Sunday, October 23, 2011

Promoting girls' education in Kigezi

I have sometimes been quite critical of aspects of Christianity in Uganda, particularly the hysterical screeching from the Pentacostalists' shack below our flat and the corruption and hypocrisy of some of the 'born again' elite. However, this week I came across a wonderful example of a Christian life well lived in the service of others, in particular in the service of girls' education.

One of my friends and colleagues led me to a book called Venturesome Love: the story of Constance Hornby 1884-1972.  It is very well written by the Scottish writer and educationalist Elizabeth Traill. Traill 'lives with one foot in North Berwick, Scotland and the other in Kabale, Uganda.'

Constance Hornby, a product of the Victorian age, went out to Uganda with the Church Missionary Society (CMS) as a young woman and eventually died there, for it had become her home and the people had become her friends. The friend who introduced us to the book was herself the product of the most famous school founded by Constance Hornby.

It is customary these days to decry the aims, influence and impact of colonialism, and I myself have included various derogatory comments - by which I would still stand - in the pages of this blog. Britain drained its colonies of their riches, sharing very few, if any, of the profits with the people who produced them. The great cities of Glasgow, Dundee, Bristol and Liverpool were built from the sweated labour of Indian and African workers and, indeed, African slaves. 'Opening up Africa to trade' was a very one-sided business.

The work of the missionaries who followed - and sometimes preceded - the explorers and traders has been similarly decried, with tales of them covering the bare breasts of the women they encountered, force-feeding villagers with the scriptures and baptising them wholesale. We know all that. We find the work of their modern day American counterparts, with their military-style jeeps and ostentatious reading of the Bible in public places, similarly insensitive to the culture around them.

However, there is another side to the story and it is one which Constance Hornby exemplifies. Very quietly, and with no hullabaloo, Miss Hornby tramped the hills of Kigezi (on the western edge of the Great Rift Valley), at first in the company of an askari carrying a spear, and, when she decided she had had enough of that, on her own. There were no roads at the time. She used to come across herds of elephants blocking her path and leopards killing their prey outside her tent, but she persevered.

The south west of Uganda at that time was linked with Rwanda and only became part of Uganda in 1911. It was a desperately poor area, having suffered inter-tribal conflict, famine and various disasters which had destroyed the fabric of society. Unlike the rest of Uganda, the Bakiga people had clans but no kings, and therefore no accepted leaders whose influence went beyond the village. The people were animists and considered to be 'notoriously religious'. Religion permeated every aspect of life. The same could be said of Uganda today - even including the animism, which goes hand in hand with Christianity.

When Miss Hornby arrived at a village, she used to call on the chief and negotiate with him and local families for any girls of an appropriate age to come to her school. The idea that girls could and should be educated was an alien concept at the time. There were no schools in Kigezi, the population was illiterate and putting girls first seemed bizarre. She walked with the girls to Kabale, perhaps 40 miles or more in distance up and down steep 'Alpine' hills. She started with four girls and soon had a score: from Rwanda, Rukiga, Ankole to the east and Buganda (the most powerful of the tribal lands) the area around Kampala. The girls arrived wearing skins, and had a blanket, a mat (woven from papyrus), a dress (cotton, for school) and a cloth to wrap round them for when they dug the crops in the school garden.

Then as now, Ugandan women worked extremely hard. 'What a life these women and girls live, work, work, work nothing else! Off with a baby on their back, a basket on their heads, huge hoe in one hand, a wee piece of fire (a small piece of glowing wood in grass) in the other hand, they are off to their food patch away on the top of some hill where they stay until nightfall, when they return and cook for the men.'  As with young women in Britain at that time - and indeed until much later - it was difficult for families to conceive of another life for their girls. 'Such is their life, and yet in spite of this fact they won't try to save the girls from the same fate,' wrote Miss Hornby in a letter home.

Miss Hornby was not a trained teacher. She taught the girls what she herself had learned in her Victorian classroom: reading, writing, arithmetic, cleanliness and hygiene and sewing and crafts - and, of course, religious instruction. She used the Victorian methodology of pupil-teachers. Once each girl had reached an acceptable level in her learning, she taught the other children. Narrow though the curriculum might be by today's standards, Miss Hornby had high aspirations for these girls, with whom she developed lifelong relationships based on affection and respect. Certainly, the earliest expectations were that the girls would become the educated wives of the new African pastors. However, Miss Hornby had ambitions for them beyond that. These girls were to become the teachers, nurses and midwives for their communities - and they did.  She walked the first girls right across Uganda, to board at Iganga (in the east) and then at Gayaza High School (outside Kampala), both CMS foundations, where they took their limited education further and joined the early teacher training courses. When the girls returned to Kigezi, at around the age of eighteen or so, they became headteachers themselves and started up elementary schools in the remote villages in the hills, run along the same lines as Miss Hornby's original school.

By 1934, Miss Hornby, with the help now of others, had developed:

  • a boarding school with 65 boarders
  • a Girls' Training School with ten in it
  • A Girls' Day School with from 60 to 90 in it
  • Seven girl teachers out in village work.
(from a letter to the Girls' Friendly Society which supported her work.)

In time, the school Miss Hornby had started in Kabale became a Junior Secondary School and a few trained teachers arrived from the UK to develop the education provided, working alongside their African colleagues. It was renamed Kigezi High School and finally, in honour of its founder, Hornby High School. In the late 1960s, Miss Hornby developed a section for blind children. The girls who had been to these schools have been recognised across Uganda for the qualities nurtured in them, and their values and principles. Many of them have gone on to become respected educationalists and leaders.

Miss Hornby herself became the school superintendent. Her job was to 'inspect' the schools. Like the hospitals, the first schools in Uganda were all founded by missionaries. The Government provided them with grants and expected certain standards.  The Aims of Education according to the Phelps-Stokes Commission 1924 were:

  • The development of character on the foundation of Religion
  • The improvement of health
  • The acquisition of agricultural and industrial skill
  • The improvement of family life
  • 'Sound and healthful recreations' which include music.

However, many early schools in Uganda, particularly the boys' boarding schools, went beyond that to provide academic boarding schools developed along the lines of English Public Schools, with prefects, cricket, tennis and 'houses'. And, as in the UK, ordinary Ugandan state schools with pretensions have often mimicked the alien culture of these prestigious establishments. Even today, the gulf between the schools for the elite and the schools provided for 95% of Ugandan school children is enormous, far greater than the still significant gulf between the equivalent schools in England (Scotland's education system is rather more egalitarian).

Miss Hornby herself, however, had a much broader conception of the role of schools in the local community and of the skills which young women could develop. She had done a six month course in midwifery and delivered over a 1,000 babies, in addition to running her own schools and developing an entire education system across the south west of Uganda. And as if that were not enough, she acted as relief nurse at the leprosy hospital which Dr Leonard Sharp, also a CMS missionary, opened on Bwama island on Lake Bunyoni.

There is an argument that Africa should have been left to develop without the intervention of westerners and their 'meddling'. It is difficult to read about the kind of work done by Miss Hornby and her ilk, paternalistic though it may have been in some respects, without thinking about the painful deaths from diseases like leprosy and the frustrating of talent, particularly among girls, which would have been even more commonplace than now without the work of people like her. In Uganda today, you hear a lot of negative comments from some of the most influential politicians about the current-day west, using the term 'colonialist' to refer to any interventions by Britain and its European partners. This is despite the fact that for every Shs14 billion raised by Ugandan taxpayers, Shs6 billion is provided by international donors. For many years, indeed, the west provided three quarters of Uganda's budget, with Britain one of the biggest donors and trading partners.

However, the contribution of the Miss Hornbys of this world cannot be measured in financial terms. We may find the religious context and language of mission work alien and have little sympathy with the idea of bringing souls to God. However, the values and principles such people exemplified have been carried forward into the secular contexts within which many modern NGOs and charities work. Sometimes scorned as 'naive do-gooders' who are easy prey for the often corrupt local administrators with whom they work, such organisations help to improve education and health; they care for the most vulnerable - the orphans, the girls, the widows, the disabled and the aged - and they work tirelessly to eradicate poverty. They do this by working alongside, and training and mentoring local staff, not by taking jobs from them. The indomitable and tireless Miss Hornby is not a bad model for them to keep in mind.

Venturesome Love, The story of Constance Hornby 1884-1972: 'Kigezi Girls' No. 1 Teacher', by Elizabeth Trail
Available in the UK from
Available in Uganda from
All profits from the sales of this book are devoted to the Constance Hornby Education Fund for girls in Kigezi with special educational needs.

You may also be interested in:

our earlier post about the Kigezi area, Highland lochs and braes - in Uganda, that is

and the novel The Ghosts of Eden by Andrew JH Sharp.


  1. hello. i am interested in following up on this post. how can i get in touch with the authors? please post an email address. thanks so much.

  2. Hello, my name is Constance, a name given by Constance Hornby who had adopted my mother my when she who had lost her parents at about 3 years.. I am very interested in getting in contact with the author to read the book but also, I have been trying to trace her family descendants. I now live in England, in Suffolk.
    my e-mail is

  3. Thanks alot to Constance Hornby, the education Ihad in your school led me in the right passage of the life, thanks again for thinking RUGARAMA as a memorable home for a big number of girls. RIP

  4. I am humbled by such heart of miss constance. i can now see where my former schoolhas come from....RIP.

  5. I'm glad and humbled to be an OG of Hornby High school

  6. I would like to get in touch with former H/M of Hornby High school Mrs. Peace Tindyebwa. My email is

  7. i am interested in making a donation but i have no way of communicating with the headmaster or one of the executives please email me back at as soon as possible

    1. I am sorry, I don't have this information Please contact the school direct.

  8. Thanks ,how can i get the contacts of some of the relatives and family members of Dr.Leonard Sharp who did a great job around Lake email is

    1. I am sorry, I don't have this information. Good luck with your research.

  9. Ritchies? I think I know you. Related to the Billingtons of Lewes? I am thrilled to read your information and have found it an enormously useful resource for a project I am working on in Uganda. Thank you! Best wishes, Edward Bisamunyu

  10. Edward, thank you for getting touch. Glad you find the blog useful. Sorry I don't know anyone in Lewes!