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Life in Uganda

UGANDA MARTYRS UNIVERSITY

Part 4. The First academic year

We were all set up by the end of August and had just a few remaining things to put in place. The Registrar, Bernard, was finalizing paperwork for the first students and I had had some Senate meetings to discuss academic matters.
The first official start of the first academic year was to be on 18 October 1993. This date was chosen as it was the anniversary of the canonisation of the Uganda Martyrs and it would be the feast day of the university for a number of years to come. So students were expected to be on campus a few days before that date to enable us to lay some ground rules for all. Surprise, surprise, on 8 September 1993 a first young man appeared at the gates of UMU. “I have come to study at UMU and come from Koboko”. “Wow all that travelling, Koboko is at the border of South Sudan, but you are one month early! You must have received a note from the Registrar informing you of the postponement of the opening of the university till mid-October.” “No Sir, we do not receive post regularly at our place and it is far away!” “Well then you have to go back to Kampala and wait for the opening date” “But how do I live in Kampala?” “Well let us be good to you and we will give you some pocket money for one month if you find your own accommodation in town” And so our first student, now Deputy Vice Chancellor Academic Affairs at UMU, returned to Kampala for a month’s waiting. This incident gave us some impetus to make sure all would be in order to receive the students. On 15 October the first group arrived, some with their parents and suitcases and some on their own with little baggage. One had a simple cloth at the end of a stick hanging over his shoulder, his clothes were the ones he was wearing, and in the little bag some small things he would need during his stay. Rooms were allocated and students shown to their respective places which would be theirs for the next three years! There was excitement all over campus and some people even complimented us on the quality of the surrounding and the infrastructures. I must say that our team had worked miracles in revamping what little infrastructure there was and made it as habitable as possible. At least we had running water, the quality of which was not the best, and electricity, at least in an interrupted form due to load-shedding and the poor state of the poles! We had lecture halls, a computer classroom, and a small library. For the arrival day, the kitchen staff had prepared a nice meal and the caterer would, over the coming years, create an atmosphere of welcome through succulent meals, which would soon become the envy of other Ugandan universities. I will say something more about this later.

So there we were, a small team of staff and 84 new students, on a campus which resembled in some aspects a real battle field interspersed with decent buildings but the whole was set in a lush green environment resembling a botanical garden. Over the years it would be greatly improved and become a benchmark in university infrastructures in Uganda. The first evening was left to the new students to meet and get acquainted round a good meal. A meeting was scheduled the next morning where I would meet with them all and explain a few basic rules of the institution. The Registrar would do his part in addressing the students and so would the Assistant Registrar, Students’ Affairs. And then the first official act would be to register all students and give them their identity cards. It makes me smile today at what we did then, but it was good and efficient and within about three hours all students were registered and had their official students’ card. With a polaroid camera we had a photograph of each one taken, at the next table a little card was printed and at the next table the photo and the card were passed through a small laminating machine. We heard oohs and aahs from the students amazed at this “modern” technology! We thought we had achieved something by being so efficient and it was up to us all, staff and students, to be true to it and ensure that the university would take off in the best and strongest conditions. Well this became the rule for us all: quality work produced by all. This was my message and the message of the team. The students quickly jumped on this bandwagon and would really put their heart into their work and make of UMU a place “where it is good to be!” As we were a Catholic-founded institution we had a nice chapel on campus, and the chaplain, the former secretary of the steering committee, my friend Hilary, would make sure that a spiritual tone be given to activities on campus. But I insisted that we were open to all philosophies and faiths and never would we discriminate against someone not part of the catholic community, be it at the level of selection or during their stay on campus. A Church of Uganda minister would visit campus regularly and the Muslim students could attend prayers at the nearby mosque. This would pave the way to a strong sense of community spirit which would prevail all through my years at Nkozi campus. And here I am grateful to our first staff who fully backed me in this! On 18 October 1993, a solemn celebration took place in the chapel to mark the official start of the first academic year and the university was placed under the protection of the good Lord. Simplicity in what we did and said would soon be the general rule, and there would be not much need to repeat things, as all, staff and students alike, were eager to see the place take off well. All wanted to pave the way for the future and a real spirit of community took hold of us all. And the next day, on Monday 19 October 1993, the first lectures were give at Uganda Martyrs University. We had taken off!
You will recall what I said about the infrastructures in an earlier blog. Well there were the women and men who would work hard both intellectually and manually, to make the place their home. Community work was done by all and even my dog “Lady” was keen on helping all in their labour. During this first academic year we would clear a few more buildings and soon a small shop was opened and a staff club installed in one of the buildings. We felt good with this and thought we had really become a university! Landscaping was done in front of what was to be the administration building after having moved a mountain of rubble from the site. Within a year the whole place was transformed into a really nice and classy place.
I told you earlier that the caterer was doing wonders with the little means she had. Sundays became know as “Chicken Sunday”, as lunch served succulent chicken. Students are students, and some of them went to Kampala for the weekend and soon the news travelled that Sunday lunch at Nkozi was special. Friends turned up on Sunday mornings and soon the dining hall was overcrowded by people. Soon we found out that this number, greater than the actual student population of UMU, had been reached by visitors from other universities who came to see their “friends” at UMU. It turned out quickly that their purpose of the visit was the “chicken Sunday” lunch! We had to put a brake on it as it would be unsustainable for us to feed so many who were not part of our community. You can allow a few visitors but when the number of visitors equals the number of residents, there is a problem. But yes, we had indeed acquired a good name through the class and quality work of our caterer! God bless her for this generosity, but our budget had to be adhered to if we wanted to survive a full academic year! We struggled through the year and our resources were drained quickly. Thank God there were donors who helped us, and they would always come in at the right moment to make our lives what they were. A fair share of my work during those early years was given to fund-raising.
Time flew past us and in no time we had reached May 1994 and time for the first exams. I have never seen such quiet place as that examination room where all students were seated to write their papers, supervised by the Vice Chancellor, the Registrar and all academic staff. None had the intention of cheating in any way and this too became a norm at UMU even if there were incidences where some tried their luck at unnecessary cheating! Some young ladies had notes written on their thighs, while others asked for a short call to read notes taped inside a toilet cistern! All very inventive!
But we had made it, and now that we had completed one full year it was time to think about an official opening/launching of the university with the installation of the university officials and invite a special guest for the occasion, the President of Uganda, His Excellency Yoweri Kaguta Museveni. He graced this occasion with his wife and all were happy that outsiders had witnessed the event and seen that officials from the Ministry of Education and Sports had endorsed the university. The then Minister of Education, thanks to a good word from the Director of Higher Education who had backed us all the way, became a good friend of the university and this helped us to grow properly in the years to come. We could all say “ad multos annos UMU!”

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