The struggle for student accommodation at Unam northern campus

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Nuusita Ashipala

Oshakati-The lives of students studying at the University of Namibia (Unam) Oshakati campus are not as fun-filled as those of their peers at other universities. And the root of the problem is the absence of accommodation for the many students who have trekked from villages hundreds of kilometres away from Oshakati to pursue tertiary education.

Many students are forced by circumstances to rent corrugated-iron shacks in informal settlements, where there are no electricity or indoor plumbing. And the rent is not cheap either. Students residing in informal settlements pay an average N$500 rental fee excluding water and electricity for a shack. Landlords charge exorbitant rental fees of between N$800 and N$2 000 for rooms close to the campus.

The hardships of their student lives have forced some female students to think of selling themselves to men for money. “It’s true some of us have thought of dating even a taxi driver so that they can be dropping me off after school, but obviously because I will just be there for the money I will dump them when I am done, but it is not fair on them,” one student said. They say the taxi drivers’ constant pestering for their contact numbers is very tempting.

New Era visited the Unam Oshakati campus this week to talk to students on their plight for better accommodation. They were very happy to tell of their ordeals.

Those who found accommodation with distant relatives in the nearby suburbs complained of ill-treatment.

The ill-treatment ranges from being not welcomed in the households to outright abuse such that they are uncomfortable to have decent meals, as the relatives often complain of how their eating habits are a burden to the entire household’s grocery budget.

Students renting shacks in informal settlements face the daily dangers of being robbed of their laptops – which are essential to their studies – and cellphones, as well as attacks from thugs roaming the streets on which they walk to and from the campus.

They also complain that besides having to fetch water from the communal tap, the deafening noise from the shebeens dotting the informal settlements makes it hard for one to study.

Meet 22-year-old Indileni Hamukoto, a public health second-year student, who just this past Tuesday evening escaped a robbery attempt thanks to some quick thinking on her part. She didn’t panic and managed to flag down an oncoming taxi into which she jumped and asked to be dropped off at her rented room. She usually walks the distance between her room and the campus.

Hamukoto, like many other students, previously had her room broken into and as a result lost lots of valuables. Hamukoto, an orphan from Okongo in Ohangwena Region, said she survives on her grandparents’ monthly pension grant.

“But the little I get is never enough to sustain me. So when I get my refund I ensure that I have a surplus to pay for my rent for at least the first few months of the year,” said Hamukoto.

Then there is 21-year-old Secilia Tjaendombinda from Opuwo in Kunene Region who for the past two years has lived in a shack that flooded every time the heavens opened. Once she returned from her visit to her home in Opuwo to find the entire shack and its contents submerged in water. She has no alternative accommodation and is determined to plough on with her studies. Wait there is more.

“Just recently a guy came to my room, called out my name [from outside], and when I opened the door, the person grabbed my laptop [which she was holding in her hands when she heard the call], bit my hand, and ran off,” related Tjaendombinda who depends on the income of her aunt who is a tailor.

Why is there no student accommodation?

It is nearly 20 years since Unam opened its northern campus in 1998, yet there is still no student accommodation for students coming from villages and towns outside Oshakati town. And students have now reached their breaking point. Last week they erected a mock shack on the campus grounds in protest, baptising it ‘Lazarus Hangula’, after Unam’s vice-chancellor. Students have previously held demonstrations on the campus, saying it is the only campus without student accommodation.

Technically it is actually not correct to state that Unam northern campus had never provided accommodation for its students. At the inception of the campus in 1998 the students were accommodated at a nurses’ home at the Oshakati Intermediate Hospital, an arrangement that only lasted until 2013. The hospital is a training institution and the demand for accommodation for student nurses became overwhelming. This forced the Ministry of Health and Social Services, the legal owner of the nurses’ home, to prioritise the accommodation needs of student nurses above all other Unam students at the northern campus.

And so it became that for the 2014 academic year the health ministry kicked out all students not studying nursing or medicine from the nurses’ home. At the same time Unam’s northern campus expanded its course offerings, introducing new full-time academic programmes such as a diploma in computing and a bachelor degree in public health. The number of students at the campus swelled, with more students now studying non-medical or nursing courses.

The communications and marketing officer at the northern campus, Linus Hamunyela, explained that the progress to construct student accommodation is now being hampered by the new Procurement Act, as Unam was in discussions to secure a partner to enter into a public-private partnership to develop accommodation at the campus.

“The issue of the government’s Procurement Act changed all efforts on the table, as we have to operate as per the Act. While we had started the process and appointed contractors the point remains that no actual agreement was yet signed with them. That is where we are now so that all shall be in accordance with the stipulations of the Procurement Act,” said Hamunyela.

According to Hamunyela, a number of developers have shown interest and presented proposals. “We at the campus level are now looking forward to see this project kicking off. Land is already available and we have the full backing of the town council to construct [student] accommodation facilities,” said Hamunyela.

Hamunyela said the campus management has put up a taskforce to work on the business plan for student accommodation facilities.

As though to deflect attention, Hamunyela says although students’ complaints are on the need for on-campus accommodation, the fact of the matter is that the government has gone out of its way to prioritise the development of academic infrastructure in the country, the northern campus being a case in point.

Students do not see it that way. All those who talked with New Era expressed frustration at the absence of accommodation on campus, which they say should it be available would improve their academic performance.

They point to the fact that the campus library is open in the evenings, yet it is underutilised because students are forced to depart the library early for their rented shacks in informal settlements to avoid being attacked by criminals.

Students have found a sympathetic ear in the form of some landlords who are compassionate to their needs. One such landlord is Tuyenikelao Shoongeleni who rents out shacks in her backyard near the campus. Shoongeleni says the environment in which the students are living is not conducive for studying. She points out the tiny size of the rooms being rented, saying they are only ideal for sleeping but not studying. “You cannot even fit in a table,” said Shoongeleni.

Plus there is no electricity connection. “It is not just the electricity that is a problem, the place is filthy as the town council does not come to collect the rubbish,” said Shoongeleni, adding that she would love to see her student tenants living in a proper student hostel.

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