Thursday, March 31, 2011

Visiting schools in northern Uganda

‘But madam, we were in the camps and the school was burnt down.’  With those words I was silenced.  What more was there to say?

To be fair, my question, ‘Are these all the textbooks you’ve got?’ was not entirely crass.  I was getting tired of going from school to school seeing shelves of completely unused textbooks in the headteacher’s office while the 80 or so children in each class shared three tattered copies of the most out-of-date edition.  The Ministry and international donors who are working to rebuild education in the north have provided books, but why aren’t they being used?  The record that day was held by another desperately poor school in a desperately poor part of the north with four floor-to-ceiling cupboards packed with books in pristine condition.  We had not seen one book in the classrooms.  I have still not fathomed why Ugandan primary school teachers are so reluctant to let their pupils get their hands on textbooks. 

Unused textbooks in an old storeroom
It’s funny, when I used to inspect schools in Scotland, over-reliance on commercialised texts was a common indicator of lack-lustre uninspired teaching which focused on the next page in the textbook rather than the learning needs of the children in front of the teacher.  However, it’s different in Uganda.  Those textbooks, sent out by the Ministry of Education and Sports to support the Universal Primary Education programme, are the only books that any child in a UPE school, particularly a rural one, is likely to see, let alone hold - ever.  They are also a key method of ensuring consistency and quality of lesson planning and teaching.  Oh, I knew there weren't enough.  The government sends them out in 10s or 12s.  However, it should not have been beyond the wit of a half-decent teacher to make some sort of arrangement for sharing the precious copies, even if it meant some children working on different topics or books from other children in the same class.  Shock, horror: a move away from lockstep rote learning!  That would never do...

But, back to that teacher and back to that school. It wasn’t a jolly adventure holiday camp he was talking about.  In fact, I could see where the camp had been just by looking out of the window.  There it was, a huge expanse of bare dirt where once hundreds of grass-thatched mud huts had stood, row after row.  That was where the teacher and his colleagues had lived for the last few years, some moving there voluntarily to be safe after attacks in their community, but most being forcibly removed.  The Ugandan army regarded those who did not move into the camps as enemy combatants and dealt with them accordingly.  The teacher and his colleagues had only got out a couple of years ago.  Like many aspects of life in the north, the education system was having to deal with the impact on adults and children of long-term institutionalisation and learned helplessness.
P1 line up on the site of the old IDP camp.
The last remaining huts in an old IDP camp near Gulu.
As for the school store having been burnt down: the rebels had been right across this area, not just burning books and burning schools but burning houses, burning people.  That week we had had two separate interviews with district education officers working in different parts of the north.   Both of them had said that one of the major priorities for education in their area was to improve the supply of teachers in the rural areas.  Some of the classes had 200 pupils.  The area desperately needed more teachers and the main way of achieving that goal was to provide them with houses – but not any old thatched hut like the one they used to live in before they transferred to the camps or the ones they occupied while they were there.  

Traditional homestead.  Little house on stilts is a granary.
No, grass-thatched houses would no longer do, but not because of any deep-grained snobbery derived from obsessive perusal of Homes and Gardens magazine.  Teachers had been no more immune from attack than any of their neighbours.  Too many of them had cowered in their huts or out in the bush as the rebels attacked, barely escaping with their lives as a swiftly wielded brand caught the thatch and the whole hut went up.  No, they wanted ‘strong’ houses, brick houses, and who can blame them?  Some of these new houses for teachers are now being built, but still not enough and not in all the most out-of-reach areas where they are really needed.

New teachers' houses.
The Lira area where we were, showed a few more signs of communities being rebuilt and farmland being regenerated than we had seen in the immediate Gulu area.  We had stayed in Lira itself, a pleasant rural town with some old Asian buildings.  Like Gulu, Lira had taken in thousands of internally displaced people during the height of the insurgency.  By the time we got there the camps had all been dismantled and the only signs of their erstwhile existence were the tell-tale bare acres where once the crowded rows of huts had stood.

International donors are still driving a major Food Security Programme in the north of Uganda, but the large warehouses of imported food are gradually being closed down.  The emphasis now is on people growing their own food, for which they may be given seeds and hoes by donors, though they are also trying to encourage self-reliance.  Producing their own food is essential for people’s self-respect, for the well-being of their children and for the long-term eradication of hunger in the region.   We could see people digging the rough overgrown land using traditional hoes, but we also saw two or three examples of bullock-drawn ploughs.  With the rains having arrived, it was now time to plant.

Plough at work.
We were visiting schools way out near the border of Karamoja, in Otukwe district.  VSO would have had a hairy fit if they’d known!  Cattle raids from across the border were very common until recently, when the government started cracking down on the activities of the Karamajong warriors, apprehending – and killing – many of them.  The cattle raids now tend to be carried out within their own community, so Karamoja is still not really safe for us to visit. Every so often a raiding party will attack a vehicle and travellers will be shot.  The most recent incident was on Saturday in the Kidepo National Park when a ranger was shot, caught in cross-fire. Karamoja is on the FCO’s ‘banned list’ of areas within Uganda, and most people tend to either fly in and out or go in as part of a UN convoy, flak jackets and all.  We didn't fancy explaining to Link Community Development why their Landcruiser had been hijacked and its tyres turned into rubber sandals.  So, we went no further than Otukwe.  Rebels and raiders: the people of Lira have had a lot to bear.

On the way to school.
However, as we bounced down the long murram roads we could see clear signs that life was returning to ‘normal’.  By 7 o’ clock in the morning, long lines of children were trotting off to school.  Every so often we saw small groups of them hunkering down at the side of the road putting things into plastic containers.  We learnt that these were white ants, a delicacy in the Lira area.  They are usually boiled or fried and made into a sauce or a paste.  (Stuart prefers Heinz.)  We guessed that there would be a few late pupils.  

Gathering ants at first light, on the way to school.
Indeed, the flood of school children showed little sign of abating as the morning went on.  Surely by eleven o’clock they should all have been at their desks.  Alas, no.  Indeed, many of them appeared to be coming away from school.  The colleague with whom we were travelling rolled down the window and questioned one of the pupils.  He had been sent home from school as he hadn't brought the additional ‘development fees’ charged by the local school.  Such fees are perfectly legal, though paying them is not obligatory.  They are big business in government schools in Kampala and prevent thousands of pupils from taking advantage of the country’s ‘free’ universal primary education.  In Kampala the fees could be 30,000 shillings (about £10) per term, or more.  In this poor rural school, the additional fees were 2,000 shillings (about 70p).  However, subsistence farmers do not have money, particularly those who have been in the camps and are just beginning to turn the first turfs on new farmland.  Money only comes from selling cash crops, not yet grown in any significant quantities in the Otukwe area.  Scores of children were being turned away from the school because their parents could not afford to pay the fee.

On the way back.
It is at times like this that you realise why you chose to become a school inspector.  You can make a real difference to children’s lives.  With our colleague we continued our visits to two other schools in the area, then, on the way back to the district education office, we would make a detour to the school from which these pupils had come.  In the meantime, we carried out the usual sort of visits, visiting classes, checking on files, gathering information on attendance (by headteacher, teachers and pupils), and judging health and sanitation by checking the water supply and the pit latrines (ugh!).  Checking the toilets was never a popular job when I belonged to HMIE.  However, Ugandan pit latrines belong to a different order of sanitation altogether.  The stench is of a different order also, an eye-watering experience.  Stuart and I spent a good bit of the day trying to control our gagging reflex. 

End of the day, not a cheerful looking crowd.
Our inspections in the local schools threw up a number of problems.  Each time, our colleague probed gently but relentlessly.  He got people laughing and provided probably some of the best staff development they had ever had.  What were the issues?

'What are they doing here?'
Firstly, almost every time we arrived in a school the children were peering out of the doorways and the staff appeared from the other side of the compound.  One major problem in Ugandan schools is teacher attendance, a form of corruption which involves them claiming a teacher’s salary but working for half the week as a small trader or boda boda driver.  Another problem is that even if teachers are in school they may not actually be teaching.  In fact, it was not unusual to come across a class packed with 70 or 80 P6 pupils all sitting patiently, with NO teacher in sight.  The teacher was elsewhere, sometimes marking, at other times at home.  Sometimes the headteacher was not there either, gone ‘into town’ to deal with personal business.  In such schools, the offices are often disorganised.  They have missing files, incomplete or no registers, hardly any lesson planning and definitely no improvement plans.  Worse, there had often been no visits from the local district inspector who is the very person who should be picking up and dealing with such issues.  Sometimes there is no district inspector.  Sometimes s/he stays in the office and writes reports from there (yes, truly!), if at all.  The overall purpose of our visits was to check up on the inspections carried out by the district.

We found schools which had deliberately inflated their school rolls in order to get a higher per capita allowance, virtually unknown in Scotland, but a rampant form of corruption in Uganda.  Again, patient unpicking of the evidence involved matching the official school numbers with the names in the individual registers (when these were kept...).  Our colleague told headteachers salutary stories about potential legal repercussions as well as the implications for child protection.  He stressed the need to note how many pupils were orphans (sometimes between a third and a half) so they could be better supported, in particularly those in child-headed households.

Proud owner of a homemade ball:
a bundle of old plastic bags wrapped round with string.
We found illegal boarding facilities which had not been registered with the district.  Parents often feel that their children will do better in boarding accommodation: they don’t have to walk long distances to school, providing more time for study. Also, they get their meals.  However, schools often convert old classrooms without considering necessary health and safety requirements such as emergency exits, sanitation and solid bunk beds.  They may not have matrons to provide care or night watchmen, essential in an area where thousands of children have been abducted.

Boarding accommodation, windows partially blocked for privacy.

Children sleep on mattresses on the ground.
School kitchen providing food for the boarders.
At the end of the afternoon, and by now extremely tired, hot, thirsty and grimy, we made our way through the bush to the school which had sent the pupils away.  What were the ‘development fees’ being used for?  ‘Teachers’ houses,’ was the answer. The school had four houses for eight teachers.  It needed more.  Our experienced DES colleague carefully explained that the government does not allow children to be turned away from school because they do not have ‘development fees’.  The practice was illegal and he was within his rights to fetch a policeman.  The poor headteacher, two weeks into post, was apologetic.  He hadn't realised.  He wouldn't do it again.

Weary and hungry, our heads buzzing with what we had learned, we drove back to Lira.  My eyes were burning and my nose streaming: hay fever from the dust and, no doubt, from the fleas in the schools.   Halfway back we could see a pickup stuck in the ditch, surrounded by passengers.  We slowed down to inch past.  A polite knock on the window from a smartly dressed young man: could we give him a lift?  Of course.  Another knock.  ‘It’s my ‘brother.  Can you take him too?'    'OK, hop in.’  Another get the story.  We made it to Lira an hour or so later, all eight of us, including a man with an empty jerry can for petrol and a live hen who expressed her displeasure by squawking loudly all the way.  Or perhaps she was just pleased to be riding in style.  By this time tears were running down my cheeks.  It was the hay fever, honest.

Memorial to the  conflict - Lira.

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