Suncolor's Blog

makerere universty: the harvard of Africa

Posted on: September 25, 2010

The Harvard of Africa
by john otim

In the garden city
The city was heavily European and Asian. Its superb tea houses, restaurants, cinemas, including the national theater were almost exclusive White terrain. This was inevitable. Only recently these people had run the show, and even now they still ran most things, independence regardless.
The key sector of the economy, the import export trade, banking, what industries there were, were in their hands. They ran most of secondary education and the whole of higher education. The only spots really African were the football stadiums, the bars and the night clubs. I don’t think the malwa joints that serve local brews had made their way to the city then.
On campus students struggled with the problem of identity. Not that they knew. But the gentleman image in a suit and tie held fast. A legacy from a past when city Africans in the alien and subjecting colonial town, sought to out dress Whites as a way of asserting themselves.
The young and handsome Sir Edward, King of the Baganda, was a splendid exponent of this school. The Baganda set the pace. Sayani, the leading city shopkeeper who happened to be Indian, was a beneficiary of this movement. The bravo of James Bond on celluloid gave the movement unassailable lead.

The invisible student
Students went about the city disguised as gentlemen. Not that they knew. On campus you observed no attempt to create a separate a student youth image that would perhaps be African. Newly liberated from the school uniform they wore for years, most Makerere students were comfortable and happy in the new uniform Sayani had expertly tailored for them. They knew not that it still was a uniform, its style and superb finish regardless. Sayani, and many others like him, smiled all the way to the bank.
The lack of a sense of identity, the invisibility of the student in the neocolonial city easily translated into the poverty of discourse evident on campus. This was inevitable. Discourse required superb self confidence. The colonial experience schooled these guys to follow not to lead.
This was the tragedy of the glamorous and altogether charming Makerere student of the early period of the postcolony. He was glamorous but he was anonymous. It is a paradox but it is true. City babes took after him for he was young and elegant, always neatly turned out. You thought he went to bed that way. And emerged in the morning trim fresh and complete that way. There was about the student a touch of desperation, even something of the tragic. He was so obviously talented but you thought you heard the voice of Elton John serenading over him: don’t let the sun go down over me. But the sun was going down.

Don’t let the sun go down
A steady supply of government bursaries ensured that the Makerere student was well off. Better off than the neocolonial worker on the streets downtown with his hordes of wives and kids. With his riches the student was the pure image of the young man about town. His appearance and mannerisms were far from the portrait of the scholar as a young man.
The student enjoyed his new riches and powers immensely. It took his time, it took his energies, and in the end it nearly consumed him. He vacated something.
In the vacuum that was created, the gifted and young Paul Theroux moved in and flourished. With a little bit of help from his friend Rajat, the creator of Transition Magazine now issued from Harvard, and a node from the great Naipaul, he celebrated Tarzan on the pages of Transition and launched his amazing career. In his latest book about Africa the famous American writer pays tribute to this period, Uganda was the making of me.
Recently I came across a piece on a web blog in which a Makerere student of the early years of independence enthuses that he got away with a two one without ever setting foot in the library. In those days the Makerere library was something. It was the pride of the college. It was the pride of the city. It was a stopping place for North American and European visitors who marveled at the wonder that was created in the heart of Africa.

Brilliant journalism
After years in the Diaspora the student had no regrets over his past delinquency. There were bound to be others like him who walked away with good degrees and unread minds. These were the glamorous lot for whom Theroux said the body had taken over. These were East Africa’s elite who novelist Bahadur Tejani calls the uneducated conscience.
You are about to ask, well, what about The Makerereian, that marvelous piece of student journalism of the time. How do you explain that? The Makerereian was a minority affair. Created, produced and sustained by a set of gifted highly motivated students, the brightest and the best.
But the fact remained most Makerere students approached the paper in consumer mode. The same way they approached their lectures. They would delight over favorite quotes of their famous professor. Mankind should neither at once nor entirely depart from antiquity. They thrilled at the language but they would not engage the quotes much less the professor that dished them out like so many barbacues. They sounded nice.
The lack of student city presence ensured that the wonderful student newspaper never got going beyond the sparkling green loans and flowering shrubs of the campus, in those days a paradise set in a colonial garden city. Physical restrains imposed other limits. Of course the President and some of the Cabinet and the diplomats read the paper. But it did not grip the uneducated consience of Kampala.

Beyond the gates
When the sun did come down as it was bound to do. In the coup that introduced General Amin to the world, a coup that was as much directed at the university and at the students whose lifestyle the soldiers envied and craved, the postcolonial students found themselves down and out. They were without a voice. They stood in a void. They were like a people expelled from paradise.

The first act of the soldiers upon seizing power was to drive in a convoy round the paradise that had exculded them. And in their eyes belittled them. They drove round shooting in the air looking for campus babes to rape.
Once in a lecture at the University’s Main Hall before a packed audience of students wearing their trademark red gowns a distinguished personality of the period warned the students. While you are here study as much theory as you can. Beyond those gates are practical problems awaiting practical solutions. Practical problems now breached the gates of the city of learning.
East Africa’s famous poet p’Bitek once teased the students as they sat before him in the Main Hall wearing their trademark red gowns. You wear red gowns but you are not revolutionists … you are exploiters. I feel like shouting a revolutionary slogan . The uneducated of Africa, unite. You have nothing to loose but your chains.
The soldiers such as they were, were most of them unschooled and uneducated. But they were not the uneducated of Africa. They were the group that Captian Lugard had found stranded and starving in the Sudan desert. They were a desparet lot waiting for death. Lugard had rescued them and turned them into instruments of imperial conquests. Lugard who was himself stranded without an army had called the encounter God’s providence. Now almost a centuary letter, the coup leader, using the same desparate bunch or their decendants as his crack troop, had called his own encounter God’s providence. God was everywhere.

john otim
ahmadu bello university
zaria, nigeria

Copyright John Otim 2008


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