On Saturday, I was invited to attend Gulu University’s graduation ceremony. GU is a reasonably new university, with a lot of students doing development studies, business studies, agriculture and medicine, and about 1,300 students were due to graduate.
Graduation here is a major event. The whole town seems to turn up – not just parents and partners, but a great array of doctors, politicians, officials, small children being brought along for inspiration, and delegations from partner institutions and many of the NGOs in town. I
After some traditional Acholi dancing whilst everyone settled down, there was a formal procession, complete with marching band, of the Chancellor and Faculty in their red gowns. There were government ministers to do speeches – in fact two, because the Deputy Speaker of the Parliament was late so someone else did a speech and then he did one again when he was able to arrive – there was a solid two hours of speeches, in fact, including a speech by Attila Vegh of University Hospital South Manchester, my ultimate boss, about the importance of recognising that the young graduates are already leaders and committing to a continuing educational link.
Uganda is extremely worried about youth unemployment, so many of the speeches included mention that young people need to think about creating jobs, not finding them. It was interesting to hear such a strong message on entrepreneurship – my degree graduations talked a lot about service and future leadership but very little about starting from scratch by yourself. The honorary doctorate award reflected this. Simon Gicharu founded Mount Kenya University, now one of the leading universities in East Africa. It was first an Institute of Technology and has gradually grown to have campuses across not just Kenya, but Rwanda and Somalia. It’s also respected as a good quality university. Starting a private university from scratch is an astonishing achievement – this was the sort of example the Vice Chancellor wanted to hold out to the students.
I’m not sure how many people could start an international University with a few thousand USD and a dream, and I’m fairly sure I couldn’t do it, but there is a real challenge in Uganda where there simply aren’t enough businesses driving the economy, and the delegates were very keen to get the message out that you can’t wait for the world to come to you. They asked the students, what can you create?
It’s an interesting question for a career public sector employee. What do I create? What can I create?
The graduates were also asked to “die empty” – to live up to their full potential, not to put things off for later, to publish every piece of research and give everything they have inside. There’s another thing to think about. We are used to thinking of emptiness as a negative; to feel empty is to feel hollow, sad, listless. But what use is the last two inches of wine in the bottom of the bottle? Thinking about it, why should I not finish each day empty, having lived with as much energy as I can, having given everything?
With those thoughts in mind, we spent the night at a graduation party dancing with the whole district. In Gulu, elderly ladies in gomesa, the traditional dress, and tiny children take to the dance floor with as much enthusiasm as everyone else, and they were all enthusiastically trying to teach me to shake my bottom in a more convincing manner. The elderly ladies generally still work hard, but they play hard too – there’s no sense here that dancing should be the preserve of the young. They won’t die with dances un-danced.
So, I have mostly been thinking about dying empty, and about what I can create.