A keen promoter of arts, she spearheaded an untiring sensitization campaign against HIV/Aids among the young generation. Her belief that drama is a key driver of societal change underlies most of her literary work, but had its most practical effect in schools all over the country.
Birungi was born in a modest family and according to various testimonies from peers, she set herself a goal at a young age to become a teacher.
Being a teacher in the 50s was such a treasured job and Birungi was inspired to use the career to influence change in society.
She got her big breakthrough when she joined King’s College Budo for O-level. Being a mostly boys’ school at the time, Birungi took time to settle in but used her talent in drama, poetry and literature to full effect.
While at Budo, literature offered her an opportunity to mix and mingle with schoolmates such as Elvania Namukwaya Zirimu and Timothy Wangusa, who themselves later would become celebrated figures in Ugandan arts.
Birungi would later focus on academics, attaining a diploma in Education from the National Teachers College, Kyambogo (Now Kyambogo University). Even when she started teaching in various schools, it did not stop her from composing plays and performing with various theatrical groups of the day.
In fact, Birungi is credited for initiating drama clubs at Tororo Girls SS, Nabisunsa Girls SS and Kyambogo College School, among others. She often had her compositions performed by students for national competitions.
Birungi’s path with Namukwaya crossed again during production of Byron Kawadwa’s politically famous composition called Oluyimba lwa Wakonko in 1977.
Namukwaya, the producer, cast Birungi as one of the many wives of King Wankoko and the success of the play propelled the team to perform at the Festac festival in Nigeria.
However, upon return, a meeting of the cast was thrown into panic when security operatives took away Kawadwa and killed him.
A distraught Birungi and many of her colleagues quit mainstream stage acting for fear of their lives in the roles they played in Oluyimba lwa Wakonko.
The tragic death of Namukwaya in a motor accident in 1979 further deflated Birungi’s acting career. She concentrated on composing plays that inspire social change by fronting learners.
She often reasoned that it is easier to transform society through students because they are eager to learn new things, unlike adults who abhor any form of behavioural change.
In 1991, she edited and reorganized The Riddle, a play raising the awareness of HIV/Aids. The ministry of Education and Sports adopted it as the model play for competition amongst primary schools.
The following year, Birungi co-authored The Hydra, a play for secondary schools that brought to the fore the pain caused by HIV/Aids. It was a huge success that often gripped audiences and scared the youth away from promiscuity and early sex.
As Birungi got elevated to administrative roles over the years, her focus slowly drifted from drama and she turned on improving the education curriculum.
She authored the paper Methods of teaching Poetry and their effects on performance in Literature in English in selected Schools in and around Kampala’, as part of fulfilment of the requirements for her bachelor of Education degree.
From 1997 to 2005, she served as board chairperson of the Uganda National Cultural Centre (National theatre), a period that saw a boom in the local music and drama industry with the reintroduction of the Monday Jam Session.
At Mengo SS where she served as head teacher between 2000 and 2004, she revived the drama club as well as the annual music and drama festival.
In the later years of her career, Birungi served as a consultant with Uganda National Commission for Unesco, the ministry of Education and Sports and Makerere University, among others.
She also dedicated most of her life to family and during her 50-year wedding anniversary to Phenny Birungi in 2019; she gave guests an exuberant memory lane of her life full of contentment.
Indeed, she inspired and played her part in Uganda’s success to contain HIV/Aids. She is survived by her husband and four children and was laid to rest at Nyenje, Mukono, the same village where Namukwaya rests.
l King’s College Buddo – O-Level
l Nyakasura School – A-Level
l NTC Kyambogo -Grade 5 diploma in Education
l Kyambogo University – Bachelor of Education with Literature
l Masters in Literature from University of Massachusetts, USA
l Co-author of the The Hydra
l Co-author, ‘Food for Thought’ a play for World Food Day 1993.
l Writer of AIDS Drama Training Manual 1994
l Author of poems and one-act plays in the training kit to support Uganda’s education reform.
l Deputy Headmistress,
Kyambogo College School
Mengo Senior School
l Education Secretary, Namirembe diocese
l Board chairperson,
Uganda National Cultural Centre
l Chairperson, East African Theatre Institute
l Member of several school boards of governors