Saturday, July 9, 2011

Telling stories out of school

A lot has been happening in Ugandan schools recently, and some of it gets into the press.  Here are some snippets.

Bomb used as school bell

Teachers in Ikobero Church of Uganda Primary School in rural Kasese have been using a live bomb as a bell. They’ve been banging it with stones to mark the beginning and end of each day and playtime and lunchtime. Interestingly, the bomb was identified when the Anti-Mine Network Rwenzori (AMNET-R) was visiting the school to teach its 700 pupils how to identify explosive devices. Ironically, we often complain about the lack of practical application of learning in Ugandan schools! The Kasese area was a war-zone during the 1996-2002 conflict between the government and the Allied Democratic Forces and it is not uncommon for children to be killed or injured by leftover mines. The visiting group immediately moved the bomb to a safe place for detonation along with the other 25 bombs and landmines found in other areas of the district. Only six months ago a bomb was found at Muhindi Primary School where teachers had confiscated it from pupils who were using it as a toy and put it in the school store.  Fortunately AMNET-R identified and exploded it.  Many more landmines remain to be found in the area, which already has more than 50 landmine victims.

Cattle rustling constrains the school timetable

Pupils and teachers in Katakwi (eastern Uganda) are being forced to leave school early.  For the last week or so, Karamojan warriors to the north of Katakwi have started attacking the area in order to steal cattle.  So far, eight people have been killed. Cattle are the main form of wealth for Karamojans and the basis of their diet.  Many cattle have been lost in Karamoja because of the current drought.  Katakwi has been a target for cattle rustlers for years now, though the army had been pretty successful in dealing with it until this recent incursion.  The District Education Officer has said the attacks have affected syllabus coverage. “The cattle rustlers hide in the bushes during the day. It is not safe for the children who walk to their homes. Schools have to release them by 3pm,” she said. (3pm is very early in Uganda where pupils often leave at 5.30pm or even later.) Not long ago, cattle rustlers used spears.  They now use AK47s.  It is alleged that at least 50 people have been killed by the Karamajong since January, although official spokesmen deny this. Unfortunately, some families have now started to return to IDP camps (for internally displaced people) which had been closed last year after the cessation of the northern conflict.  Some people have asked for guns with which to protect their families. The problem may be related to the withdrawal of troops to cover the election in February. So far the army has recovered 442 head of cattle, some of which had actually been stolen by other members of the Iteso tribe, not the Karamajong. It gets complicated!

Secondary school strikes and closures

Wairaka college school in Jinja (central Uganda) has been closed because of a students’ strike. On Monday, they marched to the district education offices to protest about the headteacher using fines as disciplinary measures, giving them inadequate food (unfried beans and poor quality posho – cornflour),  increasing fees and failing to hold parents’ meetings for three years. The district officials persuaded them to go back to school, saying they would set up a special committee to consider their grievances. The students then started a sit-down strike and are refusing to attend classes. In the end, the district  decided to close the school to avoid any further trouble.
A more violent strike occurred at Bishop Luwum Memorial Secondary School I Kitgum (far north) when the 150 students burnt the ten ‘temporary structures’ (probably mud and thatch huts) used to house teachers and tried but failed to set the library and laboratory on fire.  As usual, they cited a range of grievances including the fact that they were not allowed to take part in a local athletics competition, their teachers’ continual absence from school which has resulted in poor coverage of the curriculum and lack of teaching of compulsory subjects like English and biology. Police are now involved.
Meanwhile another secondary school, San Giovanni in Kanungu, is to reopen after a strike over the prohibition of mobile phones.  Each student has to pay Shs25,000 (just over £5) towards the renovation of school property destroyed during the violence.
Mind you, there may be some substance to the grievances of secondary school students. The Daily Monitor reported that the Directorate of Education Standards had closed three secondary schools in Wakiso, a district close to Kampala, for operating illegal boarding sections with no sanitation and no fire escape routes.  The schools had no qualified teachers, the headteachers were all absent and the students had been left on their own.  One of the schools also had no laboratories.  Another of them was operating a nursery, primary and secondary school on the same premises, which is against Ministry regulations.  Scottish readers may consider this an all-through school and see no problem.  However, in Uganda such arrangements can give rise to serious child protection issues.  
Private schools across Uganda which provide education under the Universal Secondary Education (USE) scheme, 741 of them,  have been threatening to close as the government has not paid the fees for the 239,682 students for which they are responsible.  Private schools educate over a third of the 695,749 students who receive free education.  Fees are Shs47,000 per student per term (about £12), and the government’s arrears amount to Shs15 billion.
All government primary schools in Lira run out of money

The 19 UPE primary schools in Lira (north) have not received any funds for Universal Primary Education from central government since the last quarter of 2010. They can no longer afford to buy even chalk.  Some have tried to charge parents extra fees but parents are refusing to compensate for the lack of public funding.  Schools are not allowed to charge such fees and some headteachers have been asked to provide statements to the police.  The District Inspector of Schools said ‘The problems are real.  The government should act immediately.’

Primary school pupils saved from mutilation

A good news story now: 120 girls from the Pokot tribe aged between 9 and 13 who were about to undergo female genital mutilation (cutting off  the clitoris) have been rescued by two NGOs, the Inter-African Committee Uganda and Amudat Reproductive, Educative and Community Health (AMREACH).  Unfortunately 22 girls had already been mutilated.   The girls came from two primary schools in eastern Uganda.  Police managed to arrest one of the women ‘surgeons’ but more than 40 got away. Some of the surgeons are said to come from Kenya, just over the border. Mutilation is a cultural practice in the east but has never been practised in most of Uganda.  Since being banned in 2010, it has tended to take place in the remote bush and in caves.  Worryingly, mutilation has increased from 550 cases in 2008 to 820 in 2010, so it is far from dying out despite the ban. Last year, 200 Pokot girls from Amudat were forced by their parents to undergo FGM, according to a survey carried out by the two NGOs.  The practice is also prevalent among the Sabiny of Kapchorwa (see the post Mount Elgon, its people and traditions

Schools hit by lightning

Seventeen pupils and a student teacher died last week when their school, Runyanya PS in Kiryandongo 210km north of Kampala, was struck by lightning.  About 100 pupils in all were injured and were taken to the local 100-bed hospital. The hospital, according to the Local Council Chairman, had no running water, blankets, bed sheets, drugs, beds or mattresses. The pupils lay down four to a bed or mat, where these could be found, attached to their drips.  Nurses improvised blankets by ripping down the curtains and using plastic sheets and clothing brought in for a recent Ebola outbreak. Staff at the hospital sped into town to buy equipment from local clinics using credit, while the police rushed the most seriously injured to Mulago, the country’s main referral hospital in Kampala four or five hours away. The medical superintendent said that some of the children died because of the lack of equipment.

The Resident District Commissioner said, ‘the hospital did their best and were slightly organised.’  He added, rather mysteriously, ‘if you continue in that spirit, we shall move ahead.’

The Daily Monitor has suggested that the poor condition of Uganda’s hospitals, which so often are unable to respond to such medical crises, explains the popularity of ‘the traditional medicine/witchdoctor industry.’

Meanwhile 21 pupils in Paidha Role Model Primary School in Zombo were also struck by lightning, as were 48 pupils in Camgweng PS, Kitgum, as well as scores of other adults and children right across the country.  Many cows have also been killed.  Most schools in Uganda have corrugated iron roofs and tend to be the tallest objects in the area, particularly in the many areas affected by deforestation.  They rarely have lightning conductors. The deaths are causing major concern to authorities and considerable panic among the population.  Ironically, the storms had been welcomed after a very long dry spell.  Various steps are being taken to prevent further such attacks: MPs have been discussing whether all schools should be required to install lightning conductors and Christian and Muslim clergy are holding joint prayer sessions.  The District Education Officer in Kotido, Karamoja, has warned headteachers not to let pupils run home during thunderstorms. However, the long-term solution is most likely to be environmental. A couple of months ago terrible thunderstorms and hail destroyed all the crops and scores of buildings in Namutumba region, the hailstones taking four days to melt.  Storms have apparently become much more powerful than previously and are attributed to climate change. 

This will be the last post for the next week or two as I’m off to the UK for 10 days.  Who knows what will have happened by the time I get back?

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