Uganda: Fire At Makerere Wasn't So Bad - It Lit the Path to Its Redemption

A couple of weeks back, at the stroke of midnight, the main building of Makerere University was gutted by a fire that left most of the offices and their contents completely destroyed. The following night, another fire 'returned' to destroy whatever was left by the first fire.

Within a week of the first fire, Mastercard Foundation sent a cheque of $1 million to Makerere to help rebuild the destroyed iconic building that graced many a postcard back in the day, accompanied by an emotional letter from Mastercard CEO to the vice chancellor of Makerere.

While Mastercard mourned, there may not be a single teary eye in the managerial corridors of Makerere over the burnt building. Cynical Ugandans only expect tears of joy in some managerial eyes on account of the financial opportunities the restoration fundraising efforts provide.

When you have missed out on the financial opportunities that Covid-19 gave some lucky people, a fire on your campus may not be a bad thing, especially when it brought no human injury. Not bad especially if the $4 million building was not insured and generous Mastercard sends you a quarter of the amount before you even ask for it.

Not insured. What can explain why Makerere's main building was not insured? Even the Main Library, valued at $6 million, is also not insured, with all that amount of paper that defines it posing a fire hazard in a modern institution where fire sprinklers, alarms and even old fire-extinguishers are just a rumour.

Of the value of the knowledge on those uninsured papers in Makerere main library cannot be measured in shillings or dollars, and what percentage of it had been digitised and safely preserved in case of another fire in Makerere Hill, your guess is as good as mine.

Please note that we did not say the main building was completely destroyed. No. The basement floor, which houses the university printing press with tonnes of paper and inflammable printing inks remained intact.

The printing press operates semi-independently of the university, relying on design and engineering expertise nurtured by the university. And therein lies the great success of Makerere in providing technical solutions for Uganda, the express purpose for which it was founded as a technical college in 1922.

1922! That means that Makerere's centenary is around the corner. Those concerned with organising grand functions are already running around looking for 'facilitation' for organising the centenary. And the burnt building comes as a wonderful opportunity for fund-raising -- for how do you hold the grand centenary in a burnt-out main building in front of which lies the quadrangle where all great functions of the university including graduation ceremonies are held?

So let the grand centenary be organised, and speeches eulogising the burnt building with praises of those who will have contributed to its rebuilding taking centre stage. The fire was actually a good thing for it is now drawing public attention to the centenary, and hopefully the public will get interested in the management of Makerere.

But back to the printery that survived the two-day inferno that was sitting on top of it. This symbolised the eternity of knowledge that Makerere bequeaths the country and the continent, even when the physical structure are destroyed.

Just across the road from Makerere campus is Mulago hospital -- still synergically and structurally attached to the university. The amount of scientific work that goes on at Mulago is amazing. Only last week when the country's Covid-19 death toll hit 70, doctors at Mulago-Makerere complex started administering plasma from survivors to treat current patients. Makerere-Mulago scientists have also been perfecting Uganda's ventilator -- the artificial lung for enabling seriously sick Covid-19 patients to breath -- at a tenth of the cost such ventilators cost in world markets.

Elsewhere off-campus, Makerere-trained scientists have done wonders in the National Agriculture Research Institute (Naro) at Entebbe and at its other different research centres. In fact, I have encountered Naro-bred crops in all East African countries.

In Jinja, Uganda's current jewel in its research crown, the electric vehicles plant, is nearing completion. This too, is a 100 per cent powered by Makerere-trained scientists. Actually, Makerere officially holds four per cent shares of Kiira Motors Corporation (KMC), makers of the Kiira electric vehicles, the remaining shares owned by the technology ministry.

What do these examples say? That Makerere's old buildings can burn to the ground even if they do not have insurance. The knowledge that Makerere imparts to the scientists it trains lives on and multiplies. And that could be why Makerere's administration is averse to insurance.

But all the same, thank you MasterCard for the one million dollars -- we, the alumni of Makerere, appreciate it -- for sentimental reasons.

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