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My life changer. A BSU story of change from Gulu University

Professor Charles Okumu, Gulu University in Nepal

Charles Okumu’s story is about the many personal and professional experiences that have come his way as a result of his participation in the Building Stronger Universities (BSU) programme. It is also a story about the development of a young university that was established in Gulu to help lift a region fragile after twenty years of war.

There was space in the programme for both individual as well as institutional development. The author himself was among those who have benefitted, anchoring his research in events in recent local history and literature. He is one of the growing number of members of staff who have upgraded their academic qualifications, thereby improving the quality of teaching at the university.

BSU is also about cross border networking and building strong personal relationships that are important for the exchange of knowledge and ideas. This aspect too is unfolded by the author and is an essential part of the story.

“BSU has indeed been my life changer, just as it has changed the status of Gulu University.  We can now boast of having many PhD holders, most of whom have been beneficiaries of the BSU programme. BSU is a model programme.”

By Charles Okumu, Professor, Gulu University 

One of my life’s most memorable experiences was traveling to Nepal in 6-7 December, 2013 and finding myself only 30 kilometres from Mt Everest. A few colleagues from Gulu University and I had been invited to attend a Building Stronger Universities (BSU) / MAGAART[1] workshop at the University of Tribhuvan in Kathmandu. It was winter. At the end of the workshop, our host decided to take us out to the countryside where we could watch the sunrise over Mt Everest. We all welcomed the plan and eagerly boarded the rickety bus. We knew nothing of what awaited us at the foot of the great mountain. It was freezing cold! After dinner, a great bonfire was lit to keep us warm. To increase the body warmth, some whiskey was also passed round for those who were partakers of the brown liquid. And, to keep up our spirit of comradeship, we were asked to sing and dance.

We, from East Africa, banded together and found one common song, ‘Malaika,’ to which we awkwardly shuffled our freezing feet. Exhausted from the rough bus trip, many people started sneaking off to their rooms. Little did I know that I had been allocated the ‘state’ room with a tiny two-barred electric heater. I got into the cold bed with my shoes and winter coat on but they were useless. It was too cold. My brain was racing – the solution would have been human warmth, but I was all on my own. Anyway, I survived the night. The compensation was the beautiful sight of the sun rising over Mt Everest that greeted us after we had walked to the ‘best site’ from which to watch the sunrise. That was the worst night of my life, but the best memory I have from my many BSU programme trips. It is rivaled perhaps by two memories from Denmark: the night of the Midsummer bonfire (in 2016), when we watched a ‘witch’ being chased by the flames from Denmark to Bloksbjerg in Germany and my first ever ride on a horse –on Iben Jensen’s horse – when Agatha fell passionately in love with one of the beautiful horses (2022).

The BSU programme started at Gulu University in 2011. Gulu had been chosen because of the ramifications of the Lord’s Resistance Army’s (LRA) war with the government of Uganda. Acoliland was in turmoil with over 1.2 million people displaced from their homes and living in the cramped ‘Internally Displaced Peoples’ Camps’ (IDPs) where life was next to impossible. The situation in Acoliland was fragile. Maseno University, one of Gulu University’s BSU partners, was chosen for a similar reason, in their case because of the violence that followed the 2007 election in Kenya where Luo land was the epicentre.

Moreover, Gulu and Maseno were both new universities and welcomed a programme that was there to help them become stronger.

Danida organised two conferences to unpack the concept of ‘Stability, Democracy and Rights’ (SDR), an upcoming, important BSU theme at both universities. The first conference was held in Kisumu in March 2012 and the second in Gulu in April. Three of us were selected to edit some of the papers that were presented – Professors Florence Indele, Inger Larsen and I – and we  jointly published a paper ‘Unpacking the Concept of Stability, Democracy and Rights’ in Globe.[2]

The first phase of the programme was followed, in 2013, by BSU II that had stability, democracy and rights as its focus. There was space in the programme for both individual as well as institutional development. Danida had recognised the need to have potential researchers amongst the staff at Gulu University who, with guidance and support from our northern partners, could improve their personal academic qualifications and improve the quality of teaching at the university as a spin off.

In 2011, when BSU I was launched in Gulu, there were very few PhD holders. For example, in the Faculty of Education where I was Dean, there was only one and he was the only professor while I, myself, was the faculty’s only senior lecturer.

PhD startup and completion grants were therefore included in the design of BSU II. I was one of the first senior researchers to benefit from the completion grant, the first time that I personally had benefitted from the BSU programme as a scholar! My research focused on the consequences of the LRA war on the education of the children of the displaced living in the IDP camps.

Using the data I collected during my fieldwork, I published a paper, ‘The impact of returning home after a twenty–year armed conflict in the Acholi sub-region in Uganda: a case study of Nwoya District’ in Globe.[3] My publication was one of nine papers funded under a special ‘communication grant’ added to BSU II, the, managed by Prof. Jens Seeberg at Aarhus University.  All the contributors were beneficiaries of the BSU II programme and members of the MAGAART group.

Since then, again with BSU support, I have finally earned my fourth and last degree, a PhD in literature about the famous Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek who was from Gulu.

BSU is not just about implementing “hard core” programme activities. It is also about building the strong personal relationships and networks that lead to the “cross-pollination” necessary for developing new ideas, learning, knowledge and skills. In the last dozen or so years we have visited all the southern partner universities in Africa and Nepal. Many partners have also visited us in Gulu.  This would not have been possible without the BSU programme. We have developed close relationships with all our partners and, believe me, we are on first name terms at both official and personal levels. We even Whatsapp each other.

With some of our partners dropping out of the BSU family, I will not forget some really close friends like Prof. Robert Abaidoo of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi (KNUST). When we visited KNUST for the first time, he picked us up personally in his own car. That was something that really impressed us and we struck up a friendship instantly.

BSU has indeed been my life changer, just as it has changed the status of Gulu University.  We can now boast of having many PhD holders, most of whom have been beneficiaries of the BSU programme, including three coordination staff members[4]. BSU is now a model programme at the university. I rate the BSU programme as a great success.

Edited by Kate Girvan

[1] MAGAART is a capacity building project that conductS courses for PhD students and supervisors at universities in Kenya, Uganda and Nepal. MAGAART is an acronym for the project’s six partner universities: Maseno, Aarhus, Gulu, Aalborg, Roskilde, and Tribhuvan.

[2] Globe, A Journal of Language, Culture and Communication, vol 6, 2018, pp 4-18. The Globe is an international Journal published by Aalborg University. The three editors were ‘Guest Editors’ of Volume  6 that was devoted to BUS II Project.

[3] Globe, Vol 6, 2018, pp, 35-51.

[4] Dr Francis Atube’s story gives figures detailing the PhD holders who are beneficiaries of the BSU Project while Dr Tabu Olok’s story highlights the programme’s contribution to ICT to the development and ranking of Gulu University.


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