The University of Namibia Seeks to Serve More Than a Country--The young institution nurtures leaders for a new democracy, and hopes to help all of Africa
The Chronicle of Higher Education from the issue dated June 30, 2000
By LINDA VERGNANI
When Keto E. Mshigeni, a marine biologist at the University of Namibia, looks at oyster mushrooms sprouting from bags of
brewery byproducts, he sees more than an edible fungus. He sees a vision for Africa in which university research could help the whole continent.
Mr. Mshigeni's research on a species of seaweed played a key role in establishing Tanzania's seaweed industry, which now
employs 40,000 villagers on the shore of the Indian Ocean. Now Mr. Mshigeni, the university's vice chancellor for academic
affairs and research, is encouraging environmental projects that could help turn deserts green, grow food, and provide jobs for
thousands of people.
The university, known as UNAM, was created by the Namibian government in 1992, three years after the U.N. Security
Council and other organizations pressured South Africa, which had ruled the country since 1915, into letting Namibia become
independent. In a new campus on the edge of Windhoek, the capital, the university seeks to create a politically neutral base
where it can train a generation of professionals for the fledgling democracy, and for surrounding African nations.
The university has also tried to encourage research appropriate to Africa. "We see ourselves as agents for the continent," says
the university's vice chancellor, Peter H. Katjavivi.
Research was once considered a luxury at universities in developing countries, but it is now a popular focus in international
development and philanthropic circles. Mr. Mshigeni says African universities need to promote research both to develop their
faculties and to help their countries.
The National Science Foundation estimates that the United States has about 37,000 scientists and engineers per million people. Mr. Mshigeni says that sub-Saharan Africa has only 200 per million.
The University of Namibia is housed in a series of pleasant brick buildings, linked by covered walkways. It has 3,200 full-time
students in seven departments. An additional 1,700 part-time students are registered at nine regional centers across the country.
Much of the university's research is also conducted away from the main campus. "Namibia is our laboratory, and all our work is done out in the field," explains Alan T. Critchley, deputy director of the university's Multi-disciplinary Research and Consulting Centre.
Most students are working toward degrees in teaching, management, economics, social science, or the arts. Other programs
are offered in agriculture, science, law, and nursing. Graduate courses are rare, with only about 50 students working toward
Like many other universities in Africa, the University of Namibia finds itself with diminishing resources at the same time its
enrollment is expanding. When the government cut the university's budget by $1.5-million last year, the institution had to delay
introducing new programs such as engineering and to curtail building plans.
In contrast to other Namibian institutions of higher education, however, UNAM has remained peaceful. In March, the
Namibian government closed the Rundu College of Education for a few weeks when students there went on strike because
they didn't like the rector. At the Polytechnic of Namibia, students walked out earlier this year over the cost of institutional
Faculty members and students attribute the stability of UNAM to the diplomatic style of the vice chancellor, Mr. Katjavivi, a
former member of parliament and once a top official of the South West Africa People's Organization, or SWAPO, which
battled South African troops for the nation's independence and is now the governing party.
Mr. Katjavivi, who holds a doctorate in history and political science from the University of Oxford, has made it his policy to
work with student leaders. The students are represented on most university bodies, including its governing council.
"I tell them you are here to develop your talents and serve the country -- not to use the university as a battlefield, but to be an
example to the public," says Mr. Katjavivi. He is proud that his institution attracts students from other African states, including
war-torn or repressive countries like Angola, Burundi, and Sierra Leone.
Mr. Katjavivi was chosen by Namibia's president, Sam Nujoma, to set up the university in 1992. Mr. Katjavivi had spent 27
years in exile and represented SWAPO in Europe. He returned to his homeland shortly before the 1989 elections, the first free
vote in Namibian history, and helped draft Namibia's constitution.
At independence, the country's only higher-education institution was the Academy for Tertiary Education, which had been
formed by an interim government and offered correspondence degrees from the University of South Africa. The academy was
merged into the new university.
Mr. Katjavivi says his appointment as vice chancellor was initially painful. "When you are perceived as a political appointee, it
comes with all sorts of connotations. For me it was a challenge." When his six-year term of office was up, his post was
advertised by the governing council, but Mr. Katjavivi was reappointed.
"We've worked very hard to a point that, although our university is one of the youngest in the region, it has attracted attention
throughout the world," he says.
Some faculty members caution, however, that while the university may play a valuable role in society and has many dedicated
teachers, it still lacks many basic programs, including in medicine and engineering. Many upper-class families, especially white
ones, prefer to educate their children in South Africa or other countries, professors say.
The president of the Students' Representative Council, Jerome Kisting, says that the vice chancellor keeps his door open to
student leaders, but that some problems remain. The biggest issue for students, Mr. Kisting says, is paying tuition. Tuition,
room, and board is about $1,400. Many needy students depend on government scholarships, but those are available only for
the courses of study that the government favors, such as science and education.
Mr. Kisting says that when the university's budget was cut, the student council and the vice chancellor negotiated with the
minister of higher education. "We also spoke to the prime minister. We didn't get more money, but we didn't demonstrate
either. The government here spends 30 to 33 percent of the budget on education, and we understood why they made the cut.
There's a different kind of autonomy at the university which we value, and if we strike or riot, it will be to our detriment."
Michael Conteh, vice president of the Students' Representative Council, registered at the university after fleeing political
violence in Sierra Leone. He finds Namibian students to be passive. "They don't debate on national issues, they don't complain,
they never challenge the leadership."
"Living in a young democracy," he says, "people in Namibia have a lot of privileges that were not allowed in Sierra Leone. The
students here are used to civil liberty and the absence of strife." In his own country, he recalled soldiers killing students, "the
university closing down, and everyone running for their lives."
While puzzled at the students' apathy, Mr. Conteh says he is happy with the faculty, the library, and the access to the Internet.
Kingo Mchombo, a Tanzanian who heads the department of information and communication studies, says: "This is a very wired university compared to others in the region." A big demand exists, he says, for courses on information technology. "We have got only 21 P.C.'s in the laboratory, and some of our classes are so oversubscribed that we have to split them in shifts."
Mr. Mchombo, who previously taught at the University of Botswana, says he was attracted to the young university because of
the opportunities it offered. "We have plenty of freedom here. The government is interested in the university in the sense of
funding it, but not in the way the university is run."
He says that "within the university, there are still groups from the old system who are resistant to change and prefer to teach
what they have always taught. There are fairly exciting and sometimes heated debates between the old guard and the new
guard, but there is not really a racial divide."
The old tertiary-education academy's staff was mostly white, but UNAM's faculty, which comes from 36 countries, including
19 African ones, is predominantly black. The university is working to replace expatriate lecturers with Namibians.
If a split exists, Mr. Mchombo and other professors say, it is between progressive whites and blacks and a few conservative
whites, some of whom remain from the academy days.
Tony Dodds, director of the Centre for External Studies, has the task of reaching students in the country's remote areas. Apart
from the 260,000 people in Windhoek, almost 50 percent of the population of about 1.8 million is in the north. "From our point of view," he says, "the scatter of students is enormous." He believes that the university should try to serve older students who grew up when no national university existed.
"There is no way that the government of Namibia is suddenly going to come along with a pot of gold to pay for every student to go to university, so my feeling is that more and more of the university's resources have to be used to create opportunities for
Other officials, such as Mr. Mshigeni, the vice chancellor, want to be sure the university maintains a focus on research. Mr.
Mshigeni serves as the African chairman of the Zero Emissions Research Initiative, a U.N.-affiliated, Geneva-based foundation
that seeks to reduce waste and pollution while increasing income and jobs. Mr. Mshigeni is promoting income-generating
projects similar to the Tanzanian seaweed industry across the continent with a missionary zeal.
Among those are projects that could help unclog Africa's lakes and rivers by encouraging the harvesting of the water hyacinth,
an invasive species, for use in making furniture and growing mushrooms.
At the University of Namibia, Mr. Mshigeni encourages faculty members to aggressively seek money for research. The United
Nations Development Programme and Namibian companies are already supporting some projects at the university.
In the mushroom project, food is regarded as the primary benefit. "We are thinking of mushrooms because they grow very fast, are high-protein, cholesterol-free, and healthy." says Mr. Mshigeni. But earthworms will help convert some of the project's waste into feed for pigs and poultry, and their manure in turn will generate biogas.
Mr. Critchley, of the Multi-disciplinary Research and Consulting Centre, is a British citizen and a marine biologist, surprised to
find himself living between the Namib and the Kalahari. "God has a sense of humor," he says, "sticking me out here between
two deserts." But he says it was the opportunity for applied research that lured him to Namibia from the far larger University of
the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, where he had taught.
His research interests include aquaculture, or efforts to use the sea as a shellfish and seaweed farm. He believes aquaculture
could supplant mining as the main economic activity on Namibia's diamond-rich coastline.
Experts are predicting that within 15 years, diamond mining will no longer be economical, Mr. Critchley says, which helps
explain why the country's president made money available to build the university's new research facility, the Marine and Coastal Research Centre, in Henties Bay. The center stands in one of the oldest, most pristine deserts in the world and next to the strongest and richest ocean current, the Benguela, says Mr. Critchley. Because the nearby desert helps keep the ocean free of polluted runoff, Namibia could reap a valuable harvest from what he calls the cleanest marine area in the world.
Mr. Critchley also mentions the development of a dehydrated kelp product that acts as a super-absorbent water retainer. Mr.
Critchley shows photographs of how it has been used to create green sports fields in the Namib Desert.
One of Mr. Critchley's tasks is to help young faculty members get graduate degrees, so the university can replace expatriates
"If I do my job properly," Mr. Critchley admits ruefully, "I am supposed to work myself out of this post within three to six