By Isaac Nyabisa Oteyo
Growing up in rural Western Kenya, I often heard people talking about great universities in East Africa like the University of Nairobi, Makerere University and University of Dar es Salaam. Makerere University, in particular, stood out for me as many of the African nationalists, back then, had gone through it. My father too, though not highly educated, spoke highly of the institution. It never crossed my mind, however, that one day I would find myself in this place that had produced great personalities like the former president of Kenya, His Excellency Mwai Kibaki. As you can imagine, when results for the Mobility for Engineering and Technology Graduates in Africa (METEGA) scholarships showed that I had been selected for a master’s course at Makerere University, I was overjoyed and eager to follow in the footsteps of these giants. I was to study Data Communications and Software Engineering.
Below I share highlights from my mobility experience in Uganda.
The journey to Uganda
Monday 25th August 2014 marked the beginning of my mobility experience. I remember it vividly. Although I had traveled to other countries, I had never been to Uganda and was thus filled with excitement that it was finally coming to pass. I was joined on the trip by Mr. Godfrey Omulo, also a METEGA scholar, who sat next to me on the plane. Our 1 pm flight from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi was delayed, but we only set off at 2:15 pm. Forty-five minutes later, we touched down at Entebbe International Airport situated on the shores of Lake Victoria in Uganda– “the Pearl of Africa” as it is fondly called. At Entebbe, we were welcomed by a team from Makerere University that had our names on a placard. I bet you know how good it feels to arrive in a foreign land and find a welcome committee. However, we spent a few more hours at the airport waiting for three METEGA students from Ghana to be cleared. We wondered who these mysterious students could be until they emerged and we realized that they were not total strangers. They had been with us at the airport departure lounge in Nairobi and boarded the same flight, but we had no clue that we were on the same mission. The five of us were later to found the METEGA fraternity.
We spent our first night in Uganda at the Makerere University Guest House, but later searched for more budget-friendly accommodation. Finding suitable accommodation was not easy, but thankfully Godfrey had a few local contacts who helped us. In the end, most of us settled for private hostels close to the university. I took up a room at Muhika Hostel, which I thought was a temporary measure, but I ended up staying for the entire period of my studies. The hostel had a great management team and the manager and I became good friends.
As a foreign student, I was required by Ugandan law to have a student visa. Luckily, being a citizen of an East African country I got the visa free of charge. Non East Africans, however, had to part with 100 US dollars. I remember discussing with my colleagues the efforts being made by the African Union to unite the continent and agreeing that removal of visa requirements should be expedited.
On the third day after our arrival, we converged for induction at the Department of Biomechanical Engineering where our main host, Prof. Noble Banadda, was chairperson. If you have never met Prof. Banadda, then you have one more extraordinary man to meet. He is a youthful chemical engineer with a commitment to help others achieve their potential. We were warmly received by the department’s staff and other graduate students who gave us a tour of the university. Later, Prof. Banadda took us for a welcome dinner in one of the top restaurants in the city. During dinner he shared with us his personal experiences of studying abroad and how he has journeyed through life to become the renowned scholar that he is today. The lessons from these real life stories were powerful and remain with me to date.
The academic journey
Lectures at the College of Computing and Information Sciences commenced a week after my arrival in Kampala. By this time, I had settled in and was excited to finally meet my classmates in the MSc Data Communications and Software Engineering class with whom I would embark on the academic journey. Our lectures were conducted in the evening, which was strange to me, but I eventually got used to it.
Graduate training at Makerere University is research oriented which means that the bulk of the work is done by the student. To ensure I finished the course on time, I had planned to undertake my research in parallel with the taught courses. However, this was not possible so I had to put the research on hold till the end of the first year. I had challenges in selecting a research advisor, but finally landed in the hands of Associate Professor Engineer Bainomugisha, a fine man who became associate professor at the age of 30. Throughout the research process, I also consulted with Dr. Tonny Bulega, an expert in cellular networks who had moderated a number of courses I was taking. We became very good friends.
I completed my course on time and was thereafter requested to write manuscripts on the METEGA Project. Through this assignment, I interacted closely with some staff from RUFORUM with whom I co-authored publications on mobility and graduate student training in Africa.
The multi-cultural experience
Makerere University is located within the heartland of the Buganda Kingdom whose people are known as Baganda and their language, Luganda. Often, when I used public transport, I was spoken to in Luganda, but I could not respond. Because I was fair skinned and did not know the language I was then often mistaken to belong to the Banyankole tribe of Western Uganda. After a few months, though, I learnt a few words in Luganda to help me interact with the locals when taking public transport or shopping in the local Kasubi market where I took a walk on many evenings to buy groceries. The market is situated next to the Kasubi Tombs, the official burial ground for the kings of Buganda.
Our team of METEGA scholars at Makerere University formed a fraternity that included the PhD scholars who arrived later on. Initially only five members, we grew to a family of 14 from Kenya, Ghana, Rwanda, and Zambia. One of us, Anne Kebeney was on a staff mobility programme and stayed for only six months before returning to her employer, Moi University in Kenya. As a fraternity, we met from time to time to share a meal and stories on our backgrounds and experiences. I had to learn to step out of my comfort zone in order to appreciate other people’s cultures as some things I considered taboo were revered elsewhere. For example, consuming dog meat is unthinkable where I come from, but in other cultures, it is reserved for the royals! These interactions also gave me an opportunity to brush-up my general knowledge of Africa. I got a second education in the history of the ancient Ashanti kingdom (present day Ghana), the geography, politics and languages of Africa. Through my colleague from Zambia, I was surprised to learn that the Nyanja language which is widely spoken in Zambia is closely related to Kiswahili that is widely spoken across East Africa. In fact his name Ndlovu, pronounced “njovu”, means an elephant in both languages.
Outside the fraternity, I also made friends with students from other countries including Somalia, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nigeria, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Summing it up
Cross border study is an enriching experience on many fronts. In spite of a few challenges I encountered, I learned to appreciate diversity, which I consider an important virtue for all Africans to adopt if we are to grow and develop as a continent. I also made great contacts from different countries, some of whom I am working with to craft projects that will impact Africa and the rest of the world. Our flagship is codenamed the Futuristic Africa Network Lab – FANLab and we hope to tell you more about it in the near future. I also hope to embark on a Doctoral degree in Computer Science at Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium soon.
To anyone who is debating whether to take on an opportunity to study in a foreign country, I say, “grab it with both hands”.
Publications co-authored by Isaac Oteyo on graduate education in African universities:
- Challenges and Opportunities Associated with Supervising Graduate Students enrolled in African Universities (2017)
- A Review of Cross Border Higher Education in Africa: Focus on Graduate Level Training in Engineering and Technology(2016)
- Academic Mobility for Engineering and Technology Graduates in Africa: Lessons and Experiences from the Implementation (2016)
Isaac Oteyo was a recipient of a scholarship from the “Mobility for Engineering and Technology Graduates in Africa (METEGA)” Project from 2014-2016. METEGA is an academic mobility project supported by the Intra-ACP European Commission Program and implemented by a consortium of 11 universities in Africa and the University of Gent in Belgium, brokered by the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Africa (RUFORUM). The project entails academic mobility of 72 beneficiaries in sixteen countries across Africa and represents a significant effort towards internationalization of higher education in the sciences.