMS, Stellenbosch, and the many conferences I have participated in. One of the values AIMS instills in you is the value of community service; where we give back wholeheartedly to the community that has nurtured us. In this way, we help build the Africa that we want to see and in so doing instill in the young ones a sense of hope and service.
Many Africans have been able to go outside their countries and the continent to receive training and gather essential experience but are unable to return home. However, I have one philosophy that is, “we cannot all run from home. If we want a home to be what we want it to be then we should be part of the process.”
I chose to come back home, a decision that baffled one of my professors. I am very passionate about education and this makes me exceedingly glad to be back home helping in the education process of young Ugandans. Most of the time, I am educating my students on the dangerous side of amassing marks without passion or understanding, as the education system constantly forces them to do. I tell them that once they have chosen to take a course by me, we will tell stories of mathematics, we will walk a journey and we will discover things.
Due to this, two of the main objectives for every course I teach are centered on being able to ask and answer why regarding each and everything; not only in mathematics but also in their daily activities. Secondly, every student should not be afraid to fail, this will give them the comfort to try new things and go beyond their boundaries. For if they are not afraid of failing, they will by all means not be afraid to try and be innovative; to do things that nobody has done before.
In Africa, we are afraid to try because we are scared of the punishments that come out of that. This starts from home where a not-so-encouraging report card is rewarded with punishment. So there is this fear of students being innovative, preferring to not try at all than trying and failing. This fear of failing is one trait I would like to try and kill out in my students. What matters is the next step after failure has happened.
When we fail, we try again, and we repeat the process till there is some kind of success we can be proud of. Given this, most of my classes are student-centered and project-centered, and of course, many students run away from my classes when it is time for an optional course, perhaps because they are not used to this style of education. For me, I have taken it upon myself to train them to think logically and systematically, with a touch of problem-solving abilities. This, I believe, will serve them better in the future than just cramming and passing exams.
We need more lecturers like you in our education systems. But, tell us about some challenges you have faced so far
Being away from my family, and not being able to jump on the bus to Bushenyi, was tough. I reached AIMS during winter, a type of weather I had never experienced! I developed tonsillitis but because I am allergic to Penicillin, my father thought I was going to die in a foreign country, haha. What was hurtful was my inability to walk home and get the treatment my body was used to.
Second, the fact that I had a man in my life and had to leave him behind. A lot had to be weighed to decide to go to AIMS. Even after AIMS, it was hard to decide to take another master’s. But now, I don’t regret having taken the opportunities that availed themselves. I am now happy with my two children and a very caring man in my life.
I know how hectic a journey this can be for an African woman! What has kept you from giving up?
Personally, I think most of the inspiration to move forward has been from within. I grew up with a lot of boys around; we took the cattle grazing, fetched water, and played cards together. As a result, I learned how to do a lot of things. I believed that I could do anything as long as I kept going at it consistently.
Tell us about your prestigious moments of recognition along your mathematics journey
A few of the awards that I can mention are the Faculty for the Future Fellowship which I won together with the DAAD scholarship during my Ph.D. and also the Stellenbosch Merit Bursary. I graduated with a first-class in master’s, what they refer to as ‘cum laude’.
Who is Savannah outside work?
I like to do music and play football. I have been singing since I was six. Although I haven’t written any music for a while, I have been able to record some of my music. As for football, I just play for fun.
Also, I like to encourage young ones, at church, and school. I like to sit and have a nice chat with them; trying to challenge them to dream big and think outside the box. Any opportunity, I get to share an experience or two to keep the conversation going. Whether it’s on a bus, in a taxi, or even at the hospital, I chip in. People say I am an open book, and that is who I am, I like to share.
What is your favorite quote?
My favorite quote is from Max Planck; “a new scientific theory does not triumph by convincing its opponents. But rather because its opponents die out and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it”. Often when you want to think outside the box, there are negative people who would love to keep the status quo at all costs.
However, if you know that all the opposition does not matter and that there are people who can appreciate your way of thinking, then you don’t stop. You go ahead and present your ideas as best as you can. Usually, I summon this quote whenever I meet with young people to encourage them to think differently. This would ensure that they stop trying to fit in at places where fitting in wouldn’t make sense at all.
This entire interview has been full of words of encouragement. What do you leave us with, especially a young African girl out there?
To any young girl who wants to venture into STEM, I would encourage them to do it for themselves. When we do things for others, we easily get discouraged when there is disapproval from their side. When the inspiration is from within, we can go over mountains that we never thought we could. So I encourage them to dream big, to believe in themselves, and most importantly, to draw inspiration from within. They can do anything they put their minds to.
Thank you, Savannah for always being authentic! The students you teach are lucky to have a Mathematics lecturer like you. Thank you for valuing this cause and being a part of it.