How safe are university students residing in hostels?

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.

Saturday December 11 2010

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.

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