[A student in Dakar measures liquid with a broken graduated cylinder. Inadequate equipment is the norm at Africa’s ailing universities-picture Ruth Fremson/New York Times]

A couple years back, I studied abroad at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The six months I spent there were the highlight of my college career, although there were some definite ups and downs. At the beginning of the school year (2005), student protests rocked the campus and essentially closed the school for two weeks. It was the second consecutive year of rioting and strikes over unpaid student loans (to be clear, the students were owed a stipend to help them pay for essentials such as books and meals). 

Those two weeks were a tense period. Students seemed ready to erupt at any moment, and the suppressed rage was palpable. I could see why many students felt compelled to take action. Most had not received payment of their stipends, and were trying to survive on as little as a dollar a day. Dar can be an expensive city, and meals, books, housing, and tuition at the top university in the country all add up. 

For all the money the students were spending, the state of the university was awful. I know I’m speaking from a Western perspective, but UDSM has seen far better days. The school is only equipped to handle around 5,000 students, but there are more like 15,000-20,000 attending right now. As a result, students are crammed into the dorms like sardines. My roommate and I took an “illegal” student to live with us, because there was simply no extra housing. Some people suggested creating a tent city on campus to accomodate all of the homeless scholars. It was really a deplorable situation. Not to mention the state of the campus in general. Everything is worn out. The chairs and desks are collapsing, stairways are falling apart, books in the library are pre-1980…

[Students who want to be sure to have a place to study line up outside the library before it opens at 8 a.m. Cheikh Anta Diop University was built in the 1960s to accommodate about 5,000 students but now enrolls close to 60,000. picture Ruth Fremson/New York Times]

Anyway, back to the strike. It did end up happening. It was a peaceful protest for the most part, but the problem was that students who didn’t want to participate were made to. This is a continuing trend. In the case of the 2005 strike, protesting students were left relatively unharrassed by the police, probably due to the fact that it was an election year, and the bad press resulting from maiming youths would not have looked good. 

Now UDSM is back in the news because of a new strike. This time some students are protesting for the reinstatement of 15 of their fellow scholars who were ejected from the school. It appears that the youths were expelled on the grounds that they were involved in previous rioting that led to injuries, and the death of one student. The leaders of the rioting are pulling other students into the fray, which is really unfortunate. My former roommates were yanked from their dorm four years ago and forced to participate in a protest that got violent. Uggg. 

While I can understand the reasons for these student protests, I don’t agree with the way they are conducted. I’m sure UDSM will continue to be plagued by them until corruption, nepotism, and the horrible conditions on campus are dealt with. That’s a tall order. 

A really great report by the New York Times, “Africa’s Storied Colleges, Jammed and Crumbling” can be found here

*Thanks Katy for putting this latest strike to my attention