When Ngugi’s hall lost its soul, name and spirit

Saturday November 18 2017

Makerere University's main building in 1970.

Makerere University's main building in 1970. PHOTO | FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By Austin Bukenya
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“Either we win or you lose.” That is the motto or slogan that ruined Northcote Hall. Northcote, as you might know, was one of the nine “core” hostels that house students on the Makerere University Main Campus.

I call it Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s hall because that is where he resided throughout his undergraduate career at the Hill, as the campus is called.

In another sense, Ngugi qualifies for “ownership” of Northcote Hall because he is arguably the most famous Makererean to ever have lived there. He wrote the bulk of his early work, including Weep Not Child,The River Between and the drama, Black Hermit, in his room in Northcote.

Even trivia about great people can be of some value.

I happen to be a “Northcoter” too, and that, I suppose, makes me a person of some importance, since I lived in Ngugi’s hall.

A little embarrassingly, however, I am a bit of a “hybrid”, as I joined the Hall, in 1968, as a postgraduate member, thus not going through all the stages of comrade, elder and ancestor, as Ngugi did.

Still, I am proud of my career there, first as a non-resident member, then as a resident tutor and later even as acting warden of the hall.

As a manager of the hostel and a sort of super-parent, the warden was in charge of the overall welfare of the students.


Wardens, who normally also held academic posts, were quite influential people and were held in high esteem in the university community and in society at large. Warden Hugh Dinwiddy, for example, who recruited me to Northcote, was a prominent member of the English Department, and one of Ngugi’s lecturers.

Other memorable Makerere wardens include Professor Apollo Nsibambi, who later became Education Minister and Prime Minister, as well as the first non-presidential Makerere Chancellor, and Theresa Nanziri Mukasa-Bukenya. Theresa, a brilliant mathematician, was killed by Amin’s people to prevent her from revealing the truth about the “disappearance” of Esther Chesire, one of her wards at Africa Hall.

Anyway, students’ social life at Makerere rotated around their halls of residence. The hall was not only a place where you lived but also a community in which you found a culture and an identity.

Each of the original halls had its own names and nicknames, stories, traditions and characteristics, into which every member was almost inevitably drawn during his or her residence.

Mitchell Hall, Mwalimu Nyerere’s (and Mstaafu Kibaki’s?) hostel, for example, was known as the “Culture Hall”, and its members were known as “the rats”, for some reason unknown to me.

Livingstone Hall, the preferred choice for male medics, labels its members as the Gentlemen, while Mary Stuart is famous as the “Box”. Its residents are the “Boxers”, tough as they come.

But the name actually derives from the stilted wooden house where the first female students on campus resided, back in the mid-1940s.

But no other hall at Makerere was as famous as Northcote Hall in its heyday. Named after a Mr Geoffrey Northcote, who was Chairman of the University Council in the late 1940s, we were popularly known as the “Spirit Hall”.

This had nothing to do with supernatural spirits, holy or otherwise. Rather, it referred to the Northcoters’ irrepressible liveliness and a predilection for mischievous pranks.

These usually came to the fore during the inter-hall sports competitions, during which the Northcoters rode their “state car”, an old red tractor, chanting and waving banners with their slogan: “either we win or you lose”.

In the early 1970s, my brother Richard, who had followed in my Northcote footsteps, used to be the cheerleader, and his antics did a lot to strike due terror into the hearts of our rivals.

After the Idi Amin chaos, however, and the prolonged civil conflicts that followed, the Northcote “Spirit” took a sinister turn.

Declaring themselves a “state within the state”, the Northcoters took on an increasingly aggressive, not to say violent, stance.

Probably in imitation of the guerrilla tactics of their relatives and acquaintances who had come out of the “Bush” to seize national leadership, the lads started posturing as a military entity, complete with their command structures, initiation rituals and even (pseudo) military uniforms.

Things came to a head when Northcote got involved in a bizarre dispute with their neighbours, the “Afristone Solidarity”, which comprises Livingstone Hall and the ladies’ Africa Hall.

These solidarities, twinning men’s and women’s hostels, are also part of the Makerere hall culture.

Thus you have the “Mitchelex Solidarity”, twinning Mitchel Hall with the “youngest” ladies’ hall, known simply as Complex, and the biggest of them all, the “Lumbox Solidarity” that pairs Lumumba Hall with Mary Stuart, the “Box”.

Anyway, Northcote’s fight with Afristone climaxed in the Northcoters’ physical invasion of the kitchens of their neighbours and the dumping, it was said, of kilos and kilos of red pepper and curry powder into their food.

Even more shockingly, it was suspected that the powder had been laced with ground glass, thus raising possibilities of attempted mass murder.

The University had to act, and its hand fell quite heavy on the Spirit Hall. Over a score of the ringleaders of the invasion were rusticated or “sent down”, as the lofty language of the Ivory Tower calls expulsion.

Collectively, Northcote was defrocked, stripped of all the symbols of its tradition and identity, including its name.

As we speak now, Northcote is no more.

The sturdy concrete and red-tile structure still stands, and there is a thriving population of nearly 500 students there. But they are not Northcoters! The Hall is now called Nsibirwa, named after the Mganda chief who donated most of the land on which the campus is built.

By insisting on “either we win or you lose”, Ngugi’s and my Northcote has lost it all, name, soul and spirit. Is there a moral to the story? Maybe we should ask those who have spent a whole year in suspended animation, seeking a “winner” of sorts.