Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Touching down in the Magic Kingdom - Kidepo National Park

Perhaps it's the effort you have to make to get there which helps to make Kidepo so special. Forbidden - quite rightly - by VSO from making the lengthy and risky overland trip across the rest of Karamoja, we opted to fly in and fly out. Why risky? Armed warriors still carry out cattle raiding, though not as often as before, thanks to recent attempts at conflict resolution. And even though we might be cattle-less, it would not be much fun to be relieved of our tyres in the middle of underpopulated semi-desert. Karamoja, arid for most of the year but impassable in the rainy season (August, since you ask...), occupies an area bigger than Rwanda but has just half a kilometre of tarmacked road.

So, it was the four-seater for us, with our friends Tommy and Sue and in the capable hands of Dan the pilot.

However, I think Kidepo's uniqueness is about more than its isolation and the related security problems. Located in the far north east of the country, this national park is probably the last remnant of Uganda as it used to be before colonisation. And therein lies its magic.

Once upon a time, I used to spend many hours battering up and down the A9 from the central belt to the Highlands of Scotland. On the way north and leaving Pitlochry behind me, I would see the high mountains straight ahead. Ah, I'm entering the Magic Kingdom, I would think, particularly on those wonderful bright winter days when the snow glittered in the sunshine.

Well, there's no snow in Karamoja, but, yes, Kidepo is also a Magic Kingdom. After a good hour or more crossing Lake Kyoga and then the green farmland beyond, the plane passes over, or round, a range of jagged peaks.

Lake Kyoga
North of Lake Kyoga
We enter the Magic Kingdom
Before you know it, there before you lies mile after mile of grassland, true savannah.

Grassland dotted with trees
Strange volcanic plugs rise straight from the valley floor.

You touch down at the tiny airstrip, Dan having first swooped down and lifted off again, to chase the buffaloes away. Soon you're bumping along the murram road, across riverbeds and through high wet-season grass until you reach Apoka Lodge.

And then the magic begins - that is, after you've got over your immediate surprise at being accommodated in what looks, at first sight, like a thatched cottage whisked over from darkest Devon. One glance from the verandah and you are in no doubt that this is not the land of clotted cream and cider.

You start off quite modestly with a family of warthogs underneath your window. Peering down at the waterhole, you take the zebras in your stride.

A herd of Jackson's hartebeest lingers below the swimming pool, ignoring disdainfully the comatose buffalo.

A patas monkey materialises in the middle of the grass, jumps onto a nearby wall and then pads away around a corner.

And before you know it, you suddenly realise that half the animal world are living out their domestic lives right in front of your eyes.

A red-cheeked cordon bleu takes a quick bath in a puddle.

Buffalo think mud is better for the complexion.

Whereas when zebra are not enjoying the shade under the restaurant, they find a dust bath a pleasant way of spending a hot afternoon.

And, at first sight, everyone seems to get on well. The teenage waterbuck engage in playfighting.

A common or garden starling
Some sort of kingfisher (?) perches amicably next to the Greater Blue-eared Starling, a bird which I used to think was stunning until I made the acquaintance of his altogether grander relatives the Superb Starlings.

A possible kingfisher

Superb starlings

The Southern Ground Hornbill prefer to go around in pairs.

As do the jackals, though I could only snap one.

The creature my heart went out to was this tiny dwarf antelope.

I saw it settle down in the grass within twenty yards of the lodge just before the sun set. Why my concern? Not everyone in the kingdom gets on well together. Only the evening before as we sat down to dinner at eight o'clock we had heard the most terrifying roar from only a few yards away, near where that little antelope was now standing. The roar was answered by another roar as two lions circled the lodge, twenty yards away at most, light 'shadows' in the dark of the night. And they went on circling for the next three hours and long after we had been safely accompanied back to our rooms. The roaring continued as we got ready for bed, within yards of our cottage. Peering nervously from the verandah, I was acutely aware of every snuffle and rustle and in the morning I spotted mysterious footprints outside the door.

A land full of wonders, and we hadn't even left the lodge. Come with us on our next expedition as we explore more of the Magic Kingdom.

You may also be interested in the following posts:

Evening safari in Kidepo National Park
Morning safari in Kidepo National Park
Five lions and a leopard

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Five lions and a leopard

Click on the image above and you'll find a series of photos of big cats in Kidepo National Park. We actually saw a sixth lion in addition to these: a large male standing by the side of the road in the dark. Too dark for photos but he was literally about 10 feet away. We stopped and watched each other, and then he padded away into the grass.

Enjoy! We did...

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Are our children learning? Dark educational clouds with a hint of a silver lining

So it's official. When you compare primary performance in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, Ugandan children perform by far the worst.

The publication this week of the Uwezo East Africa 2012 report spells even more gloom and doom for educationists here. Uwezo measures children's practical literacy and numeracy skills as demonstrated within a household, rather than school, setting.

Uwezo's main findings

  • The top ten districts across the three countries were in Kenya's central region, with combined pass rates of 85% to 92%. 'Combined' means literacy and numeracy for children aged 10-16. The top ten pass rates in Tanzania ranged from 66% to 80%. The top ten districts in Uganda were in the centre and west of the country. Pass rates ranged from 47% (Nakasongola) to 69% (Kampala). 
  • The lowest ten districts across the three countries were in Uganda's northern regions, with combined pass rates of 9.7% (Kotido in Karamoja) to 25% (Amuru). In Tanzania, the lowest ten ranged from 25% to 32% and in Kenya from 26% to 41%.
  • The median pass rates indicate that 50% of all districts in Kenya achieved an average pass rate of at least 68%; in Uganda, however, 50% of districts achieved a pass rate of 34% or less. Almost half of Kenyan districts outperform the best district in Uganda.

In Uganda, children perform worst during the early years of primary school, but, by the end of primary, make faster progress and do slightly better that pupils in Tanzania. Whether this has anything to do with the fact that so few Ugandan pupils complete primary school (32% compared with 83% in Tanzania and 84% in Kenya - UNICEF 2011 figures) we don't know. UNESCO's data is that 75% of Ugandan pupils either repeat or drop out.

Researchers also looked as some basic measures of socio-economic difference between households, for example durable assets owned, access to electricity and/or clean water, and mother's educational level. Sad news is that, as in the rest of the world, relatively good performance is related to affluence and poor performance to poverty.

  • There are huge differences in performance between the best and poorest performing children within the same countries. The gap between the poor and non-poor is 18 percentage points. The gap between the ultra-poor and the non-poor is 27 percentage points. This means that twice as many children (around 6 out of 10 children aged 10-16) from non-poor households are able to pass both tests compared to children from ultra-poor households (around 3 in 10 children). Put in another way, the gap in performance between a child from a poor and a non-poor household is two years.
  • The older the child (especially after 14 years) the wider the gap in performance between poor and non-poor. By this age, of course, many children will have dropped out of primary school and very few will have transferred to secondary school.
  • The gap between those in government-aided schools and those in private schools is significant across all countries, although you have to be careful. You must compare like with like. Private schools, for obvious reasons, do not take a cross-section of the population. The difference in scores could also be related to the benefits to children of being brought up in a relatively prosperous household, with access to books and scholastic materials, rather than a 'better' quality of education in private schools. In Tanzania the difference between public and private is 28 percentage points, in Uganda it is 17 and in Kenya it is 12. 
We know from our own experience in Uganda, that private schools do not necessarily provide a better standard of education. However, parents think they do, so if they can afford it, they often transfer their children. We were told by a colleague that parents in Bundibugyo, the poorest part of western Uganda, enrol their children in private schools when the harvest comes in and in public schools when food and money are short - so it is a shifting picture.
  • Uwezo found that on average, pupils in lower performing government schools in Kenya still outperform pupils from the better performing private schools in Uganda.
Good news is that across the three countries, gender differences were minimal, with girls slightly outperforming boys.

Key messages

But what are the really big messages of Uwezo 2?

Much the same as Uwezo 1, actually. Despite important gains in access to primary schooling throughout the region, evidenced by generally high enrolment rates, large numbers of children are simply not learning. In all three countries, more than two thirds of children in Standard 3 do not have the basic literacy and numeracy skills set at the Standard 2 level. Moreover, these basic skills are acquired only slowly, and many children only achieve them after five or more years of completed education (instead of just two).

Other studies

Of course, none of this depressing news comes as a surprise. Uganda's National Assessment of Progress in Education (NAPE) report 2011 found that:
  • P6 numeracy levels rose steadily from 41% in 2007 to 55% in 2010 and then fell to 45% in 2011. 
  • P6 literacy levels rose minimally from 49% in 2007 to 50% in 2010 and then fell to 41% in 2011.
  • P3 numeracy rose steadily from 45% in 2007 to 73% in 2010 and then fell to 63% in 2011. 
  • P3 literacy rose steadily from 45% in 2007 to 57% in 2010 and then fell to 48% in 2011.
Possible causes of poor and declining performance

Among the possible causes of the current situation are issues such as:
  • teacher and headteacher absenteeism;
  • use of corporal punishment (90% of P3 children have been beaten in school according to a recent study); 
  • a primary curriculum crammed with esoteric knowledge, complex jargon and theoretical scientific and mathematical concepts, which in the UK would not be taught until the senior years of secondary school and, in some cases, not until the first years of university; and
  • teacher-centred classrooms, rote-learning and lack of active and practical approaches.
Everybody knows what the problems are. However, is anybody going to do anything about it?

What are Uwezo's recommendations?
  • Don't do more of the same.
  • Base choice of interventions on rigorous evidence as to which are most effective. 
  • Focus on learning outcomes instead of educational inputs.
  • Learn from what works, for example in the more successful schools and districts. 
  • Experiment and test out new ideas. Innovation is needed, not more of the same old rote learning, dictation and copying out.
There is nothing here with which we would disagree. All perfectly sensible.

What do we think?

Inspectors should observe learning in classrooms not just count numbers of classrooms, desks, books, latrines, qualified teachers, lesson plans and pupils enrolled. They should focus on how well children understand, on their progress and overall attainment.

The trouble is, however, that the curriculum and examination system are so out of date that they actually damage children's learning, particularly at the primary stages but also at secondary level as well. The Primary Leaving Examination, in particular, is only suitable for the minority of children who find it easy to learn decontextualised theory and factual information off by heart and have parents who can afford to pay for cramming. Its purpose is to sift and discard the vast majority of children so that they leave the education system, not to assess what skills they have actually developed during the course of their schooling so that their continuing years of education can build on them. The children who survive the system come out with superb memories but also with major weaknesses in critical thinking, virtually no practical skills and absolutely no enjoyment in learning.

Other views?

And what do other education professionals say?

Here there are at last some glimmers of hope.

Firstly, Makerere University decided to set its own entrance examination. Pupils with the best results in A level and who had attended the 'best', most prestigious schools came out with the poorest performance. Cramming? Cheating in exams? Who knows. However, the results have, rightly, set hares running. The outcomes of the national examination system are clearly not entirely to be trusted. Apart from everything else, they may measure the wrong things.

Secondly, last week the recently appointed chairman of the Uganda National Examinations Board, Fajil Mandy, made the following points in an interview with the Sunday Monitor one month after he took up post.

He wants:
  • to crack down on corruption and improve examination security;
  • to make examinations test a broader range of skills;
  • to stop cramming and constant testing, particularly with past papers, which cut down the time available for learning;
  • to encourage children to learn outside the classroom and make use of all their senses ( the time they finish A level, they actually know nothing...);
  • to persuade district education officers and boards of governors to see what is actually happening in classrooms;
  • to push for the curriculum to be redesigned (using phrases like vocationalise education, ... link what we teach in schools with what is taking place in the community);
  • to improve teacher training; and
  • to urge the Ministry of Education and Sports to take action and to use the media to educate people about education.
So, some thinking is going on in some influential quarters, at last. And if the chairman of the examination board - usually the most conservative educational body in the country - wants to shake things up, then perhaps there is some hope at last.

You may also be interested in these other posts about primary education

I'll take the high road and you'll take the low road
Letting children down: PLE results 2011
Visiting schools in northern Uganda

Please note: all sections in italics are direct quotations: either from the Uwezo East Africa 2012 report or from Fajil Mandy.


The Education For All (EFA) goals set in 2000 and to be met by 2015 sit alongside the Millennium Development Goals. EFA includes the following commitments,

Goal 2: Ensure that by 2015 all children, particularly girls, children in difficult circumstances, and those belonging to ethnic minorities, have access to and complete free and compulsory primary education of good quality.

Goal 6: Improve all aspects of the quality of education and ensure excellence of all so that recognized and measurable learning outcomes are achieved by all, especially in literacy, numeracy and essential lifeskills.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The return of Ugandapithecus and other historical tales

So, the 20 million-year-old skull of Ugandapithecus Major has come back to Uganda. It's not quite come 'home', as the skull was found in Karamoja, not Buganda. Nevertheless, it has been returned to the Uganda Museum in Kampala from Paris where it has spent the year since it was discovered. There it has been cleaned, studied and copied. It had been buried in volcanic ash near the slopes of the Napak volcano and was found by a team of French archaeologists who have been working in Karamoja for twenty five years. During that time they have found fossils which are a mere five million years old; Ugandapithecus, a species which got its name in 1950, is 15 million years older than that. It is the earliest modern-sized ape skull ever found.

Photo of two replica skulls, taken from the Daily Monitor
Well, at least this irreplaceable skull is now nice and safe in a museum. Or is it? Bizarre though it might appear, many Ugandans apparently believe that the earth dates back only 6,000 years. In fact, the reporting of the story in the press perhaps inadvertantly gives the impression that this is the mainstream view whereas 'sections of science disagree'. Evolutionary theory is clearly a crazy idea thought up by madcap scientists who have failed to take account of the irrefutable historical evidence contained in one of the world's greatest myths. There are probably a lot of people who would rather that Ugandapithecus didn't exist. Fortunately, most of them are unlikely to read Uganda's 'quality' press; however, some of them will.

So what about the Uganda Museum? Let's read the Bradt Guide, the 'Bible' for anyone visiting Uganda. What does the guide say?  'The National Museum of Uganda is the oldest in East Africa, and perhaps the best...'   Well, the museum is housed in a pleasant-enough 1950s building. And people do visit it: a couple of school parties were visiting when we were there, boarders being kept occupied during the weekend. The museum has some nice collections of traditional musical instruments and some interesting displays of cultural artefacts. When we were there, someone was demonstrating how some of the instruments were played, which was good.

Much of the museum is, however, tired, dusty and outdated. One assumes that a building destined to house one of the most precious historical exhibits in the country will have a super-duper security system. However, we didn't see it. In fact, there are plans to knock the museum down and replace it with an office block, seeing as it occupies a prize plot of real estate. Every so often this short-sighted idea re-emerges and one or two people write letters to the papers objecting.

The original idea was that the skull was considered 'too priceless to be put on display and...... [would be] placed in a vault.'  (Daily Monitor 03/08/2011) That view has clearly changed. Nevertheless, I am sure the skull will be safe in its glass case from any passing bigoted crackpot.

In fact, it is not at all certain that historical monuments and artefacts hold much value for Ugandans and, to be fair, most of them have many other things to worry about in their lives. Only last week, more or less at the same time as the arrival of Ugandapithecus was being serenaded, the 450-year-old site of the coronation of the Buganda kings, Bwanika House, was burnt down. According to the Monitor, 'The Naggalabi Buddo Coronation Site is where Chief Kintu defeated his rival Bemba and declared himself the first Kabaka of Buganda.'

It appears that the cause of the fire was arson, quite possibly connected with some of the political tensions surrounding the relationship between the Kingdom of Buganda and the Republic of Uganda. Only two years ago, the Kasubi Royal Tombs, a World Heritage Site, was burnt down at the height of the lethal power struggle between the Kabaka and the President. The government has just handed over a Shs2 billion cheque for reconstruction.

Entrance to the Kasubi Tombs
Roof of reception area from the inside
Kasubi Tombs as they once were (photo from the official website)
How they looked from the inside (photo from the official website)
How they looked when we visited them
Mind you, the Baganda do not seen to give any of their historical monuments much care and attention. Many, like the Wamala Tombs, are in semi-ruinous state - this despite the fact that they are still in use for ceremonial purposes.

Disintegrating Wamala Tombs

It is very difficult to track down historical sites in Uganda. Very few of them are marked clearly on maps or signposted from the roads. They are certainly not as well marketed as Uganda's wildlife and don't seem to have as proactive a body as the Uganda Wildlife Authority promoting them. This may be because most are religious sites for traditional animism and therefore most visitors are expected to be worshippers rather than tourists. There are also many holy trees and waterfalls at which people worship, but again, very difficult to track down. We have found out about them from the Uganda@50 series in the Monitor, but haven't got round to going to look for any of them yet. It's doubtful how welcome casual visitors would be. There are also, of course, a good number of Christian sites including those commemorating the Uganda Martyrs and other missionary deaths. They are currently on our 'to do' list.

Even sites without religious significance, like Mengo Palace in Kampala, do not make that much of themselves. It was here that the father of the current Kabaka, Kabaka Edward Mutesa, lived before he was forced into exile in Britain, where he died in unfortunate circumstances. He had escaped from the palace while it was being attacked by Obote's troops under the command of Idi Amin.

The palace is an attractive building from the outside but is not open to visitors, though there may not actually be much to see inside. When Obote's forces attacked the palace in 1966, centuries-old royal regalia and treasures were burnt.

The place within its grounds which really would draw visitors if they knew about it, is the set of underground cells and execution chambers used by Idi Amin. They were originally built as an arsenal.

You can now visit these rather claustrophobic rooms in the company of a guide. The walls are covered with desperately sad graffiti and the floors scattered with some bones of dubious provenance.

However, there is one exception to the generally neglected state of Uganda's historical sites and museums. The new museum of the Ankole kingdom, Igongo Cultural Centre, near Mbarara (western Uganda) is well worth visiting. It shows how the Banyankore and Bakiga lived a century or so ago and contains attractively arranged showcases with a range of cultural artefacts. It also has that pre-requisite of a good museum - a pleasant coffee shop.

The historical site I really want to visit before I leave is near Kumi: the Nyero Rock Paintings. These date back to the early Iron Age and contain representations of canoes carrying people, zebras and geometric designs. There are apparently several of such sites across Uganda but this is the most accessible. This accessibility is probably quite unfortunate as it turns out that during the insurgency, people moved into the area, encroached on the land and have now started growing crops around the site. Worse, they have actually started quarrying the rocks themselves, according to a newspaper article in May this year. I hope that the paintings haven't completely disappeared before I get there. I'll let you know in my blog!

The issue of the Nyero Rock Paintings is a difficult one. How do you balance the responsibility to conserve the national heritage against the claims and needs of the people alive just now? However, it doesn't look as if the pressure on land in the Teso region is such that people actually have to live on that very spot. There is also no indication that these are the only rocks left for quarrying.

This post has been a very patchy look at the historical and archaeological inheritance of Uganda, largely because of my own ignorance. It jumps from 20 million years ago to the present time with not much in between. This is not because there isn't much, I am sure. It is just that no one really knows about it or has written about it in popular booklets such as people like me read. This is a pity as I would love to go and visit such sites, although admittedly I am not too enthusiastic about tramping unmarked paths with elephant grass over my head in order to do so. There also seems to be little urgency to save, preserve and record this heritage while it is still there. Almost certainly, of course, the money available to devote to such a cause will be quite inadequate.

All of which means, of course, that we should be very grateful that Ugandapithecus is - if not quite alive - at least well and occupying a cosy cabinet in the Uganda Museum. May his rest be safe and comfortable.

The return of our distant cousin - Ugandapithecus (Daily Monitor 11/08/12)