Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A sense of hope

from The Guardian

Sarah Boseley visits a school in Uganda whose children will benefit from the Guardian's appeal

The Guardian

Every eye in the room is on Jean Eyedu. Even the large fidgety boy at the back, the three girls squashed into one desk who are half-asleep, and the many who are hungry watch him clowning. He mimics a man walking along without looking, hitting his leg on a rock and falling over. Eyedu topples halfway out of the open door and the whole class - all 68 of them - roar with laughter. He's back, smiling, repeating the point that leprosy attacks the nerves to the point where you can't feel pain.

It's a hot afternoon's science lesson at Tiriri primary school in Katine, northern Uganda. It's the worst time of day to try to teach a mixed class of youngsters who got up at dawn for a few hours' hard labour in the fields before school and who may have had no lunch - or if they did, it was full of sleep-inducing carbohydrates, says Eyedu. But this 24-year-old teacher knows how to hold them. Now, he plays a man whose fingers are dropping off, one by one. It's not a lesson P6 (sixth year of primary education) will forget in a hurry.

"I believe over 40 have understood - got the real thing first time," he says, smiling broadly after class. He was not taught to make them laugh. "It is really my personality, though I was encouraged by one of my trainers at college to use gestures. In the afternoons, it is always very difficult to get their attention. It requires a lot from the teacher. It is important to keep them entertained."

The lesson was a bravura performance with no more props than the blackboard and a piece of chalk. Eyedu had a text book beside him, at which he glanced a few times, but the children have none. Even in a government-funded school like Tiriri, there are maybe 15 copies of the book between - in this class today - 31 boys and 37 girls. So Eyedu talks, clowns, throws questions at them, demands answers, and calls on everybody to give a verdict and applaud. The essentials are chalked on the blackboard for everybody to copy down at the end of the lesson.

Learning to love teaching

Yes, he enjoys teaching, he says. "One thing I have learned is that in order to succeed in what you do, you have to really learn to love it. Even if you are forced into it." But it's a tough job, even for a young man with energy and enthusiasm - and Eyedu admits he may not stay. He would like, he says, to retrain to become a doctor. That's a profession - although he does not say this - which has much greater recognition and rewards. The well-educated and well-qualified are a minority in rural Uganda, and it is hard for any school to retain good teachers.

At Tiriri, which has 831 children and 18 teachers, and elsewhere they complain of large class sizes (the government has recently announced an increase in the maximum class size to 57, although most are much bigger than that already) and inadequate accommodation. Eyedu and his wife and child live in an empty classroom. There are issues at most of the Katine schools over the availability of water - wells can be distant and in many the water is unfit for drinking - and the absence of latrines for children and staff.

But Tiriri is one of the 10 government-funded primary schools where all the teachers have been through training and conditions are relatively good. There are also four community schools, which were set up by parents because the nearest government school was too far away. Amorikot, one of those, is a collection of mud and thatch huts. There are 364 pupils on the roll, although regular attendance is nearly 100 fewer because there are fees of 1,500 shillings a term to pay. That's 42p, but in rural Uganda, where most people survive through subsistence farming, it's money that's hard to find. Then there is the cost of a uniform, an exercise book and pen for each child, and examination fees of 1,000 shillings at the end of the year.

The district education authority has acknowledged the school by paying the salary of a headteacher, but otherwise it provides only wall clocks and chalks. Textbooks are borrowed from other schools - they have, at best, one for each subject in each year.

Interestingly, in a community where girls often drop out of school at an early age, Amorikot was set up specifically because families felt they needed education for their daughters. It has more girls than boys.

At the moment, Amorikot ends at P6, but next year it hopes to start a P7 class, which would allow pupils to sit the primary leaving exam and qualify to go to secondary school. Some of the families have ambitions for their daughters beyond marriage and children. Daniel Acalu, deputy head and P6 teacher, says: "We need some of them to be nurses. We need some of them to be teachers in the school." All of Amorikot's teachers, apart from the head, are young men who have passed O-levels but have had no teacher training. "There were [women] teachers in the community, but they married away," he says.

Uganda is committed to universal primary education and there are regulations that could, in theory, lead to parents being prosecuted if they take their children away. But in Katine drop-out rates are still high - 19% for boys and 22% for girls among ages 6-12. Some of the boys are kept at home to herd cattle and work in the fields, and some girls of 14 get married (bringing precious cows to a poor family in the form of a dowry from the husband). Others are absent much of the time because they are needed to look after babies at home. Where most people earn less than the poverty threshold of $1 a day, the costs of educating a child who could be helping the household to survive may seem too high.

And it's a struggle for any child to do well at school in Katine. Primary starts at age six, but some arrive for the first time at eight or even later. Until this year, any child who failed the end-of-term exams would be kept down to repeat the year. So every class is of very mixed ages. At one P6 maths lesson at Amorikot, the youngest child was 11 and the oldest 18. The government now requires all children to move up automatically each year, but teachers shake their heads. Eyedu said half his pupils were not up to standard for P6. Some find it hard to concentrate - many have nothing to eat from the time they get up until they go home after school.

Uganda has a national curriculum, and the science lesson at Tiriri primary was very relevant to the lives of the pupils - concerning skin infections such as leprosy and scabies, which occur in the community. There are crafts such as carving hoe handles, but much of the education is very academic. And from P4 onwards pupils are not taught in either of the two local languages, Ateso and Kumam, but in English. That is an additional hurdle for children. Only 3.9% of pupils in Katine reach the P7 standard.

Few children progress to Katine's only secondary school, which currently only offers the first three years, although there are plans to open an S4 class next year so that pupils can sit O-levels. At the moment, the few who get that far have to board in Soroti town, 30km away. But only the first year at Katine secondary is free. Fees thereafter are 45,000 shillings (£12.74) per term, a great deal of money here, and the drop-out rate is high. In S1, there are 82 pupils. In S2, there are 12. In S3, just nine - seven boys and two girls. Those who make it all the way to O-levels are a tiny elite.

Yet parents tell you they want their children to be educated, and both boys and girls are keen to go to school. It's seen as a ladder out of poverty and deprivation. There are great possibilities in Katine and a sense of hope. They just need a little help.

The Katine project

Katine, a village district in rural north-east Uganda, is the site of a three-year project to improve the lives of its 25,000 inhabitants. Average income is less than 50p a day, the schools are overstretched and the health clinics struggle to cope in a region that has been devastated by civil war. The Guardian has launched an appeal to raise the money needed to transform this impoverished community, in partnership with the African Medical and Research Foundation (Amref) and Barclays Bank. The Guardian will track the project, explaining where donations go, how aid works - and how lives are changed. Join the project by making a donation, and then follow what happens to your money on guardian.co.uk/katine

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