Africa’s ‘ivory tower’ of learning to be restored after inferno

After a section of Makerere University in Uganda went up in flames on Sunday, administrators say the institute, one of the oldest and most prestigious in Africa, can be restored and that its digital records are intact.

The fire that gutted Makerere’s main building, or “ivory tower,” as it is popularly known, also engulfed the finance department and the registry.

Ugandans looked on in shock as firefighters battled to subdue the blaze on the night of September 20. Archives, including dissertations that span decades, were reportedly destroyed. The iconic “Ivory Tower” had stood on the campus in Kampala since the 1940s.

A digital backup

Makerere’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Barnabas Nawangwe, told journalists that the “ivory tower” would be rebuilt. He said most of the university’s documents had been digitalized and could be recovered. Nawangwe also vowed to rebuild the campus.

“We have the blueprints. We also had a lot of photographic information, and the intention is to restore it to its former state,” Nawangwe said.

Makerere University (Getty Images/AFP/M. Sibiloni)

The main building of Makerere University in Uganda’s capital Kampala was built in British architecture

The university was built in the British architectural style of the 20th century. A large Gents of Leicester clock was placed on the tower over its entrance.

Alumni includes African leaders

The university is scheduled to resume its open and distance lectures and e-learning programsas planned on October 5.

Authorities are investigating the cause of the inferno. Police detained two of the university security guards on suspicion of neglecting their duties.

Ugandan politician Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu aka Bobi Wine greets supporters (Getty Images/AFP/I. Kasamani)

Makerere University alumnus Bobi Wine is running for presidency against President Yoweri Museveni

Makerere, which started as a technical school in 1922, is regarded as a leading university on the continent. It takes in over 35,000 undergraduates every year.

Generations of prominent Africans are alumni of Makerere. They include Tanzania’s first president Julius Nyerere and a few of his successors, Joseph Kabila, the former president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the Kenyan author, and Robert Kyagulani, the Ugandan opposition politician also known as Bobi Wine.

Read more: Ignas Fedeo: Exploring the legacy of Julius Nyerere

The building ‘speaks without words’

Makerere researcher Yusuf Serunkuuma told DW about the sense of loss that many with a connection to the university are experiencing.

“You know, we are going to have some Chinese come in and put up a structure. It’s never the same. It is going to be rebuilt alright, but it’s never the same,” he told DW.

“The emotional attachment, the emotional significance for all of us who went through this university — it is not going to be the same.”

Read more: Uganda’s Makerere University at center of row over academic freedom

Many students and former students share that view. “In my youth, you could very well see that spire and every day my parents would say ‘You know you should aim to be going there,” said Kampala lawyer Oscar Kihiika. The university and its “ivory tower” have been a part of life in the city and Uganda.

“When you see that building burning down, it is as if a part of you is gone. Yes, it will be rebuilt, it has to be rebuilt, but it is a reflection of a lack of seriousness on our part,” Kihiika said.

Makerere students (Getty Images/AFP/M. Sibiloni )

Many aspiring Makerere graduates may have to contend with a ‘different campus’ following the fire

Authorities are investigating the cause of the inferno. Police detained two of the university security guards on suspicion of neglecting their duties, but not much more has been established.

“This is a university that has been there for long. It has produced a lot of important people. So, we are still wondering what brought about the fire,” Mariam Nakijjo, a former student, told DW.

Simon Sagala Mulindwa, a historian who has tracked Makerere University since 1970, says he was in tears as the special piece of architecture crumbled. “That building stands and speaks without words.”

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