THE MEMORIES: The Ivory Tower was an imposing structure, visible from various parts of Kampala City and yet last Sunday, the historic building was gutted by fire. The incident brought some alumni to tears, while many expressed sadness because for most people that attended the institution, the blue and white Ivory Tower was more than just a building Andrew Kaggwa writes.
Growing up, we were programmed to believe we could only become doctors, engineers and lawyers.
This could of course only happen in two ways; read and pass and then join Makerere University.
There was little known about the university besides the fact that when you were a student there, you had all the freedom boarding school deprived you of.
And of course, that building – the Ivory Tower.
You knew about it before you even thought about joining Makerere University, visible from different parts of Kampala and as you may know, it was on the Shs500 currency note and the Shs5,000 before that.
Such an imposing figure it was, towering all over its surroundings, it made you wish. And for a young boy in high school, most of the time the belief was that lecture rooms were on that building.
When we visited older brothers that had joined university, it is where they could take us for lunch and just like that, we had developed a connection with the building.
Not only because of food though, but the stories attached to it, for instance, some parents on Sundays, after Mass at St Augustine Chapel would walk you to the tower, sharing stories about their time at the university.
Some of these stories were not intended to give you family history, but intended to inform you that for your family, joining a prestigious university was not a chance but a birth right.
If you attended Mass at St Augustine Chapel, you definitely took time to admire the building, even when you were not a student at the university – see, that was the other surprising fact about that tower, located almost between the Catholic and Anglican churches.
On an ordinary Saturday, with weddings, of course, you would imagine the structure was a photo backdrop for more than 100 people.
Then there were those for whom the structure was a statement – coming to Kampala for the first time, they had to take pictures at the Ivory Tower as a testament of their victory.
The Ivory Tower was to Makerere what the pyramids and Christ the Redeemer are to Egypt and Brazil respectively, but beyond the university, the monumental structure meant something to the country as well.
For instance, its design and architecture was something to marvel about; the lion heads on its pillars, were meant to be a symbol of protection, yet for the fun of it, almost all pictures that were taken at building circa 2003, somehow featured a marabou stock on one of the roofs.
The bird is a common sighting in Kampala that at one point, people referred to it as the mayor’s bird, while for those that went to the university, it was aptly called ‘campuser’.
Well, we refer to the Ivory Tower as ‘was’ because we do not have the building anymore.
On Sunday, the news that people saw when they woke up, was of the fire that had gutted the iconic Ivory Tower under mysterious circumstances.
Built by the British between 1938 and 1941, the building is said to have housed documents that dated back from the time the university was established in 1922.
Different Ugandans share fond, some not-so-fond memories of the tower.
I do not think I have sentimental attachments to the place, but the biggest memory I have of the building is the big bell/clock on top of it that would always remind us that it was a particular time of day, especially the end of class, of course. My faculty was just next to it, Faculty of Agriculture.
There is a time when I was applying to both Uganda Christian University (UCU) Mukono and Makerere University. After going from one office to the other, the process would end at the main building where someone would stamp your papers.
As a young person applying, I had no idea which office I had to go to and the people that were supposed to help out were not the friendliest. I joined UCU and in 2018, I came back to Makerere for my Master’s degree.
My experience at that building was never nice, I guess it is because I was always there when I needed a signature. My best memory was the graduation at the beginning of this year, in fact, I ran out of the tent to take pictures at the Ivory Tower.
In my Senior Five, I was sent to a school I did not like, so I planned to leave in the first term, then I met a girl called Patricia. I eventually left after the second term for Namirembe Hillside. I never saw this girl again until the campus orientation week when we both enrolled for Mass Communication – she was mad at me for leaving without telling her. I tried to hit on this girl for a full semester in vain and the day she said yes was in our second semester. We were both evening students, so before class, around 5pm, we walked past the main building and she asked me to stop. That is where she said yes, as we were standing leaning on the metal rails looking towards the Freedom Square. We promised ourselves to build bridges for each other where there was no water at those rails. As a campuser, a lot happens but most of our big fights were always fixed at the Ivory Tower, as a remembrance of where our relationship started.
Of course, I went to the main building for administrative reasons too, such as cross checking financials. I always asked why Patricia chose that place to say yes to a relationship with me and she said, she was a serious person and wanted to choose the “building that defines Makerere”. We even took pictures on graduation day in 2010 with her there, standing at those rails. It is unfortunate that our relationship ended due to various reasons.
There is this day we went out for a few drinks during the exam period, we thought we would only take a few and go back to the hostel. But that did not happen, we were out until 2am in the morning. The next day, we had to read for our paper; it was supposed to start after lunch, we revised near the Ivory Tower but every time we looked at it, you know it has the clock on it… every time we looked at the building, it was the clock we would see, counting down to the exam hour.
I had two classes at the main building and it was a big deal. I remember how I would tell people that I was going for class at the main building and I felt like it made our course special. Funny though, for all the years I was at the university, I was never curious about things that happened in the other rooms of the building. So as we were getting ready to graduate, I was told to pick something from one of the offices and it was some sort of revelation for me.
But above it all, the Ivory Tower was where many things started, especially for a fresher. See, it is almost located in the middle thus as you directed people, you would tell them, “when you reach the main building, go here….”
It was easier to direct people to the main building or ask them to wait for you there.