If Makerere varsity gets it right, Uganda probably will as well

Author, Benjamin Rukwengye. PHOTO/FILE. 

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But we must acknowledge that an institution that is run as a carbon copy of Uganda will likely bear the same results, circumstances... 

A young man told me this week that he couldn’t get into University of Pretoria because of Makerere University. Without even asking, I knew what had happened – you too would, if you have ever had to deal with Makerere.

Apparently, as part of the processing routine, the admitting university needed to “speak directly” to his alma mater. So, they emailed Makerere, requesting that the university verifies his documents in order for them to make the final confirmation.

Makerere as you would expect, did not respond. The university in South Africa asked that he goes and speaks to someone at Mak but if you have been a student at Mak, you know that things like that don’t work.

It is sometimes hard to reconcile the Makerere University I was at in the 2000s, with the one my father talks about from the late 80s. In some ways, it feels like we went to different universities – well, same venue but different soul and value systems. That contradiction is also something you hear very much today from older folks, when they are exasperated by the collapse of things in government and everywhere else.

 As the university celebrates 100 years of existence, it is hard to not be impressed by its enduring spirit and resilience. We never really build for the future and yet, the ‘Ivory Tower’ has been a somewhat classic embodiment and irony of that statement.

My father tells of how they were only about 3,000 students, all of them residents. It was such a close-knit elite community that you pretty much knew every other student on campus.

They were all government sponsored and given stipends, which they spent at the now defunct Guild canteen; and whatever Wandegeya looked like at the time. Mostly, for all the debauchery of the time, he also prides in the intellectual discourse that characterized the university at the time.

It really was the centre of excellence and central to shaping public policy and debate – because of the caliber of faculty and students at the time.

It has been gratifying to see the spectacle of celebrations to commemorate 100 years of Makerere University, especially the ensemble of public lectures that have been running over the last couple of weeks. Makes you wonder why that isn’t the norm – considering more than half the guest speakers are staff of the university but it also somewhat makes sense if you remember that this is Makerere, which in many ways is a summarised version of Uganda.

It is sort of perplexing that getting a driving permit is such a seamless task but getting a passport is like trying to fix a rope through the eye of a needle – yet both institutions are run by the same government. No wonder that for all their global acclaim in research, their operations and administrative systems are a mockery of education.

 That is exactly why the sad irony of the death of Michael Betungura, in the middle of the centenary celebrations shouldn’t be lost on us. Like many things that result from chaotic scenes, it is possible that we shall never have an accurate account of what happened moments before the young man, a student from another university, succumbed to an apparent stab wound.

We don’t even need to go into the specifics but it is heartbreaking to note that while Betungura’s death was saddening, it wasn’t surprising. In fact, it is surprising that a tragedy like this hadn’t happened before. Not to say that Mak students haven’t lost their lives to senseless acts of violence before – because they have.

But we must acknowledge that an institution that is run as a carbon copy of Uganda will likely bear the same results, circumstances and consequences that we see in our public systems, politics, law and order and crime. It is also likely, unfortunately, that this death will not do much to change things – both in how students engage in politics or how the university administration runs the place.

Nobody has to die, that way, in a university. We must do more to cultivate the idea that ideas matter and that they can win. But also, that there is enough space on the table even for those who don’t win. But how do you do that? How do you create that environment? How do you cultivate these ideals? Because if Mak gets it right, Uganda probably will as well.

Mr Rukwengye is the founder, Boundless Minds. @Rukwengye