stevehurd@uhst.org Uganda Humanist Schools Trust: Charity No 1128762
Lily van Haelen

A life-changing legacy

Lily van Haelen
Lily van Haelen

Towards the end of her life, Lily van Haelen charged her children with the task of finding a worthy Humanist project in Africa, to be the recipient of a legacy from her will. The family worked hard to find a fitting tribute to their mother. They approached and rejected several orphanages and schools in South Africa, concerned that money might leak into private pockets. Eventually, they came to Uganda Humanist Schools Trust. I was invited to the home of her son, Laurence Paltiel, in Bedfordshire. After many searching questions, Laurence was keen to explore the possibility of supporting a project at Isaac Newton Humanist High School. The school fitted the family’s needs perfectly. Its mission was to provide inclusive education based on reason, compassion and tolerance to children in the impoverished rural community of Kateera village, in Masaka District. The school was a registered not-for-profit organisation, had ring-fenced bank accounts and published transparent, audited accounts. What is more, it had an urgent project that coincided with the wishes of the family. 

This was in 2010 when the HIV/AIDS epidemic was raging. Working-age people were dying and leaving single and double orphan children, many of whom became victims of forced labour. Orphan girls were prey to sexual abuse. Peter Kisirinya, the school’s Director, identified an urgent need to build a girls’ hostel to provide a safe place for orphan and other girls from destitute families to live and learn in the safety of a caring school community. As soon as Lily van Haelen’s family learned of the situation, they asked us to prepare plans and cost estimates for a hostel to house the girls. I made another trip to Bedfordshire to show them the plans. A younger family member flew to Uganda to visit the school, meet Peter Kisirinya and see the site of the hostel. Thoroughly reassured, they gave a green light to proceed.

Peter asked an architect friend to draw up plans. However, there were hardly any builders in the area with experience of constructing a building of this size and it proved impossible to obtain competitive quotations. Peter went to the one local builder, reached an understanding with him and gave him the job. Work started in February 2011 and was finished by the end of the year. The final cost was £24,000. This was 15% over budget, but the building was bigger than the original plans. It has 8 family rooms, each with 9 girls, a room for the matron, washrooms, 2 showers, toilets and an ironing room. 

Girls delighted with their new home in the Lily van Haelen Hostel

At the formal opening in 2012 the hostel was named the “Lily van Haelen Hostel”. In the 11 years since it was built, the hostel has transformed the lives of many girls. They have escaped the challenges of life in the rural homesteads with long walks to school. They have been given a safe place to sleep, been well fed, given access to health care and facilities for study and leisure in the evenings and at weekends. Time has demonstrated that these girls from destitute backgrounds, once given the right conditions, can outperform their better off peers, who attend the school as day students. The hostel has been a huge success*, both socially and educationally, and it has been a fitting and lasting memorial to the life of the benefactor, Lily van Haelen. The school and the girls are enormously grateful for the bequest that made this possible. If you think you might be interested in leaving your own life-enhancing bequest, then you can find information here: https://ugandahumanistschoolstrust.org/donate/making-a-bequest/.

Hostel Refurbishment with help from the Rationalist Union, Italy

To enable the Lily van Haelen Hostel to continue serving future generations of girls from Kateera it is now in need of refurbishment. After 11 years of continuous use, the Hostel is beginning to look shabby. Holes have developed in the concrete floors and damage to walls, windows and doors need to be repaired. Additionally, the school would like to fit ceilings in each family room to prevent mosquitoes from carrying pathogens, such as malaria, between girls in different rooms. The whole building needs repainting, using anti-mosquito paint on the interior surfaces.  

We are delighted to announce that our friends in the Union of Rational Atheists & Agnostics of Italy have come to the aid of the girls of Kateera. They have responded to the UHST 2022 Appeal with sufficient funds to cover the refurbishment of the hostel. The Funds have been transferred to the school and work will start immediately so that, when the girls return to school in February, it will be finished. The girls will be delighted to find a transformed hostel. They will appreciate this kind help from the Rationalist Union of Italy, which will extend the life of the original legacy for many years to come.

*An indicator of the success of boarding provision for girls was demonstrated during Covid. Schools in Uganda were closed for long periods and students sent home. During the time that Isaac Newton girls were at home, 4 became pregnant, yet pregnancies are almost unknown when the school is running. In contrast to religious schools, which blame the immorality of girls for pregnancy and expel them from school, Isaac Newton and our other Humanist Schools do their best to help the girls to return to school to complete their education once they have had their babies.

First year as a Humanist primary school

Jonan Arianda has written this report on his first year as Headteacher of Isaac Newton Humanist Primary School.

“Our school was created from the collapsed fundamentalist Pentecostal school, called His Grace Primary School. The former school proprietor forced all pupils to become Pentecostal Christians. This caused friction with community members who wanted freedom of conscience and they gradually withdrew their children from the school. With only 19 children remaining and teachers having gone unpaid for 4 months the school closed. 

Transformation

Since Isaac Newton Humanist High School took over, the school has recovered and gone from strength to strength. The new inclusive Humanist philosophy, which is friendly and welcoming to pupils from all backgrounds, has seen a growth in numbers from 19 to 259 pupils. The atmosphere in the school has become positive and vibrant.

Kindergarten children
Primary one class

School staff and children really appreciate the efforts of Peter Kisirinya, our new Director, and UHST supporters in saving the school and working to establish high standards of education and welfare. The staff appreciate the good working relationship with teaching colleagues from Isaac Newton High School since its takeover. We are delighted that the school is now run as a not-for profit organisation and all income is used to benefit the school, with none being taken by a proprietor. As staff our lives are greatly changed and we pledge to work hard to make the school a success.

The first year has been transformational. New and better qualified staff have been recruited. We have 15 staff members, 12 teachers and 3 non-teaching. Textbooks have been provided and the general school infrastructure transformed. We have acquired new learning materials, visual aids, a TV set and preparatory materials for teachers. 7 former pupils who had dropped out of school were allowed to return and enter for their primary leaving examinations.

School food has improved immensely. Children receive breakfast and lunch every day – and, for some children, from the poorest homes, the school provides their main meal of the day. 

Typical School Menu

MondayPosho & beansPorridge
TuesdayPosho & beansPorridge
WednesdayRice & beansMilk & eggs
ThursdayPosho & beansYellow banana & eggs
FridayPosho & beansPorridge & Bread.

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Embracing our new Humanist Ethos

Humanist is a new idea to many, but it has been in practice here without many of us realising. Many parents appreciate the need to have free will in deciding ones’ destiny and are particularly happy that in a humanist school there is no indoctrination. Pupils as young as four ask critical questions that deserve to be answered openly. Our teachers are learning that it is OK to say to children “I am not sure of the answer, what do you think?”. Teachers come into school with their personal beliefs, but they do not generally see a conflict with the humanist perspective on life. They are keen to learn more about the full implications of working in a school that embraces the Humanist ethos. For example, teachers who have come from schools where discipline is based on the rod are having to learn the positive benefits of moving from “violence to guidance”. We want our staff to understand and work within a Humanist Ethos. We need workshops on critical thinking, human rights, free speech, democracy, conflict resolution and other progressive policies. We require humanist literature and activities that are suitable for young children in Africa.”

Jonan Arinda, Headteacher, Isaac Newton Humanist Primary School

NOTE UHST and Uganda Humanist Schools Association have been trying to run a 3rd Humanist Schools Conference for some time. Covid held it up for two years. Our plans to hold it in late January 2023 are now in jeopardy. Given the broader financial pressures we are going to find it difficult to find the £5,000 it will cost to bring together teachers from the different Humanist Schools in a 3-day residential workshop. If the current outbreak of Ebola lasts into the new year then that will force a further postponement.

Isaac Newton School: Food for Thought

Isaac Newton High School is the longest running and biggest of the Humanist schools in Uganda. It educates over 1000 children, 750 in the secondary section and 259 in the newly acquired, former Evangelical Christian, primary school. The high cost of feeding this number of children threatens the school’s very existence.

When we visited in July, a happy, purposeful buzz ran through the entire school. Staff and children were putting Covid behind them and getting on with the job of teaching and learning and taking part in those wider activities that create a rich educational experience such as sports, music, drama, art and debating.

Girls performing a traditional dance in the new Isaac Newton Hall

The financial challenges, however, are acute. Family savings have been depleted and farm incomes, which are rainfall and harvest dependent, remain low. Consequently, many have run up substantial school fee arrears.

The Uganda government has tried to respond to the challenges. Isaac Newton took up the offer of a low interest government loan. This provided immediate relief but the school must find money to repay it over the next year. Their hope is that the economy will have recovered by then and families will be able to pay school fees in full.

UHST encouraged Humanist Schools to enrol their staff in the National Social Security Fund (NSSF). Schools contribute 10% and staff 5% towards the pension fund, which provides staff with long-term security and encourages retention. During Covid, contributions to the scheme were suspended to help schools but as soon as the schools reopened they were presented with a bill for arrears of NSSF payments during the 2 years of Covid. In Isaac Newton’s case, they must find £4,400 in accumulated arrears. This is a huge amount at a time when fee incomes are so low.

The prolonged East African drought reduced crop yields and raised food prices throughout Uganda. The escalation in world food prices caused by Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine has had a further impact on family budgets and school food costs throughout Uganda. Food is the second highest school cost after salaries. School budgets have been squeezed between lower fee incomes and a more than doubling of food prices. Yet, ensuring that children receive school meals is crucial both to their physical welfare and their ability to study well.

Peter Kisirinya, ever the innovator and problem-solver, has tried to make the school less dependent on the vagaries of the market. The school has rented 10 acres of land from an elderly local family. 7 acres have been planted with maize and 3 acres with beans. The crops are doing well and they hope to produce enough food in the first term to meet the needs of the children and staff.

The schools maize crop on rented land
Growing beans as the main protein source

The school is coming to the end of two difficult years. Due to an outbreak of Ebola earlier this year, the latest challenge, children throughout Uganda were sent home on 24th November. Fortunately, both external and internal exams have been completed. The marking period has begun, and the school will be anxiously awaiting the results, which come out early in the new year. 

As a result of unpaid school fees, high food prices, the cost of land hire and planting to yield a crop next term, and Social Security Fund arrears the school is left with outstanding debts of over £14,000, part of which is pay for the ever-patient school staff in November and December. As Humanists we recognise that the school’s salvation rests with people of good will. Peter is appealing to the better nature of parents to pay the fee arrears they owe. Following common practice in Uganda, children’s exam results may be withheld until the fees are paid. However, those parents who fear that their children may have done badly in exams may refuse to pay and forgo school reports and exam certificates. UHST would like to help, but our resources are at rock bottom after providing the extra support that schools have needed to get through two extraordinary years. It will be a huge challenge to clear the debts before the start of the new school year in February.