Underfunded and Overrun, 'Harvard of Africa' Struggles to Teach

Violet Among, 21, was told that her scholarship fund had run out of money.
Violet Among, 21, was told that her scholarship fund had run out of money. (Photos By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 29, 2005

KAMPALA, Uganda -- Their central dormitory is named for a charismatic Congolese leader who was assassinated in 1961. Their university has educated generations of prominent Africans, including the current presidents of Kenya and Tanzania.

But conditions today at Makerere University, once known as the Harvard of Africa, are an embarrassment. Classes are crowded, dorms have only intermittent running water, scholarship funds are depleted and there are long waits for online computers.

"It's pathetic," said David Mukibi, a law student who lives in Patrice Lumumba Hall, which was built to house 3,500 students but now holds twice that number. "Our dorm is sinking. There are students sharing beds, bathrooms flooding. It's so congested here. But what other choice do we have?"

Violet Among, a freshman from Uganda's poor and war-torn north, was thrilled to learn she had been accepted at Makerere. But when she arrived on campus, she found that her scholarship fund had run out of money and her classes were so crowded that students had to sit on the floor.

"The administration told me that too many people showed up, all begging for scholarships," said Among, 21, who carried a shiny plastic book bag on her back. "But I will keep going to class. Life is hard where I am from. My family is waiting for me to be a teacher. I can't disappoint them."

As Africa grows increasingly urbanized, more young people are leaving rural life, finishing high school and flocking to universities. But they often find overcrowded, financially struggling schools where professors strike over wages and students riot over canceled scholarships.

One reason is that just as the number of qualified applicants began to soar in the 1990s, the privatization movement gained momentum and governments across the continent cut school funding. Even elite universities such as Makerere came under pressure to admit more paying students, even though they could not afford to expand their facilities.

"The good news for Africa is that so many of our youth . . . really want to go to college and be lawyers and computer whizzes and nurses," said William Banage, a retired Makerere professor. "The tough news is that we are completely outstripped by the demand. There aren't enough books or computers or electricity and beds."

Sometimes campus frustrations result in serious violence. In Kenya, hundreds of students recently blocked streets near the University of Nairobi and threw rocks at passing cars after electricity was cut during exams. One angry driver shot a student in the stomach. (The student survived.) Last week, business students at Makerere went on strike, wielding branches and accosting their principal, Wasswa Balunywa, to protest fees for health care and computers.

"We pay all that money, but we cannot even access the Internet. When we are sick we get only aspirin," charged John Degeya, the student president, who said he had to wait tables and drive a motorbike taxi to finance his education.

Some relief arrived last month when U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and six U.S. foundations pledged $200 million over the next five years to strengthen higher education in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Mozambique, South Africa and Tanzania.

About $5 million will be used to pay for Internet connections using a high-speed global satellite. Both students and professors said they wished more funds would be used to prepare the next generation of Africans for public service and private enterprise.

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