Settling In: Life at Makerere

It has been an incredible first ten days in Kampala. After getting settled in the guest house and discovering my way around the city, the pace of life has certainly quickened.  I have started taking classes at Makerere University, I visited the American Embassy and welcomed the new U.S. Ambassador to Uganda at his residence, and I have met some fascinating journalists, friends, and colleagues.

Makerere University is unlike any academic institution I’ve ever attended. It boasts some of the brightest minds in Uganda, trains the most ambitious students, and is world-renowned as one of the best universities in all of Africa. So when I applied for the Fulbright last October, I wrote in my proposal that I wanted to take a few courses at Makerere to orient myself to the Ugandan media and Central African peace and conflict.

The university was impenetrable from overseas. No matter whom I e-mailed or tried to call via Skype, I couldn’t find a list of available courses before I arrived in Kampala. But with the help of my mentor and host professor, I procured a list of courses in Mass Communications and visited the office of the Peace & Conflict program two days after I arrived.

It took me three more days to ascertain when and where my classes would be. I was passed off from administrator to administrator to administrator, who would inevitably send me back to the same administrator I started with, who finally gave me a copy of the schedule. Although this was a frustrating process, at least all of the administrators now know who I am and where I’m from.

The first two times I attended lectures, the lecturers never showed up. Apparently this is pretty typical. According to the academic calendar, classes were supposed to start three weeks ago, but over half of the faculty positions at Makerere are currently vacant and some departments are in shambles. Professors receive abysmal pay, if they get paid at all, and the tuition money from 30,000-some students seems to disappear through the same epidemic that led Transparency International to deem Uganda “East Africa’s most corrupt country” earlier this week.

There is a new Vice Chancellor at Makerere, Professor John Ssentamu Ddumba, who promises to curtail corruption, minimize lecturer absenteeism, and raise standards, but I have yet to hear of any actual changes.

Thankfully, some of my professors have shown up and delivered engaging lectures, while my classmates have been even more impressive. The Peace & Conflict MA Program has about twenty students, most of whom have first-hand experience with conflict and peacebuilding. Several students are from northern Uganda, where the Lord’s Resistance Army fought against the Ugandan government for twenty years, several are police officers and members of the Ugandan army, one served as a peacekeeper for two years in Liberia, one is a priest, one is a radio producer, one hails from Somalia, and others work for various nonprofits. For this diverse group of individuals, the processes of peacebuilding are vitally relevant to their lives, and I look forward to engaging in rich and transformative discussions with each and every one of them.

As I prepare to dive into my research project more fully, I have already met several Ugandan journalists and made helpful contacts at the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, and NGOs throughout Kampala. I am incredibly excited with where this research might take me and I am certain that my own viewpoints, values, and beliefs will be challenged and transformed by a multitude of diverse opinions that I would never encounter back home in the U.S. I look forward to the challenges and journeys ahead and I’ll keep you posted on how things develop.

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