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.
"The message many young Africans want to get out to the West is: Please stop building us boreholes and roads," said Andrew Mwenda, a political analyst and radio personality in Uganda. "Funding our schools is the best thing that can be done for Africa."
Mwenda attended Makerere and then became a lecturer there. But he eventually quit because hundreds of students tried to cram into classes intended for 40.
"Teaching was like holding a rally," said Mwenda, who holds a graduate degree from the London School of Economics. "How can you keep track of the students' work that way?" According to the New Vision newspaper, some classes were so crowded that students were paying friends to take exams for them.
African schools were not always in trouble. After most countries on the continent gained independence in the 1960s, their new governments rushed to build national universities. But in the 1990s, the region's economies, based largely on prices of commodities, started to crash along with global markets for products as varied as coffee and copper. To save money, governments cut back on public programs, including university spending. In some cases, where post-independence leaders grew autocratic, universities got caught up in political power struggles.
In Kenya, where President Daniel arap Moi ruled for more than 20 years, the political science department at Nairobi University was packed with his appointees. Other departments were reportedly padded with professors chosen on the basis of tribe and political loyalty rather than merit.
Mwenda and others said that Africa's despotic governments, like many colonial rulers before them, feared educating young people who might go on to start revolutions. Moreover, Mwenda said, most African leaders could afford to educate their children abroad and "didn't feel the need to invest in their own universities."
Makerere, however, was always held up as a premier institution, with applicants from Europe as well as Africa and a distinguished list of alumni.
According to the administration, enrollment at Makerere has soared from 5,042 in 1984 to more than 40,000. Some of its programs are still seen as the best in Africa, such as the master's degree in public health to help combat AIDS. That program has been supported since 2000 by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. But many other departments, such as computer science and the business school, need to be modernized and expanded.
Sitting on a grassy expanse outside of one of the main buildings, Olivia Akullo, a 21-year-old business student, said she usually gets to class at least an hour early just to secure a seat. She laughed as she watched students sitting on window ledges, their legs dangling outside.
"It's really scary because this school represents Uganda and Africa," Akullo said. "We want to show the outside world that we are something. But there are 300 people in some of my classes. We can't even meet with the professor if we don't understand something."
Two computer science students stood in the hall of Lumumba talking about how hard it was to get computer time.
"There are 20 students per one computer," lamented Issac Jugume, 21, who had handwritten his latest paper -- on computer programming. "I think computers are the best way to get a job. But it's really hard to learn about them when we have to wait a week to get on one."
Inside the dorm, up to four students were crowded into closet-sized rooms. They had to haul buckets of water because some of the taps in the bathrooms were broken.
As she waited outside a bank to inquire about a second job, Among said she worked as a housekeeper before class each day to earn money in case her scholarship did not come through. Among worries that she will end up cleaning houses for the rest of her life.
As she walked to her next class, she pointed to a sign outside the Lumumba dorm that read: "The struggle continues." It was a slogan used during the fight for independence.
"We students, we love that sign," she said and trudged off.