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I teach abroad and continue to pursue the life I was given as if it was my last. Many people think it is. In my spare time, I enjoy lapping up ice cream, reading spy novels, and euthanizing manta rays.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Rocks, Paper, Scissors

Tragedy struck Kyambogo Wednesday when a student strike over intolerable classroom conditions turned violent, destructive and ultimately fatal. Two students - unconfirmed reports say - were killed Wednesday night in clashes just off campus in the Banda slum near the eastern gate to the university. What had transpired earlier in the day- students marching, yelling, breaking glass - brought in the local police force to quell the rebellion. Armored guards with shields and tear gas repeatedly fired shots of warning into the air, allegedly caned the protesters and sprayed tear gas into raucous crowds that led from campus to the adjacent slum of Banda in the afternoon and early evening. A military presence was felt from early afternoon on, with uniformed police in riot gear patrolling the campus streets and nearby markets and shops. The students persisted. And were summarily put down in violent fashion.

I, myself, was fed up with delays to the semester calendar, having missed three earlier meetings with my Wednesday group due to elections and holidays in February. When word spread on campus of the strike in the early morning (and subsequent cancellation of most classes) I had had enough.
"We can't meet, sir. We shall be stoned," a timid third year female told me as I entered class prepared to teach. One can only hope, I thought to myself.

In fairness, the marchers were anything but intimidating as the hour approached eleven. A group of 100-150 circled the dorms and classrooms demanding better resources and equipment, cleaner conditions, and more organization from the university brass. They stopped repeatedly in front of the main administration building, chanting in unison and demanding action. But none of this appeared violent at the onset of my class period.

I rounded up groups of students walking nearby and told them we were indeed having a lecture. The class began and ended on time, we accomplished what I had planned, and nothing sinister occurred. At one point three boys ran by and saw me lecturing, I waved, and they continued running to find the mob.

It wasn't until later that violence and vandalism escalated, threatening peace and demanding protection from Kampala's finest. I returned from town about three thirty in the afternoon to squadrons of police lined in riot gear, cushman trucks of soldiers surveying the campus grounds, with faint and interrupted screams and gunshots off in the distance. Students I passed said the melee had moved off campus, to Banda, where - presumably - vandalism, looting, and protests continued in vain. What had become a campus protest was now a matter of civil disorder.

I was simply not in the mood to venture out of my compound to detail the events first hand. Knowing full well that whatever effect I would have would be negative, I was content to hope for the best, stay indoors and remain unharmed. Curiosity aside, it was evident what was going to happen.

So I wasn't too shocked when the embassy called me at seven thirty Thursday morning to see if I was alive. I was.  Of course, having an engagement in the west that day, I was out of the network zone and could not contact Public Affairs until I reached Masaka three hours later. They were relieved to hear of my whereabouts and safety and informed me of the aforementioned fatalities from the night before.

Senseless violence.

A cause worth striking over.

But not dying over.

A guest secluded in his cavernous safety net.

State-run universities and their disorganization.

Student frustration.


Kyambogo students and infrequent strikes are considered quite docile by east African standards. In contrast, Makerere University students have a reputation of being much more rabid and defiant in their protests across town. This was not even deemed a news story by most morning papers, getting swallowed up by international news, celebrity gossip, and post-election in-fighting.

A day later, just six hours later, there was no sign of the incident. A eerily calm dawn, sunrise, and new day began as it always does at Kyambogo: birds squawk, Dan rakes, children cry, students arrive. Besides some shattered glass next to a canteen, I saw nothing out of the ordinary. No police tape, no blood, no fires, no looting. It was as if it didn't happen.

But it did.

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