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UGANDA MARTYRS UNIVERSITY

PART 2. Departure and arrival

So on June 1 1993, I was at Brussels Airport with my suitcases and some of my siblings who had come to say goodbye and good luck. I was in a great mood as I was going back to a land I loved and starting a new project: Uganda Martyrs University.

The flight was smooth and without problems and we arrived, as foreseen, at Entebbe International Airport on the 2June at 9am. I was expecting my friend Hilary, coordinator of the university project steering committee, to be there to meet me. No way Sir! I stood there in front of a group of some twenty distinguished ladies and gentlemen welcoming me back to Uganda. They were all the members of the Steering Committee, which later on would be turned into the University Council, and they wanted to make sure, so I thought, that I received a welcome which would convince me that the project was worthwhile and that I would not turn around and run away!. I suppose they were all full of good intentions! Together we travelled to Kampala where a cup of coffee was awaiting us and then a few words of welcome and a big smile from all: GOOD LUCK! Well, as it turned out I would need it.

So there I was at the residence of the Missionaries of Africa in Kampala, with my friend Hilary and my suitcases. “What next?” I asked him. “Well I suppose you will need some time to rest after your long journey?” This put me off my balance as an eight hours flight was not excessively tiring, and I wanted to go to the campus immediately and start work. But no, I had to stay put because we were to visit the patron of the university, Archbishop Wamala, and some other members of the Bishops’ Conference and discuss with them the plans for the university. So my next two days were packed with visits and discussions. I also had the opportunity to meet the Chancellor of the university and, as I knew him from years past, our discussions were easy and without major hiccups!. But then the unexpected happened. In our discussions I asked if I could have a look at the finances of the university project. Hilary obliged and to my horror the accounts had been reduced to a pitiful 50 Dollars and a few Shillings! “What do I do Hilary?” “Well that is why you are here, to fundraise and get the university started!” Easy to say and I must have been living in another world as I just said “Well let us give it a go!” So this conversation brought me back to the reality and I soon realised what the “Good Luck” of the members of the steering Committee truly meant. I asked Hilary what he thought of it and his answer was quick “Let us work together and raise some funds!” To his credit I must say that the good man must have worn out a good number of pairs of shoes on the streets of Kampala to fundraise. His walking around and our visits quickly started bearing fruits, and this gave me the idea to visit an old Indian friend who had stayed behind during the Amin years and was still very busy at his industry. I went to see him at his factory and after proudly showing me around he simply said “Now what are you doing here after so many years?” “I have come to set up a university for the Catholic Bishops.” “Oh, are those the guys who run Interservice?” ”Well in a certain sense yes and you must remember our friend who was in charge?” “Of course that was that man who brought in so many goods via Mombasa!” Phew, we were back on familiar territory and as a result I left his place with a black plastic bag containing one million shillings in small notes. Standing outside the gate of the factory, with my plastic bag, I had to wait about half an hour for my friend Hilary to pick me up. Yes, I was back in Uganda and time did not really matter, as long as you achieve something. I must admit I did not feel comfortable standing there on the street with people staring at that big “mzungu” holding a bulging plastic bag. Luckily no police officer approached me to see what was in the bag, maybe a bomb or some drugs! But fine, I had made my first contribution in Uganda to Uganda Martyrs University. More adventures would follow in fast succession.

Now it was time to think seriously about moving to Nkozi, the proposed location. But Hilary announced “We do not know where you will stay!” “Listen man, I have to move and we will see what is in store once there”. So off we were in his little car, me with my suitcases and a bundle of plans and good will! And you must admit that things always fall into place and on arrival I was welcomed by an old friend Bernard Onyango, former Registrar of Makerere University and now Registrar of Uganda Martyrs University. Together we would work for years setting up the place, and these were good years with great collaboration and friendship. He had arranged for me to stay at the local hospital in the doctor’s house, which was empty for the coming months. This would give us some time to look around for permanent residence. In fact, works were going on to renovate and improve the former residence of the principal of the former National Teachers College, to become the Vice Chancellor’s residence. The college had been given by the Ministry of Education to the Bishops so that they would have a site to start the university. Good idea but the works which had to be done to bring the place to a decent status were enormous and you can understand why government was keen to hand over such infrastructures which needed massive investments. Fine, as time is not of great importance, we set out to tackle the task. I moved into the doctor’s house and it was more than what I needed for the moment. The problem was that I had nothing with me to do some cooking and other domestic chores. I asked the person responsible of the hospital if I could use what was in the cupboards but met a cold NO, this belongs to the hospital. Now how Hilary and Bernard managed to get the house but not the use of its contents will always remain a mystery to me. I had some past experience to live in the bush so I knew what I should get to make myself reasonably comfortable. It worked out and after a few days I could hold a first evening meeting preceded with a friendly Spaghetti Bolognese. Bernard came down with his secretary, the assistant registrar, who was a former staff of the college, the human resource manager of the university, the finance officer and the driver of the university! We enjoyed the meal and afterwardsI suggested that the driver take himself off as I wanted to discuss a few urgent points regarding the university. He left the room but stayed outside the door for the rest of the evening and must have heard all we discussed! No wonder news moves around fast in Africa!

Our main concerns were the first students’ intake and the date of opening. Now that I had had time to visit the site and assess the place, I saw that a few buildings were in reasonably good condition but needed a good cleanup and some paint, and so we decided that the first intake would be on October 18 1993 and not September as initially announced. Also the first group of students would be limited to 84, some for the Institute of Ethics and some for the Faculty of Business Administration. We made the selection of students that evening, even if another selection had been made earlier. The next morning new faces appeared on campus: the new dean of the faculty and two lecturers. They had been appointed before my arrival and I could do nothing but to welcome them on the team. Another person, formerly teaching at University College Dublin, had been appointed earlier in the year, and in fact she was the first formally appointed academic staff member. She would arrive at the end of the month and set up residence at my place because there was nowhere else to go.

So there we had the first staff of the university: five administrators and eight academics. We also had a small community of the Little Sisters of St Francis (cook, nurse, gardener) and some technical assistance: a carpenter, an electrician, a plumber and the driver. I think I can say at this point that this small group would turn out to be a team of marvellous dedication and I felt good to start the adventure on the ground and at the Equator. Yes the campus itself straddled on the Equator, one part in the Northern and another in the Southern hemisphere. We used to joke that we could have breakfast in the northern hemisphere and sleep in the southern hemisphere! I do not think there are many in the world in such location! But we were there and could start work in earnest, but also meet our first challenges of a magnitude I never expected. Luckily I had the people around me who were full of dedication and generosity. But this for the next time!

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