Tuesday, February 1, 2011

New brooms, a new term and a new year

Off they went to school, yesterday, clutching their new brooms.  In Uganda, 31st January is the start of the new school year.  Tin trunks were dragged into boarding hostels as young people poured off buses and boda bodas.   Actually, some rather over-enthusiastic schools called the pupils in last week, blatantly disobeying a Ministry directive to the contrary, just as they often add an hour or two of study to the beginning and end of each day, presumably because the official school hours of 8am to 5pm or 5.30pm are just not long enough for really serious work.  

Tin trunks waiting to be bought.
Still, for most children, yesterday was the start of a new term and a new year.  Just as in the UK, supermarkets have been full of school bags, geometry sets and pencil cases.  Unlike the UK, they are also full of exercise books and pads of paper, for Ugandan children buy all their scholastic materials themselves.  And the bookshops and second-hand stalls are full of textbooks, for secondary pupils are supposed to buy those as well, though most of them don’t as their parents can’t afford it, so they just do without.  One textbook for the teacher is the general rule, though some government secondary schools put half a dozen copies in the library, if they have one, for pupils to use.  Uniforms must be bought, but are rarely purchased readymade.  Instead, local seamstresses run up cotton dresses, shirts and shorts in school fabric.  The cut and style of these garments vary according to the prestige of the establishment and the resources of the parents.

Rather a stylish version.
One of our friends told us what her cleaner had to provide for her three year old at the beginning of his term at nursery: three brooms, 10 exercise books, three rolls of toilet paper, 10 pencils, a similar number of coloured pencils and various other items which I have forgotten.  The brooms are the least of the problem, as you can just gather the twigs yourself.  Everything else takes money.  In most rural schools, forget the toilet paper – you use leaves or nothing.

First year secondary pupils will not start their new schools until 14th February.  The Ministry allocated the places last week on the basis of Primary Leaving Examination (PLE) passes.  A number of primary schools illegally insisted on pupils handing over 10,000 shillings (about £3) for this precious certificate.  It may not sound much, but their parents may only earn sh1,000-2,000 (around 50-70p) a day.  The PLE pass rate has gone up, largely as a result of improving standards in the north.  Results there are still far lower than in the rest of Uganda, but they are better than they were, for there has been peace there now for two or three years.  Most of the internally displaced have left the camps and have begun to plant crops and send their children to school, albeit that ‘school’ may just be the shade under a mango tree or some half-demolished building.  Their children may be traumatised, in poor health and have missed years of education, but now they at least have some kind of a future. 

What's in the bag, jotter or lunch?
Ironically, the improved PLE results mean more pupils now trying to get into secondary school.  What makes it worse is that the number of places overall has actually gone down by about 5,000.  Indeed, the number of free USE places has reduced from 179,440 to 152,410.  So, the pressure on those places that exist has increased significantly.  Headteachers say the reduction comes from the need to improve the learning environment for pupils as a whole. 

Learning under the tree
As a result of the increase in potential pupils, the ‘top’ schools have increased their S1 entry requirements.  The most famous schools, including government-funded schools, will only take those who have gained the best possible aggregate scores, a score of 4 for boys and 5 for girls (positive discrimination).  To make the situation even worse, these schools have also raised their fees significantly, despite Ministerial concerns.  The best-performing schools charge between sh500,000 and sh750,000 per term (between about £150 and  £225), way beyond what most parents can afford.  This figure doesn’t include scholastic materials or uniform.  It also doesn’t include the library fees, computer fees and development fund contributions, which such schools often request.  Nor does it include the costs of boarding accommodation, essential for many pupils in both private and government secondary schools.   Schools which accept pupils under the Universal Secondary Education scheme (USE) receive only sh41,000 (just over £10) per pupil per term if they are government schools, and sh47,000 if they are private.  Hence, many schools, government-aided as well as private, opt not to take USE pupils, particularly if they have boarding accommodation, the costs of which are not covered by the government.   Many things can make it difficult for parents to pay school fees and/or other related expenses such as boarding or uniform.  An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the north east, for example, has meant that parents cannot sell their cattle, and hence have no money for schooling.

Off to school.

As a result of the shortage of places, about 155,716 successful PLE candidates have failed to gain admission to any of Uganda’s 1,676 secondary schools and were advised by the Ministry to try to find a private school (shades of Marie Antoinette…).  The government has said that it will expand facilities in current USE schools and build new ones to provide for these pupils.  It also insists that that the pupils affected will be absorbed by the 740 government-aided and private technical and vocational centres.  However, it is unlikely that it will achieve all these promises within the next two weeks when the new first year pupils are due to start school.  The situation is made even more uncertain by the imminent Presidential, Parliamentary and District elections.

The Sunday Monitor was much exercised by this situation, as it should be.  ‘At the root of all this is an archaic colonial education system, which no longer has a place in our situation today,’ it thundered, pointing to the fact that the British, who introduced the elitist and selective Ugandan system, abandoned it themselves long ago.  As the leader article says, the system ‘perpetuates the poverty trap’ and marginalises substantial numbers of poor but able young people.

One institution which did not open on time was Kyambogo University, round the corner from us.  On Sunday, the day before the beginning of the new term, it put a notice in the newspapers announcing a delay of a week, rather late for any students travelling from the other side of the country.  Reasons given included graduation ceremonies for last year’s students, the fact they haven’t finished interviewing prospective lecturers and checks to be made on student hostels.    Unpredictable events or inefficiency, who knows?

So will the elections change much in Uganda?  Any chance of some new brooms here?

Well, President Museveni has been in power for about twenty five years now, having wrested power from Milton Obote in a vicious 'bush war' which cost 500,000 lives, principally in Luwero (an area just north of Kampala).  He eventually got round to getting himself elected, not too difficult a job given that a) the National Resistance Army (later renamed 'Movement', or NRM) which he led was the only ‘party’ at that time, and b) the population was sick of internal conflict and violence.  After independence, the bloody regimes of Obote and Amin had dominated post-colonial Uganda with the result that people were only too glad to have a leader who provided stability and peace.  And the rest of the world, including the UK, applauded the new stable and peaceful Uganda, at one time funding up to 70% of the government’s budget as the country gradually rebuilt its economy.  So far, so good.   

However, trouble was building up in the north and erupted into twenty years of brutal violence by the Lord’s Resistance Army leaving thousands dead, nearly two million in the camps and a generation of young people traumatised by torture, abduction and terror.  Out of sight, out of mind as far as many Ugandans in the rest of the country were concerned, and conveniently labelled as ‘tribal’ conflict.  At the same time, a number of international studies allege that corruption in Uganda has grown and grown, with senior politicians close to the President and district officials and politicians across the country lining their pockets with the nation’s wealth and syphoning off resources which should have gone to health centres and schools.  Even the main donor nations (the UK, USA, Ireland and the Netherlands) are now expressing their concern publicly and are reconsidering their commitments to Uganda, given that they still provide 40% of the national budget.

Will the election change anything?  We have heard that previous elections were characterised by violence, intimidation and manipulation of votes on a major scale.  This time there has been little obvious violence.  Vote-rigging?  We’ll see on the 18th February, the date of the Presidential election.

Boda boda boys mobilised to support the NRM
One interesting feature of Ugandan politics is that there is little sign of an official ‘purdah’ period during which public servants stand aside from supporting or promoting government policies so that they are not seen as partisan.  Another interesting feature is the fact the President can apparently use government funds to support his own campaign for re-election.  Out on the campaign trail, political incentives include salt, soap and sugar, as well as T-shirts and, indeed, envelopes of money for particular ‘good causes’.  Over the last couple of weeks we have seen enormous payments of sh20 million (about £6,000) to each sitting MP, apparently to help them ‘monitor’ government programmes in their constituencies.  This is not the first time that this has happened over the last few years, or indeed, months.  In fact, some years ago it was reported that MPs received a substantial payment of sh5 million at the same time as they were being asked to support an extension to the President's term of office beyond existing constitutional limits.  As most MPs are out on the campaign trail, it is difficult to know how they are going to use their sh20 million for its official purpose.  Only nine out of 326 MPs have returned the cash to the national coffers, citing what they regard as inappropriate or unjustifiable payment.  Meanwhile, civil societies including the Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda are to institute court proceedings against any MP who does not do this.  Coincidentally, while all this has been going on, some opposition politicians have changed sides and joined the ruling party.  

Parliament building.

Unfortunately, the money for these payments to MPs, sh6.5 billion in all, had to come from somewhere.  The Minister of Finance is reported as saying that the government has completely run out of money.  The work of several ministries, including education, agriculture and health, is being curtailed.  The examples given include expenditure on schools, such as support for USE and school budgets, and provision of certain treatments in hospitals.  It also includes the work which Stuart and I are doing to train the inspectors.  Indeed, it may even include inspection itself.  The funding of the police and army, however, does not seem to be affected and, indeed, thirty community vigilantes are being trained in each local area to help ‘keep the peace’ during the election.  That makes for a lot of security if you include the many armed private security firms.

With all this going on, no wonder Uganda is looking over its shoulder at the Ivory Coast, Tunisia and Egypt.  The omens are not great for leaders who outstay their welcome these days.  Not every politician returns for the new term.

And on top of it all, we have the weather forecast. Apparently La Nina is expected to cause extreme hot spells until May.  Uganda will have widespread drought and ‘rampant’ outbreaks of fire resulting in an ‘increase in human and animal diseases and food shortage’ (Daily Monitor).  At this stage in the hot season, already we are seeing forty or fifty jerry cans placed in lines at the water pumps (or, even in the roadside gutters) and a steady stream of women and children, and the occasional man, trudging up and down the road laden with heavy water containers.  Some areas of Kampala have been without water for long periods, notably the office where we work.  All calculated to aggravate a hungry, poor and frustrated population.

Collecting water before and after school is a real bind...

Stuart and I, however, will be safely at home over the election period, under strict instructions from VSO not to leave the compound.  We have bought our stores of food and water and have an excellent supply of beer, gin and the very best malt whisky.  We have plenty of books, the internet (if it still works) and good friends next door.  What more could we want?

And who knows, after it’s all over, maybe we’ll venture out to find new brooms at work sweeping away the past and cleaning up in preparation for a new year and a new era.  Perhaps we will be privileged to witness a new Uganda where young people flourish and grow tall, where they are nurtured, protected and valued and where every child is able to learn and to develop the skills to become an active and productive Ugandan citizen.

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