Saturday December 11 2010

How safe are university students residing in hostels?

VULNERABLE: Some hostels are located in

VULNERABLE: Some hostels are located in high-crime areas like slums. 

By John K. Abimanyi

It is midday when I arrive at an unmanned hostel in Mukono town where two students, Alex Kisaakye and Harriet Atugonza, were killed in a fire three weeks ago. The place is deserted. The small gate leading into the hostel is open and swinging, and there is no guard on site. I walk in, knocking at doors but receive no answer. As I walk out I meet a former resident who tells me that all the seven students who were residing at the hostel fled the place after the fire accident.

“We all ran away,” he says, adding, “Everybody was very scared. I am now sharing a room with my friend in another hostel and I only come back here during the day to check on my property. The semester is about to end so I cannot get another hostel but I cannot stay here anymore.”

The fear that gripped this hostel’s residents, forcing them to flee and squeeze themselves in friends’ rooms, goes a long way to show just how tragic students’ hostels could, and indeed, have become. It’s a tale punctuated with a series of insecurity incidences which among others include death, fire, loss of property through break-in robberies and rape.

Without security
A sense of security was clearly lucking at the hostel in Mukono as its former resident narrates. “The watchman (who resides nearby) is never around during the day and only comes over at night.”

The residents also did not know who the owner of the hostel was since they used to pay the rental fees to one of the students killed in the fire.

Although it is not confirmed whether the fire was either an accident or the result of a cold blooded plot to end the lives of the two students, the concern of increased insecurity for students residing in hostels off university campuses stands out like a sore thumb. The deaths come at the end of a long chain of student deaths occurring at hostels serving at-least four leading universities in and around Kampala.

In 2007, a 21-year-old Phiona Uwase, a Makerere University Business School (MUBS) student staying at Akamwesi Hostel, was strangled and her body dumped near her hostel. In that same year, police found the body of a dead Kyambogo University student at a hostel in Bugolobi. Earlier this year, security guards at a Hostel in Kikoni shot dead two students during rowdy protests over Makerere University’s guild elections.

Rapists strike
It is to this picture that you now add Mukono’s recent incident of suspected murder or suicide. The picture actually gets all the gloomier when incidences like rape are brought into view. Police last year arrested 12 students of Kampala International University (KIU) over allegedly gang-raping a woman in the Kabalagala neighbourhoods.

Students staying on campus are directly under the university’s protection, and it’s thus no wonder that the number of insecurity is way smaller in university halls. These incidents, however, beg the question of who is responsible for the welfare and safety of students residing in off-campus hostels.

Some high end hostels, like Nana Hostel, strive to keep a reasonable level of security at their premises with guards that make routine security checks constantly on the premises. But not all hostels are high end, and most students would not afford them either.

Some hostels are left in the hands of students who are then tasked to oversee administrative duties and rent collections.
All concerned stakeholders are playing the blame game, passing on the responsibility to each other like a hot potato.

The universities turn the responsibility of looking after students in hostels over to local authorities and the police, saying they only ensure the safety of those that reside in their designated halls.

Rev. Milton Tweheyo, the director of students’ affairs at Uganda Christian University, says the university only has administrative oversight over hostels that are affiliated to the school. Such hostels are run like university halls. He adds that there are other hostels registered with the university but which are not affiliated and hence the university does not directly supervise them. The hostels are only registered after getting clearance from Mukono Municipal Council, which in this case would be the overseer.

However, the Mukono Municipal Council chairperson, Mr Muyanja Ssenyonga, threw the responsibility back at the university and hostel owners who he said were supposed to invite the town’s council to check hostels. He added that the hostel where the two students died was dully registered and that the deaths were caused by a civil dispute between the students and not a lack of administrative oversight. That, however, raises questions over how it met the requirements and yet it neither had 24-hour security nor a sign post, let alone a name.

Mr Ssenyonga said it was hard to monitor all hostels in the area because some of them were simply extensions of private homes which could not easily be policed. At Makerere University, the Dean of Students, Mr Cyriaco Kabagambe, also distanced the institution saying the welfare of students was in the hands of hostel owners and police. However, the Universities and Other Tertiary Institutions Act obliges the university to provide for the welfare and discipline of its students.

Kampala City Council Public Relations Officer Simon Muhumuza said KCC ensured that the hostels met required standards but did not interfere with students’ welfare. KCC does indeed have a set of regulations for hostels to meet that include having secure fencing and constant security guards. However, a walk through Kikoni where rental houses locally known as Mizigo have been turned into hostels, reveals that these requirements are not fully met or enforced.

Police spokesperson Vincent Ssekatte did not have details of any suspects that had been arrested over the above noted deaths at hostels although some culprits have been prosecuted and have got prison sentences for the crimes.

Duke Mabeya, 27, was this week sentenced to 45 years in prison for murdering his girlfriend, also a Kenyan, Ruth Nyarangi. Mabeya was a student at Makerere University while Nyarangi was a Bugema University student. Another student at Kampala International University was in March for allegedly stabbing her boyfriend to death in a room they had rented in the suburbs of Kansanga.

Back in Mukono, the DPC, Mr Alphonse Musoni, said they had not completed investigations into the deaths of the two students at the nameless hostel because they were still waiting for results from the government laboratories.

According to Fagil Mandy, an education consultant and author of the book Top Secrets of Educating your Child, the welfare of university students in hostels should not be the responsibility of the university, but rather, jointly taken care of by City authorities, the police, parents and the students themselves.
The university, he added, could only be responsible for students that were residing in its premises.

“It is the system that should take care of students. If it is a health issue, then let the public health departments be in change, just like the way they do for homes as they go through educating people on home sanitation. If it is about the buildings, then let the ministry of works be in charge,” he says.
He also notes that probation and welfare officers at town councils should look into students’ welfare as part of their day-to-day mandate.

Parents advised on students’ accommodation

With the ball of responsibility over who is in charge of students’ welfare at university being thrown about by authorities across each others’ court, parents are left with no choice but to stand up for their children’s safety, just like they do in boarding school at lower levels of education.

The Uganda Christian University’s Director of Students Affairs, Rev. Milton Tweheyo, agrees with education consultant Fagil Mandy that parents should take a keen interest in the quality of the hostels where their children stay and confirm that they are secure enough.

“Parents should inspect where their child will leave because it is going to be a home for the child. Just like they do when their children are in boarding school, parents should pay regular visits to their children’s residences at university. They should check the entire structure and not just the front and see that the premises satisfy security provisions,” Mr Mandy says.

Rev. Tweheyo says if parents want the university to take care of their children, then they should take them to university halls where the school has direct administrative supervision.
“Parents from outside Uganda could enlist the help of consultants to find out the most secure environments for their children,” Mr Mandy adds.

He also called for the introduction of general courses on personal security into the university curricula because most university students are fresh from boarding schools and are green about personal security.

The police’s routine patrols could be enlarged to include areas that are known for student insecurity and where students stay, says the consultant. Mr Mandy also adds that welfare departments at the town councils should include students as part of their everyday mandate.

What students have to say about life in hostels

“It’s okay to stay in hostels because they are comfortable. Those halls are so nasty.
Grace Nalule, Makerere University Economics Student

“…Hostels are kind of unsafe but it’s of okay. During this holiday I lost some of my property that I had left in the hostel for a weekend. But it’s okay. Staying in university halls is not okay. They don’t have water systems, the toilets are ever dirty and although a boy may survive in such conditions, it’s harder for us girls.
Norah Mirembe, Makerere University Mechanical Engineering Student

“…Hostels are not really unsafe. There is security and the environment is secure. The university halls would have been better but they are dirty and substandard. And they are also limited.
Daniel Muyinza, Makerere University Software Engineering Student

“…I think it is okay. The incidents that happened recently are just one-offs and are completely contextual - the boy and girl were in love. You can’t protect yourself from life… hostels are part of life.
Timothy Katuramu, Uganda Christian University Student Mass Communication Student