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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Monumental bonds

At Makerere University, halls of residence live by a certain culture. It is a culture enshrined in monumental sculptures built in six of the seven halls. Although they have generated conflicting views among students as to what they really represent, for many students, these statues represent power and a legacy left behind by ancestors of this 83-year-old Ivory Tower. While some people feel that the monuments are irrelevant and should be demolished, others say that they give the halls a sense of identity.

Gongom and Gongomess: Lumumba Hall, named after Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire), prides in the statue called Gongom. Artist Elly Tumwine moulded him out of metal scraps in the 1970s. Today, Gongom spots sunglasses and an academic gown. His manhood is thrust forward, dressed in a condom. Gongom is treated like a father of the hall. He is showered with the highest titles on the land such as His Majesty, Professor, Emperor and many others. He is considered the founder of the great 'Lumumba Empire' (because it is the largest hall, its power is likened to that of an elephant). Gongom 'stands' in front of the mess where 'elephants' (Lumumba residents) bow before him (some lie at his feet) in utmost reverence before they serve their food.

A stone-throw away from Lumumba is the towering Mary Stuart Hall - popularly known as Box because it is architecturally structured like a box. On the ground floor, near the custodian's office stands the beautiful statue called Gongomess - seen as a wife of Gongom. Lumumba residents believe that in the beginning, the world was formless, empty and undeveloped until Gongom (the only person who existed then) decided to create a companion because he was very lonely. According to the Lumbox (Lumumba and Box halls) Encyclopedia 2001, he took out one of his ribs and created Gongomess. She stands as a symbol of womanhood, clad in a flowery gomesi to represent the modesty of the African woman as well as remind Boxers (Box residents) to embrace their heritage. Gongomess was reportedly made by an unnamed Fine Art student of Lumumba Hall in 1977.

"The raised arm of the matriarch pushes all Boxers to remain in the path of education and live true to our motto: 'Train a woman, a nation trained'," says Ms Rebecca Achieng, the entertainment minister of Mary Stuart Hall. She says it is the responsibility of the culture minister to wash Gongomess' dresses and change them occasionally to ensure that Gongomess retains a striking look!

The two sculptures embody the solidarity between Lumumba and Mary Stuart, which was consummated in the late 1970s, thus Lumbox Solidarity. Accordingly, there are times when Gongom is taken to Box to spend some 'quality time' with Gongomess and vice versa. This often is the case during the cultural gala or orientation week when they are being unveiled to first year students. In times of sadness, they also unite - for example when a student in Box died, Gongom was brought to Box to 'console' Gongomess.

"They bring us together. We mingle and learn to live and be great friends without strings attached," says Achieng. The height of this solidarity is shaped annually when first year students are taught the culture of Lumbox Empire. Boys are instructed in the art of condom politics using Gongom's manhood to demonstrate. In Lumbox Empire, boldness is a value, shyness a taboo. A freshman will be asked to surrender a condom while a Boxer will volunteer to step forward and demonstrate it on Gongom's phallus.

"It's a noble way of upholding the Lumbox Solidarity, it's a great culture and identity," says Ms Nesta Kigambe, a student.

At the end of the orientation week, ceremonies are conducted during the 'pass-out parade' when first year students from the two halls assemble in front of Lumumba (Gongom Stadium) clad in black attire - the colour of the empire. They perform the passage rites to 'real gallant members of the empire.' This is done under the supervision of the culture committee. What follows are praise songs for Gongom and Gongomess, who are considered rulers over every little and big thing in the university. For example, the main library is called 'Gongom Library' while the university hospital is 'Gongom Hospital'.

During university sports gala, the statues are taken to sports fields to 'cheer' the Lumbox teams. These movable statues have a protection unit elected by a 'council of elders!' You cannot, however, rule out low moments. For instance during last year's university guild elections, Boxers refused to vote for Mr Robert Sajjabi, an Elephant. He lost the election, which infuriated the great empire. It attacked Box, stripped Gongomess naked and even divorced her - a divorce that lasted a few days. In another incident, a mulokole student had a bad dream about Gongom and when he told residents about it the following morning, he was beaten up. Through thick and thin, Gongom and Gongomess are meant to be together - forever.

Osagyefo: The sculpture that sits in front of Nkrumah Hall is called Osagyefo. It is named after the great Kwame Nkrumah, founding President of Ghana. According to the hall's culture minister Mr Edwin Nkwasibwe, Osagyefo is a Nigerian name, which means redeemer. He says that when the hall was built and later broke away from the former Northcote Hall, students named it Nkrumah. A monument of Nkrumah was put up by one student called Kanya in 1995, thus Osagyefo Nkrumah, the statue. Nkwasibwe says that Osagyefo is a symbol of culture, strength and unity.

The area that surrounds this monument is called the Osagyefo Grounds. It is here that hall members assemble during the Cultural Week, also known as the Osagyefo Week to rekindle the Nkrumah flame. The monument is that of a man staring into the future, 'instructing students that they must fulfill their motto: 'Forward we move'! Just like in Lumumba, students take good care of Osagyefo, painting it regularly.

Besides, the tradition is that the Nkrumah family must gather around this figure and make a winning strategy before proceeding to their 'sister' hostel, Mulago View on what is called a 'mega benching spree'. Benching is a term used at the university to mean dating. Because Osagyefo was a pan-Africanist who believed in unity for all, this art piece stands as a unifying bond between Mulago View Hostel (for girls) and Nkrumah Hall.

After saluting it, the culture minister said the council of elders is charged with keeping the statue clean and in good shape as it represents the image and strength of the hall!

Mama Kakyala: As soon as you enter the University Hall, a monument of a very tall woman who looks like a model grabs your attention. She has a baby tenderly cradled in her bosom and the infant looks content as it points to the skies. It's a beautiful scene that reminds one of mother love. That's the sculpture of Mama Kakyala who was said to be a bar owner in the Katanga slums where she used to sell local brew to poor university students.

She was a motherly figure whose kindness was beyond measure. It is said that Mama Kakyala would give the students waragi on credit and on a good day, treat them to free booze. She even made it her responsibility to assemble prostitutes whom she brought to University Hall for interested students. She acted like a Ssenga, advising the students on the science of handling women. "[She is] a true heroine, a goddess. She always has the interests of 'Goats' at heart.

"We honour her and forever shall," says Mr Tom Asaku, the chairman University Hall.

This honour began in 1968, when the university's space allocation committee granted permission to erect a symbol of culture. A student only identified as Kaddu P.J.S decided to sculpt a monument in the likeness of Mama Kakyala. Since then, the culture of the hall has resolved around Mama Kakyala. It is said that she is a great storyteller, lovely and kind. Mama Kakyala has never been to school but is called 'the professor of languages' because she speaks many languages. Her statue is special to the Goats because it reminds them where they have come from, given that they have no solidarity with any girl's hall or hostel around the university.
Funny enough, Mama Kakyala is referred to as the virgin mother of nine daughters. She appears at all important events on the hall's calendar. When she falls ‘sick’, residents contribute money for 'her treatment'.

Rats, Crocodiles: Mitchell Hall, which for long had no monument, recently erected the sculpture of a rat to strengthen their solidarity with Complex Hall.

"We decided to sculpt the monument of a rat in a simple, realistic style to make it self-expressive to everyone. As you can see, it faces in the direction of Complex Hall and is raising his academic hood to direct the Crocodiles to Rat land for multiplication," says Mr Barnabas Odongkara, the culture minister.

Odongkara is also the Fine Art student who has moulded this giant rat. The semi-nude monument has over-sized balls that "reflect the true virility and masculinity of the great hall," he says. Rather than four legs, the monument outside the towering Mitchell Hall poses on two thick but strong legs to show the 'strength and bravery of the Gallant Rats'. Residents bow and lie at the feet of this statue to show their maximum respect.

Interestingly, the new rat contrasts sharply with the open-mouthed monument of Complex Hall (the sweethearts of Mitchell residents) called Crocodile. According to Ms Carol Nalwoga, the speaker of Complex Hall, the monument is loved because it symbolises the crocodile-like strength and enduring character of the residents. They even believe that the Crocodile will be striding down to Mitchell to snuggle in the warm hair of the Rat.

Odongkara says that the respect Rats and Crocodiles are already showering on this monument means that his artwork has accomplished its purpose: "The magic is working, Complex and Mitchell are a hot item - lift your hat for Mr Gallant Rat," he says referring to the monument.

Lollipop: You will spot this statue at the main entrance of Nsibirwa Hall.

"This is the great god of the greatest hall on this university," says Mr Conan Mubiru.

The monument is the size of a big dog. Actually, from afar, one can mistake it for a seated dog. The Lollipop sits under a tree, in seclusion from passers-by. Next to him are sculptures of a 'firing squad' that resemble little soldier-like men in a marching posture - these are the bodyguards of Lollipop.

Nsibirwa is called a 'state within a state under the lordship of Lollipop.' Residents and non-resident students attached to the hall are called statesmen. The tale is that Lollipop thinks ahead of every statesman and nothing takes place without his knowledge. Members also call themselves officers; in fact, there is a strong 'army' with 'artillery' meant for protection. Whatever is under Nsibirwa is 'state property', and all members must accord Lollipop maximum respect.

There is a council of elders and a revolutionary army headed by a commander in chief who must ensure the safety of Lollipop. Even those seeking leadership roles must report in Arua Park (yard near the Lollipop monument) to be initiated and also to receive blessings from Lollipop. Otherwise you are sure of defeat, so they believe.

According to Mr Eliot Twikirize, students consult Lollipop when they get poor grades and when faced with other problems: "We respect and 'worship' him. In time of catastrophe, the elders intercede for the state," he says, adding that all residents are groomed to be soldiers and that they usually buy a combat uniform for Lollipop.

"Nothing is impossible to a statesman. With the guidance of Lollipop and the magic of state science, there is always a solution to every hurdle. After all, our slogan is: 'we either win or they lose'," says Twikirize.

The Gentleman: Livingstone Hall is a quiet hall because they believe 'gentlemen are not supposed to get excited like little girls'. Indeed, the monument in the compound is highly respected. It is that of a giant man, clad in a kanzu, and a tie. He looks straight about the quadrangle.

Mr Robert Zavuga, the culture minister, traces the origin of the sculpture: "There lived Mr Gentleman who had very beautiful daughters. As they grew up, Gentleman decided to abandon everything and sat at a strategic place in his great palace. Now, the boys who wanted to 'encroach' on his girls learnt the hard way that there was no way they could do that when Gentleman was looking. To date, Livingstone Hall is the cleanest hall because nobody can dare soil it under the supervision of Gentelman!"

One Ombima created this monument in 1967. Students bow and address it as 'His Excellency Livingstone, gentleman of all gentlemen.'The culture minister says that in the tradition of smartness, a new tie and kanzu are presented to 'His Excellency' every year because "he portrays the gentle nature of Livingstone - very calm, and focused!"

Mixed feelings: The grapevine has it that the dean of students is against the monuments and would prefer them demolished. Indeed, when approached for comment, Mr John Ekudu sounded emotional: "These things (monuments) are going to go. They are irrelevant...they will go, they will go," he said.

The warden of Mitchell Hall, Mr John Kamya, looks at the Rat as "a piece of block that beautifies the place!"

For the president of the Makerere Students Guild, these monuments have one ideology - the solidarity that binds members of a particular hall together. Lumumba is always together because of Gongom," says Mr Morris Henry Kibalya, adding that the culture of statues is synonymous with Africa and has been there for ages.

"Everyone is entitled to freedom of expression. Students derive some meaning in these sculptures. They are symbols of unity and must be celebrated," he says.

Another lecturer, who did not want to be named sees these monuments as "elements of leisure which students play around with for fun!"

Mr Simon Peter Onaba, a born-again student, has a different view: "I think they are idols. There is a way those guys in Lumumba behave... it just has a spiritual connotation in it," he says.

Pastor Martin Sempa of Makerere Community Church (MCC) thinks the veneration of artistic pieces into a source of power is not hard to understand.

"The experience of Northcote (now Nsibirwa) is very telling in how, what started out as the "spirits" ended up from being a joke to something more. I am worried that we educated and sophisticated people of today don't want to accept the reality of the spiritual world. There is a narrow line in the world of excited students between pride in the art, and veneration and dependence in battles. When Gongom is brought to a soccer match between one hall and another, is it in a spirit of sportsmanship and culture or is it in soliciting the power of Gongom to give his team victory?" he wonders.

And when students dress Gongom with a condom, he gets worried: "It is quite unseemly that Gongom is dressed in a condom every day. The protruding piece that represents a phallus is very unsightly. I think Lumumbists are desensitised that normal people don't walk around with their phallus sticking out like that," he says.

In his days, Sempa says, "The indoctrination of Northcote was more intense than the recruitment of a Mugisu into a circumcision march and dance."

His general comment on these monuments is: "There is a part art, culture and a part where that crosses into a world of spiritual veneration."

Published in Sunday Monitor, August 28, 2005