Uganda Humanist Schools Trust

Kanungu makes a flying start

by Robert Magara, School Director, May 1st, 2022

Happy children get their first experience of school
  • I extend greetings from Kanungu Humanist Primary School (KHPS) pupils, teachers and parents. We thank Uganda Humanist Schools Trust (UHST) supporters for completing the building of our new school and sustaining the school during its first term.
  • We enrolled 118 boys and girls, many of whose families had been affected by the world’s worst religious cult massacre in 2020. We are grateful to our newly recruited teachers who are working with us to develop the Humanist ethos of the school. 
  • The term ended on 15th April, 2022, when we released pupils for the vacation. Pupils completed end-of-term examinations and took reports home to their proud parents. 
  • Parents appreciated the difference that UHST support for the school is making to the education of their children. It ensures that we have enough learning materials and equipment for pupils and teachers. Through an account at Aristoc Bookshop, we have been able to buy textbooks for use in class and for home study.

We had food throughout the term. This was possible with continuous support from UHST and local fee collections. We managed to provide daily breakfast and lunch for the children and their teachers; as well as on Saturdays during weekend remedial teaching to make up for the impact of the Covid lockdown.

We were able to pay all teaching staff their salaries up to the end of April. We are proud of the continuous salary support payments from the UHST trustees, which made this possible.

We were able to get 30 more twin desks and bench seats. The furniture problem is reducing, and my aim is to have enough by the end of this year.

We had a very successful visit from the BBC Panorama team who made a documentary for BBC World Service ARICA EYE – The film focused on religious cults and humanism in Uganda and featured the Kanungu massacre and our school and Humanism as a beacon of hope for the future. 

So, despite some challenges, we had a successful term.

Exclusive Evangelical School goes Inclusively Humanist 

Here is a report from Peter Kisirinya, Director of the Isaac Newton Humanist Schools in Uganda, on the first term of their new primary school.

Girl first in line at Isaac Newton Humanist Primary School


Isaac Newton has been developing as a Humanist High School since 2005 and we have been ready, for some time, to extend inclusive education based on reason, compassion and tolerance to local primary-age children. The Covid pandemic, which forced the closure of so many schools, presented an opportunity for us to take over a nearby Pentecostalist school, which had failed for several reasons:

  1. It alienated local people by forcing children and their teachers to subscribe to a particularly intolerant form of Christianity.
  2. Pupil numbers declined as parents saw indoctrination, mistreatment of their children and generally low standards of education and welfare.
  3. Many teachers were unqualified and failed to cooperate with parents in matters concerning the education of their children. 
  4. The school paid teachers poorly and had built-up long arrears of staff salaries.
  5. There was a severe lack of learning space (buildings) and furniture and funds collected from parents to improve resources and facilities appeared to make no difference. 

Changing to a Humanist School

Children who were about to sit their Primary Leaving Examination, were left high and dry when the Evangelical school closed in 2020. The school proprietor advertised the school for sale. Approaches to turn the school into a madrasa led the local community to turn to Isaac Newton Humanist High School, which they trusted, to come to the rescue. Immediately, we provided space where a teacher could work with the children to complete their studies ahead of the November examination. I discussed the situation with Uganda Humanist Schools Trust and they agreed to launch an appeal in the UK to raise funds to buy the failed primary school. 

Fortunately, UHST’s supporters responded well to the appeal, and we were able to buy the school in April 2021 and to begin work on its much-needed refurbishment. Buying the school has meant a lot to the local children, their parents, teachers and the whole local community. Linked to the High School, the Humanist Primary School now offers:

  • Inclusive-secular education to local children from all backgrounds, with high standards of education and welfare.
  • All staff have secure employment. They feel valued and are paid in a timely manner.
  • While many of the original children stayed with the school, new children have come along now that school is seen to be welcoming to the entire community. Currently we have a total of 276 pupils, 150 girls and 126 boys.
  • School fees have been reduced to a fair level since the school is now run on not-for profit principles.
  • A new kindergarten section has been constructed and we now provide all-important early-age education from the age of 3. 
  • UHST has already provided two large consignments of textbooks and other learning materials. We now have adequate textbooks, when there were very few in the old school. 
  • UHST has provided re-usable sanitary towels to all menstruating girls. This was one of the factors that led to many girls dropping out of school. 
  • We have recruited 8 additional qualified teachers, while retaining those staff who were suitably qualified and willing to accept the new Humanist ethos. 
  • All decisions are now taken in an open way, with full consultation with teachers, parents and local authorities.
  • We have changed the system of discipline from one based on violence to one that emphasises empathy and guidance. Corporal punishment has been banned. We are running workshops to share nonviolent strategies for managing discipline. We are also holding workshops on Humanist School Ethos.
  • Adequate and appropriate types of furniture have been made and pupils feel much more comfortable in school.
  • UHST has provided funds for a new kitchen and the quality of school food has improved greatly.

Children and staff are much happier. Children like coming to school and indeed they say the school is a better place than their home. Many pupils can hardly find enough to eat at home and are pleading for the school to reopen earlier than planned for the second term.

Wider benefits to the Community

The community around the school has benefited both directly and indirectly from the school takeover.

  1. The primary school has been connected to electricity, which was been brought into the village by the Humanist High School, with UHST funding.
  2. Piped water has been extended from Isaac Newton High School to the primary school and community members around the school now have access safe water.
  3. Local people are making extra income by letting rooms to teachers and staff from the primary school.
  4. The primary school buys materials such as foodstuffs, firewood, construction materials from the locality, which further boosts local living standards.
  5. The school staff boost the income of local transport services such as boda-boda (motorbike taxis).
  6. The school building has been opened up to the local community for meetings and events.
  7. Those pupils who could not afford an education are assisted by the school’s local bursary scheme.

Future needs

  • The school needs to recruit 4 more qualified teachers. 
  • We need more housing for teachers.
  • We need a school hall for exams and other purposes.
  • To be viable in the longer term, the school needs to find ways to attract more children from further afield.
Children of all faiths learning together at Isaac Newton Humanist Primary School

Ending firewood dependence in African schools

The Humanist Schools in Uganda have learned that providing good food makes for happy students and staff who work well and play well. Schools prepare porridge for breakfast and full meals at lunch and evening time for hundreds of children every day. Traditionally, firewood is used to heat huge cooking pots (see picture below right), and many loads of timber must be brought to the schools each term from further and further afield. Wood fuel use by schools, homes and workplaces in Uganda is destroying woodlands and forests throughout the country, with serious implications for environmental sustainability, biodiversity and climate change. As timber gets ever scarcer, rising prices have a crippling effect on school budgets. In the Humanist Schools in Uganda, firewood is the third highest running expense after staff wages and school food.

Firewood for Mustard Seed kitchen, 2010
Temporary open-fire stove after storm destroys main kitchen at Mustard Seed School, 2022

One mission of the Humanist Schools is to give children a love of the natural world and produce a generation of environmentally aware and responsible citizens. In the past three years, our schools have engaged children in tree planting to capture carbon dioxide and combat global warming. Uganda Humanist Schools Trust has also raised funds to enable the schools to move away from cooking on open fires. We have provided funds to equip every school with wood burning stoves, which burn wood more efficiently (reducing peripheral heat loss) and are externally vented so the cook does not have to breath in the smoke-filled air. Below are older and newer examples of such stoves.

New wood-stove kitchen at
Kanungu Humanist Primary School, 2021
Modern wood-stoves at new
Mustard Seed Humanist Primary School, 2022

Replacement of open fires with wood-burning stoves has cut wood use by over two-thirds. Even so, sourcing logs for cooking remains a major problem and significant cost for the Humanist Schools. Our high schools, with up to 600 children, consume up to 26 lorry loads of firewood every year. The smaller primary schools with 120-350 children use 12 to 18 loads a year. The amount they spend on firewood varies from school to school according to the proximity of timber resources. The new and still small primary school at Kanungu has good local sources of timber but still spends between £500 and £750 a year. Isaac Newton School, which brings in timber from over 40 km away, spends £4,000 a year for the high school and a further £1,300 for the new primary school. This makes a substantial dent in the school budget. The Mustard Seed Schools are forced to buy firewood from unsustainable sources at ever greater distances from the school. Katumba School is in a heavily forested area of the Ruwenzori Mountains. They used to take timber from local forests and transport it to the school. Since the Uganda government has put preservation orders on large tracts of forest the school has had to pay high prices from local entrepreneurs who grow firewood as a crop.

UHST and the schools are trying hard to find ways to reduce the environmental and financial burden of using wood to fuel school kitchens. We are researching the issue and considering all options. Electric stoves seem to be an obvious clean solution, especially as Uganda uses hydropower from the River Nile. Unfortunately, to date, we have not found electric stoves with the capacity to turn out meals for 600 children 3 times a day. In any case, hydro power production in Uganda is not keeping pace with demand, so area blackouts are common. We have also considered solar power with battery storage, but the costs appear to be prohibitive. 

Gas is another option using either bottled gas or biogas. Bottled gas is not well distributed in Uganda so securing regular supplies may be a problem and the costs are high.  A promising alternative might be biogas. We have just learned of a German initiative to develop biogas using a digester linked to school latrines. We intend to explore this option further. The challenges are likely to be meeting the initial capital costs and ensuring that gas production is sufficiently reliable and of adequate volume for mass catering.

A final option we are considering is the purchase of land for each school to enable them to grow and harvest their own firewood in a sustainable way. Initial enquiries suggest that each school would need at least 4 acres of land, where suitable trees would be planted and coppiced. The price of such an amount of land might range from £5,000 to £14,000, according to the location of the school. If such land would grow the timber each school needs, then it should quickly pay for itself.

Eliminating dependency on firewood for cooking is crucial for school finances as well as for maintaining a decent natural environment for future generations. We intend to work with the schools to find sustainable solutions. If any readers have expertise in this area, we would love to hear from you.