Tuesday brought us to Kampala, to the Uganda Museum, and to one of our most anticipated destinations – Uganda’s center of higher education and East Africa’s oldest, Makerere University. Our plan was to form working relationships with members of Uganda’s academic community whose roles in the university, areas of expertise, and research interests could give us the chance to form partnerships with African colleagues, to the benefit of both institutions’ students and faculty. Our coordinators had established many of these contacts beforehand, and, with the invaluable help of Mr. Jimrex Byamugisha, our liaison at Makerere, they had arranged as many opportunities to meet, talk with, exchange ideas, ask and answer questions, and make the kinds of personal connections that only face-to-face meetings will allow, as we could pack into the three short days we would have in Kampala.
Kampala is the epicenter and emblem of Uganda’s rapid growth. Built on a series of hills, it leaps into the quiet elegance of its residential areas and then drops, again and again, into crowded business districts. So did we. We came into Kampala by traveling through these chutes and ladders. We climbed into the beauty and quiet of the hilltops (Kololo, Nakasero among others) with manicured lawns, high fences, expensive condominiums, tree lined streets, breathtaking panoramic views. We then dropped into the jam-packed valley markets through panic-inducing bus, car, motorbike, scooter, two-footed (human or chicken) and four-footed (goats, as likely as not) traffic that can only be described by noting that a road barely wide enough for two neatly-marked traffic lanes at home is apparently perfectly capable of carrying five or six lanes’ worth of vehicles, if one doesn’t mind close quarters and avoids using the brake unless absolutely necessary.
Our drivers negotiated these “lanes” with confidence born of long experience, and we arrived safely, if rather awed, at the Uganda Museum, where Uganda’s natural and cultural history is being conserved, studied, and displayed. We met dedicated scholars who gave us an enthusiastic reception and tour, and were introduced to Uganda’s rich past, but there was no escaping the fact that many culturally important objects that might have been there are still held at European museums. Uganda’s history reaches all the way to the birth of the human species, but the last few centuries of European-African contact continue to have a disproportionate influence on Uganda’s present.
That history is visible at the university itself. The campus’s equatorial East African location provides the lush flora and enormous, brilliantly colored birds, perched on everything tall, making tremendous noise, while the legacy of colonialism provides the red-tile roofed buildings, Ugandan versions of those multi-storied edifices we all remember, with heavy wooden doors leading to badly lit hallways that are lined with numbered doors and rooms filled with wooden chair-desks. Familiar also were the students. While we were there, the campus teemed with students studying for, en route to, or coming from their end-of-term exams, doing the things that college students do – holding notebooks in the crooks of elbows, claiming a grassy spot under a tree to talk or study, waiting in line to get in or out of those forbidding doors, finding creative ways to cut across campus. Little, except the birds, would have startled a student at Harvard or Oxford.
The educational system at Makerere also reflects European influence and felt familiar and comfortable, but it is not a mere stamped impression. We met with our colleagues during much of Tuesday and almost all of Wednesday, and found them eager to talk, warm, and extraordinarily generous with their expertise and ideas, offers of access to resources, not to mention their limited, exam-week time. We also found that the traditional Western educational models are vital parts of Makerere University’s curriculum, but there is no slavish adherence to things Western. Faculty are consciously and proudly Ugandan, as is evident in their choices for research and writing, their concerns for the specific concerns that their students face, and their choices for new course and curriculum development. The students we encountered, panel members at the forum hosted by the Academic Registrar, were also keenly aware of their African-ness, and made clear that they wanted to have an education that would be grounded in the reality they faced – the reality of present-day Uganda. Knowledge of that reality is what we and our students will need, if we are to accomplish what we set out to.
The faculty and students we spoke to were clearly excited to partner with us, offering us their enthusiastic participation. We discussed possibilities for student and faculty travel, internet-based class-to-class activities, faculty collaboration in research, and offers of access to materials. And they made it clear that, while they wished to partner with us, they expected us to partner with them. This would be no one-way street, but a full and equal partnership.
At the end of the day, we had the pleasure of witnessing a performance of traditional dances, representing some of the cultures and kingdoms of the Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi, at the Ndere Cultural Center. There too, we heard and saw pride, joy, energy fueled by hope for the future, and consciousness of the weight of the past. That mixture of awareness of the reality of the past and dreams of a dynamic future mirrored the contrast between quiet hilltops and crowded streets. For Uganda and for the chance of cooperation between Harper and Makerere, we can let the past weigh us down, or we can use it as a springboard.