From poverty to Social Work PhD: ‘I will persevere’


By Patty Huston-Holm
Molly Nantongo has come a long way from the 10-year-old “dancing girl with the gap in her teeth.”  

A 2015 Uganda Christian University (UCU) alum with a Bachelor of Social Work  and Social Administration, she received a Masters in Social Work from the University of California in Berkeley in 2023. Her achievement there landed her a full scholarship for a PhD in social work at Arizona State University. On Aug. 17, she started studies on the Phoenix, Ariz., campus.

“I am aware it will be a challenging journey,” she typed into an email from Uganda prior to heading back to the United States. “However, I am prepared for the difficulties and believe that with God’s grace, I will persevere.”

For Molly, her journey into social work started with dance. 

In 2002, Molly was one of four children living with a single mother, a former Hutu in Rwanda, in the Kampala slum suburb of Kirombe.  Missing school and food on the table were an accepted way of life. One such day, she jumped gleefully onto a political campaign truck filled with music blaring from loudspeakers. From there, she danced, oblivious to anyone watching, before jumping off. 

Because of her dancing, she was noticed on the truck. Because of the gap in her front teeth, she was found by an NGO. 

The Success Narrative of UCU Alumna Molly

That organization, now known as Undugu Society of Kenya, helped Molly finish primary school. Another organization, Empower African Children, got her to the United States as a member of the Spirit of Uganda Various Artists – Spirit of Uganda: 2008 Tour Album Reviews, Songs & More | AllMusic.

Her moves were natural until age 15, when there was formalized instruction to be ready for travel, do shows internationally and raise money for vulnerable children like her. She was among the 22 children in a 2008 USA tour.

“The organization called me ‘Maureen’ and taught me how to jump and move my hands in different tribal dances,” she said. Her favorite dances are from northeastern Uganda, namely the Karamoja region, with a particular affection for war dances without drums.

Molly Nantongo with UCU mentor, Dr. Kukunda Elizabeth Bacwayo
Molly Nantongo with UCU mentor, Dr. Kukunda Elizabeth Bacwayo

Molly never took her support and opportunities for granted. She worked hard, always seeking how she could help others. She got a meager salary from dance performances with a troupe at Uganda’s Ndere Cultural Arts Center. She pieced together earnings from dancing and teaching undergraduate students in the university’s foundation courses. Dr. Kukunda Elizabeth Bacwayo, then dean of the UCU School of Research and Post-Graduate Studies, was a mentor.

Alas, like for many, Covid was a hardship. A degree meant little without a place to teach, and dancing meant little without an audience. Molly started a fruit business to support herself and her mom.  A year into being a street seller, a friend suggested she apply for a scholarship through the American Embassy. Without much optimism as one of 60 candidates for one slot, she participated and was chosen.

Once in California, she applied for a $10,000 “Davis Project for Peace” grant – one designed to help Ugandan youth (ages 14-20) who are victims of Covid shutdown impacts, including pregnant-out-of-wedlock girls.  The 15-week project, entitled Ntongo Skills4Peace, took place through mid-August 2022 with assistance to several thousand youth.

“If we don’t do something now, these girls will end up in prostitution,” Molly, turning age 31 in October 2023, said. “I used the grant here to focus on vocational skills like catering and tailoring, hair dressing and welding for these vulnerable.”

As Molly continues her education in the USA, she has her sights on working someday for USAID, UNICEF. United Nations or World Bank, with her forever passion to help those in poverty as she once was. 

“I want to start mentoring sessions for children who have been born and raised in the slums to give them hope and connect them to different resources,” she said, smiling to show the gap in her teeth. She doesn’t intend to plug that opening.  And she doesn’t plan to stop dancing.