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Archive for January 2011

day by day in a war shattered village
by john otim

For hours they trekked for kilometers in a situation that brought them close to danger.  Given what it was at the time in Northern Uganda, anyone could have shot them dead and that would be that.

Now cautiously the men were making their way to what used to be their village. In the solitude of the dawn hour the men had slipped away out of the refugee camp that was their home, that had been their home for years now. A great gustily clamoring of mud huts straight out of medievalism.

"two million lived in this condition"

two million lived in this condition

The men were on a mission to reclaim their lives, to take it back. In the eighties when the war first came to Northern Uganda in a barrage of gunfire their lives had been shattered, entire communities uprooted, sent packing to camps far and near. Overnight otherwise thriving communities were reduced to destitution. In the years at camp they lost everything, crucially they lost the ability to make a living. By their loss the country lost something. In the squalor of camp life the good old mores of the village disintegrated and gave way to criminal ways. Now the ghosts of crime and the insanity of camp life were returning to plague the nation.

Years had gone and the war in Northern Uganda was abetting, peace was coming back but nothing was certain. So now the men had sneaked back to the village they used to call home to see what they could do. They were young men. They were the advance guard. If all went well on this mission others would follow. The advance guard would mobilize the people to return. The old vibrant life of the community would rise again. Perhaps in time the village would thrive again. It was better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven. Those thoughts again. For sure none of these men had heard of John Milton much less read Paradise Lost.

vandalized property

vandalized property

But now that they were here, back to the village after that long absence, now that they were back walking the same grounds they used to play on, the men felt their old energies return. They were connected. They heard the old drums beat again. But it was all a momentary thing. Now that their eyes were wide open and they could see fully, what they saw took the life out of them.

"wrecked homestead"

returning to wrecked homestead

 The village was a total ruin. Farmlands once filled with rice and millet stalks were wilderness. Monkeys were returning in droves. But the teaming livestock once the hallmark of the village was gone. Cattle was the wealth of the subregion. The once neat homesteads where women lovingly bossed their men, the trimmed schoolyard where school children held mini Olympics, the roads on which roared old fashion trucks and buses, and the other village infrastructures, were wrecks of their former selves. The old railway, the lifeline to the North was no more.

"idle rail station"

Despondent and despairing the men retreated to the veranda of the only store in the village, the spirit gone from them. “The time is out of joint! Oh cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right!” Hamlet. To be or not to be was the question. But it did not take long for an answer.

By their own efforts, with help from Ochan Self-help Alliance, the people of Opac were setting the times right. I saw it my self when I made the journey back to Opac this last Christmas season. Christmas is the harvest season in Opac. There is nothing to raise the spirit like the promise of better days ahead. Men are creatures of hope.  And in Opac as I found out, hope made all the difference.

It was Ochan Self-help Alliance that brought hope. The Maryland registered non-profit body connected the people of Opac to the world beyond their boarders and showed them what could be done even by people in their situation. At the time the people of Opac had nothing with which to begin the mammoth task they knew they had to do. the Agency mobilized resources, brought in equipment, and erected enabling structures, all for free.

help me if you can i ‘m feeling down
help me get my feet back on the ground
won’t you please please help me
(help lyrics)

 The people of Opac who had come face to face with death and raw brutality, saw now that good still existed in the world. Their spirits lifted and they drove themselves harder than they ever did. Men and women in the fields, kids in classrooms, had the fire burning in their eyes.

fire in their eyes

fire in their eyes

Although these were the localities in which my own father first began his teaching career, places of which I heard him speak very fondly, I myself  was visiting Opac only for second time.  Since I first visited last May during the planting season when the land was lush, green and fresh. It was as if the evils you heard in the stories people told did not happen here, did not to these people!

If the progress I saw in Opac depended on one thing, it was the crop, sunflower. To see in the fields as I saw in Opac, the graceful yellow flower dance in the sun in field after field. To realize that for the village this meant good income was a wonderful thing. For me it was straberry fields for ever. 

sunflower fields

sunflower fields

Sunflower was the essence of the hope that Ochan Self-help Alliance had inspired in Opac. Where the village could find no crop seed to put in their fertile soil, no matter where they went and how hard they tried, the Agency like magic supplied them with free seeds. It secured on top a competitive market and free transport for their produce over forbidding road conditions.

It was the run up to Christmas. The big day was only days away. I stood in the fields in Opac and observed the women as they set upon the ready yields to bring home the harvest. The time was approaching noon. The women had been at it by dawn.  Where did their energies come from? Later that evening I saw by the common store, sacks upon sacks of neatly processed sunflower seeds and I knew the answer. There is nothing like hope even though Ssaka Ssali of the Voice of America by his over use has devalued the word: Keep Hope Alive …

John Otim
Suncolor Media Consultants
Kampala Uganda

copyright 2011 john otim


hope and despair on the postcolonial campus
by john otim

Although Africans were among the the early makers of human civilization the modern African university owes nothing to African genius. It is distinctly the creation of the colonial state.           

          In the contemporary world Africa lags way behind in development regardless of indices we may choose to use. The writer and broadcaster Ali Mazrui has likened Africa to the Garden of Eden in Decay, a place that once had it all but that now has lost all, a king only yesterday but a pauper today.

            Yet in numbers alone, African universities have grown tenfold, churning out thousands of graduates. But numbers though important are not the game here. African universities as they are today betray little of the vibrant traditions that once animated the continent. Despite the poverty and the backwardness these traditions still animates rural Africa today. Take the case of the Acholi of Northern Uganda.

            The emergence of the African novel at Ibadan and the rise of the modern African art in Zaria, both events occurring in the middle of the last century, occurred because the colonial students that shaped the moments found a way to reconnect to their African past and from there drew strength.

            The African university today, whether Senegalese or Malian, has routes not in the rich traditions of Africa, but in Africa’s immediate colonial past. This is the problem.  Because the colonial past is the past of despair. It represented a period when Africa had lost the initiative was clueless.

            Unlike ancient Timbuktu or medieval European universities, the colonial university was not an organic institution. It did not rise out of the land. It could not offer a basis for the flowering of culture and learning.  It was limited in scope and scale. It admitted few students, offered few carefully selected courses, taught by colonial professors. The colonial students were cultural refugees, cut off from the treasure house of their heritage.

            There was little to distinguish between the colonial professor and the colonial administrator. Both were steeped in colonial culture. In colonial times you could not as a white person, live in Africa except as a colonizer. Colonialism as the life of Karen Blixen in colonial Kenya demonstrated, was a collective thing. It was a lived experience that sucked in all persons from the metropolitan countries that lived in the colonies.

            The colonial university however was a complex thing. There was little doubt about its mission, namely the reproduction of the colonial state and the promotion of colonial culture. In Africa there is a tendency to equate colonial culture with European culture. But colonial culture was not and is not European at all. Europe excepting only a few spots already had democracy.  In Africa the European colonies were heavy handed dictatorships, the type you encounter in many African countries today. 

           The colonial university sprang out of the milieu of the debilitating condition produced by colonialism. The colonial university could never have been a marketplace of ideas in sense Oxford, Cambridge, and the Sorbonne were and still are. But within its framework, the colonial university functioned admirably. Immaculate facade bestowed the grace of a metropolitan campus, radiated serenity, civility, and wholeness. Within its four walls the contradictions that were imperialism seemed far away.

            On the eve of independence the postcolonial state inherited the colonial university, little understanding its complexity. The inheritance was its most prized possession. So acute had been the hunger for knowledge and learning and so limited the opportunities. Chinua Achebe has remarked that the colonial university was the only good thing colonialism did in Nigeria.

            In the immediate post colony, the new President became the new Chancellor of what had become overnight the national university, but it was national in name only. Nothing pleased the President more than when he appeared in full academic regalia and presided over convocation ceremonies. Viewed as a symbol of prestige, the colonial university in its post colony stage was sliding towards outward appearance and further away from substance. During colonialism proper the institution knew exactly its purpose understood its mission and acted accordingly. Now the new managers of the place did not comprehend the dynamics at work but acted as though everything was alright.

           By the powers conferred upon me I confer upon all those whose names have been read the degree of Bachelor of Science. By the powers conferred upon me I confer upon all those whose names have been read the degree of Bachelor of Arts. Those became the litany of the postcolonial institution. Everything in the end became hinged on that. And so was entrenched the regime of marks.

            The ceremonies were conducted in a postcolonial culture saturated with the music and the culture of modern pop. Modern pop was suddenly the new power in the land.

            In time the neo colonial state proceeded to multiply its most prized possession. So acute was the hunger for knowledge. There was a need for men and women of learning in all manner of fields. There was a need for all manner of technical skills. In the postcolonial state everything was in short supply.

            The state genuinely longed for progress and desired development and prosperity for the people. But at the old colonial university, it was business as usual. The old colonial professors continued to do the same things they did before.

          Even as it routinely graduated students the post colony university faced the crisis of identity. What did it mean to be a university? What does it mean to be African? On the post colonial campus the crisis was deep but these questions were not asked. For a society emerging out of colonialism and in search of its own routes and place in the modern world, the program of learning and research at the postcolonial university were laughable. In the late sixties at the postcolonial university in Nairobi it took a fight by determined young lecturers led by the then young Ngugi wa Thiongo, to get African and non European literature on the curricula.

            Five decades on since independence the old question acquires now an urgent tone. How have African universities faired since independence? What goes on there? Is it true what Olugesun Obasanjo  once said according to a Nigerian daily? That all that the professors were interested in were drinks and beautiful girls?

            In the mid nineteen seventies a famous African Statesman famously declared at Addis, during the Summit of the Organization for African Unity, that Africa had come of age. But throughout Africa even as he spoke, it was the age of the coup de tat. He himself had earned his way to Summit by means of the gun.

            How could Africa come of age without its universities? Was that the example of Japan? Is it the example of the new China we saw at the Beijing Olympics? Without its universities where would Europe be? In Russia and Poland the intellectual tradition were well entrenched.

            About the state of the postcolonial university there is a little known novel called Marks on the Run.  It was published at the Ahmadu Bello University (where I taught) in 2002. Written by an Ahmadu Bello university lecturer, the book provides a rare insight as to what does go on in African universities. It is of course a Nigerian book but one can assume that it represents generally the African reality.

            Although its author is far from being a great man of letters and in many ways lacks the gift of a writer, Marks on the Run does manage to let one into the world of the postcolonial university in a way that gives the experience akin to that of an on the site observer.

            The old colonial campus is no more. No tears. In its place stands a huge edifice, hurriedly put together. Hundreds and thousands of students attend but many have no idea why they are there. The old colonial professor is gone; nobody there talks any more about spears, bows and arrows!

"ahmadu bello university" ahmadu bello university

            But there are lecturers and professors on campus who know next to nothing about their disciplines, who represent no body of knowledge, that are void of any trappings of culture. to be sure there are exceptions. Living conditions for students are appalling. Rented accommodation in town is worse. Really how anyone could study and learn under those conditions beats imagination.

            The old colonial mission of “for the glory of empire” that in the past guided learning and the curricula, is gone. But nothing has been put in its place. In the vacuum, the regime of marks and grades, and the final certificate at the end takes center stage. It is wielded through the combined dictatorship of lecturers and professors who invoke out of context, the African thing about deference to elders. “Where are your manners?” is a constant refrain on campus.

"ahmadu bello university students" ahmadu bello university students

            The university has become big business. Fake businessmen haunt the corridors of learning hunting fake contracts to deliver fake equipments and disused reagents. A growing number of lecturers find here a place for marking time and making quick dough. For the majority of students the university has become a place for picking easy grades and unearned diplomas, a far cry from the rigor and discipline of the colonial university. “Where has the good time gone?”

            Not long ago, a professor of the Ahmadu Bello University said to me. Here, no one earns their degrees. We dash them. He pointed to a group of his own graduate students lolling under shades in the heat of noon. They included some of his younger colleagues who were pursuing the PhD. Now, to dash in Nigerian terminology is to give away for free.

             In the novel, learning and things intellectual take a back seat; money and sex get to replace ideas as the real mode of academic exchange. In real life you see this imprinted on the face of the postcolonial campus through the attention paid to material possessions and the general lack of reference to academic work.

            But don’t go away, not all is lost on the postcolonial campus. There is present there a band of gifted professors and scores of talented and determined students – young people in love with the idea of a modern and prosperous Africa. There is a battle raging there between the good and the bad. Marks on the Run by Audee T. Giwa is a report from the frontlines.