Two dons’ brainy bout conjures up the noisy years at Makerere

Sunday August 28 2022

One theory of how the hill on which Uganda's oldest university stands is called Makerere, says it comes from a Swahili word meaning noise and was called so because of the huge colony of noisy weaverbirds that occupied it. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGA


There are several theories why the hill on which Uganda's oldest university stands is called Makerere. Some say it is from a Luganda word meaning rising in the morning, named after a traveller who spent a night there before rising early for an important appointment with the king who resided on another nearby hill.

Others swear it is from a Swahili word meaning noise, from the huge colony of noisy weaverbirds that occupied it. As construction on Makerere hill progressed, the displaced weaverbirds retreated and got confined to a slum that got named Wandegeya — meaning place of weaverbirds in Luganda. Wandegeya could thus be the only human slum in the world that was founded by birds.

Both possibilities have been borne out with time. As a place of rising, Makerere has played its part, producing thousands of graduates who not only include outstanding presidents like Tanzania's Julius Nyerere and Kenya's Mwai Kibaki but also many scientists who have saved and improved lives the world over.

As a place of making noise, Makerere has not disappointed. Useful noise manufactured in Makerere has been made by luminaries like Prof Ali Mazrui, Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Prof Mahmood Mamdani and Prof Lwanga Lunyiigo. The latter two are still at it and last week had two bouts at Makerere, as the university marks 100 years since its founding as a technical institute in 1922. We shall get back to these two in a minute.

Makerere's mission as a place where useful noise is made was interrupted in the early 1970s when its then chancellor, Gen (later Field Marshal) Idi Amin, decided he didn't want to be disturbed by noise. Several students and lecturers who couldn't do without the noise fled the silenced Makerere and resurfaced in Kampala in 1979 among the liberators who emerged from Tanzania and overthrew Amin.

Back to professors Mamdani and Lunyiigo, a political scientist/author and an archaeologist/author respectively, gave the public a sample of quality discourse that the university used to be famous for.


The subject the two professors were duelling over is the expulsion of Indians from Uganda in 1972, which is becoming a big deal in different countries where the Indians settled and did fabulously well.

A couple of months back, Lunyiigo released a book, Uganda an Indian Colony 1897 -1972, in which he turns upside down the long-held notion that the expellees were victims of an unfair dictator who lost all they had worked for and landed in Europe and America penniless, then worked very hard and made fortunes.

He uses statistical data to show that the Indians had exploited Uganda and had been conducting a virtually total capital flight over the decades. As the Makerere centenary debates gather momentum, Mamdani has taken on Lunyiigo, basically accusing him of mixing up politics and economics.

Now don’t let Mamdani’s being Indian make you think he is arguing as an Indian, for he is a very patriotic Ugandan who has remained one despite the worldwide fame he has earned over the years as a highly sought-after leading public intellectual. The duo’s duel that is captivating Ugandans is a contest of interpretation by two objective good brains.

The extremely polite Lunyiigo has been delivering stunning punches that seem to be catching the worldlier Mamdani unprepared, and in the process broadening the matter of mass deportations.

Last week Lunyiigo appealed to the Indians’ decency and reminded them to thank Idi Amin for re-uniting them with the hundreds of million pounds that they had been stashing away in the UK before the expulsion, which they used to invest and achieve great success in especially Britain.

He also pointed out the mass expulsions of Indians around the same time in places like Madagascar and wondered what makes the expulsion from Uganda different. He has also thrown another spanner in the historians’ works by pointing out that Amin’s predecessor, Milton Obote, expelled 20,000 Kenyans in 1969, and asked why the world did not consider it worth highlighting as the Indians’ expulsion three years later, to date.

Makerere’s year-long centenary had so far been both boring and even dubious with bad press over the goings-on on campus that bedevil public institutions. But the brainy skirmishes between the two notable intellectuals have finally drawn worthy attention to the diminishing glory of Makerere.

Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail: [email protected]