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School of Public Health
College of Health Sciences, Makerere University

Makerere in Drive to Restore the Iconic Main Building

Posted on : Thursday, October 1, 2020

Professor Nawangwe

Makerere University has launched a fundraiser to help restore its administration building -The Main Building popularly known as ‘The Ivory Tower’ in the wake of fire that ravaged the iconic building, leaving scores lost.

Several office equipment and other valuable information was damaged during the Sunday 20th September 2020 night fire. The fire broke out at the Main Building — Ivory Tower — at Makerere University at 1:05am, according to police.

Dozens more have been damaged as in the fire. Fire fighters got the flames under control just after 12:30pm. Smoke was first reported just after 12:45am at the building, which is located about 200 metres from the university Police station. Police said they detected the fire via their CCTV cameras installed at the university.

The Vice Chancellor, Prof Barnabas Nawangwe has invited friends of Makerere and alumni to work together to rebuild the structure.

He cites that the main building is a very strong symbol for higher education, not only for just in Uganda but in East and Central Africa.

“It is a building that is known and respected all over the world and there has been an outpouring of grief messages from all over the world due to the burning of the building with messages of solidarity and some with pledges that our friends around the world will help us to restore the building,” he said.

Before adding that; “We have to restore the building to be exactly what it was before the fire. And that is our target. We hope we will be given the report on the cause of the fire so that it helps us in redesigning and restoring the building.”

Makerere University boasts of an estimated 300,000 living alumni all over the world. In the U.S alone, there over 40,000 students while majority of the alumni are in Uganda.

According to Professor Nawangwe, a part from those that Makerere has official collaboration with, there are friends of Makerere University who are either former employees, and others.

“We have a large number of our alumni who are very concerned and who would like to see their icon restored to its previous position. And we are saying we will restore this icon to its former glory,” Professor Nawangwe says.

According to Nawangwe, the institution plans to have a major launch of the fundraising.

“We are here today not to do the launch of the fundraising, but to say we have established and put in place mechanisms through which the very many alumni are anxious about contributing towards the restoration of the building can contribute as we wait for the official launch of the fundraising,” he said.

Unveiling the official contribution channels for support towards the restoration of Iconic Main Administration Building the Vice Chancellor appealed to all well-wishers to use Stanbic Bank Accounts: 9030017778608 (USD)/ 9030017778535 (UGX) for contributions.

He also launched a Merchant Code: 542803 for those who wish to send the money via MTN mobile money payments. To send your contribution, you dial *165*3# and Enter the Merchant Code, then Enter Amount and confirm with your Mobile Money PIN

 Historic Background of the Main Building

The ground breaking ceremony for the Main Building was done on November 28th 1938 by the Duke of Gloucester, representing His Majesty King George VI. “it was an extremely important ceremony because that was the beginning of building the modern Makerere as a University following a commission of inquiry that had been ordered by the governor at that time and they recommended that Makerere should be built as a full university,” says Professor Nawangwe.

He notes after the decision to build Makerere as a University, a plan was also hatched to build several other buildings on the main campus. Some of the buildings included Faculty of Science, some of the buildings in School of Education being part of the bigger project.

At the time, most of the funds to construct the buildings came from the colonial government in Uganda which put up an endowment capital of 250,000 pounds at the time and 170,000 pounds for the construction of new buildings.

The British government put up an endowment capital of 100,000 pounds in addition to the 100,000 pounds contribution by the Tanganyika government. Subsequently, Kenya government made an endowment fund contribution of 50,000 pounds.

The Empire cotton growing corporation contributed 10,000 pounds for a biology laboratory, the Buganda government contributed 1,000 pounds towards the fund, 5,000 pounds from the Busoga government towards buildings, and 750 pounds from Ankole government. Kigezi contributed 500 pounds, while Bugisu and Teso governments contributed 100 pounds each, who were known as the founders of the university as a collective effort.   

The Main Building according to available literature took considerably a long time for its size to be completed because it was constructed during the second world war. 

“Most of the materials were coming from Europe and since the war broke out and the British Government which actually was responsible for building the Main Building had to divert the resources to other things. And also, the ferrying of materials became difficult and as a result, some of the materials had to be done on site from a technical school here and most of the timber was done by artisans on site,” says Professor Nawangwe.

According to the British Hansard, HC Deb 18 October 1944 vol 403 c2360, the Main Administration Building was completed in 1941 under the leadership of Mr. George C. Turner, Principal, Makerere College (1939-46).

It housed the offices, although the top floor was initially an open space that was used as a school for the British expatriates during the war as the children could not go back.

At the end of the World War II, the top floor of the building was transformed into classrooms and in 1968 the Makerere University School of Law started from the top floor of the Main Building.

In the 1970s, a decision was taken to partition the top floor into offices. All the partitions made were wooden. Professor Nawangwe cites that that could explain why the fire could spread very fast on the top floor.

“According to one of my colleagues who retired sometime back when he came to check what had happened he said yes, it was hurriedly done and even the wiring was very hurriedly done not in conduits but just fixed on the partitions,” he said.

Why Main Building Remains Iconic Symbol

The building floor plan is in T-shape, with a large imposing tower to denote its main entrance. The top-most part is bare stone, with a large bell in it and has four arches, one on each side, to allow the sound of the bell spread far, known as the Ivory Tower.

In his dissertation about Makerere University's potential as a heritage site, published in October 2019, Stanley Sempeswa cited the Main Building as the number one attraction heritage site at the university.

"In this study, 78.8% of the respondents pointed out the main building as one of the tourist attractions that influence visitors to Makerere University. The unique magnificent building due to its old architectural design similar to that of the University of London gives the Ivory Tower a visual appeal that attracts visitors to the campus," Sempeswa said.

"Designed by Newton, the building was likened to the Ivory Tower because it was literally cut off from communication and the world outside its immediate environment due to the great difficulty to reach Makerere by telephone in the 1950s (McPherson, 1964).

"The first Main Building was constructed in 1923 at the current Department of Science and Technical Education in the School of Education."

Heritage site

"The United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) officers admired the Main Building and inscribed in the list of tentative properties to be conserved as World Heritage Sites (McPherson, 1964). And according to Mubatsi (2009), the structure has a unique appearance and exclusive architecture that cannot be found anywhere else in East Africa.

"Furthermore, the crest of the University of Oxford, which hangs over on the left side of the wall at the entrance of this four-storey building has significant value. It shows a special academic relationship that Makerere University College had with the University of Oxford in the 1950s. The University of Oxford was to offer planning assistance to Makerere in the 1940s to independence time," he says.

Sempeswa said other heritage sites at Makerere include the Main Library, the Art Gallery, the halls of residence, and Religious monuments.

The building also had a massive 1930s Gents of Leicester clock wall mounted at the entrance of the Main Hall, with a custom-built wheeled base, with a height of 135cm, width 135cm, and depth of 23cm. This clock has been functioning since 1941 when the Main Building was officially opened.

Gents of Leicester was established in Leicester, England, in 1872 by John Thomas Gent. For over a century, the company was a well-known manufacturer of electrical equipment, in particular electric clocks, which were used in public buildings and railway stations the world over.

Additional Information is published in The New Vison on 23rd September 2020

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