I am sorry but you’re going to have to get used to that label–for the next one year at least. Yes, most people will call you that. Fresher. The more refined ones, and they will be very few of them, will call you freshman. All mean the same thing: you’re fresh in this new business called life at the University.
But that’s not the point of me writing to you anyway. You know when I turned 23 just the other day, I promised myself that I would dedicate these next few years to speaking to younger people and sharing with them my experience so far. Then I can move on to greater things. So here I am, I hate preaching and therefore expect nothing of the sort in this long-short piece. Neither do I intend to lecture you.
Drink, if you must
First, I know you must be excited you will be joining the university. Good enough. And you must also be bracing yourself for the unfettered freedom that university life provides. You wish. Well, yes, you’ll certainly have lots of freedom at the university. Not until those exams beckon. So if you’re the kind that has never been introduced to drinking–thanks to your folks, or the school–please feel free to have a taste of the bitter drink. Drink if you must. Drink if you can afford. And if it doesn’t work out for you, quit. It’s that simple and such is the freedom (of choice) that university provides.
University is so overrated. Get used to it!
If you are the bookish kind, high school is the busiest you will ever be–academic-wise. Do not expect to cover more stuff here than you already did at A’level. And if you are headed to any of the five public universities, what you have as a 17-week semester is actually 10 weeks or less of serious work. The rest of the time will be taken up by incessant strikes over anything from the quality of meals, graduation fees, lecturers’ pay, non-teaching staff pay, name it. Use this to your advantage. Also, prepare to lose lots of time in the first two weeks of the semester as everyone settles in. Personally, I preferred these “interruptions” as they gave me time to catch up with my reading. You could use this time to check out the library (these next three or four years, the library will be your best friend–if you’re the serious kind) and read around your subject as much as possible. Read History. Read Economics. Read Psychology. Read Zoology. Read everything. It doesn’t matter what course you’re doing. Such wide reading will come in handy (like I will show you later).
Let’s face it, the most time you are going to spend in a class is four hours in a day. So what will you do with the other twenty hours (less about six hours of sleep)?
Make friends. Date. Expand your social network. Those three things will be helpful, sometimes more helpful than the degree that you will carry with you from that University. And I should let you in on a secret many students at campus are not lucky enough to know–before it’s too late: there’s a lot of goodwill out there for someone at the university, if they exhibit a certain degree of seriousness. So many individuals and offices are willing to open their doors for you to ask questions, to seek advice and seek internships. The problem is most young people at campus are too busy being busy that they don’t look out for such opportunities. I have since lost count of the number of offices that opened their doors to me. How many editors, managers, lawyers, businessmen have volunteered their wise counsel to a young man like myself because I just asked.
If you are lucky enough to be offered an apprenticeship, please take it up. And at this stage payment should be the last thing on your mind. Anything monetary, you have your parents and, for a few of you, government to look to. I remember the first time Ivan (Rugambwa) and I, then second year students, walked into the KFM radio studios for the Friday Panel of journalists show. The first few weeks were not easy. Keeping up with a motor-mouthed, figure-spewing, and know-it-all like Andrew Mwenda was not easy. So we had to learn fast. And learn we did. I have since lost count of the number of shows I have done. How many events I have been asked to moderate. The same is true for my brief writing stint in the papers (The Independent and Daily Monitor). Non of this affected my grades at school meanwhile and never did I have to skip any class to attend to any of these other activities.
Books vs Booze
I often joke to friends that I don’t regret the money I spent on books and booze while at Makerere–it was worth it. It might not be the case with most of you, but those who are lucky to have a government scholarship will have plenty of disposable income (I hope the system won’t have changed by the time you’re accepted into the university). As a first year student on state scholarship, tuition was the least of my worries, food was also catered for, so with a sizeable stipend from my parents I had quite a bit of money by any freshman’s standard. “Lucky bastard!,” you must be saying. But, hey, we worked our butts off for this–so we could enjoy life at campus. Joking.
So I drank a bit of that and, perhaps more importantly, spent some of that money on a few books. I have always loved books but being in high school I couldn’t afford all the books I wanted to read. And the school library provided plenty of reads, so I wasn’t really badly off. Nothing beats having your own collection of good books though. You don’t really have to spend a fortune. For those of you at Makerere, there are plenty of second-hand books (novels, biographies, etc) around Wandegeya and they are quite cheap. If you are the kind who wants serious titles or new releases there is the University bookshop next to the guild canteen.
I should be boring you with this already, but you came here to, above all else, read and make your parents proud. It matters less if you are an avid reader, intellectual-wanna-be, or none of that, you will have to do quite a bit of reading if you are to walk away with a good degree at the end of the day. So accept my apology…as you grab a book.
Another thing I learnt at campus, and hope I had earlier: you don’t have to attend all lectures. You heard me right. Forget the roll calls (if you’re (un)lucky to land such a fussy lecturer), anything above sixty percent attendance should be enough to get you on the safe side. I tell you this because, even with a small class of eight, there are some lectures I found boring and had to abandon them altogether. No one will cane you here. You’re old enough to know what is good for yourself. So please don’t hesitate to run out of any class that sucks the life out of you. Careful however that this doesn’t develop into a habit. It could easily do. And above all: try to always keep abreast with what is happening in class; copy the notes if needs be. Be ware of impromptu tests by some overzealous lecturers. If you’re the smart kind such shouldn’t worry you–otherwise why would a thought of flanking classes cross your mind if you’re not the brainy kind?
Menu: Chapatti, Rolex
Food prices around Kampala are not all that friendly, especially for a broke-ass campuser like yourself. Here is where Chapatti and Rolex (for the uninitiated: a Chapatti plus fried eggs, basically; Kampala folks are known to add lots of God-knows-what lately). Eggs and myself are not the best of buddies, so it’s surprising all the three years at Makerere a Rolex never appeared anywhere on my to-eat list. Yes, there were lots of chapattis, lots of mandazi and samosas to accompany that breakfast or evening tea. It was all great and saved me a few coins. It could save you a few more too.
The university (Makerere; sorry folks, that is the only University) no longer provides meals at the halls of residence these days. The service was out-sourced to private firms, meaning you will have to cater for your own meals…and part with quite a significant amount of money. Which makes my earlier proposition even more relevant: befriend that rolex guy, he will be of help.
In closing, no conversation about life at the university will ever be complete without reference to the.fairer sex. Yes, there will be plenty of beautiful young ladies at campus. And this time no one will report you to staff because you hit on them. It doesn’t get better than that, does it? You will have plenty of opportunities and time to flirt. To fall in and out of love. To fight. To make up, make out. Get laid and get dumped. Utilise them.
I had wonderful friends of the opposite sex. I tea-d many. Laughed with many of them. We exchanged contacts. Spent nights texting back-and-forth. I was a regular visitor to many a girls’ hostels and halls of residence. Got locked up, and spent a night, in Complex hall but that was just about it. I don’t regret anything now but, with the benefit of hindsight, I wish something more serious had developed out of the friendships. Maybe my expectations were too high, which I am not sorry for.
And that shouldn’t discourage you. Go forth, make friends. Fall in love. Be dumped. Suck it all in and move on. In the end it will be worth it.
You don’t have to spend the next three or four years living life the way I lived it. It would be very boring! But you can learn a thing or two from my experience and improve your stay here.
So come January, hopefully, I walk away from Makerere with a Bachelor of Science in Zoology (they will only be seven of us graduating with that qualification, I know, not many understand that, save yourself the trouble!). In the same time you will have walked half-way through your first year journey . A perfect time to revisit this letter.