Academic journal article Africa

Life on the Hill: Students and the Social History of Makerere

Academic journal article Africa

Life on the Hill: Students and the Social History of Makerere

Article excerpt


How will history judge British late-colonial efforts to export its model of higher education to Africa? In this article I challenge any simple interpretation of the 'Asquith Commission' university colleges--such as Makerere or University College Ibadan--as alien impositions or colonial intellectual 'hothouses'. Focusing on Makerere University in Uganda, and drawing on a variety of archival and personal sources, I show how its students and faculty engaged in an ambivalent recreation and subversion of the Westem idea of the university and its foundational discourses. I suggest that the institution offered a space to question and debate the purpose of an African university education. Students and staff made use of their limited political autonomy to challenge and rework the colonial hierarchies of race and culture. As a result, Makerere remained an influential forum for intellectual debate, cultural expression and social critique until the mid-1970s. Whilst this legacy is made less visible by the subsequent years of political crisis, underfunding and expansion in student numbers, it remains an important historical legacy from which to rethink the future of African universities.


Comment l'histoire va-t-elle juger les tentatives coloniales britanniques d'exporter son modele d'enseignement superieur en Afrique? Cet article remet en question l'interpretation simple des colleges universitaires nes de l'<>, a l'image des colleges de Makerere et Ibadan, en tant qu'impositions etrangeres ou pepinieres intellectuelles coloniales. A travers l'exemple de l'Universite de Makerere en Ouganda, rauteur se sert d'archives et de sources personnelles pour montrer comment les etudiants et la faculte sont engages dans une recreation ambivalente et une subversion de l'idee occidentale de l'universite et de ses discours fondateurs. Il suggere que l'institution a offert un espace de questionnement et de debat sur le but de l'enseignement universitaire africain. Les etudiants et le personnel ont use de leur autonomie politique limitee pour remettre en cause et retravailler les hierarchies coloniales de race et de culture. De ce fait, l'Universite de Makerere est restee un forum influent de debat intellectuel, d'expression culturelle et de critique sociale jusqu'au milieu des annees 1970. Meme si cet heritage a perdu de sa visibilite lors des annees de crise politique, de manque de financement et d'augmentation de la population etudiante qui ont suivi, il demeure un heritage historique important a partir duquel repenser l'avenir des universites africaines.


In 2003 a Makerere student sought political asylum in the UK. He had, he said, been hounded by an 'anti-gay' student movement from one of the university's halls of residence. They had repeatedly raided his rooms and beaten him. I was harrowed by his testimony.

His account brought back one of my first experiences of Uganda at Makerere in 1995. Renting a room on campus, I had awoken early one morning to the sounds of marching and shouting. My prefabricated 1940s-issue chalet shook on its stilts. Fearfully, I peered past the curtain, to see a phalanx of sweat-ridden young men in camouflage trousers. They chanted as they jogged past, heckled by a sergeant-major type figure. I assumed that it was an army detachment on a training run, and went back to bed.

At breakfast I mentioned the incident to my landlady, to find out that they were 'freshers', new students, at Northcote hall of residence. They were being inducted into its quasi-militaristic culture, complete with uniforms, marching songs and passing-out parades. Northcoters prided themselves on their militarist sub-culture. They were 'soldiers'--led by a 'field-marshal', and with a whole set of ranks within the hall, awarded by a 'Supreme Security Council' for 'bravery in action'. Each male hall was wedded to a particular identity--with University Hall known as the 'gentlemen', and Nkrumah Hall as the 'bachelors'. …

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