Makerere University

The Makerere University Main Hall in Kampala. 

| File | AFP

Makerere@100: Have Kenya’s great Makerereans received invitations?

What you need to know:

  • Makerere’s “building” prowess was very much on show at the Makerere@100 celebration inaugural ceremony.
  • The University intends to publish its own history, as a part of its centenary celebrations.

Makerere University turns 100 years old this year. The yearlong Centenary celebrations are, in fact, already in progress. They kicked off in October last year, led by President Yoweri Museveni, in his capacity as “Visitor” to the University (an office that empowers him to look into the affairs and running of the institution as and when the need arises).

The celebrations will run until October this year, and they are held under the rather hefty theme of “Leveraging 100 Years of Excellence in Building a Transformed Society”. I suppose that means that Makerere will use its 100 years of performing experience to contribute to the building of a better Ugandan and East African society.

What, however, caught my eye in the formulation of that theme was the “building” part of it. It reminds one that Makerere started, in 1922, as a hands-on, practical institution, long before we started talking of competence-based curricula. Indeed, the core courses established by its founding parents were carpentry, mechanics and masonry.

Little wonder that “We build for the future” is the University’s motto. It used to be in Latin (pro futuro aedificamus), but Apollo Milton Obote, the first Chancellor there in 1970, had it translated into English. Apparently, he had an aversion to Latinisms.

Anyway, Makerere’s “building” prowess was very much on show at the Makerere@100 celebration inaugural ceremony, with an awe-inspiring array of innovative creations and research projects displayed at the Kololo Ceremonial Grounds in the centre of Kampala, where the function was held. The displays ranged from “portable habitation solutions” (mobile homes) through open design low-cost ventilators, in response to the Covid-19 scourge, to the Kiira (Nile) EV, electrical vehicles, claimed to be the first of their kind on the continent.

Makerere's history

Speaking of building for the future, I remember emceeing a cultural extravaganza at Makerere’s Science Quadrangle, in 1972, as part of the celebrations of the “Hill’s” Golden Jubilee. That was 40 years ago, and some of the lines I had to say were, “We built for the future, and the future is here.” That was at the instigation of my teacher and friend, the Grand Lady of Makerere, Margaret Macpherson of “Cluny Castle” (her residence on the Hill), who worked at that campus from 1944 well into the late 1970s.

Macpherson wrote a heartwarming chronicle of Makerere, They Built for the Future, covering the growth and development of that icon of African higher education between 1922 and 1962. As I said in passing in these columns some time ago, it is a pity that no local author has, to the best of my knowledge, produced a comparable work. The best update on Makerere’s history currently is Becoming an African University: Makerere 1922-2000, by my friend and one-time colleague, American Carol Sicherman.

The lacuna, however, is just about to be closed. The University intends to publish its own history, as a part of its centenary celebrations. Indeed, I have seen a notice inviting personal stories from Makerere alumni and alumnae of their own days at the “Hill”, with prospects of publication. So, if you are a Makererean, you might do well to visit the relevant websites for further information.

This brings me to the most important point I would like to make about Makerere and its celebrations. This institution, though based in Uganda, is an integral part of our African and, especially, our East African heritage. Lagos University’s Prof Michael Okenimkpe, for example, who wrote (with the late David Cook) a ground-breaking book on the novels of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, was my MA classmate at Makerere in 1968. There is more to Makerere’s continental reach than the legendary David Rubadiri and his mates.

Most importantly, however, Makerere was for decades the University College of East Africa. It may not have remained so in name and in organizational structures, but it is still very much an East African institution in both the popular mind and in its actual population profiles. Though there were truly difficult times when non-Ugandan student numbers seriously dwindled, today, as always in the past, there are significant undergraduate and graduate student communities at Makerere from Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and South Sudan. They will all rightfully be celebrating Makerere@100.

Eminent Makerereans

We keep harping on the fact that Tanzania’s first three Presidents, Sheikh Ali Hassan Mwinyi and the late Benjamin Mkapa and Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, are all Makerereans. Our very own “Mstaafu”, Mwai Kibaki, is a “double” Makererean, having been a distinguished student and a prominent don there before embarking on his illustrious political career. I am yet to find out what roles are planned for Sheikh Mwinyi and Mzee Kibaki in the Makerere@100 festivities.

These, however, are only the most eminent among many other East African Makerereans who have distinguished themselves on the local and international scene. In Kenya alone, names like the Hon Rose Waruhiu, Prof Michere Githae Mugo and my friend and former boss at KU, Ambassador Prof Ciarunji Chesaina, readily come to mind. Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who makes no secret of his passionate love for Makerere, is constantly mentioned there as one of the University’s most precious products. Kisumu Governor Prof Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, who was also Makerere Guild President in his days there, is held in very high esteem.

The list could go on endlessly. The question, however, is how all these great Makerereans, and all the others in Kenya and all over the world, can participate meaningfully, effectively and memorably in not only the centenary celebrations but also in all the important affairs of their alma mater. Indeed, one of the five main pillars of the celebrations is “alumni”, the other four being the history, the students and staff, the community and the Government.

I intend to request an appointment with my brother from Busia, Prof Barnabas Nawangwe, the Makerere VC, to find out what his celebration managers have in mind for old Makerereans. If you have any suggestions, let me know, please.

No Makererean should miss this once-in-a-hundred years’ chance.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature. [email protected]