All of them arrived in Uganda by train. The construction of the Kenya-Uganda Railway, which started in the port city of Mombasa in 1896, reaching Kisumu in 1901, had reached Kampala, finally, in 1903. Transport was efficient—at least by then standards. And Uganda was a beautiful country. Earlier, Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill—there can only be one Churchill! —feeling fulfilled by the scenery that Uganda was, had written in 1908 that “Uganda is from end to end a beautiful garden where the staple food of the people grows almost without labor. Does it not sound like a paradise on earth? Uganda is the pearl (of Africa).”

In Kampala

Once in Kampala, they would then take a bus, a slow one, from Wandegeya to the hill. For Makerere University was built on a hill, perhaps a symbol of the intellectual heights they were expected to conquer to be truly prepared for the future.

It is inside these buses that they would meet other students, both newly admitted and continuing students of the college, from other countries. They would strike friendships, some that would outlast their days in Makerere. It would be a new world to them, and life – their knowledge, skills, and viewpoints – would never be the same again.

Cutthroat competition

These young men and women represented the best of this country intellectually. Called to Makerere to pursue mostly art-based courses, they had all qualified with distinctions to join the only university college in Eastern and Central Africa that offered diploma courses to the pre-1949 groups, and degrees to groups that joined post-1949 after it became affiliated to the University of London alongside the University of Ibadan in Nigeria and the University of Ghana at Legon.

Joining Makerere University was Herculean. Competition was cutthroat because as the only institution of higher learning in Eastern Africa under the British Protectorate, it accepted students from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. In Kenya, only four secondary schools admitting African students were authorized to offer the Overseas Cambridge School Certificate Examinations, the ticket to Makerere: Alliance, Mang’u (Kabaa), Maseno, and St. Mary’s School, Yala. But passing the Cambridge Examinations was not enough! Students had to again pass Makerere Entrance Examination, introduced in 1933 when the demand for the few places in the college outnumbered the supply, to secure a slot in the university that them was heaven.

“Unfortunately, half of my class in Maseno failed the entrance examination and had therefore to find other avenues to pursue higher education. I was one of the lucky few who qualified to go to Makerere, others being Joab Ochieng, Thomas R. Odhiambo (who later founded ICIPE), Burudi Nabwera (who later became minister in Kenyan government), and Samuel Onyango Ayodo (who later represented Kasipul Kabondo Constituency in Parliament as its first MP),” Professor Bethwell Allan Ogot recalls in his autobiography, My Footprints on the Sands of Time.

Humble beginnings

One popular Ugandan folklore holds that Makerere, first founded as a technical college in 1922 offering courses in carpentry, building, and mechanics, derived its name from the noises that birds and animals used to make while on the hill. The Kiswahili equivalent for noise is “kelele,” and “makelele” when pluralized. However, no one recalls with certainty when the ls changed to rs.

A few years later, following the recommendations by the De La Warr Commission on Higher Education in East Africa, the institution was accepted as an inter-territorial college to mainly offer two-year education program. It would then open its doors to first Kenyan students, like James Gichuru and Daniel Otiende in education (1933), and Jason Likimani in medicine (1934). By 1949, the institution had grown in size that the Asquith Commission had completely no reservations in affiliating it to the University of London, thus officially offering degree programs in various academic disciplines.

Built for the future

If there is an institution of higher learning that has contributed immensely to the development of post-independent East Africa, then that is definitely Makerere University. With its motto of “Pro futuro aedeficamus,” which translates to “We Build for the Future,” Makerere truly lived up to it, at least before the World-Bank-inspired neoliberal reforms at the turn of the millennium that watered down focus on the academy. It gave sons and daughters of African peasants the intellectual and social exposure to take their independence in their hands at the fall of the British Empire in East Africa.

These students would, upon graduation, return to their countries to contribute to nation building. Although some would go overseas to further their education, it is undeniable that Makerere had infused in them a sense of patriotism to their countries. David Rubadiri, for instance, went to Cambridge after Makerere, then went back to Malawi to be its first Ambassador to the United States.

Professor David Simeon Wasawo, upon graduating with distinction from Makerere, furthered his studies in the University of Oxford, then rejoined Makerere as a tutorial fellow. He would then find his way back into Kenya to strengthen human resource capacity at the University of Nairobi. The same can be said of other academics. In this category are Professors Bethwell Allan Ogot, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Henry Owuor Anyumba, Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, Thomas Risley Odhiambo, Joseph Ouma Muga, Simeon Hongo Ominde, Elisha Atieno Odhiambo, Micere Mugo, John Ruganda, Timothy Wangusa, Okello Oculi, among others.

Notable public servants and politicians in Eastern Africa also believe their leadership skills and abilities first sprouted in Makerere. Oginga Odinga, Mwai Kibaki, Benjamin Mkapa, Anyang’ Nyong’o, and Julius Kambarage Nyerere were students in the university at various points. Kibaki is best remembered for the economic progress in Kenya after decades of Moi’s authoritarianism; Tanzanians remember Ben Mkapa for establishing the Revenue Authority and Social Security Schemes; and Nyerere, for leaving behind a united country devoid of negative ethnicity and hegemony.

Beehive of academic activities

Biographer Carol Sicherman writes in her book, Becoming an African University: Makerere 1922-2000, that Makerere was in many ways the Oxford of Africa. She argues that Makerere had inherited the tradition of British university education that lay emphasis on academics and social experiences for its students. Besides, even at the perigee of British colonialism that ended the affiliation of the college to the University of London, the curricula remained unaltered (although the fever of Africanization of academic departments would catch Makerere, Nairobi, and Dar es Salaam nearly a decade later).

Of all the departments in Makerere, the English Department was the most active. “To live in Northcote Hall was to be part of something that seemed slightly bigger than oneself. Victory and loss, triumph and disaster engendered a common sense of grief or joy. Nothing—not even sports— compared with the interhall English competition in audience presence and anticipation. One did not have to be a specialist to enjoy a theater performance,” Ngugi Wa Thiong’o writes in his memoir, Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Writer’s Awakening. Students wrote for the Penpoint, composed songs, wrote plays and drama, and performed Shakespeare’s plays like Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice as if they truly lived in the Elizabethan era. These students, properly grounded in the art of writing and inquiry, would become the leading lights in various literary disciplines. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, John Ruganda, Jonathan Kariara, David Rubadiri, Henry Barlow, Micere Mugo, Timothy Wangusa, Okello Oculi, Austin Bukenya, among others all passed through the department.

Beyond the skies

President Mwai Kibaki spent the evening hours of his life journeying between his Muthaiga home and Nairobi Hospital. Old age had come with his stool and assumed a permanent residence in the former president’s house—to paraphrase Nigeria’s celebrated author Chinua Achebe. Aging is one inescapable biological phenomenon that worries us all. Sharp as a tack, articulate, and secure in his achievements in his heyday, old age had dealt a blow on Kibaki’s physical and neurological capabilities that he was countably seen in public since he officially retired from public service in 2012. He finally gave up the ghost at 90 on April 21, 2022.

As tributes from friends and people who worked with the departed president continue to pour in, one aspect that is almost becoming a permanent feature of the testimonies is Kibaki’s education in Makerere University. Although Kibaki graduated with a first-class honors degree in Economics from the university in 1955, which won him a scholarship to the vaunted London School of Economics and Political Science, where again he graduated top of his class, it appears universally accepted that it is Makerere that significantly prepared him for leadership in post-independent Kenya. Makerere truly built him for the future. Unfortunately, he has died at a time when the institution is holding its centennial celebrations.

Beyond the skies, he will reunite with fellow old boys of Makerere who also served as presidents. Milton Obote, Yusuf Lule, Godfrey Binaisa, Ben Mkapa, and—the diamond of them all—Julius Kambarage Nyerere.

“Why are you here, Kibaki,” the oratory excellent Milton Obote will enquire.

To which Kibaki will respond similarly to what Othello says in the Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Othello, “I have done the state some service, and they know’t —No more of that.”

Adieu, Mwai Kibaki.

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