Makerere knocks down its iconic Main Building

Workers go about their business on the  Makerere University Main Building yesterday. PHOTO/MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI

What you need to know:

This comes 19 months after a fire gutted the so-called “Ivory Tower”, destroying several documents and equipment.

The Main Building, alias mighty Ivory Tower, that has for 81 years easily been Makerere University’s symbol of distinction, has finally been demolished.

The demolition work, which Saturday Monitor understands commenced nearly a week ago, has been met with mixed emotions.

The work of knocking down the building comes 19 months after a fire gutted the so-called “Ivory Tower”, destroying several documents and equipment. The fire swept across several offices that were based at the Main Building, including that of the university’s vice chancellor, Prof Barnabas Nawangwe.

Prof Nawangwe has since relocated his office to one of the new buildings on the lush campus—Central Teaching Facility. While this gives him the chance to walk past the odd lecture being conducted at Uganda’s oldest university, the vice chancellor has always insisted that the Main Building will be “restored” by the time Makerere toasts to 100 years in August.

A few weeks back, the university management handed over the site on which the remains of the Main Building squat to the contractor—Excel Construction Company. The repair job officially kicked off on March 14.

Prof Nawangwe revealed back then that Excel Construction Company beat eight other companies to the job. He also described the company’s billing as “affordable.”

Parliament approved a Shs20b supplementary budget for the construction works, and Prof Nawangwe is confident the Main Building will be restored before August.

The Main Building had a unique 20th Century British architecture outlook. Prof Nawangwe says the outlook will be maintained as has always been the case when its construction was completed in 1941 during the leadership of George C. Turner.

Mixed reactions

News of the demolition of the Main Building following a fire in September 2020 has been received with mixed reactions from educationists, alumni and members of the general public.

Mr Martin Okiria, the chairperson of Secondary School Head teachers Association, said the Ivory Tower “evokes a lot of memories from most of us.”

He added: “Many of us have that attachment. When you talk about Makerere, the first thing that comes to people’s minds, including those who left the university a long time ago, is that building.

“I know that there are many other buildings that have come up and they are wonderful, but that building remains in people’s memories...”

Mr Okiria, an alumnus of Makerere University and the current head teacher of Soroti Senior Secondary School, hopes that the new structure does more than be an echo from the past.

“If it is being demolished to put something better, I would really request that the new building should have some characteristics of the old one so that we are reminded about it as alumni,” he said.

Renowned educationist Fagil Manday said the demolition works were long overdue after the fire left the Main Building with visible cracks.

“Repairing the old structure as it was is not valuable,” he said, adding: “Demolishing it was another possibility so that we put up another building altogether.”

No change

The Principal of College of Business and Management Sciences (CoBAMS) at Makarere University, Prof Erias Hisali, said the demolition of the Ivory Tower should not be greeted with apprehension.

“The communication we received from the vice chancellor indicates that the structure is going to be exactly the same from outside. This was also communicated to all stakeholders,” Prof Hisali said.

He added: “Definitely, we have good memories of the old structure, but I would like to assure the public that this beauty is going to be the same.”

Mr Usufu Welunga, a fourth year Law student at Islamic University in Uganda, said it was almost a given that knocking down the Ivory Tower would touch a raw nerve.

“It is not about Makerere, it is about Africa and the world at large. Many people from different parts of the world have either gone through Makerere or associate themselves with this university and I guess the Ivory Tower is an icon many people treasure,” Mr Welunga, who is also the president of Uganda National Students Association (UNSA), said.

Makerere University Main Building after it was gutted by fire in 2020. PHOTO / FILE

Hard to say goodbye

Unsurprisingly, Mr Welunga’s prayer is that the contractors maintain features of the old structure.

The building floor plan of the charred Main Building was a unique T-shape. The edifice also had an imposing tower via its main entrance. Up top the imposing tower was a bare stone with a large bell in it.

With four arches to each side, the bell would go off at the top of each hour. Students, who are currently writing their end of semester exams, are no longer alerted to the top of the hour by the bell. Instead, the sound of an 81-year-old building being torn down menacingly rings in the air.

The chairperson of the National Private Educational Institutions Association, Mr Hasadu Kirabira, who described the Ivory Tower as a “historical building”, said he will miss the old building.

“It has been a historical building that many of us wanted to associate with and when you talk about Makerere, a picture of this building comes into your mind. It reflects an impression of what we call Makrerere University,” Mr Kibirango, who graduated from Makerere in 2005 with a Bachelors of Education degree, said.

A Shs20 billion question: Demolition or renovation?

Everyone seemed to be generous with adjectives when it came to Makerere University’s Main Building. Some preferred to call it iconic, others settled with monumental. Either way, the building that stood tall for nearly eight decades is steeped in history.

As constructors this past week started tearing down the structure that was profoundly compromised by a fire on September 20, 2020, the subject of loss started to dawn upon alumni of Uganda’s largest and oldest institution of higher learning.

The university, which turns 100 later this year, has over the years produced so many rhetoricians.

It, therefore, came as no surprise that its alumni are questioning whether the tearing down being witnessed is paving the way for a reconstruction or a renovation. Which way is best, one alumnae rhetorically asked midweek: Demolition or renovation?

When a fire tore through the Main Building two Septembers ago, such was the trail of destruction that the charred structure left standing was deemed not structurally sound.

Hours after the fire was put out, the university’s vice chancellor—Prof Barnabas Nawangwe—was quick to assure Ugandans that although “the destruction is unbelievable[,] we are determined to restore the building to its historic state in the shortest time possible.”

Nineteen months later, baby steps in a rebuilding process alumni are not quite sure what to call has commenced.

Prof Nawangwe has asked the contractor on site—Excel Construction Company—to burn the midnight oil to ensure that the Main Building is standing when the university holds its centennial celebrations in August.

While Parliament approved a Shs20b subvention to prop the [re]construction works, undercurrents have continued to bubble.

On Thursday, Richard Lumu (Mityana County South MP) expressed concern about “the nature of construction” on the floor of the House. With a pained look on his face, Mr Lumu said the [re]construction “is not up to standard.” He also sought to find out whether the Shs20b will be used “for just repairs or fresh construction of the building.”

The construction of Makerere University’s Main Building—fondly christened “Ivory Tower”—began in the 1930s and was completed in 1941.

By the time it was completed, Makerere had begun offering post-secondary education certificate courses.

First established in 1922 as a technical school, Makerere would go on to have a who’s who alumni cast.

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