stevehurd@uhst.org Uganda Humanist Schools Trust

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.  

Lightning dilemma

Anvil thunder cloud over Kampala
Lightning storm in Uganda

The equatorial heat of Uganda generates strong updrafts of air. Thunderstorms are a frequent occurrence, particularly around the equinoxes, when the sun passes over the equator. Having large water bodies, like Lake Victoria, and being high above sea level – the Ruwenzori mountains in the west rise to 15,000 feet – makes matters worse. Kampala has more lightning strikes than any other city in the world. Over the whole country there are an average of 70 lightning strikes on every square kilometre of land each year. 

Fortunately, although frightening, deaths from lightning are still comparatively rare. A recent UNESCO document reported that in the 15 years since 2007 191 people have been killed and 727 injured in Uganda. However, it makes the headlines whenever lightning strikes schools and causes death. For example, in 2011 lightning killed 18 children and a teacher in a primary school in a hilly district 160 miles west of Kampala. A further 10 children were killed in 2020 in Arua in north-west Uganda after retreating from a football pitch to an isolated grass-roofed shelter, which was struck. Just a few weeks ago 3 children died and others were injured when lightning struck at a new Humanist primary school in the foothills of the Ruwenzori Mountains, near Kasese, in the west of Uganda. Such events invite local people to conclude that God may be wreaking his vengeance on a secular school.

As a result of global heating, storms are becoming more powerful and lightning ever more common. Although the chance of a particular school being hit by lightning is small, there is an expectation from government and communities that schools take steps to protect children and teachers. It poses a genuine dilemma for the Humanist Schools. We want to be seen to be doing something that will make a difference and yet we cannot afford to spend huge amounts fitting lightning conductors on every building. The Humanist High Schools each have well over 10 separate buildings to protect. 

Schools belonging to Uganda Humanist Schools Association have been discussing the issue and guidelines have been circulated on what to do during a lightning storm. These include measures, such as:

  • Avoid standing in open spaces, on exposed hill tops or next to water bodies (come off the sports field and shelter indoors and not under an isolated tree).
  • If you are in the open, squat down as low as possible, with only your shoes in contact with the ground.
  • Turn off and unplug all electrical equipment and lights; and don’t use mobile phones.
  • Keep away from metal surfaces – don’t touch the metal frame of a dormitory bed, don’t stand in a metal doorway of a classroom to watch the storm.

It is widely believed in Uganda that tall trees can be used to deflect lightning from buildings. The Humanist Schools have been planting small stands of tall eucalyptus trees to perform this function. Eucalyptus trees are combustible, and lightning can arc from them to the buildings, so the schools know not to plant trees too close to classrooms.

A further obvious measure is to install lightning conductors on school buildings. The Ministry of Education has a scheme to promote this. However, it is not without problems. Lightning protection varies in cost and effectiveness from £750 to £2,500 for an individual building and tens of thousands to protect a whole school. Copper conductors are also subject to theft. However, no system provides 100% protection. Isaac Newton High School has been approached by a telecommunications company to install a mobile-phone mast in the school grounds. They have been informed that the mast’s lightning system will protect the school. This seems a good solution, if it happens.

At UHST we have a dilemma. Should we spend scarce resources that we need to improve education and welfare in the schools on protecting schools from an event that is unlikely to happen? This is the classic insurance dilemma and the reason why so few poor people buy insurance. We have been talking with a US-based NGO that specialises in designing lightning protection systems for schools in Africa (African Centres for Lightning and Electromagnetics Network). A possible way forward for our schools would be to protect one large building as a lightning refuge that children could retreat to in times of storms. If a school has a hall, then that would be an obvious place to protect, otherwise a large classroom block. If we went for this solution, then we would need to raise around £3,500 per school (£21,000 in total). This would provide a degree of protection against an unlikely event and families of children in the schools would appreciate that we had made the effort. Certainly, the human and reputational damage from having children in one our Humanist Schools injured or killed in a lightning strike would be huge. However, given all the other essential educational and welfare needs of the schools it is hard to make it the number one priority. If any of our supporters knows about lightning protection, we are very much open to advice on this.

Mustard Seed School regains its pre-Covid momentum

A report by Moses Kamya, Headteacher & Director of Mustard Seed Humanist Schools.

Uganda schools reopened on 10th January, and we are now well through the first term. Things are going well. Children and staff are happy to be back.

At first, students were slow to report back. Covid-19 cases were still prevalent in their communities. Families were unable to get their produce to market and had no money for school fees. They couldn’t even buy shoes for their children, let alone school stationery and pens. Additional funds from UHST enabled us to help needy children by giving them uniforms, stationery and the writing and drawing sets they would normally have to provide themselves. 487 of our original 600 children have returned. 

An appeal to UHST supporters raised money to buy the neighbouring Muslim primary school, bankrupted by the Covid lockdown. It has now been refurbished and reopened as Mustard Seed Humanist Primary School. The school has already attracted 162 children. Some of the original Muslim children stayed with us, but most are new recruits. 

When the term started, we were completely devoid of funds but fortunately UHST supporters came to our rescue. We were able to give our teachers money to return to school and pay for rented accommodation. UHST helped us to buy food stocks, control Covid with masks, hand washing stations and cleaning fluids, give all our girls packs of Afripads (reusable sanitary pads) and buy books for the new national curriculum. 

We have worked hard to restore morale among students and staff and are beginning to re-establish the high standards of welfare and education that we had achieved before Covid struck. Our protection measures have been successful. There have been no Covid-19 cases among learners or staff in our schools. However, very many children have suffered high fevers due to malaria. Fortunately, our school nurse has help them with simple tests and medicine.

We are re-establishing popular out-of-school activities. Our Humanist Club has helped to cement our relationship with the community by conducting voluntary cleaning and tidying work in and around the new local health centre. The Director was so pleased with our efforts that he came to thank the children personally. 

Football is popular at Mustard Seed. We have teams for boys, girls and staff in both the primary and secondary schools. As a team building exercise, primary and secondary teachers have played each other, staff have played children. Everyone is enjoying being able to participate in sport again. Both girls’ and boys’ football teams have performed well in competition against other local schools, and they are doing well in the regional tournaments, having just reached the semi-finals. 

Mustard Seed boys with their coach at the semi-final of the Regional Coca Cola Cup

Mustard Seed School has been in existence for over 16 years, and we are beginning to see the results of our efforts. The school has given many local children a decent general education. Many have moved on to further and higher education and then returned to put their talents to use helping the community from which they came. A quarter of our teachers are home-grown talent. In January, two more former students returned to Mustard Seed as staff members. 

The picture left was taken at the Senior 6 leavers party. Hellen Namaganda (left with cap) returned as senior teacher of Agriculture, after gaining a B.Sc. in Agriculture from Kampala University. Jamilla Namulondo (with sunglasses) qualified with a Diploma in Accounting and returned to be the bursar at our new primary school.

Although we feel we are doing well, we know there will always be challenges. Generating enough money to pay our staff is always the number one concern, but we need so much more. A few weeks ago, the roof of our old kitchen blew off in a storm.  UHST has just sent money so we can begin work to build a modern kitchen on our new main site that makes more efficient use of firewood. 

Temporary cookhouse used after storm destroyed the old one.

With global heating storms are becoming more powerful. Lightning poses a growing threat to both children and buildings. We are making our children lightning aware, but we also need to consider the installation of lightning conductors should funds become available.

The new national curriculum moves towards developing competencies for the information age. We have some computers but need more, so that children can access the wealth of on-line materials, and we need to introduce our primary children to the use of computers in their learning.

We could so easily have gone under in January, but for the extra help we received from Uganda Humanist Schools Trust supporters, and we are grateful to every one of them for saving us.  Working together we will surmount the many challenges we face and succeed in our mission of using education to create a better society based on reason, compassion and tolerance.