The clock had struck midnight as I prepared to write this. It is the end of yet another long and hectic week–something I have gotten used to. Until last night, I had not slept for more than 4 hours in one night, since last Sunday. Why?
Like that traveller rushing to check out at the departures; checking one’s passport, their luggage and boarding tickets, I’m also frantically checking for my “possessions” as I prepare to fly out of this country. I have been resident here all my life; been through a lot and all I can say, it has been a worthwhile experience. But I’ve got to move on. My next destination? Well, I have heard a lot about the new country am headed to–it’s unfettered freedom; how it’s people are less rigid than folks here; the country’s exciting prospects for travellers like me. This country has it’s own lingua franca–money. There’s also new things like “rent”, “bills” and “landlords” that I have not been used in my part of the world. The residents of that country have told me a lot about their experiences with these three. Not a rosy one.
But the prospect of freedom itself is assuring enough that am willing to put up with the rest. However, before I “checkout”, there’s a few papers to sit. And for that exactly I haven’t had chance to rest long enough these days.
University is so overrated
In case you still haven’t caught my “drift”, you’ll have to read on. Some time in 2012 as I prepared to pick my admission letter from Makerere, walking into the gates of this historical university, I was elated that finally I had made it. I had heard a lot about the university growing up, even though recently there had been talk that it’s quality was going down the drain. I had read about Mamdani, Prof. Nsibambi, and other prominent folks at Makerere–“intellectuals” they were reffered to then. I wanted a taste of this “intellectualism”. I wanted to re-live the fiery debates I’d heard about between the late Noble Mayombo and Nobert Mao in the nineties; then Mwenda and co. later on. I wanted to have a feel of the Lumumba solidarity (I was to be attached to the same hall, although as a non-resident) and see the famous blue-and-white main building.
I wasn’t prepared for the disappointment.
Apart from long hours spent in the main library (the open section, Africana, Extension), Saturdays spent reading up J. Z. Young’s The Life of Vertebrates and other materials for my Zoology class, little is there to mention of my first year. I was young. Naive. Disappointed. One day I wanted to change course. The next I didn’t want. Life was boring. All I wanted was to get good grades and move onto my masters. Indeed, I got the grades that first semester.
And then everything changed.
It started with an innocent question in class. Someone asked…I don’t remember the exact question. But the lecturer while going through the answer would make cursory remark of the FDA–the Food and Drug Administration of America. Only that he said, and insisted despite my clarification, that it the “F” stood for “Federal”. How could he? That’s a Google-able fact for crying out loud! One by one, my beliefs in the infallibility of my lecturers started waning. They didn’t have all the answers to my questions. And most were frank enough to say so to our class of 7. That that was what University was about anyway, I would later find out in my own readings.
From then on I “dropped out” of my undergraduate class. I only attended class to know which topic we were covering; if there was coursework to be done. To ask questions. Classes that I deemed “unnecessary” were skipped. I started reading only that which interested me, whether it was Zoology, Chemistry, History or Economics. My modest allowances as a government sponsored student would go into second hand books at Wandegeya. Those I couldn’t find I’d buy from around town or, lately, order through friends abroad. At last I was happier. My grades have not improved since the first semester, neither have they declined. They don’t matter anymore.
” Chemistry is that branch of natural philosophy in which the greatest improvements have been made and may be made; it is on that account that I have made it my peculiar study, but at the same time I have not neglected the other branches of science. A man would make but a sorry chemist if they attended to that department of human knowledge alone.”
— Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.
The timid, naive and conformist student who entered Makerere in late 2012 had now, in second year, turned into an academic rebel : classes were being skipped, I was always the last to submit coursework and assignments. Yet my friends who aattended all classes, did course work on time did not fare any better. I had learnt one important lesson: at the University, it’s not so much what you’re taught in class but how you can integrate knowledge from different backgrounds.
I sense my lecturers have since realised this and we occasionally joke about my “unseriousness”. Lucky enough I have made good friends of them and they almost certainly know that whenever am not in class am attending to something “more” important at that time. For as long as I did their courseworks in (should say “on time”!) time, I had no problems with them. Most are now ardent followers of the radio show am hosted to weekly and it is uncommon to find us debating politics on the sidelines of a lecture or in their offices.
What have I learnt?
Universities exist to grant you freedom to explore and discover your own self. If you go to the University to get good grades you’ll get them. If you go there to party and drink you’ll pretty much get that. And for the academic rebels, if you play within the rules, you have the freedom to learn and unlearn whatever you plan to. In secondary school you will be spanked for commiting even the most innocent of misdemeanors. Outside school, breaking the rules carries an even greater cost. Only here can you break the rules and get away with it! Which worries me: how will I handle in the next world? Are there spaces for “rebels” like myself out there? I can’t stay here forever, I want to taste the freedom on the other side, but am I ready to sacrifice my rebellious ideals so I can be granted citizenship in that country?
As a Zoology student I have had chance to travel to some of the most picturesque places in this country
State of my Agnosticism
As young as 15 I had started questioning my very beliefs in a personal god. While in primary school I had landed upon a children’s bible donated by the Samaritans Purse to my younger sister. I read it cover to cover–all the stories from Noah and the Ark, to Jonah and the giant fish, to King David and the rest. All this while, I never really looked at the bible as being any different from other story books I was reading at the time. The stories started getting boring after they were told over and over again. In Sunday school, during church service and on TV. Then I read The Secret Terrorists about 11 years ago, at the height of the Iraq war. It was a collection of a bunch of conspiracy theories about 9/11, Waco bombing, the Catholic church’s involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how Jesuits run the world. The author would describe world leaders as “alter boys of the Papacy”. A seed of doubt had been planted in my mind. My trips to church would reduce. I occasionally “forgot” to pray before bed and this deity who, we were told, punished those who didn’t follow his ten or so commandments did not “punish” me. My grades in school were as good as before. Nothing had really changed.
At the University my agnosticism would take on a new dimension. I read about religion–it’s origins and how it is a tool for totalitarianism. My encounter with Evolutionary theory in class only served to buttress (this time with solid logical reasoning) the possibility of the existence of life and the world without necessarily invoking a deity. At last my skepticism had been vindicated. I took interest in Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, Stephen Hawking and found myself watching and listening to countless hours of their speeches and debates online. Even today, I have a couple of Dawkins TED talks on my phone which I listen to once in a while.
Being agnostic has in a way released me from the countless dogmas that I had grown up, especially around morality. My take on several topics is now premised mostly on logic and empirical evidence as opposed to “vague” societal constructs like morality. The same has however won me apprehension from the fairer sex. One was bold enough to tell me she couldn’t put up with a non-religious fella. And so we parted ways.
On another day, in a different forum, I will expound on my “struggle” with theism.
Christopher Hitchen's last book (published posthumously), "Mortality". Chris has influenced my thinking lately
There are so many tales (the funniest I have left out) I would love to narrate here but space (and time) will not allow. If I wrote them in a book (spoiler: no, I won’t!), I would be hard pressed deciding in which format I would love to have the book published and, may be, read. The debate within literary circles recently has been whether electronic reading devices (e-readers) will one day replace physical books. In Europe and America the debate has been whether Amazon will replace the local bookstore and library. In fact, there’s a growing movement of folks rooting for “Indie” bookstores and libraries within the community that retain the belief that books, reading and libraries are are a “communal” affair. Not sure if such a debate would take root in Uganda today. Don’t tempt me to ask you whether you’ve been to the (only) “national” library, run-down and in dire need of a new coat of paint, on Buganda road.
Anyways, before I digressed, we were talking about the debate in literary circles: e-readers or physical books. I (used to?) belong to the latter cohort. I like the smell of paper books. I love the feel of paper and the euphoria that consumes one when, a few dog ears later, you close the last page of a really good book. Who wouldn’t want to brag about a stack of books in their room? I occasionally brag to friends about where they spend their money–if not in books. Alcohol?
Clearly, you don’t get the same bragging rights swinging around a Kindle with about 200 books, but still weighing the same. I used to think so. So a few weeks ago a friend offered to lend me their Kindle for a trip upcountry. I didn’t want to move around with a 400-pager in a bus, so his proposition was hard to turn down. I took the device. And two books later, I swear it’s the best experience ever! Plus, these things are really cheap. $100 for one on Amazon–I spent that on hard covers in the last year alone. Would I buy one then? No.
The Kindle is an amazing device, easy to use, great screen design and a really good lighting, but that is not enough to woo those of us who belong to the “old-school”. The promise that these devices save on paper and help conserve the environment does not sway me either. So the choice between a Kindle and a paper book is an easy one. I choose the latter.
Kindle vs. Paper books: I would still go for paper books, although the Kindle is a great device
It will be a while before I return to these streets; I have got to get through emigration (getting into the new country is that hard!). So I’ll see you on the other side. Soon.