Pioneering a young University: one year on at Lira University College

John Otim & Ekkehard Doehring

In the aftermath of the awful tragedy that hit Northern Uganda, an idea took root in Lira. By 2010 it manifested itself as the Constituent College for Health Sciences of the well established and nearby Gulu University. Two years later it assumed shape as Lira University College. Knowing the facts on the ground the very idea of the College in the ruins that was Lira seemed at the time unrealistic.

As a location Lira was significant for two reasons. In a geographical sense it was among the most central of the old colonial towns in all of East and Central Africa. And it stood in the middle of the cattle herder belt that stretched almost across the entire Globe; from West Africa, across Africa to Arabia and onwards astride the great Central Asian plains to Mongolia.

From 1986 through to 2006 Lira was the epicenter of the conflict and devastation that engulfed Northern Uganda and curtailed education and development opportunities for millions. And now in the second decade of the 21st century the region was a place in dire need of repair and rehabilitation. Recovering from the genocide, Rwanda to the south and not so far away from here had shown that even in the direst of situations recovery was a possibility

Last November we published a brief but telling piece authored by Lira University College that attempted to answer the question: what did it take to pioneer a new university? In which the College enlarged on its vision and mission and presented itself as an essential component of the repair and the rehabilitation package that the desperate post conflict situation in Northern Uganda stood in need of.

This November Nile Journal returned to Lira, the bicycle capital of the world complete with cycle taxis, and paid the campus a visit to find out if the enthusiasm at the place so endearing and infectious a year ago still held. And to see for ourselves what progress the young university had made in realizing some of its noble dreams, namely:

  • creating opportunity for learning for those left behind and left without
  • developing new practices in health sciences that transcend the limitations of present practices
  • developing and providing health services for the urban poor and rural communities that perennially get left out

As often in Lira the weather if nothing else was great! You don’t get to be a bicycle capital without good weather. Bala, the village where the campus is located stood just nine kilometers outside town, on a choice piece of raised grounds, once the site of a Group Farm. We arrived on campus riding hired bicycles.  We had no prior appointment. But from the Principal down everyone we approached were gracious and generous with their time.

Tentatively we tarried by the open door of a class in progress. Noticing us the young lecturer beckoned. It felt good to once again be in the company of open faced youth on campus.  We eavesdropped for a while on their lively discourse about the quality of the environment in the emergent and struggling post conflict city and the many health risks it posed for its teaming and mostly unsuspecting residents. Enthusiasm was still alive on the emergent campus.

Later we talked with the Principal in his unpretentious unmarked office. At the Ahmadu Bello University in northern Nigeria where I came from we would have had to be cleared by armed security guards posted at the door. We would have had to pass through some half dozen assistants and secretaries in the outer office to finally gain access to the top official hidden at a corner in the massive office on the 9th floor. Here we got in by a simple knock on the door on the ground floor! We remembered the College’s own words of a year ago: small is beautiful. But we knew we were here to look for more than words.

We had seen the library. We had been by a couple of classes in progress and we saw there, young men and women who a year ago would have had nowhere to go despite their qualification and good grades. Professor Jasper Ogwal-Okeng, the soft spoken Principal, told us there were in total 38 students on full time course enrolled for midwifery and public health programs; plus scores more on various part time programs geared at providing and updating skills.

We listened and had no idea what was coming when the Principal suddenly leaned back and unexpectedly got into a long discourse. We sat back and let his thoughts flow.

“You know we are trying to do something different here. We are focused on applicability and sustainability. We have a name for what we do. It is education for development. We are giving students not just the skills but also the orientation they will need to fend for themselves in a tight and competitive world. I am talking about the marriage of knowledge and knowhow to the spirit of enterprise.

“The old education model the British left behind were very good. It produced excellent professionals, men and women who did well in well established institutions in well paid jobs; of which there were plenty at the time. But it was expensive and it cultivated the spirit of dependence and the illusion of the availability of endless comfort. It left its products with no ambition and no motivation because all their needs had been met. In the end it was not sustainable.

“Yet fully fifty years on, we are stuck with this model. So now we have a situation in which there are plenty of educated people but there are no jobs and yet the need for skilled workers is glaring.

“We aim to provide at Lira skills to those who will create jobs and provide the much needed services and open up the country not just the cities to development.”

At the brand new library, which at the Ahmadu Bello University or at Makerere University would have been no more than a departmental library, we saw students bent over two dozen computers or more, browsing the Web.

A largely young faculty consisting mostly of Masters’ degree holders recruited from across the country handled the teaching. Four American Peace Corps volunteers added to the strength. A senior Fulbright Fellow was on his way and should be on campus shortly.

Can we talk of research and programs of research at Lira University College? Probably not but the institution is taking shape. In a few years serious research work, should be on the agenda. In a year or two its first set of graduates will roll out and hopefully begin to practice the new pedagogy and philosophy they are busy absorbing.

Standing alone at the far corner of the campus is the newly completed teaching hospital of the College, still empty awaiting equipment, although a brand new ambulance stood nearby. When it opens its doors, hundreds that before had nowhere to go will have at last a place to go. One year on the new Lira University College has made modest strides towards its lofty goals. More could not be expected.

Visiting Professor Ekkehard Doehring of the University of Hanover in Germany has a vision of some dozen or so of the smaller and peripheral universities of East, Central and Southern Africa linked together in a network of Colleges. The fraternity, if ever it comes alive, will be unique in all of Africa. The membership will share experience and do things together: research, video conferencing, sports and games amongst others. At the center of the network will be the new Lira University College.