Uganda and its Students Continue to Impress

He wasn’t just blowing cigar smoke when Sir Winston Churchill declared Uganda to be the “Pearl of Africa.” It is truly one of the lushest and most beautiful countries I’ve ever seen (and I am not saying this because it ranks third – after India and the People’s Republic of China – in the numbers of international students represented at St. Thomas). Though the equator cuts right across this country, its climate is more moderate than one might expect due to its location atop a plateau and the air conditioning effect on such places as Kampala and Entebbe by the giant, freshwater Lake Victoria. With plentiful rainfall, Uganda’s growing conditions are so ideal one could almost imagine farmers growing lollipops there.

I had the opportunity to make my eighth trip to Uganda in February. My purpose was to help a friend who is developing medical clinics there as well as to visit a St. Thomas feeder school. I also got to visit a parish church that St. Thomas students painted in January while on a VISION trip. With great pride, parishioners showed me their place of worship, now clad in its new coat of Tuscan gold. They kept telling me about how impressed they were with these hard-working, outgoing students who captured their hearts, and about what great ambassadors they were.

I had a delightful visit with some university students. I always find myself impressed with the linguistic skills of these young people who shift so effortlessly back and forth between three and more languages.

I learned from these students that Uganda’s Makerere University (with an enrollment of 33,000) now offers classes not only during the day and in the evening, but also in a third shift that begins at midnight. The professor typically lectures, they told me, for three hours and then assigns work to be done on site from 3 to 6 a.m. Surprisingly, these wee-hour classes are well attended because, as the students told me, they are “pocket friendly.” (No, I haven’t rolled out this idea yet to St. Thomas faculty…)

The students also told me that Makerere has learned a trick from the airline industry. It now overbooks classes. Students have to get there early to find a seat. Latecomers either attend lectures “from the window,” or are simply out of luck. It gets dicey, students said, if you have two classes that are scheduled back-to-back in classrooms that are located at some distance from each other. At the end of the first class you have to run like crazy to stand a chance of getting a seat in your second class. One optimistic student observed: “Actually, I find that it makes attending classes a bit of an adventure…” (No, I haven’t rolled out this idea yet to St. Thomas students…)

Speaking of running, I asked these students whether they were surprised that Barack Obama won the presidential race. They said they were not, adding, “In our part of the world, everyone knows that Kenyans always win marathons.”

We got to talking about final exams in the United States and I observed how some students start looking a bit haggard and get a far-away look in their eyes. The Ugandan students replied that they were familiar with the condition, which in their country is known as examination fever.

Catholic religious news reporter John Allen Jr. has observed: “The year 2009 is shaping up as the year of Africa” for the Church. Pope Benedict XVI made his first trip to Africa in March. In late September, the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar will get underway in Rome, followed in October by the Second Synod for Africa at the Vatican. As a result, there will likely be much more media attention on Africa this year.

Here at St. Thomas, we are blessed by the presence of students from many African countries. I never cease to be struck by how easily they weave their faith and spirituality into their everyday conversations, by their positive, optimistic outlook, and by their gentility. Uganda, as Sir Winston said, may indeed be the “Pearl of Africa,” but there’s no doubt at all that African students here at St. Thomas are among the gems of our university.