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Prof. Serwadda’s Nostalgic Student Life, Impactful Research and Joy of Mentoring Leaders

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When Prof. Serwadda travelled to universities in the USA and other countries in the 1980s, he realised that students struggled to buy books in those countries. “They work in restaurants to be able to buy books and then I said oh My God, we were so privileged,” he says.

When Prof. David M. Serwadda joined Makerere University as a student pursuing a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery in August of 1977, the University was offering the best to its students.

This was both in terms of the institutional environment for academia, students’ basic needs, and the general eco-environment. Halls of residence were less congested, for instance, Prof. Serwadda, who was a Livingstone resident, says he only shared a room in the first year.

Like any other student of his time, Prof. Serwadda had an account in the bookstore that would guarantee the purchase of any book that he wanted. “I would just go there, I pick this book, they deduct from my account. I would have in my bookshelf very many books,” he says. “I would be a second-year student, but buying books for third year because if you didn’t finish your account that year, when you get into the following year, you forfeit it and reset the account to zero.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Prof. Serwadda, who is retiring this year after 31 years of teaching, discusses his time at Makerere, the challenges and opportunities for the institution that is celebrating 100 years. Prof. Serwadda was in 1985 the lead author of a research paper entitled “Slim disease; a new disease in Uganda and its association with HTLV-II infection” published in The Lancet, one of the global top medical journals that first confirmed HIV/AIDS in Uganda.

When Prof. Serwadda travelled to universities in the USA and other countries in the 1980s, he realised that students struggled to buy books in those countries. “They work in restaurants to be able to buy books and then I said oh My God, we were so privileged,” he says.

When Prof. Serwadda travelled to universities in the USA and other countries in the 1980s, he realised that students struggled to buy books in those countries. “They work in restaurants to be able to buy books and then I said oh My God, we were so privileged,” he says.

A medical doctor and professor of infectious diseases at Makerere University School of Public Health, Serwadda is a co-founder of the Rakai Health Science Program (RHSP) which has in the past three decades pioneered research on the HIV/AIDS epidemic. He was the first Ugandan academic coordinator of the Masters of Public Health program at Makerere University School of Public Health. He also served as Director of Makerere Institute of Public Health from 2003 and 2007 and Dean from 2007 to 2009 when the Institute became a School.

In December 2019, he was appointed to the Board of Trustees of the World Population Council and in the same month he was elected together with 36 others among the world’s most accomplished scientists living in or focused on the developing world by The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS).

1970 and today’s generation of students, lecturers

Contrasting students and staff activism of his time, Prof. Serwadda says it was the time of President Idi Amin, the third president of Uganda from 1971 to 1979 who had crushed Makerere’s activism spirit.

Prof. Serwadda says the current generation of students have more space for activism but also opportunities to succeed because they have more freedom, liberty, and multiple platforms through which to speak out and make their demands. “You have a highly energised and a much larger population of students that can easily be organised to rally against any grievance they have,” he says.

Whereas students of his generation seemed much more obedient, students of today know their rights and are likely to talk and make staff members and management more accountable which is good if it’s not disruptive.

Students of his time were always busy. They had many job offers. He mentions for instance that during his campus days, he would never have time to idle around. From first year, Prof. Serwadda says he was on study projects working, in laboratories and wards thus many students had no time to engage in activism. For instance in my fourth year of Medical School, under Professor Charles Olweny, I was a student during the day and a research assistant throughout the night and all weekends including Christmas at Uganda Cancer Institute.  “It is my perception that we were much busier than students of today and I feel that current context has made students much more demanding and engaged in more advocacy,” he says.

Regarding research and funding, Prof. Serwadda says the current generation of students and lecturers have better prospects to succeed. The internet has levelled the communication space, and created huge opportunity for global networks for research and learning. For example, if an organisation sends out a research fellowship, or scholarship opportunity, any person across the world can access the call and apply. But in the old days, only those countries with a functioning post office would receive information in a timely manner. “A new journal would come in the library and we were all booking to read them. But now, you go on the internet and download your journal,” he says.

“The world is flatter for all of us than it was. There are more funding opportunities and much easier ability to access them,” he adds.

For lecturers, as they complain about salary increments, they also need to broaden their concerns and to talk about the need for resources for research, health insurance, and expanding facilities for teaching. “They are in large part always complaining about pay, pay, we need to systematically advocate for a more comprehensive research and learning environment,” he says.  

Out of the gates of Makerere, beginning of research career

After graduation in 1982, Prof. Serwadda reminisced about his internship at Nsambya Hospital after which he later joined Mulago Hospital, a National Specialised Hospital which was and still is the teaching facility of Makerere University College of Health Sciences as a Medical Officer in the Uganda Cancer Institute, UCI, in 1983. In 1985, Dr. Serwadda enrolled as a Senior Health Officer (SHO), studying a Masters of Internal Medicine at Makerere University. He would later graduate in 1989. He says he had a dead year at Makerere which he spent in the United Kingdom, the UK studying Metabolic Medicine at Newcastle Upon Tyne Medical School.

Prof Serwadda’s research in HIV/AIDS began when he was working at the Cancer Institute between 1983 to 1985. The institute was receiving patients of “Kaposi Sarcoma,” a disease which causes plaque-like lesions on the upper arms and legs and also in aggressive form involves the lymph nodes, internal organs, and mucous membranes lining the mouth, nose, and throat as often is seen with individuals with immune deficiencies, such as AIDS. This was strange then because the clinical manifestations of Kaposi Sarcoma were at the time what was being seen in the United States of America where “men were having sex with men.”

More intriguing was, according to Prof. Serwadda, as time went on, almost all patients with aggressive Kaposi sarcoma that were admitted at UCI come from Masaka and Rakai districts.

“There used to be a surgeon called Mr. J.W Carswell, who linked us to a virologist in the UK called Dr. Robert Downing and we were able to send blood samples of some patients from Uganda Cancer Institute, some of whom were residents of Masaka and Rakai districts,” he says. “The results indicated that of the 25 samples I had sent, 4 were positive for HIV, which at the time was referred to as HTLV-III,” he adds.

Prof. David M. Serwadda responding to questions during the interview.
Prof. David M. Serwadda responding to questions during the interview.

Though the first cases of patients with Kaposi Sarcoma had first been identified in around 1982, these were the first blood tests to confirm HIV/AIDS in Uganda.  Prof. Serwadda and his colleagues knew they were on to something big, hence they travelled to Masaka and Rakai–self funded–tested more blood samples which confirmed more positive cases, and then drafted a paper for The Lancet based on results from the tests. It would take months of back and forth communication with editors, through snail-mail given that there was no internet.

The paper was published in October 1985. The paper brought visibility for Prof. Serwadda which consequently had positive and negative impacts.

There was political resistance at the time from the Obote government when stories of patients with Kaposi sarcoma signs and symptoms started emerging.  When local newspaper The Start, published on December 29, 1984, the headline “Mysterious disease Kills 100 people in Rakai” Ezra Nkwasibwe, the then minister of health in Obote II government sent out a team to investigate, they concluded that this was typhoid.

On the positive side, it brought recognition to the authors. Prof. Serwadda together with co-authors wrote a big proposal that was eventually funded to establish the Rakai Health Science Program (RHSP) in 1988. “It’s like when you have built a house, and you want to build another one, it’s easy to get funding,” he said, explaining how easy it becomes for researchers to get funding once they have established a reputation.

With significant funding over the years, he says they generated an impressive number of high-impact publications in the HIV/AIDS field which has enabled Uganda and the world to understand the dynamics of transmission better. But most importantly provided HIV prevention and care to over 200,000 clients in Rakai and the greater Masaka region.

Immense research output, nurturing leaders

During his three decades at Makerere University, Prof. Serwadda says he along with colleagues has contributed immensely to research, policy, and practice. This work has underpinned some of the significant contributions to the reduction of  HIV transmission and acquisition, through treatment and prevention. Prof Serwadda has on several occasions been the recipients of   annual awards from Makerere School of Public Health as the most prolific publisher. he says. “We have contributed our part in uplifting Uganda and Makerere University. Makerere University is known as a place one can do excellent medical research, however, we should and must increase our effort to invest in young researchers if it is to continue to have a top ranking.”

Prof. Serwadda says seeing his former students climbing ladders in academia and leadership gives him boundless joy. “Dean Rhoda Wanyenze was my student, I supervised her Masters of Public Health, we have done a number of projects together with her, and she is now the Dean, School of Public Health,” he says.  Prof. Serwadda says there is no head of the Department at School of Public Health who has not been his student at the undergraduate, post graduate level. “Now they are my bosses and I like that. That is building for the future and that’s what Makerere is all about. Seeing my students in positions of effective leadership and being able to help where I can give me enormous satisfaction.”

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Mak holds Mental Health Awareness Campaign for International Students

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Mr. Henry Nsubuga, Mr. Peter Mwanja, Dr. Gardner Herbert and other officials pose with International Students at the event on 12th April 2024. Mental Health Awareness Campaign organized by the International Students Union in partnership with the Counselling and Guidance Centre, International Office and Office of the Dean of Students, 12th April 2024, Senate Conference Hall, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, East Africa.

By Betty Nabisubi

On Friday 12th April 2024, over 100 international students convened at Makerere University to participate in the Mental Health Awareness Campaign organized by the International Students Union in partnership with the Counselling and Guidance Centre, International Office and Office of the Dean of Students.

The campaign, which included both physical and virtual participants, rallied international students to always ask for help. The annual event enables students to participate in engaging discussions, and provides a platform for them to openly share and address personal and academic challenges, both on and off campus.

The aim of holding a mental health awareness campaign for international students in the university is to promote mental well-being and provide support and resources for students facing mental health challenges. Furthermore, it seeks to raise awareness about common mental health issues, reduce stigma surrounding mental illness, and educate students on available mental health services and support networks. Additionally, it aims to empower students to recognize signs of distress, encourage help-seeking behavior, and foster a supportive and inclusive campus community where students feel comfortable discussing mental health concerns.

Mr. Peter Mwanja, Warden of University Hall represented the Office of the Dean of Students. Mental Health Awareness Campaign organized by the International Students Union in partnership with the Counselling and Guidance Centre, International Office and Office of the Dean of Students, 12th April 2024, Senate Conference Hall, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, East Africa.
Mr. Peter Mwanja, Warden of University Hall represented the Office of the Dean of Students.

In line with the Mental Health Awareness Campaign theme; It is ok to ask for help, each Official urged the international students to seek guidance and support from the right offices and entities within the Makerere University system.

The Office of the Dean of Students represented by Mr. Peter Mwanja, Warden of University Hall emphasized the importance of students seeking help rather than isolating themselves in their hostels when faced with problems. He urged students to refrain from complaining about lack of assistance, but instead take action by speaking up when faced with challenges. Mr. Mwanja pledged to stand with the students throughout their academic journey so as to ensure that they have a fruitful stay at Makerere University.

In the same spirit, the Manager of the Makerere University Counselling and Guidance Centre, Mr. Henry Nsubuga called upon international students to utilize their services. He appealed to students to seek for help whenever they feel distressed.

Manager of the Makerere University Counselling and Guidance Centre, Mr. Henry Nsubuga. Mental Health Awareness Campaign organized by the International Students Union in partnership with the Counselling and Guidance Centre, International Office and Office of the Dean of Students, 12th April 2024, Senate Conference Hall, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, East Africa.
Manager of the Makerere University Counselling and Guidance Centre, Mr. Henry Nsubuga.

“Please come to the Centre when you need help. The Centre is ready to provide assistance upon any distress signal. I assure you that nobody will judge you for not being okay. We have professional counsellors who are willing to help,” remarked Mr. Nsubuga.  The Makerere University Counselling and Guidance Centre is conveniently located at Plot 106, Mary Stuart Road, opposite Mary Stuart Hall.

Dr. Gardner Herbert from the Julius Nyerere Leadership Centre at Makerere University emphasized the importance of emotional intelligence, which encompasses the ability to understand, manage, and express one’s own emotions effectively, as well as to recognize and respond appropriately to the emotions of others. He highlighted the significance of students possessing skills such as self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, and relationship management.

Dr. Gardner Herbert from the Julius Nyerere Leadership Centre (JNLC). Mental Health Awareness Campaign organized by the International Students Union in partnership with the Counselling and Guidance Centre, International Office and Office of the Dean of Students, 12th April 2024, Senate Conference Hall, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, East Africa.
Dr. Gardner Herbert from the Julius Nyerere Leadership Centre (JNLC).

Self-awareness, he emphasized, serves as the foundation of emotional intelligence. This involves recognizing and understanding one’s own emotions, strengths, weaknesses, values, and motivations. Dr. Gardner explained that ndividuals with high self-awareness are better equipped to comprehend how their emotions influence their thoughts and behaviors, leading to more informed decision-making and greater self-control.

Mr. Gerald Ochwo on behalf of the Makerere University International Office encouraged the audience to visit the premises on Flat A5, Block A, Lincoln Flats for their mandate is anchored on ensuring that International students’ university experience is enriching. Furthermore, he emphasised the importance of students managing their visas proactively, instead of rushing to renew them either at the last minute or upon expiry. He pledged to organize more events to foster relationships among students.

Ms. Olivia Mwanje shared a lived experience as an International Masters Student. Mental Health Awareness Campaign organized by the International Students Union in partnership with the Counselling and Guidance Centre, International Office and Office of the Dean of Students, 12th April 2024, Senate Conference Hall, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, East Africa.
Ms. Olivia Mwanje shared a lived experience as an International Masters Student.

Focusing on nurturing a supportive environment for students away from home, the International Office invited Ms. Olivia Mwanje, a student of Makerere University pursuing a Master’s degree in Climate Change and Development at the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences to share a lived experience.

Ms. Mwanje was one of the beneficiaries of the exchange students’ programme to Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Her testimony served to demonstrate to international students that with dedication and sacrifice, it is possible to leave one’s home country, study abroad, and excel both academically and personally. She encouraged students to remain focused on their academic programmes despite the allure of other pursuits.

The Guild President, H.E. Vincent Lubega Nsamba. Mental Health Awareness Campaign organized by the International Students Union in partnership with the Counselling and Guidance Centre, International Office and Office of the Dean of Students, 12th April 2024, Senate Conference Hall, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, East Africa.
The Guild President, H.E. Vincent Lubega Nsamba.

“I urge you, fellow students, to remain steadfast in your educational aspirations while exploring the opportunities available. Prioritize your academic goals over non-academic pursuits,” said Ms. Mwanje. She stressed that deviating from the primary objective leads to unintended consequences. For instance, she shared stories of students who abandoned their academic pursuits for menial jobs upon arrival abroad. Ms. Mwanje advised students to stay committed to their studies and, upon completion, pursue other non-academic endeavors if they so desire.

The Guild President, H.E. Vincent Lubega Nsamba expressed the Guild Leadership’s strong commitment to ensuring that international students have a comfortable stay at Makerere University. He encouraged international students to seek counselling whenever they feel distressed and emphasized the importance of talking to peers for support.

One of the female students that attended the event. Mental Health Awareness Campaign organized by the International Students Union in partnership with the Counselling and Guidance Centre, International Office and Office of the Dean of Students, 12th April 2024, Senate Conference Hall, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, East Africa.
One of the female students that attended the event.

One of the international student leaders, Mr. Harrison Igwe expressed enthusiasm for organizing activities that promote unity within the international student community at Makerere University. The goal of the activities, he said, is to enhance camaraderie and strengthen support networks among international students.

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Dr. Martin Aliker – Celebrating A Life Well Lived

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Dr. Martin Aliker (2nd L) shakes hands with the Vice Chancellor, Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe (2nd R) at the successful conclusion of the Second Edition of the Makerere University Endowment Fund (MakEF) Run (MakRun) on Sunday 25th March 2018 as Prof. William Bazeyo (L) and Dr. Florence Nakayiwa (R) witness.

The Makerere University Council, Senate, Alumni and the entire students’ community has learnt with great sorrow of the death of your beloved head, Dr. Martin Aliker. Please accept our sincerest condolences during this trying time.

Dr. Aliker joined Makerere College then in 1948 and shortly thereafter received a scholarship to join Northwestern University, Illinois where he earned a Bachelor of Political Science. Being an ardent student, he also earned a Fulbright Fellowship at Northwestern University, and graduated with a Doctor of Dental Surgery, later becoming a Fellow of the Royal College of Dental Surgeons of the United Kingdom.

Dr. Aliker has throughout his long and well-lived life projected an enviable brand, reflective of a professional and hardworking gentleman who has excelled in all walks of life as a distinguished alumnus, scholar, influential business leader, entrepreneurial mentor, and one of Uganda’s and indeed Africa’s and the Commonwealth’s leading senior citizens.

The name Dr. Martin Aliker has stood the test of time as one attributable to dedicated service with impeccable integrity, tested and proven business acumen, making him a distinguished source of inspiration to both the young and old. It was therefore with great pride that Makerere University on 17th July 2014 appointed him as the Chairperson of the pioneer Board of Trustees in charge of the Makerere University Endowment Fund (MakEF).

Under his stewardship, the Inaugural Board had at the end of their term in 2019 grown MakEF’s onshore fund from nothing in 2014 to UGX 1.5 Billion, while the offshore fund was valued at 1.5 Million GBP.

We remain forever thankful to God for the gift of Dr. Martin Aliker’s inspirational life and pray that the good Lord will comfort you his beloved and rest his soul in eternal peace.

Umar Kakumba (PhD)
AG. VICE CHANCELLOR

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Prof. Justin Epelu-Opio, Our Longest Serving DVC Rests

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It is with great sorrow, that the Makerere University Council, Senate, Alumni and the entire students’ community has learnt of the death of Prof. Justin Epelu-Opio.

Our heartfelt consideration goes out to the family upon the loss of a loving Father, Grandfather, Mentor, Son and dear friend. Please accept our sincere condolences. We commit you to God our Father, who alone knows the plans He has for each and every one of us.

Prof. Epelu-Opio was our longest-serving Deputy Vice Chancellor (1993 – 2004), and the last to serve in that position before the Universities and Other Tertiary Institutions Act enacted the two positions of Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic Affairs) and Deputy Vice Chancellor (Finance and Administration). He was not only a great administrator, but also a great academic who selflessly contributed to Makerere University’s transformation. He served humanity with a lot of dedication and touched many lives in Uganda and beyond.

On 16th February 1973, Epelu-Opio took up his appointment as Lecturer in the Department of Veterinary Anatomy, in the then Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. He embarked on his PhD in Veterinary Anatomy the same year and completed it in 1976. Prior to that, he had completed his Bachelor of Science in Veterinary Medicine (1967 – 1971) and Master of Science in Veterinary Anatomy (1971 – 1973) both from the University of Nairobi.

Prof. Epelu-Opio was an ardent student who during his undergraduate studies at the University of Nairobi served as Research Assistant to Prof. RR Hofmann and Prof. Frederick Ian Bantubano Kayanja. He carried on this passion into his graduate studies, where he served as Temporary Technician and Demonstrator to undergraduate students in the Department of Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Nairobi.

Shortly after completing his PhD, in 1977 he took up the role of Senior Scientific Officer with the Animal Productivity Research Unit (APRU) of the National Committee for Scientific Research (NCSR) in Lusaka, Zambia, until 1982.

Upon his return, he was appointed Senior Lecturer in the then Department of Veterinary Anatomy, a position he held until 1984 when he was appointed to the rank of Associate Professor in the same Department.

In 1985, he was sponsored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for a four-month course in Animal Reproduction at the College of Veterinary Medicine, Uppsala University, Sweden, with emphasis on Radioimmunoassay techniques for assessing reproductive performance. That same year, he was appointed Head, Department of Veterinary Anatomy, a position he held until 1990.

During his time as Head of Department, in 1989 Prof. Epelu-Opio was appointed to the rank of Professor. In 1993, he was appointed Deputy-Vice Chancellor, a position he held until he attained the mandatory retirement age of 60 in 2004. He presided over this office during the delicate time when Makerere transitioned from admitting strictly Government-sponsored students to accepting privately-sponsored students. We are grateful that this worked out well and under his supervision, many deserving Ugandans gained access to quality University education.

Beyond the gates of Makerere, Prof. Epelu-Opio was a respected Statesman and elder, whose work as the pioneer Chairman of the Presidential Commission for Teso contributed to the restoration of peace in the sub-region. We are grateful that as a prolific writer, he documented his efforts in; Teso War 1986-1992: Causes and Consequences, a book published by Fountain Publishers.

We therefore stand with the Epelu-Opio family, friends, the Uganda Veterinary Association and all those whose lives he touched upon the loss of this great man. We are nevertheless comforted by the fact that this gallant alumnus did not hide his candle under the covers but lit so many other candles, which will continue to shine bright and perpetuate his legacy.

We remain forever thankful to God for the gift of Prof. Justin Epelu-Opio’s life and pray that the good Lord will rest his soul in eternal peace.

Umar Kakumba (PhD)
AG. VICE CHANCELLOR

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