Monday, July 2, 2012

Burning down the boarding schools

Last week, two dormitories burnt down at Leos Junior Academy, a private primary school in Masaka, in the west of Uganda. Five children were burnt to death. Four of the victims, all aged four, were in the kindergarten while one, aged seven, was in Primary 1. The matron died of her injuries shortly afterwards. The children were sleeping in illegal triple-decker bunk beds. Apparently they could not get out because the dormitory was overcrowded. That meant that they couldn't find their way out of their beds, through the smoke and fire, over and between the obstacles and locate the single exit which newspapers have said (though this may not be true), was securely padlocked. One does not bear to contemplate the horror of the situation.

School fires are common in Uganda. In one of the most notorious incidents, in 2008, Buddo Junior School's boarding hostels went up in flames, killing 20 children, in circumstances very similar to those at Masaka. Buddo Junior and Secondary Schools are among the oldest and most famous in Uganda. Ten children were killed in Kabarole Islamic Primary School in 2006. There have been scores, if not hundreds, of school fires since then and several over the last few months, both primary and secondary. While some secondary schools have been set alight by aggrieved students, many other fires have been purely accidental or the result of arson by outsiders (possibly rival schools). 

Fires are common everywhere in Uganda, given that only 2% of families across the country have electricity and the most common sources of lighting are candles or tadoobas (paraffin lamps). The combination of these with grass-thatched huts, in which children are often left alone and sometimes locked in, is lethal. Such sources of lighting are also lethal in boarding hostels, as are the illicit charcoal stoves which secondary students sometimes smuggle under their beds for cooking late night snacks.
There are several issues which immediately come to mind when contemplating incidents such as the fire at Leos Junior Academy.
Firstly, there are clear regulations regarding boarding hostels. All dormitories should have two exits. Beds, all equipped with mosquito nets, should be a certain distance apart and a certain distance from the wall. Passage ways should be unencumbered by children's possessions. (Often children's trunks occupy half their bed or are left in the gangways.) Fire fighting equipment (usually a bucket of sand) should be available. Doors should open outwards. Latrines, so many per pupil, should be close by. A matron and a guard should be on duty. You know the sort of thing - typical of health and safety in boarding schools across the world.
Uganda has plenty of rules and regulations on every area of life, including health and safety and child protection. Usually, as in other countries, legislation and guidelines are introduced or revised because of some recent incident. In Uganda, requirements for fire protection and standards for school boarding hostels were introduced after the Buddo fire. However, passing legislation and writing guidelines is one thing; following them is another. Leos is not the only fire where it is alleged that dormitory doors were padlocked. In some incidents, the guard and matron have actually been away from the premises.
All schools, private and government-aided, are supposed to register their boarding accommodation with the district education office. Registration inspections are carried out as in the UK. However, many hostels are illegal, a fact which regularly appears in newspaper reports. In fact, there is evidence that most boarding hostels in secondary schools are illegal. That probably means that almost all boarding hostels in primary schools are also illegal. It is very common for inspectors carrying out a routine inspection of a day school to suddenly find unregistered boarding hostels on site. Sometimes dormitories occupy unused classrooms or, worse, classrooms which are converted back to dormitories in the evening (or when the inspectors have gone).Occasionally, it is just a case of the paperwork not having been done. However, it is often far worse.

Illegal boarding, as in the crowded secondary girls' dormitory above, may come about because poor parents want the best for their children. For example, they - rightly - believe their daughters may be safer in a hostel than risking rape by walking home. What the school can provide and what parents can afford, however, fall far short of what is acceptable. The girls in the school above washed outside in the open air using jerry cans of water collected from the nearest standpipe - not an unusual situation in poor rural schools. However, as washing outside is a reality of life for many family households, neither parents nor children may consider it untoward or a threat to girls' safety. In the photo you can see the girls' clothes hanging up over the beds - against government regulations and a clear fire hazard.
The poverty-stricken parents of the primary school pupils in the illegal hostel below - which occupied an old classroom - wanted their children to spend more time studying and less time walking to school so that they would have a better chance of passing their Primary Leaving  Examination. And who can blame them? A mattress on a mud floor was probably no worse than what the children slept on at home; indeed, at home they probably slept on a bare mat.

However, the most famous boarding school fires - at Buddo and now at Leos  - have not been in poor rural schools like these. Both these schools are schools for the privileged. Huge numbers of middle class children crisscross Uganda to attend schools miles from their homes. We see them at the beginnings and ends of term with their rolled-up mattresses, their plastic wash bowls, sweeping brushes and tin trunks on the back of boda bodas or tumbling out of matatus - as well, of course, as emerging from grand newly-imported four-by-fours.Even more oddly, however, these youngsters sometimes live locally but board all the same. 

This is a phenomenon we can't get to the bottom of. Ministry guidelines lay down that no pre-school children should be boarders. Primary school children are also not supposed to board, but thousands of them do. While some of the Masaka children came from Tanzania and Rwanda, many others lived just a short distance away, so short that their parents rushed across to the school during the fire and removed the survivors (thereby making a roll call and identification of those missing impossible).  The issue of sending very young children to boarding school is a major one in Uganda. However, it is also one which no one cares to deal with, presumably because of fear of their influential parents, or perhaps, because the legislators themselves also board their infant offspring. This may change after the Leo's fire. Don't hold your breath,though; little enough changed after the Buddo fire.

The chief of police said, “The guidelines are very clear, and there is no such thing as a boarding section for kindergarten. If they are to run such facilities, they should be like infants’ homes, where the children get specialized care with a special diet.”

We have no real idea how Ugandan children react to being sent away from home at such a young age. The days of boarding prep schools in the UK are pretty much over except for children with parents abroad. The prep schools we have visited in Scotland have usually gone out of their way to provide a warm 'family' environment for their young charges. Not necessarily so in Uganda, where the physical requirements of boarding may be present but the emotional surround may often be absent. 

Ugandan families are quite different from European ones, often it seems with a less intense relationship between child and parent and with children moving between different branches of the family. Ugandan children are often remarkably self-reliant in aspects of their everyday lives (though not in their learning). We watched the six-year-old Primary 1 pupils in the good government-aided boarding school above pump their water from the standpipe, then wash their sheets in the blue plastic bowls you can see and spread them out to dry in the sun. In the picture below, secondary pupils have draped the roadside fences with their weekend washing. It puts many of our spoilt university students to shame.

Boarding in secondary schools is rather different from the primary and pre-school situation. Boarding goes back to the days when secondary schools, usually located on mission stations, were scarce and communications and transport difficult. Boarding was a straightforward practical solution which widened access to education. This is exactly the same situation as pertained in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland when I first moved there, about fifteen years ago. At one time, the large county of Sutherland only had one secondary school, in Golspie on the east coast. Children living in the west travelled a huge distance to live in the hostel there. The Western Isles had hostels until very recently, when causeways were built joining North and South Uist, Berneray and Benbecula. The northern isles of Orkney and Shetland of necessity still have their hostels. Young people of secondary age may not necessarily want to go away from home to gain an education, but at least they are better equipped emotionally to cope with the experience than their younger brothers and sisters. My heart goes out to those lonely little children in Uganda's boarding primary schools and nurseries.
After the Leos fire, the police arrested the headteacher and the proprietor, and quite rightly, given that (according to the newspapers) they knowingly flouted every regulation under the sun, by the look of things. One bit of me wonders why those educated parents who lived down the road from the hostel weren't also arrested for failing even to check the accommodation their little children were going to sleep in and for wanting them to board in the first place. However, they have been punished enough.

The immediate cause of the fire was identified as a paraffin lamp, although, bizarrely, the chief of police has since fingered the ADF, a rebel force, as having carried out a 'terrorist act' at the school, though with as good as no evidence as far as anyone can see. One may speculate that such an accusation may let the proprietor and headteacher off the hook.  Coincidentally, Leos' Primary 6 and 7 dormitories were torched a year and a half ago though with no casualties. Arson is another hazard which schools face.

The government, of course, is now in blame and punishment mode, while the private schools are squealing. These profit-making institutions are demanding that the government, which can barely afford to run its own schools, should actually pay them money to protect the lives of their own students.

One private school headteacher said, "In addition to buying fire-fighting gadgets, we are required to have lightening [sic] arrestors, which are very expensive. The Government should subsidise these gadgets," 

For, of course, there are plenty of other hazards for young people to encounter in Ugandan schools. For example, 73 children were killed by lightning last year, when the corrugated iron roofs of their poor rural day schools were struck, and nearly a score already this year. Students have also been killed when the 'cattle trucks' they have been travelling in have overturned. Such vehicles, which carry students standing upright while holding onto the sides - or each other - have been banned for ten years, although authorities only started enforcing the ban last year after a nasty accident in central Uganda. A truck rolled over, killing two students and injuring 43.  You may just be able to make out the pupils standing in the back of the lorry below.

Sometimes children are injured by the poor quality of their school building. Here is a story from my clippings file.

At least 40 pupils of Hidaya Islamic Primary School are admitted to hospital, after their classroom collapsed on them during a storm. The school has only one classroom block. During the day, the pupils take turns to use the classrooms. Most lessons are taught under the trees. On Friday, when it started raining, about 200 pupils and teachers crammed in the classroom for shelter. But a strong hailstorm tore off the roof, causing the wall to crumble. The headteacher, Mr Ibrahim Mawerere, said 100 pupils were injured but 40 were in critical condition.

The competition between schools can also sometimes be lethal. A few months ago, 60 pupils at a well respected primary school, Kitega, were poisoned after drinking porridge laced with a herbicide. The matron narrowly escaped being lynched by parents and was only saved by the headteacher locking her in an office. The mob then started stoning the police. A rival school was implicated.

Anyway, in the nature of things all these accidents and incidents end up being laid at the feet of the school inspectors. District authorities are charged with inspecting primary school boarding accommodation. When things go wrong, as at Leos, then everyone starts shouting, 'what have the inspectors been doing?'

As it happens, Masaka currently has no inspector of schools. The district education officer said she was 'overwhelmed'. However, it does beg the question: does it really take a visit from an inspector for the most obvious and basic safety precautions to be enforced by the professional staff into whose care parents entrust their children?


  1. Powerful and totally factual writing. This area - boarding - is a scandal.

    There may be a little mitigation in that so many parents are in jobs where they are posted away from the family unit with little notice - but I think that the financial angle might also be a reason for the poor provision. Boarding fees are a little goldmine for some and the profit motive might be leading to the cutting of corners.


  2. You are quite right, Pauline. Family life in Uganda is often disrupted by the demands of employment. The alternative to boarding school may mean being brought up by maids - not a good solution. However, the profit motive is also major. There is no excuse for triple decker beds and so on.

  3. Wow, after reading this it makes me so grateful for the quality boarding schools available in the U.S. It's so easy to take things for granted.

  4. Thank you, Anonymous from the US. Indeed, we in the west take many things for granted. Leos Junior Academy re-opened its dormitories one week after the fire without,as far as one can tell, any significant changes. It is said that three-year olds have been seen boarding there. Certainly many of the children were not removed from the school by their parents after the fire. It is also said that 80%-90% of boarding accommodation in Uganda is illegal.

  5. Ritchies,

    Don't you think you are an outsider who is crying louder than the bereaved??

  6. Reminds me of the overcrowded clothing factory fires; sad, so very, very sad . . . and preventable!

  7. There are so many problems with boarding students, here in US or in Uganda. The most important things for any child is to trust adults, obey them and to learn as they are cared for and heard. If any boarding school that does not take this into consideration should be closed. Safety First and love and nuturance next.
    I feel for parents that absolutely need boarding arrangements. For them, there should be due diligence to assure safety and good care. No excuses should be accepted, ever. it's crazy that kids are poisoned deliberately, housed in rooms that get locked, live so close they can be trampled, etc. This article was informative. An no, US boarding schools are not perfect but there are plenty of regulations as well. Neglect is taken very seriously.