This is personal.
A week after Makerere University was closed, I went back. I went back because I thought I was ready and for a very personal reason. To revisit my Makerere. Not the Makerere of rampaging students on strike down in Wandegeya terrorizing all in their path, or the Makerere of pajeros parked late at night in hostel parking yards with potbellied ‘benchers’ or the clubbing campus night Makerere. Not the Makerere of I Feel Like Chicken Tonight or Pastor Sempa’s Saturday night Prime Time around the swimming pool Makerere. That was never my Makerere. It never was. Well, not all the time. Like this place was!
My Makerere was a place where I used to sit in my final year on the loneliest, quietest Saturday afternoons you can imagine looking out of large windows to across the beautiful Faculty of Agriculture where there was always at least one person in the shade reading. Sometimes a couple on the balustrade, side by side, seeming to dose in the heat of the afternoon, their books spilled onto the grass under their feet. My own unread books spread out on the spacious table before me, watching them but sometimes not seeing them.
My Friday night refuge place holding in my trembling fingers tattered and fading copies of Penpoint when Ngugi wa Thiongo still signed himself as James and John Nagenda was still in awe of a few people, first sketches here, bunkered away where few ventured. In the Makerere University Main Library.
How can I explain to you what it meant to stand infront of a shelf that had one end to the other books written by one author who from the age of 15 I knew I would have to read one day? F. Scott Fitzgerald. This whole love affair beginning when idling one rainy morning by flicking through an encyclopedia I came across the photo of this stunningly good looking man in a suit that remarkably resembled my own father but for his white skin. Years and years would pass but I would never forget that half looking over his shoulder face of a man who was almost as beautiful as an angel.
When I least expected it, browsing through the Makerere University library on a morning when the lecturer has not turned up and I did not have anywhere else to be: here he was! All of him! From his first juvenile efforts through his first published novel This Side of Paradise to the broken column grandeur of his last, The Last Tycoon. I did not go back for any lectures the rest of that day!
I needed to sit down because it was too much to take in when I looked further down the shelf and discovered that Fitzgerald was not the only present from Makerere generations past waiting for me here. Ernest Hemingway was here too! Ernest Hemingway, one of the most famous authors to ever pass through Uganda, a hero to many, and a writing model inescapable! Hemingway!
Hemingway whose A Farewell to Arms I had saved and saved and not eaten many lunches to be able to buy a brand new copy from Aristoc Booklex when I did not even have taxi fare. Saving every sort of currency that came into my fingers from 50 shillings upwards to 500 shillings when that amount seemed able to buy you the whole world and still leave you some change to pay your ticket to heaven. Hemingway! The day I bought my treasured copy of A Farewell to Arms is the day we had our senior six leavers’ party in our school main hall, a party I missed reading Hemingway leaning on the garage door of my father’s house. Hemingway was here too!
The near shout inducing discoveries would not stop here. There would be the Romans from Horace to Julius Caesar himself, glorious even in their Catullus depravity and punning, the Chinese, the Japanese with self emboweling masters like Yukio Mishima, good Czechoslovakians like Jaroslav Hasek everyone should hear of, a strange New Zealander called Katherine Mansfield I had never heard of. And then there were the Russians. My God the Russians! The Russians!
People who knew me then used to wonder, “How come you’re not dating anyone on campus?” I was. I was dating the Makerere University library! So I went back a week after Makerere University was closed. My Makerere had survived! My Makerere had survived.