Makerere 2022 and fluid tale of the royal lake lover

A view of Makerere University. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI | DAILY MONITOR

What you need to know:

  • One ridiculed the white canvas shoes that were part of the uniform of the Makerere students.
  • The other, more positive one, praised the sterling quality of the products of Makerere and its trainees.

What does 2022 trigger in your mind? I know some Nairobians would, in their caustic humour, answer, “2022? I thought it had come and gone. There has been so much palaver about it that it’s already old hat.”

My own take on 2022 is that it is a time to look forward to. Being the incurable optimist, I am positive that it will propel us into a glorious, peaceful and prosperous future, proving to ourselves and to the world how much we have learnt and grown in the nearly sixty years of our uhuru, the event and the process (as it will be in ’22).

So, I think, we should keep talking about 2022. The talk, however, should not be about personalities, clans, dynasties, ethnicities or opportunistic camps of convenience. Rather, it should focus on issues, principles, ideals and policies, as those who know best and care the most about these matters keep advising us.


Anyway, to take a quick escape route out of things I do not understand, I realise that 2022 is about a few other things more within the grasp of my simple mind and timid heart. The year will, for example, mark the centenary of that grandmother of East African universities, Makerere. Yes, the Ivory Tower on the “Hill” will turn a hundred years old in 2022.

My late mother, Maria Salome Kyolaba, who was also born in 1922, had two memories of early Makerere, both preserved in snatches of popular songs of her youth. One ridiculed the white canvas shoes that were part of the uniform of the Makerere students.

The other, more positive one, praised the sterling quality of the products of Makerere and its trainees.

The chorus ran, “Makerere ekola, ekola nnyo ekola” (Makerere performs, really performs). This referred to the designing and engineering prowess of Makerere, which started as a technical institute, curiously anticipating Nairobi’s Royal Technical College, which was to become our beloved University of Nairobi.

I wonder how much of all this is on the mind of our colleague, Vice-Chancellor Prof Barnabas Nawangwe, the man from Busia, who is likely to lead Makerere into the centenary celebrations. He is an architect, and he is certainly designing a memorable bash for the Hill, in 2022.

Anyway, if you commission me, I will go and interrogate VC Nawangwe and his team about all the preparations.

One thing I will be sure to push in my “interview” is that the centenary is not just a campus or Ugandan affair.

Makerere is a home to the whole of Eastern African education, and it should remain so. We keep emphasizing that wastaafu Mwai Kibaki, Ali Hassan Mwinyi and Ben Mkapa, as well as mahayati Julius Kambarage Nyerere and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, among a host of others, are products of Makerere, and there is no way of celebrating Makerere without celebrating them, and with them where possible.


For us literati and other artistes, in our famed strong sentiments (genuine feelings, not sentimentality), Makerere is inseparable from our best and most beloved all over the region.

Elders like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Micere Githae Mugo, Elimo Njau and Bethwell Ogot have spoken for themselves about their unbreakable links with the “Hill”.

Our dearly departed like David Rubadiri, Grace Ogot, Ali Mazrui and John Mbiti, also left their testimonies. We should honour them with more than mere mention in the celebration of Makerere’s hundred years. Makerere made them and they made Makerere famous.

Incidentally, there is a tender love story behind the name “Makerere”. It is about a king who loved water. According to Dr Michael Nsimbi, one of the earliest Makerereans and the founder of Ugandan linguistic and folkloristic studies, the “Hill” acquired two names during the reign of King Mwanga towards the end of the 19th century.

The official, respectable name was “Nnyanjeeradde” (the lake is calm). The unofficial, rather derogatory one, was “Makeerere” (waters of the unholy early rising).

Mwanga, the man who loved water, had been forced by health concerns and the turbulent politics of his times, to move his palace from the shores of Lake Nalubaale (Victoria) to Kampala, some 12 kilometres inland. But he dearly missed the lake, especially its calm surface in the early hours of the morning. Indeed, he had an artificial lake dug out for him below his Kampala palace at Mengo.


Still, the longing for the “big” waters of the lake persisted, until Mwanga spotted the highest point in Kampala, from where he could look out and see the glorious flood. This vantage point is the summit of what is Makerere Hill today.

Mwanga established an observation post there and on many mornings he would arise at the crack of dawn and climb up there to pay homage to the calm waters of the lake. Soothed, he would exclaim, “Nnyanjeeradde!” (the lake is calm), and all his nobles would chorus back in agreement.

Behind the king’s back, however, the nobles, who always had to get up and do the steep climb with him in the wee hours, were grumbling, saying, “Gano amazzi amakeerere! (These waters for which we have to rise at these unholy hours).” I am sure you can detect the “Makerere” elements there. In the end, it is the disrespectful name that stuck and eventually inherited the august institution.


As for King Mwanga, he eventually lost it all, including his beloved lake. He died in exile in the Seychelles, for his opposition to British colonialism, ironically surrounded by the plenteous waters of the Indian Ocean, which were never quite as calm as those he used to worship at Makerere.

Still, he had, unintentionally, given East Africans a name in which they should all rightfully take pride.

As I keep quoting Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Cheers to a glorious and prosperous 2022!