An eerie silence welcomes you to Uganda’s foremost institution of higher learning, Makerere University. The university’s hustle and bustle died down when institutions closed on March 20, following the coronavirus outbreak. It has been a week since the university re-opened to finalists, but the silence lingers on.
At the university gate, a short line of students grows and drops as they register their identity details to gain entry. There is no water or hand sanitisers at the gate, except for a stern police officer whose role is to make sure everyone entering the university has a facemask on. The same scripted procedure is applied at other entrances of the university.
As one moves deeper into the university, the sight of the ruined Ivory Tower stands out, even at a distance. The tower, a symbol of the university’s academic greatness, lies in ruins following a fire outbreak on September 20.
The tower has since been cordoned off with yellow tape, with only security officers lingering about to stop people from accessing it. The Freedom Square is the only facility which grabs a newcomer’s attention having been given a facelift.
Quiet and deserted
The passageways leading to different colleges and faculties are virtually empty, some with overgrown lawns, and one or two students walking by. Some students are spotted in the university’s spacious gardens reading or simply having a chat.
Some of the resident birds which occupied the trees and fed on food leftovers within the campus before Covid-19, have since vacated, after realising the absence of their human counterparts.
Similarly, offices are silent too, and largely empty except for a few staff engaged in interactions, whose echoes spill over through open windows. Occasionally, one happens upon women selling foodstuff such as boiled maize emerging from different corners of the university. The fatigue and frustration is visible on their faces due to lack of customers.
At the entrance to the School of Agricultural Sciences, a small water tank has been placed adjacent to the doorway for students and staff to wash their hands before accessing their lecture rooms, a ritual that I have to fulfill before heading inside.
Most lecture rooms are empty except for those where lectures are due to take place. Inside one lecture room are Agribusiness students waiting for their lecturer. Their seats are strategically placed at a two-metre distance. These students study in shifts with one group attending in the morning, while the other comes in the afternoon.
It is here that I meet Boniface Ojok, a third year student pursuing agribusiness. Ojok, a government student, says he arrived last Sunday to prepare for his final year exams, but felt lonely once he entered Livingstone Hall where he resides.
Since he was among the first to arrive, he says the university halls were dusty, with cobwebs, dirty clothes and rats moving about.
Ojok misses the good old campus days before Covid- 19. “It is a negative change because I am quite bored. Before Covid- 19, we were many people here,” he says.
He also decries prices of foodstuff, which have exponentially increased compared to the life before the pandemic broke out. While making a comparison, he says the cheapest food with bean sauce around the university premises was at Shs2,500, but this has almost doubled to Shs4,000.
The burnt Makerere main building is also saddening to Ojok. He says: “The Ivory Tower looks so dilapidated. It is like our dignity has been destroyed.”
No allowances yet
As a student on government sponsorship, he says the university has not yet issued an official communication on their fate regarding the living allowance, and therefore, for now, many are fending for themselves.
He says the government provides Shs760,000 per month as a living allowance, which also caters for meals since university halls no longer provide meals to students. Previously, government students received Shs500,000.
However, the social distancing at the School of Agricultural Sciences is in stark contrast to the situation at the School of Languages, Literature and Communication. One of the lecture rooms has few students but the seats are crowded together.
However, on observation, it seems for many of the students on the campus, maintaining social distancing or wearing their masks, especially when outside their lecture rooms is not taken seriously.
However, Mr Gilbert Gumoshabe, the head of department of African Languages at the School of Languages, Literature and Communication at Makerere University maintains that he makes sure his students maintain social distancing in class, wear masks and wash their hands.
Business has also taken a nose dive at the university Men Kimbugwe, who runs a stationery business within the university ,says students and lecturers have resorted to using online platforms for academic engagement, something she feels will push them out of business.
“Most lecturers have resorted to WhatsApp and using emails to give out notes and course work because most colleges have Wi-Fi, so we do not have any business of printing,” she remarks.
Kimbugwe hopes to make some cash in November as students start the registration process.
Islamic University In Uganda- Kampala Campus
Kampala campus of the Islamic University in Uganda (IUIU) sits on Kibuli Hill in Kampala. The university started receiving students on October 17. I encountered a different experience at the campus on my visit last Wednesday.
By last Wednesday, the university’s main gate was being manned by private security guards, who maintained that every student had to wear a facemask as they entered the campus.
Students were also required to wash their hands using an Automated hands- free dispenser machine placed at the gate. I later found out that the machine was developed by the university’s science students.
The machine uses an automated water-dispensing mechanism with proximity sensors to decide when to open or close the taps automatically. This minimises contact with potentially contaminated surfaces during the hand sanitisation process.
Save for a few students and staff on the premises, the university looked deserted. Sumare Mohammed, the deputy Academic Registrar, revealed that it was intentional to keep fewer students to maintain social distancing.
Shifts for social distancing
“We have put students in various sessions of morning and afternoon and also various days. Students have also been given gate passes which indicate their different sessions,” he said.
Big classes were subdivided into streams with lecturers of different course units interchanging after a certain period.
Just like Makerere, IUIU maintains a two metre distance in the lecture rooms. The wearing of masks has been emphasised through images on walls and doors throughout the campus.
According to Sumare, students are still financially challenged and many have asked for a grace period to raise tuition. Some had also abandoned their research and are picking up slowly with their lecturers.
As my fact finding mission came to an end, I noticed that in the two universities, the common denominator as to why students disregard social distancing outside lecture rooms is the long absence of social interaction and loneliness that comes with being few at the university.
Yusuf Wasswa, a fourth year Law student at the university, says the nature of learning under Covid- 19 is likely to affect the final grades of students because many are limited from accessing the university academic resources such as libraries and laboratories due to limited time within the campus.
“The reading environment is not favourable for some students in their homes. We also cannot have genuine discussions with our fellows. This may affect our grades at the end,” he laments.
Wasswa has a part time job, trading in produce. He has mastered juggling studies and his trade.