Centre for International Health
Makerere-UiB Collaboration

The team that started UiB’s largest and most comprehensive collaboration

The collaboration between Makerere University and UiB was initiated by Endre Lillethun. It first focused on restoring Physics teaching and training at the University, and quickly expanded to include Chemistry, Biology and Science Education. Over 30 years, it has grown to include many other subject areas.

Karen Lillethun and Thorkild Tylleskär
Karen Lillethun and Thorkild Tylleskär
Elinor Bartle

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“A man with his heart in Africa”

Karen Lillethun, his wife, was an important part of the collaboration. According to Karen, Endre felt deeply connected to Africa. He was involved in initiating the UiB-Makerere collaboration during his time as a Physics Professor at UiB (1984-1993).

The process began during a sabbatical year in 1988, when Lillethun was asked by Abdus Salam (Nobel Prize co-winner (1979) and Director of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, in Trieste, Italy) to travel to 4 African countries and undertake a fact-finding mission to assess the status of Physics education in these countries. Salam was deeply interested in promoting the advancement of science and technology in developing countries. In his report, Lillethun’s attention focused particularly on Makerere University, which had been devastated by many years of internal strife in Uganda, and was no longer the “Harvard of Africa”. (pdf of report)

Endre Lillethun was a great communicator, teacher, and humanitarian. Much is available online about both Lillethun and his contribution to the advancement of science in developing countries. (see Fact Box)


Behind every man …

While the origin of the quote about “behind every man, is a …” is unclear, in Endre Lillethun’s case, his achievements were definitely the result of a team effort – with his wife, Karen Lillethun, being an active, engaged and important partner in his activities.

I recently had the honour of meeting Karen in her home. A lively, interesting 92 year-old, she generously welcomed Thorkild Tylleskär, the current leader of the UiB-Makerere cooperation, and myself and shared her fascinating and extensive memories from the “Uganda” years.

Karen Lillethun and Thorkild Tylleskär
Elinor Bartle

“Rich – not in gold and silver, but in children”

Karen accompanied Endre on most of his travels, including the first “fact-finding” mission to Africa in 1988 (report). In the report, Endre states that her contribution was invaluable. Theirs was a partnership where both contributed to observing, reporting, and network-building. Karen not only tended to the needs of their growing family, but was also active hosting guests and events, and being involved in reporting and documenting the activity.

The importance of her contributions were recognised when she was asked to accept the Honorary Doctorate, Makerere University bestowed on Endre in absentia in January 2010. Endre suffered from Altzheimer’s Disease, and died late in July 2010. In her address at the award presentation, Karen said that the professional cooperation between Endre and people at Makerere had been more, and had involved “a bond between human beings sharing common values and commitment, with family members included.” (address pdf)

As her children became more independent, Karen was employed as an Advisor in activities to support foreign students in Bergen. It was a job that benefitted from her extensive experience from the family’s international travels to Africa, the USA and Switzerland. The speech she gave at her 90th Birthday Celebration highlighted the diversity of activities, and skills required during her 20 years as Student Advisor. During a longer stay in Geneva (CERN), she translated this experience to a job at the World University Service, which had its main office in Geneva.

Together, individually, and in many different settings around the world, Karen and Endre made a tremendous contribution, including UiB’s collaborative activity with Makerere University. Throughout it all, they shared a vision and a commitment to teamwork. Karen reflects on their 60-year partnership and shared life experience in this short excerpt from one of the poems she wrote after Endre became incapacitated.


Fra Hyrdestund

From Between lovers

(very loose English translation)

«Og rollene blandes

Når styrke ag avmakt

Fordeles til hjelper og hjulpet:

To linedansere i likevekt.»

“And the roles blend

As strength and powerlessness

Become helper and helped:

Two equal line dancers.”