Living Life on the Edge
Life in the village of Katumba, in Bundibugyo District of Uganda on the Congo border, is challenging in so many ways. The area has been badly hit by climate change, which has brought torrential rains and flooding. Landslides, precipitated by deforestation of the upper slopes, have swept away homes, killed many and destroyed arable land. This all came in the wake of the political unrest in 2016, in which many of the village men died. Katumba is physically remote, and its residents often feel forgotten.
Moreen Nyangoma’s mother, Margret Birra, has found it difficult to make ends meet after her husband was killed in the abortive uprising. With no money, she was forced from the home and land which her husband was buying in instalments. Fortunately, her extended family were on hand to help. They gave her a small area of land to grow crops and where she could put up a single-roomed mud and wattle house in which her whole family, including 9 children, can take shelter. Margret labours on other people’s gardens to raise small sums of money to support her family. She used to earn a little more by hawking spare food around the neighbourhood. However, Covid restrictions imposed by the government prohibited house to house selling, so she lost this additional income.
Moreen, her eldest daughter, remains her only hope. Using funds from UHST and Humanist Aid in Sweden, the school gave Moreen a scholarship, which enabled her to complete her primary education. Despite her challenging circumstances at home, Moreen worked hard and became one of the highest performing children at Katumba Parents’ Humanist Primary School, gaining Grade 1 in her Primary Leaving Examination in 2020. She was then awarded a UHST scholarship to continue her secondary education at Isaac Newton Humanist High School, which has a growing reputation throughout Uganda. Unfortunately, Covid closed all the schools to new entrants in 2021 and there is now doubt about whether her mother will be willing to let her go, as she needs to send Moreen out to work to support her family.
The circumstances around Katumba have been made worse by turbulence across the nearby Congo border. Congolese troops are fighting the ADF (Allied Democratic Forces), an Islamic rebel force, which is seeking to destabilise the Eastern Congo and the Ruwenzori region of Uganda. The turbulence has made life impossible for local people. Many have been slaughtered in the conflict and a lucky few are escaping to Uganda as refugees. Already, since May, 2,894 Congolese refugees have fled into Bundbugyo District. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is helping as much as it can, but its resources are over-stretched. When refugees reach the reception camps in Uganda, they find that food rations, medical care and clothing are in short supply, and there is a general sense of hopelessness. Adult refugees are desperate to get their children into school and yet they have no money to pay school fees.
Fortunately for some, the Katumba parents are rallying around to help. Many refugees are members of the same Konjo tribe as are many of the Katumba parents. They were divided when the colonial border was arbitrarily drawn. They speak the same local language, Lukonjo, and many are from the same extended families, who regularly move backwards and forwards across the porous international border. With the troubles of 2016 fresh in their minds, local people understand the plight of the refugees and have opened their hearts to them.
In the picture we can see how the Katumba village market is used to provide temporary shelter for those displaced and already 20 refugee children have been offered places in the Katumba Parents Humanist School. Although they share the same local language the refugee children will have to switch from French to English as the language of instruction, and this will require additional remedial support in school. A major worry for the school, which is already struggling for funds, is how to cover the costs of the extra children, when there is no matching income.
The picture shows Swabia Muhindo, one of the refugee mothers with her child, Ester Soki. Ester is one of the refugee children who will be joining Katumba School when it reopens in January. Conditions of life for them in the Congo had become impossible. There was frequent gun fire between the Congo army and ADF rebels and many civilians in their neighbourhood were dying. When Margret’s husband was killed, she had no alternative but to flee to Uganda. Although living in the refugee camp she is earning money from casual labour on local farms. She is trying hard to raise the school fees that her daughter needs to have a decent start in life.
Uganda Humanist Schools Trust is just finishing funding the construction of a fine new primary school for the Katumba parents. We will be visiting the school in January to get a better understanding of the situation on the ground. After supporting 6 Humanist schools through the Covid closures, our funds are at rock bottom, and we need to replenish them if we are to have the resources to enable all the Humanist schools we support to reopen in January. During the Covid closure we have worked with our supporters to maintain and improve the infrastructure of all the Humanist schools. The priority now is to help the schools take in children from poor families who are unable to pay, to make sure that there is money to pay teachers and to ensure that the schools are not held back by a shortage of books and other learning resources. If you would like to help, then there has been no other time when it has been most needed. Donations can be sent by cheque to: Uganda Humanist Schools Trust, 31 Greenmeadows Road, Madeley, Crewe, CW3 9EY, UK. Details for making online payments can be found on our website: https://ugandahumanistschoolstrust.org/donate/make-a-donation/
I am very grateful to Juma Irumba Siriwayo, Director of Katumba Parents Humanist Primary School for providing the information for this report.