I, Mr David Ekepu, was born in a rural area of Eastern Uganda in what is now called Amuria district but spent most of childhood in Pallisa district where my father was working as a secondary school teacher. I attended pre-university education in the same area and only moved out of Eastern Uganda to join Makerere University – located in Central Uganda. During my undergraduate studies, I was inspired by several lecturers that had exposure from the developed world. In light of this, it was an exciting opportunity for me to earn a scholarship under the project “Crop Scientists for African Agriculture (CSAA)” supported by the European Union under the Intra-ACP Mobility Programme. The project (www.casa-intracp.org) is implemented by a consortium of 13 universities most of which are members of the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM). The scholarship was awarded immediately after completion of my undergraduate studies and it was an academic mobility to South Africa at the University of the Free State. I was confident that this opportunity to study in South Africa would give me the exposure I need to advance my career aspirations. Among the emerging economies in the world, South Africa is the only country in Africa that is a member of the G20 and BRICS group of emerging nations. University education in South Africa is also highly ranked in the continent as seen on university world rankings. When my admission to study at the University of the Free arrived in my email box, I was delighted and eager to experience life in the rainbow nation. I have since completed and graduated during the Winter Graduation Ceremony of 2017. As I share highlights of my experience about participation in the academic mobility, I take this opportunity to sincerely thank all those who contributed in making this golden opportunity to further my education a memorable experience.
Visa application and preparation for the Journey
The first step of my Journey to South Africa was to apply for a study Visa and a temporary residence permit. This required a lot of documents to present at the South African high commission in Kampala Uganda. Eventually I succeeded in getting the study visa and the temporary residence permit and was ready for my first adventure out of Uganda.
Everything was new to me; I had never reached Entebbe International airport before and on arrival at the airport, the process of checking in and actually boarding a flight for the first time in my life was a unique experience. On the 16th January 2015, I and my colleague Birenge John Bosco who was also accepted under the same scholarship landed at O.R Tambo International airport in Johannesburg, but our final destination was the city of Bloemfontein. We then had a layover of 2 hours at O.R Tambo, a huge and busiest airport in Africa. For the first time I saw many planes on the runway ranging from smaller aircrafts that serve domestic routes and to gigantic passenger airliners that mostly service international travel destinations. The inside of O.R Tambo international airport is like a town on its own consisting of numerous shopping outlets and restaurants. Getting lost inside this big airport was inevitable and we constantly had to ask for directions from the airport staff. From O.R Tambo, we set off to Bloemfontein, ‘a city of roses’ as they nickname it where the University of the Free State is located.
Arrival in Bloemfontein’s Bram Fisher International airport
Travelling from O.R Tambo to Bram Fisher airport was also a nerve wrecking experience. Unlike the big Boeing plane that brought us from Entebbe to Johannesburg, the smaller SA express plane flew on a slightly lower altitude and frequently experienced some form of turbulence. This made me anxious and all my hands and legs lay tight throughout this short flight. For a person taking a flight for the first day of his life, I constantly thought we could not make it but by God’s grace we successfully landed at Bram Fisher International Airport.
At the airport, stood a man carrying a white board with our names written on it. He was a shuttle driver that had been sent by the University of the Free State to pick us up. Unfortunately, at Bram Fisher airport I realized that my suitcase was left behind at O.R Tambo and did not arrive with us on the same plane. I was frightened and did not know what to do but the airport staff calmed me down and told me that my suitcase would be located and delivered to me by courier. But my worry was how to survive in such a new environment with only one extra pair of pants and a shirt that I had inside my hand bag because most of my clothes were in the suitcase.
Driving through Bloemfontein, I could see a few pedestrians on the streets and mostly cars along Nelson Mandela drive which is a complete contrast to Kampala that is always jam packed with pedestrians, boda bodas and cars. In fact our shuttle driver told us that owning a car is a necessity for every middle income family in the country because there are few taxis serving all routes of the city. Bloemfontein is a calm city with less traffic and some people call it a student town, because you mostly see students from the surrounding schools and universities on the streets walking around.
My first night in South Africa
On arrival at the University of the Free State, we were taken to Kovsie Inn, a complex that consists of the University Hotel and the postgraduate student section. We were then welcomed by Ms Lindiwe who was the receptionist that day but a few minutes later Mrs. Sally Visagie, the Intra-ACP CSAA coordinator came to meet us. From my first interaction with Sally, I quickly realized she was a motherly figure and she made us feel at home, gave us some South African currency (Rand) to secure basic items and groceries as part of settling-in. Kovsie Inn residence offers fantastic accommodation for postgraduate students with a quiet environment, the kind of atmosphere well suited for studies. The residence also contains sharing facilities such as a living room, a shower, a kitchen, and DStv. I was surprised to find a washing machine in my residence and that all I had to do was to place the clothes in a machine for 30 minutes and then dry them using another drying machine. From that day, I confirmed that South Africa is a first world country. Such facilities are not available for students in my country.
Meeting my fellow residents at Kovsie Inn
On the second day, we were introduced to other postgraduate students in the residence. They all came from different nationalities and backgrounds and to me experiencing the diversity of people and cultures from different parts of the world in one place at first seemed like a fairy tale but that was the reality of Kovsie Inn. Also 2 days after arrival at the University, my misplaced suitcase was located and delivered to me directly. Now I was fully settled in my residence and was now daring to start the journey of academia.
Meeting with staff at the Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Rural Development and Extension
On the third day, we were introduced to Dr Van Niekerk (Director of the Center) and other staff at the Center like Mrs Rene, Mrs Green and Annanda. They were ecstatic to meet with us and they offered us the program for the academic contact week where students come to have classes and meet their lecturers. The Masters in Sustainable Agriculture is a structured program consisting of modules and research. Most students study part time and therefore, I was not going to physically interact with my classmates on a regular basis except during the contact week of the semester.
My first contact week
In the second week, I went to attend my lectures and meet my new classmates and lecturers. Because most students study part time, the only chance I had to interact physically with my classmates was during the contact week that is designed to take place 3 times a year. Students came from different nationalities: South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Namibia, Swaziland, Afghanistan, and Botswana. The lecturers were fantastic and always took their time to explain the modules and how to approach the coursework although the time allocated for the contact week was short and all lectures had to be squeezed within that week. From the contact week, we were given study material and assignments that we had to submit online after being checked against plagiarism on an e-learning platform called Blackboard. Some modules even required us to practically visit a case study farm or agribusiness company to study how the businesses were run firsthand.
The University setting
The university itself has a magnificent setting, with excellent facilities that provide world class study experience. The university is also bilingual with a parallel medium of instruction in English and Afrikaans. After being registered in the 3rd week, I could now access facilities at the University using the student card because the university installed an electronic access control system in almost every building on campus. Lack of a student card meant no access to any university facilities. Visitors to the university always had to obtain guest cards to move around campus.
At first I thought I was going to take modules alongside research, but the research component could only start after satisfactory completion of Year 1. However in the second semester of the academic year 2015, I met my supervisor Dr Precious Tirivanhu, an exceptional scholar who also became my research mentor. He advised me to start my proposal early enough and the proposal was accepted in November 2015. My supervisor advised me to opt for writing a research article for publication instead of writing a mini-thesis, because the University of the Free State policy on Masters and PhD studies allows students to choose between a thesis and research articles as an equivalent to completing the research component. My published research paper titled “Assessing socio-economic factors influencing adoption of legume-based multiple cropping systems among smallholder Sorghum farmers in Soroti, Uganda” offers insights for integration of legumes to cereal cropping systems for sustainable soil fertility management in the smallholder farming sector. The study published in the South African Journal of Agricultural Extension recommends strengthening legume value chains and promotion of legume rotations to ameliorate the challenge of soil fertility in smallholder farming systems.
Service in Student life and leadership
I was also a very active student at the University of the Free State. I played Volleyball for the Kovsie volleyball and even got the opportunity to visit Maseru, the capital of Lesotho to play in a volleyball tournament. I was honored to have served as a member of the Postgraduate Student council where I gained strong leadership skills. The Student council was also diverse with colleagues who came from 5 different nationalities. The university’s Postgraduate school then awarded me with a certificate of recognition for my exceptional contribution to student life and leadership. I also participated in the Prestige Emerging Scholar Mentorship Program (PESMP), an initiative of the University’s Postgraduate School. In this program, I learnt skills for Personal development, teamwork, communication, leadership and innovation, academic identity, science communication, academic networking and resource building. The mentorship program was full of fun and adventure. For instance, through this program I visited Clarens, Golden gates and Masselspoort, a resort a few kilometers from Bloemfontein.
I was also a finalist in the 3-Minute Thesis competition, an initiative that was founded by the University of Queensland, Australia. These interactions have created opportunities for professional growth and engagement with colleague even after completion. We are still in constant communication and I remain hopeful that we shall continue building collaboration across boarder for future undertakings.
I was also glad to have made new friends from all over the world:
South Africa: My South African friends like Pashy, Kamo, Sam, Dube, Lindo, Andricia, Katleho, Mdu etc., Pashy in particular, introduced me to South African music, drama, poetry and food. The food recipes were especially fascinating, from lasagna, to braai and boerwors to spicy Asian recipes and local African cuisine.
Lesotho: I also met Mpoi, Moeketsi and Teboho all from Lesotho commonly referred to us the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. They told me stories of how their warriors fought the British taking advantage of the mountainous terrain in the country. Lesotho, a country completely surrounded by South Africa is also very significant because most of the fresh water consumed in Bloemfontein flows from the Mountains of Lesotho.
Ethiopia: I also met great colleagues from Ethiopia mostly studying under the Intra-ACP stream project. I am especially grateful to have met Hermela, a fine lady from Ethiopia who taught me about their Ethiopian culture, traditional food called injera. Occasionally, we could hang out in one of the Ethiopian restaurants in the city to eat injera. I also learnt about their home language called Amharic, which has its own alphabet.
Nigeria: Micheal from Nigeria was another wonderful person I met. He told me about their rich Nigerian culture and a widely spoken form of ‘broken’ English called Pidgin English. He also introduced me to Nigerian foods notably; Jollof rice, fufu, and gari.
Ghana: I also met great Ghanaian friends, Enoch and Emmanuel all studying under the Intra-ACP stream project. These very bright young scholars inspired me in my academic life. They were among the few students who published articles from their dissertations in the department of Agricultural Economics.
Cameroon: Then there were Sebastian and Agnes, people who hail from the great country of Cameroon. Agnes was a brilliant lady who served with me in the Postgraduate student council and Sebastian was a grantee under the Intra-ACP stream project. Before I met these two personalities, the only knowledge I had about Cameroon was the football team nicknamed indomitable lions. But Cameroon is more than just football. The country has two official languages; English and French. Duala is the commercial capital whereas Yaoundé is the administrative capital. They also introduced me to their favorite home delicacy called Egusi.
Zimbabwe: I also made new friends from Zimbabwe. People like Osmo, Bongi and Dr Precious, my supervisor, all come from Zimbabwe, a country considered to be having one of the highest literacy rates in Africa. You can easily see the influence Zimbabwean nationals have had in South Africa because lots of the Zimbabwean migrants and youth have been educated in South Africa. They have gotten work opportunities and even some started their own businesses in the country.
Europe: Then I met students from Europe who mostly came under the student exchange program. Ineke (Netherlands), Duncan from UK, Ines from Belgium, Mateo from Italy and Sophie from Germany were all great friends who taught me their cultures.
Uganda: I and Johnbosco were not the only Ugandans on campus. We managed to find other Ugandans studying at the University of the Free State and we could meet up occasionally to discuss stories from Uganda and share experiences.
Other countries: my acquaintances also included people from Lebanon, Spain, USA. and Russia.
During holiday between semesters, I took opportunity to visit places and this always refreshed me in preparation the next semester.
Visit to Gauteng
My visit to Gauteng was another exciting phase of the Adventure. Gauteng is considered the commercial province of South African where the cities of Johannesburg (Joburg or Jozi as it is sometimes called) and Pretoria are located. So I set off from Bloemfontein to Joburg with two European friends Ineke and Kilian using an Inter cape bus that has two passenger floors. I had never boarded such a bus before and the design of those buses is just amazing! They are equipped with air conditioners, adjustable seats, flat screens for entertainment, and a spacious sitting arrangement. When I arrived in Joburg, I saw towering sky scrapers of Joburg and I thought this was “New York in Africa”, even if I have been to New York. So on the first day of our tour, we visited the apartheid museum, Soweto, Bramfontein, constitutional hill and moved around some parts of the central business district. Regrettably, we were mugged by a gang of 4 people near park station but only one of my European friends lost his bag. Fortunately, his insurance company compensated him for the loss. On the next day I visited Pretoria, using the Gautrain which is a high speed train that connects Pretoria and Joburg. I assure you this train travels like a bullet and I only took about 25 minutes from Joburg to Pretoria’s Hatfield station. In Pretoria, I visited the University of Pretoria and also met my Ugandan friends who had come to study on an exchange program at the University of Pretoria. From Pretoria, I travelled back to Bloemfontein. All in all, my visit to Gauteng was fantastic.
Visit to Cape Town
Now came time to visit Cape Town, a city nicknamed the mother City. I boarded a Greyhound bus with two passenger floors with wonderful air conditioning and adjustable seats that allow passengers to sleep. The only time I boarded such a bus was when I used an Inter cape bus to Johannesburg. The Journey from Bloemfontein to Cape Town took close to 12 hours. Upon arrival in Cape Town, I realized Cape Town is a city like no other. The streets were well organized and the landscape consists of beautiful mountain ranges descending towards the sea. That is why Cape Town is considered one of the most beautiful places on the planet. In fact some local South Africans do not consider Cape Town part of the Africa given the high number of whites in the city who have influenced the culture and lifestyle of Capetonians. I stayed in an apartment that was located in Parrow North, a residential neighborhood located in the northern suburbs of the city. I spent 5 days in Cape Town, and had to take a train every day to the city center because cabs were very expensive. In the city center, I could always take Myciti bus, a state-of-the-art metro bus system that links you to every corner of the city. In Cape Town I visited the beautiful beaches of camps bay, Table Mountain, Cape Town International airport, South African parliament, the central business district, Century City, N1 City, sea point where the southern tip of the African continent meets the sea and V&A Waterfront. V & A waterfront is another world of its own. It consists of an immaculate shopping centre, a harbor, an aquarium, exhibition halls and recreation facilities. I had never seen any other beautiful place before like the V&A waterfront, and from my heart I felt my visit to Cape Town was really worth it.
In summary: Apart from a few challenges here and there, I truly relished my mobility experience. As noted above, the mobility program was not just an academic adventure; it was an exclusive cultural experience full of fun, networking, and opportunities to be lifelong learner and a useful citizen of the universe. I encourage other young African scholars to embrace this opportunity of African academic mobility.
David Ekepu can be contacted via email – firstname.lastname@example.org