Decolonising Makerere: On Mamdani’s failed experiment

At the “Harvard of Africa” in Uganda, power remains in imperial structures and bodies, while excellence is still defined on Western terms.

In 1922, within a few decades of British colonial control of the protectorate called Uganda, a technical school was founded. According to folklore, the hill on which the school was built was famed for its many noises. Kelele is the Kiswahili word for noise, the plural: Makelele. The folk tale concludes that the hill and the technical school took on the name, but with the ls replaced with rs. The Makerere Technical College, as it was known at the time, taught carpentry, building and mechanics.

In 1949, the school became affiliated to the University of London. Alongside the likes of Ibadan, Legon and Gordon – as well as Dar es Salaam and Nairobi later on – it became one of the so-called ‘Asquith colleges’ offering courses with degrees awarded by its Britain-based mother. As Carol Sicherman notes in Becoming an African University: Makerere 1922–2000, this arrangement was “presented as a means of guaranteeing world-class quality, [but it] ensured continued British influence once the colonies ceased to exist as such”.

On 9 October, 1962, Uganda attained independence. Eight months later, Makerere’s relationship with the University of London came to an end, at least formally. Conversations about the ‘Africanisation’ (or decolonisation, one could say) of everything in the newly-independent countries was the order of the day. And the establishment of the University of East Africa – comprising of Makerere, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam as constituent colleges – marked a new chapter in the life of each. Introducing a bill to establish this University, a politician reasoned: “To become African in a meaningful way, a university has to transform itself from ‘a pale reflection of alien universities’ into ‘a living concrete symbol of all that is African’.”

Uganda’s independence also had a big personal impact on many citizens, among them a young man who had just completed his O Levels at Old Kampala Secondary School. Born in 1946 in Mumbai and raised in Kampala, Mahmood Mamdani was the recipient of one of 24 scholarships the US government awarded as a gift to the newly-independent nation.

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by Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire

Photo Credits: Ian Beatty