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Life in Uganda

Uganda Martyrs University

Part 1 Preparations

So there I was, appointed to set up a university in the heart of Africa. Sometimes you wonder why you are asked to do certain things, but do not think too long because you may not do anything! My first plan was to complete my current assignments, university teaching until March 1993 and the tribunal work to the same time, so I had almost a full year to prepare a “few things” I felt necessary to make things work. As I had visited the place in March 1992, I had a fair idea of what would be needed.

First, some work on academic programmes: which ones to set up? Given the situation in the country it appeared that some fresh ideas in management and in ethical behaviour might be a good thing. Thus two faculties were proposed: a Faculty of Business Administration and Management a Faculty of Ethics, which later would become the Institute of Ethics and Development Studies, a first in the world at that time! I submitted my ideas to the steering committee and they were approved. This gave me an open road to write some notes for a first academic catalogue. I had it printed and sent some copies to the chair of the steering committee for use and distribution to potential first students.

Now came the big beast: where do I get the money for this venture? I had been assured that there were funds available in a university account in Uganda but was never told how much! Maybe it was a bit naïve on my part, but I worked with that assumption in my head and set out planning what basic things I would need, ranging from computers to lecture rooms and a library, to printers and a good photocopier. Of course for such big printing jobs you need paper, I ordered two pallets of good A4 paper, alongside envelopes and all manner of office supplies (these lasted around 10 years!!). Offices had to be equipped and the small bits and pieces were purchased not forgetting some decent office chairs. Once I had placed the order the owner of the business asked me: “But how are you gong to pay for all that?” “Well, how much do I owe you?” was my answer. He gave me a figure and I wrote him a cheque for the said amount. The next day I received a phone call from the Missionaries of Africa in Brussels, who were aware of my foraging for office goods, if indeed I had made such big order. “Of course and you know that I have been asked to start a university in Uganda!” was my answer. “But who pays?” “I wrote them a cheque, so what is the problem?” “Are you sure you have the money because we will not foot the bill”. I just said: “Watch me!” and put down the phone. I must say in hindsight I had some guts to do that, but then it was the truth, a truth that would cost me blood, sweat, and tears to bring to reality!

Now a university needs some basic books to set up a library with relevant materials. As I was teaching at Louvain University I went to see the librarian. Kindly she told me that there was a fund in the vaults of the Institute of Nuclear Physics, where all kinds of books were waiting collection. I was free to go there and take whatever I wanted, free of charge. Boy, did I raid the place! I felt good after that and thus more boxes went to the collection point for packing into the containers.

Now, I had to set up residence on campus but the house was under construction and I doubted very much there would be practical facilities such as a kitchen and bathroom installed. So I trotted up to IKEA and bought the needed furniture for kitchen and bathroom. In another shop I purchased a fridge, cooker, freezer, and washing machine. A few extra kitchen implements were also bought to make life more practical. But life has also to be palatable. At home I still had a fair amount of good wines and decided to have them packed as well. To ensure they would arrive safely all the boxes were labelled “Books” and indeed made the trip safely. At least this made life much more pleasant once settled down at “home”.

All in all a sizeable amount of goods which would have to be crated and sent to a central place to be placed in a container. With a friend working at a freighting company I ordered for a 20 foot container. At the end of the day I had two containers of 40 feet each, one being my property for storage in Uganda. In one container my car had to be crated. In it I packed more valuable things and I would never regret doing that! Small things can become big and I have learned that things expand as time goes by! In any case as I had two containers I offered my Irish colleague to have things sent to Belgium and then to the container for travel to Uganda. Two pallets arrived a few weeks later at my place. Some Ugandan students, completing their studies in Belgium, were offered to put their goods and possessions in the containers and so have them shipped to Uganda. Now one thing I had been warned about was the uncertainty of moving goods in East Africa. So, against the advise of the freighting company, I took a comprehensive insurance to cover travel and goods. I will never regret it! The company told me they never had had any problem with the goods they were transporting. Maybe my suspicion was a premonition for what would happen later.

As for the cheque I wrote to pay for all the goods, I had contacted a Dutch charity, I have already mentioned them in an earlier blog, and within twenty four hours I managed to fundraise some one hundred thousand dollars, which covered generously all expenses. My lesson in this: “Do things the way you think best and trust that some will be standing behind you to support you, financially if need be, otherwise certainly!” Over the years that one charity gave Uganda Martyrs University the sizeable sum of about three million dollars which enabled me to set up a super institution. Others chipped in so that we could always cover the expenses we thought necessary. Maybe I have always been very trusting, maybe too trusting, and I remember my family asking me “Are you sure?” I think they really meant “Are you mad?”.

With all these preparations behind me, I finally drove my car to Antwerp where the goods would be crated and placed in the containers. When I saw the mountain of goods waiting to travel, I just could not believe my eyes and there I was with a car to be added to the lot. One thing struck me: a huge wooden crate with Rank Xerox written large on the side. What was that? Just a suitably-sized photocopier for a university I was told!

So there I was with what I had planned as necessary for the setting up of such project. I knew there would be many more things needed, but then I was sure I could find them later when they became really needed. I could complete my tasks at my office at the tribunal and my teaching at university and start looking at my own suitcases to get me on the way back to Uganda. This would happen on 1 June 1993.

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