An unsolicited open letter to Makerere’s latest graduates

By: Daniel K. Kalinaki

My editor said the world is a grim place. Could I write something uplifting? So I wrote you a letter.

Congratulations! You are now a graduate. Well done! You will probably have strutted around in the sweltering sun in your ridiculous black gown and mortarboard, trying to walk ahead of your parents; from your mother in the gomesi you hoped she would not wear, your father in his over-sized green suit and yellow shirt.

If you are lucky, your mother’s ululating will be drowned out by distance when your name is read out. You hope she doesn’t grab a sweater, tie it around her waist and dance through the Freedom Square until she is restrained and handed over to the university police.

Then there are the visits to the photo studio and, if you are like most, dinner with family and friends. You will have the pride of place, the mortarboard on your head a reminder to all and sundry that you are no longer a simple person. You are not a joking subject! You might still struggle with grammar and spelling but you are a man or woman of letters. You are Jimmy Ssekitoleko, B.A Arts (Hons), Mak, Esquire. Watch this!

You thought of spelling out your degree on the invitation card but your father insisted on all his names appearing. You grudgingly accepted the abbreviation, promising yourself to go all out on your business cards and application letters.

Yes, application letters. After the party is cleared you will have to find an income and contribute to your siblings’ school fees. All the cows were sold to pay for your “diguli”; it is payback time.

You will soon discover that you are indeed one in a million. Jobseekers, that is. That degree that you and your relatives are so proud of? There are 15,000 people with the same piece of paper pounding the pavements looking for a job. They used to be 30,000. Half now ride boda boda, hawk Chinese counterfeits, or dabble in petty crime. A few found jobs. They are on Shs250,000 a month.

It is grim out there. So laminate your degree and give it to your mother for safekeeping. It does not define you. Unless your research led to a cure for HIV or a Ugandan national ID that can be seen by non-sinners, the world will define you by what you can do, not the degree you hold.

Acknowledge that now, on your own terms. Don’t wait three years from now when the sole of your shoe finally falls into a manhole as you return from another fruitless interview.

Acquire skills, my friend. A university education is meant to teach you how to learn. So learn about the world and how it works. Teach yourself hard work and discipline. Learn Mandarin and computer skills (Facebook is a hobby, not a skill).

Be willing to volunteer to gain experience. Be honest and don’t cut corners. Remain humble. Make coffee for the boss before they ask. It takes nothing away from you. Exercise and stay clean. Unless you are a journalist or an actor, trim your beard. Drink in moderation. Look people in the eye.

Keep your word.

Stay in touch with your friends. Your contemporaries will be your anchors in the real world. Be ambitious but stay realistic when opportunities open up. If you are the religious type pray – but don’t turn into those desperate, bible-pounding types that spew saliva-laced scripture at everyone they find. Unless you want to be a street preacher.

Your degree means zilch. Your graduation is only a ticket to face the world. You start at the back of the marathon. Keep your head up and start running. Good luck. You will need it.

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