Gender, ethnicity and unequal opportunity in colonial Uganda: European influences, African realities, and the pitfalls of parish register data


The renaissance of African economic history in the past decade has produced a range of new data and approaches that stimulate deeper insights into the long-term social and economic development of Africa. Some of these data and approaches are not just promising, but also problematic. We engage with a recent article by Meier zu Selhausen and Weisdorf (2016) to show how selection biases in the use of Anglican parish registers may provoke overly optimistic accounts of European influences on Africa’s schooling revolution and associated opportunities of gender emancipation. Confronting their dataset – drawn from the marriage registers of the Anglican ‘Namirembe Cathedral’ in Kampala – with Uganda’s 1991 census, we show that trends in literacy and numeracy of people born in Kampala lagged half a century behind those who wedded in Namirembe Cathedral, and that the gender gap widened for a much longer period. We run a regression analysis showing that unequal access to schooling along lines of gender and ethnicity was pervasive throughout the colonial era and argue that European colonial influences did not much to alleviate gender inequality, but instead reconfigured its nature. We also argue that unequal opportunities were sustained through a political coalition of the British colonial administration with the Buganda Kingdom. This paper thus calls for a more sensitive treatment of African realities in the evaluation of European colonial legacies and a critical approach towards the use of new sources and approaches.