When Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki graduated from Makerere University with a First Class degree in Economics in 1955, he returned home a hero. He would later go from Minister of Finance to President of Kenya. Four years after Kibaki, former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa joined the same university and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 1962.
Between them, the two men became precursors to hundreds of thousands of bright students from their two countries seeking what was then seen as an elite education in Uganda.
That started a move that has made Uganda the largest recipient of East African students and this is not restricted to tertiary level of education. Although Uganda sends about 100 students to the rest of East Africa, according to a 2007 report by the Ministry of Education, that same report shows that the country actually hosts up to 40,000 East African students in several schools.
Since the start of the universal primary education (UPE) in 1997, thousands of Tanzanian, Kenyan and Rwandan pupils run across the border into Uganda every morning to study free of charge. Although the neighbours have since introduced free primary school education, Tanzania in 2001 and Kenya and Rwanda in 2003, the attraction for Ugandan education has not decreased.
A UPE survey in 2000 found that on average 20% of the pupils/students in several schools in the border districts of Busia, Malaba, Tororo, Mbale, Mbarara, Ntungamo, Kisoro and Kabale are actually foreign nationals.
For instance in Tororo, one finds that Tororo Progressive; one of the largest private schools in the area, has over 60% of its student population hailing from Kenya. Others like Mount Masaba, Mbale Progressive S.S., Manjasi High School and Tororo Girls also have a sizeable population of foreign students.
Away from the borders, the St. Lawrence group of schools in Kampala hosts over 500 foreign students. Vienna College in Namugongo, East High in Ntinda, Manchester High in Kisaasi, Ntinda View, Lugazi High, Kisubi High School, Seguku High, Yale High, Seroma and Kabojja also have sizeable populations of foreign students.
To get to this level, the local secondary schools advertise heavily in the regional media and also run liaison offices in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam to attract students. But the other attraction to Ugandan education stems from the good performance of Kenyan and Tanzanian schools that hosted hundreds of Ugandan exiles who taught there between 1971 and 1995.
It became a strong belief that since those Ugandan exiles performed well as teachers, then Uganda must have a good education. And these Ugandan exiles were not even qualified teachers, but the trend caught on to the extent that most of the prominent Kenyan secondary schools, like Starehe Boys, State House Girls, St. Mary’s Thika, and Alliance High, still have Ugandan teachers as their staff.
In the past, celebrated playwrights Okot p’Bitek and John Ruganda taught in Kenya and were responsible for the growth of drama there in the 1980s. Even Lawrence Mukiibi, the proprietor the St. Lawrence group of schools, taught in several Kenyan schools in Nakuru and Kabarak.
A Kenyan parent, Mary Kariuki, who has three children at London College in Maya, Wakiso District, says she opted for Ugandan education after losing faith in the 8-4-4 system used in Kenya. The system involves eight years in primary, four in secondary and four in university.
She adds that she also finds the cost of education in Uganda lower.
“The charges of some of the high quality schools in Uganda are just half what good quality schools like Starehe Boys charge for the same quality education,” Ms. Kariuki said.
As expected, Ugandans are not complaining. Instead, many are smiling all the way to the bank. Perhaps no other part of the country has benefited more from foreign students than Kansanga in Kampala. Owing to the huge Kenyan students’ presence at both Kampala International University (KIU) and Kampala University (KU), several businesses in Kabalagala, Kansanga and Ggaba, are doing well.
Susan Wanjiku came to Kampala in 2003 to visit a friend in Kansanga. After much persuasion, she cancelled plans to return to Nairobi where she operated a market kiosk and has since opened an eatery near the brown hostels at KIU, specialising in Kenyan cuisine. Not too far away, Crunch Bite opened and offers Tanzanian cuisine.
As one would expect, the bulk of their customers are Kenyan and Tanzanian students, besides a few expatriates in need of home food.
The hostel business is perhaps the biggest beneficiary of foreign students. Each university has its upscale hostels, which are overwhelmingly taken over by foreign students. And the high rental charges are not a deterrent. Many of these hostels have raised their charges from an average of Shs 300,000 per head per semester a year ago to Shs 800,000 now. And in some of these rooms, the owners put up two double-decker beds to house four students each.
There is no shortage of businesses rushing to cash in on the foreign students’ accommodation needs. One house in Kansanga that was once a lodge is now called Bella’s View. It is a hostel with its 14 rooms housing 56 students who pay Shs 500,000 each per semester.
Night spots have not been left out. They now regularly belt out the latest Kenyan music.
“If a song is new and hot in Nairobi, you’ll listen to it in Kansanga,” says Clive Otieno, a student at KU.
But critically, the students have not been left out. Faced with the uncertainty of looking for a job in Kenya or Tanzania after graduation, many have recently opened up businesses around Kansanga.
Leeban Omar, a former Kenyan student, runs a videotheque in Kansanga. He used to frequent Bounty Hunters, a bar started by Kenyan students, next to Capital Pub, before it was demolished by city authorities two weeks ago after a disagreement with the landowner. Several others run internet cafés and fashion boutiques in the area.
And this is replicated in several towns like Ntungamo, Busia, Malaba, Tororo, Mbale, Mbarara, and Kabale, where foreign students have chosen to blend in with society courtesy of Uganda’s liberal immigration laws.