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If there is one thing we have learnt from the Makerere University main building tragic fire, it is that, sometimes, a building is not just a building. Of course, an awful lot of the posts we have seen expressing “deep sorrow and utter sadness” do not even make an attempt at sounding genuine (especially politicians’ posts), but, politics not withstanding, or even the endless speculation on the probable cause(s) of the fire, we can all agree that the Alma Mater, as we know it, will never be the same again.
The Presidential directive for the opening of schools and institutions came just days after the fire on the hill. This begs the question, what is MAK without the Ivory Tower going to be like?
If you are an outsider looking in on the issue, the other question would definitely be “what is all the fuss about?” You would be right to ask that. The Ivory Tower is hardly the first prominent building to succumb to fire.
In April last year, the French Notre-Dame Cathedral suffered a major fire. The cathedral is arguably the nation’s most outstanding cultural symbol and largest tourist attraction, bringing in more tourists every year than even the infamous Eiffel Tower. The whole world was devastated, of course, and thousands of French nationals were seen weeping and singing hymns on the streets of Paris, but, overall, the earth kept on spinning.
First of all, yes I dare compare the Ivory Tower to The Notre Dame (in context, obviously). After all, it is only the most important building in (and of) one of Africa’s most important Universities. It is the most recognized symbol of Ugandan education to the rest of Africa and the world at large. It has also appeared twice on previous Ugandan currency notes (Shs500 and Shs5000). So yes, it is kind of a big deal.
Makerere University is not new to unprecedented fires, however. In May 2018, the Mary Stuart Hall went up in flames, and, needless to say, the crisis was effectively averted, so much so that by the start of the following academic year in August, the ladies’ residence had been satisfactorily renovated and was ready for occupancy. The difference was ‘time’. The administration had more than three months to organize and implement all the processes necessary to have the building safe and ready in time for the school year. That and the fact that the fire had been contained before it was able to cause severe damage.
That said, while everyone is focused on what may or may not have caused the fire and whether there was foul play, there are other, perhaps even more pertinent, problems regarding the dynamics of the institution, that have arisen in the wake of this tragedy. The day-to-day running of the institution makes the top of the list, after all most departments and ‘big’ offices are housed there (including the Vice Chancellor’s office). Secondly, while only part of the building was affected by the fire, I estimate that the whole building will be cordoned off until renovation (that is the logical thing to do). That means all offices and halls are going to be indisposed of for the time being.
The third problem is, objectively, a ‘cry-baby’ one (because it is not functional). Nonetheless, agree to disagree, there is no amount of renovation that is going to bring back the Ivory Tower as we knew it. Sure, it may even look better or more modern after, but there is something about the MAK heritage that, I dare say, is irrecoverably lost. However, we do build for the future, so, on one hand, this fatal event, while utterly tragic, may yet be an opportunity to aim at even greater heights.