"We need a generation that looks at things differently and we will only get that if they go to school," says James Bisheko, who spent two years in Karamoja as a project manager with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency.
Many development workers in the historically marginalized northeastern region of Uganda would agree, but persuading children to stay in school is difficult. Primary education is free in Uganda and for many years pupils in Karamoja have also been receiving free meals from the UN World Food Programme (WFP). But enrolment and, more importantly, completion rates, remain far lower than in other parts of the country and, “when the food disappears, so do the kids”, say observers.
When IRIN visited Lopuyo Primary school in Kotido District, only 100 of the 570 pupils were in attendance. According to the head teacher, Moses Ghinno, there were two main reasons: a funding gap meant WFP had cut daily rations from the usual fare of beans and maize porridge to a bowl of porridge. This has coincided with harvest time, which increased demand for children’s labour at home while reducing the need to find food at school.
Ghinno said he had seen some progress since he started at the school in 2007, when there were only 68 students. Community “sensitization” campaigns had greatly increased the intake. But drop-out rates remain high, especially in lower grades, and Ghinno estimated that only 25 percent of enrolled students completed the seven years of primary education.
Ghinno, a native of Kotido, explained that many parents still “see education as something that has no fruits in the future, something that is only for disabled children who have no other capacity”. Agro-pastoralist families prefer children to help with domestic chores and tasks such as herding goats or scaring birds away from crops. Girls, especially, are expected to look after siblings and elders while young and by puberty, are often considered ready for marriage.
Some research studies argue that these are not irrational choices. Sending boys to school can stop them gaining intimate knowledge of the herd, upon which prosperity depends. Girls bring new animals through the “bride price” their husbands pay, and marriages forge new family alliances. Formal education is of limited economic value unless a child progresses well beyond primary school, because areas like Karamoja offer minimal chances of formal employment. Schooling also brings costs, for uniforms, books, etc. So a rational and common strategy is for a family to school only one or two children -perhaps those who show least aptitude for practical tasks. This amounts to diversification, not resistance to education, since having a couple of children with basic literacy and numeracy will increase the family’s skill set, say some experts.
Yet Uganda’s rural primary schools also lag in quality of education, according to an assessment published last year by Uwezo, an East African basic education project implemented by a consortium of NGOs. In Kotido District, one of dozens covered by the survey, only 13 percent of students in the final year of primary school were able to perform arithmetic sums appropriate to their grade.
Problems in class
Looking round Lopuyo Primary School it is easy to see what a tough job headmaster Ghinno has. The classrooms are solidly built but minimally furnished. Blackboards are so worn that it is hard to make out the chalk lettering on them. Ghinno has only six teaching staff, so average class sizes when all the children attend are close to 100.
The early years of primary school are supposed to be taught in local languages, in line with government policy. But Karamoja has a huge shortage of locally trained teachers: Ghinno is an exception. All his staff come from other regions and speak only “broken” versions of the local language, he says.
Yet if all of this makes formal education an unattractive option for parents, attitudes may yet change. Karamoja, enjoying a fragile respite from years of violence associated with cattle raiding, is no longer a “traditional” pastoralist society. As livelihoods change so do lifestyles. According to Ghinno: “People are seeing now that the cows have gone and there’s nothing to do at home. So the only way is to educate the child.”
But incentives, in the form of economic opportunities, will likely also prove necessary.
The small town of Kotido, 10km from Lopuyo, boasts a sprinkling of new small businesses: bars and restaurants catering largely to government and NGO staff, shops selling airtime and mobile phones, carpentry and metal workshops. The town is not quite bustling, but does seem set to grow. Yet many of the new businesses have been established by entrepreneurs from neighbouring regions of Uganda. This is not necessarily a bad thing but, as the region opens up and becomes more closely integrated into the rest of the nation, education, including vocational education, will be important to ensure local youngsters are not locked out of new opportunities.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions