stevehurd@uhst.org Uganda Humanist Schools Trust

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.

UN Refugee Reception Centre, Bundibugyo

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.

When projects don’t quite go to plan

During our first visited Katumba Parents Humanist Primary School in July 2018 we were moved by what we found there. Katumba is a remote and neglected community eking out a living growing cocoa and food crops on steep slopes which rise to the 15,000 feet high snow-capped Ruwenzori mountains. Parents from this poor community came together to build a primary school, from timber hewn from the montane forests. Unfortunately, the land they used was swampy and subject to flash flooding and just one year after opening the school serious local unrest left over 100 young families from the school fatherless. Widowed mothers had to find ways to feed and educate their children without the support of their menfolk. They scraped together small sums of money to pay people from the community to teach in the school. We were impressed by the high standards of children’s English being achieved.  In the first cohort to take the Primary Leaving Examination, the 3 children who gained the highest grade were awarded UHST scholarships to enable them to study at Isaac Newton Humanist High School.

Two UHST supporters responded to the report of our visit by offering to build the Katumba community a completely new school on a more suitable site. Juma, one of the surviving young fathers, agreed to manage the project. Although he had a degree in mycology and worked part-time with an American NGO seeking out native plants and fungi with medicinal properties, he willingly committed himself to the huge amount of work that would follow. After 6 months of email exchanges, we settled upon a site plan that met the needs of the school and fell within a budget of £80,000. Work began in February 2019 on clearing the land and digging foundations. After 20 months of hard work, the new school is nearing completion.

Primary classrooms at the new Katumba School
The new Nursery section

The £80,000 budget that was earmarked for the new school has been spent and further work is needed to have it ready for opening in January. With such a large project it would be amazing if it came in exactly on budget. However, this Katumba School project has been beset by a catalogue of extraordinary challenges:

  1. Frequent and unusual torrential rains (climate change?) coupled with deforestation above the village by a private logging company caused flash floods and landslides. So, on many days, builders were being paid but were unable to work.  
  2. The only road bridge over the river was washed away and has still not been replaced. Trucks are now forced to stop at the river while building supplies are carried by hand through the waters to the other side. This has raised costs.
  3. Repeated Covid lockdowns closed shops and markets and an inter-District travel ban was imposed. After a builder was imprisoned for travelling to the building site from his home outside the district, extra money had to be found to provide board and lodging for the builders at the school site. Trading and travel restrictions caused the costs of building materials such as bricks, sand and cement, roofing sheets, plaster and paint to rocket. 
  4. There were also significant personal tragedies. The site foreman contracted Covid and died. Teopista, the lady school Director, who gave up part of her land for the new school had a heart attack and was hospitalised after losing her own farmland in a landslide. Juma was seriously injured and hospitalised in a motorbike accident, which occurred when a school parent was taking him to source cheaper building materials from the nearest big town, Fort Portal, 3 hours away from Katumba.
  5. Despite the heavy rains, access to water at the site was hampering building work. When an opportunity arose to connect the site to mains water, we took it and added rainwater capture in 10,000 litre tanks to the specification. We also took advantage of a government rural electrification initiative to bring power to the school site. These opportunities were too good to miss, but they raised costs.
  6. The builders inadvertently encroached 1 metre onto a neighbour’s land when adding a veranda to one of the classroom blocks. The neighbour brought his grievance to the village court presided over by the local chief and councillors. After hearing the case, a judgement was made that the neighbour should transfer 1 acre of his land to the school, but the school was ordered to compensate the neighbour, as soon as it was able to do so, to the tune of £2,900.
  7. Finally, Juma’s desire to deliver a school that was even better than planned led him to make unplanned additions to the building specification, without consulting us. To the 3-roomed nursery he added a discovery room, a staff room, and an office for the nursery headteacher. He also added a library and a computer room in the primary section. While all of these were desirable, none were in the original costings.

This amazing catalogue of events has challenged Juma, his building team and UHST Trustees. We have had to lean heavily from time to time on our Humanist values of “reason, compassion, tolerance”. Despite numerous setbacks, Juma has shown determination to get the project completed. He is now very close to completing the entire project with the originally planned 3 nursery rooms, 7 primary classrooms, staffroom and offices for the headteacher, school secretary and bursar and, the bonus unplanned but desirable extras of: mains water, rainwater storage, mains power, 3 more rooms in the nursery, a library and a computer room. 

During my visit to Uganda in January, we were hoping to formally open the new school. However, we may have to delay the opening unless we can cover the additional costs. Supporting the Humanist schools through Covid has stretched our funds to the limit. We have been determined to keep enough aside to cover the running costs of all 6 of our schools until the end of December. We need to find £11,000 to build a school kitchen, complete floors, walls, paintwork, and perimeter fence, and to pay for the extra acre of land.  The District Inspector, who visited the school last week, was most impressed by what he saw and said that, once finished, it will be the finest primary school in Bundibugyo District. Local people are queuing up for places in the new school as are newcomers to the district. Refugees have been pouring into the area to escape civil unrest in the Eastern Congo and already 20 of the displaced children have applied for places at Katumba. The children of Katumba and their parents cannot wait for the school to open. We just need one last push to complete this ambitious project.

If you want to know more about Katumba read here…

We described our first visit to Katumba Parents Humanist School, near Budibugyo 3km from Uganda’s border with the strife-torn Eastern Congo in our July 2018 Report.

Humanist School from Space

Here is the latest Google Earth shot of Isaac Newton High School. To our knowledge, Isaac Newton High School, founded in 2005, is the first Humanist High School in the World. The school was built on a green field site and the picture shows the results of 16 years of development. The school has sufficient classrooms for 600 students in two parallel classes each year. It has 2 well-equipped science labs, a computer lab, a book room, kitchen, 2 girls and 2 boys dormitories, a kitchen, staff rooms and a Hall where the school can assemble for debates, music, dance and drama events. It also has land to the right where agriculture students practice their skills. For sports, the schools uses a playing field 20 minutes away in a nearby village. The greenness shows that the school is active in the Humanist Schools Tree Planting Project. Good quality buildings, a pleasant campus and refreshing breezes from Lake Victoria are making the school a popular conference venue for Ugandan-based NGOs (e.g. the Red Cross, UNESCO, a menstrual health initiative). In January the school will be hosting 50 representatives from over 12 Humanist Schools at the 3rd Humanist Schools Conference, which is being run by the Uganda Humanist Schools Association with support from UHST.