Struggle to Revive Education in North

Lack of classrooms, resources and teachers blunts efforts to resurrect long neglected primary school system.

Struggle to Revive Education in North

Lack of classrooms, resources and teachers blunts efforts to resurrect long neglected primary school system.

The classroom of Mary Apokowat, a senior teacher at Kapeta primary school in the village of Palabek Kal, has a grass floor and is bound by a thicket of shrubs.

When it rains, she and her pupils take shelter in the latrine, the only school facility with a roof.

Apokowat is among the teachers, parents and administrators across northern Uganda struggling to rehabilitate primary education in schools long abandoned due to two decades of war between the government and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA.

Her village school is about 40 kilometres north of the town of Kitgum, once the heart of rebel country, and, like most others in the region, it is woefully unequipped.

“Those are the only structures that the government built for us,” said Apokowat of the latrines. “Since there are no classrooms, we take refuge in the latrine.

“We also keep our books and other valuables there because there is no store.”

Apokowat was referring to the school’s decision to allocate two sections of the latrine to store supplies for more than 400 students.

This lack of classrooms or other facilities at the Kapeta school is not unusual. Amoo Okaka, the Kitgum district education officer, said at least local 30 primary schools are in a similar condition.

“Most of the schools were [abandoned] during the two-decade LRA war, and over 60 other schools have just three or four classrooms,” said Okaka. “Since there are no classrooms, lessons are conducted under trees.”

He said more than 6,000 students dropped out of school last year because of the poor conditions.

“You know, pupils want to learn in a comfortable environment,” said Okaka. “So when they come and study under trees, sometimes they prefer not to study at all.”

A survey by the World Learning Organisation and the Straight Talk Foundation last December found schools in Kitgum had the worst education standards and the highest rate of dropouts in Uganda.

The report showed that 40 per cent of children in the area failed to complete their primary education, while another 24 per cent never attended primary school in the first place.

A lack of housing for teachers at the schools is further undermining attempts to revive education in the north, with teachers having to travel long distances to reach their schools.

Joseph Okello, a sports teacher at the Kapeta school, told IWPR that he has a 28 km round trip to work.

“I reach the school when I’m very tired, yet I have to teach more than ten subjects every day,” he said. “A number of lessons are affected because teachers [come] to school late due to [the] long distances [they travel].”

Jolly Oboma, the head teacher at Ngom-Lac primary school in Kitgum, said the shortage of housing for teachers is a serious problem.

“Teachers commute more than ten kilometres daily,” said Oboma. “And you can’t blame them when they don’t turn up for days or come very late.

“There are only 15 teachers handling over 2,300 pupils in the school.”

Due to the shortage of teachers, lessons are restricted.

Denis Okello, 14, a fifth-grade student at the Agoro primary school on the Kitgum-South Sudan border, said this has affected his education.

“I repeated grade five because we were not taught the whole syllabus,” Okello told IWPR.

“Now we are not getting lessons because teachers [don’t attend] the school [regularly].”

Some schools have cut the number of grades from the normal seven to just four or five.

At Onya primary school, about 10 km east of Kitgum, grades five, six and seven have been withdrawn.

“The school has only four teachers, and only two of us have been active this first term,” said teacher Mark Torach.

When visited by IWPR, Torach was by himself at the school.

“My colleague lost a relative and I’m alone now. Another one was not getting his salary because his name didn’t appear on the payroll, so he left,” he said.

Parent Matthew Taban said he was disappointed.

“Just last term we heard that [Onya] now runs from grade one to four only. We had to transfer our children to schools far away,” said Taban.

Christopher Obalim, senior education officer for the district, said that 22 schools have eliminated grades because of the teacher shortage.

Although each school should have 35 teachers, he said, most have fewer than ten.

While some staff teach without being paid, they eventually leave for other jobs, he said.

To help alleviate this problem, parents at the Onya school have been asked to find teachers and pay them themselves.

Additionally, officials in Kitgum have asked parents to build thatched huts for the teachers to keep them at the schools.

But parents have been slow to respond, saying that they first must rebuild their own homes and till their gardens, said Obalim.

Yet, he remains hopeful.

“Education comes [about] with a great deal of sacrifice and [with] contributions from the community,” said Obalim. “We are doing this to help our children.”

Caroline Ayugi is an IWPR-trained reporter.
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