stevehurd@uhst.org Uganda Humanist Schools Trust

Katumba shows resilience in the face of adversity

This week Katumba Parents’ Humanist Primary School, close to the Congo border, reopened to its top Primary 7 class. The children begin two terms of intensive study to prepare them for their Primary Leaving Examination, which has been moved from the end of this school year in November to April, 2021. Passing PLE makes a huge difference to the children’s prospects. It shows that children have a decent basic competency in English, Mathematics and General Knowledge. Being able to read notices and newspapers will make them better farmers and citizens. It will also open up employment opportunities in service jobs and workshops and allow them to train as ancillary workers in such sectors as health care.

Katumba School children enjoying their rural life
but desperate to get back to school after the Covid closure.

Children in the lower classes are due to restart school in January. Those above are currently out of school. They have some time for play but, for most of the time, they are usefully employed helping in the fields and at home.

Climate change

Katumba families scrape a meagre living as subsistence farmers. They grow food crops such as matoke (savoury bananas), maize and sweet potatoes, and devote small pieces of land to growing cocoa, coffee and vanilla as cash crops. If you get the chance try chocolate made from Ugandan cocoa, grown in this area, you will find that it is very good! Unfortunately, yields, while normally good, have been hit by climate change which brought torrential rains and caused floods and landslides. Crops, and even soils, have been washed away. The result has been a substantial rise in malnutrition, hunger and poverty. 10 houses were buried with floodwaters in Bundibugyo and 200 in the neighbouring sub-county. As a result, families have been displaced to other areas.

Cleaning up after flash floods in the Katumba Community

Covid-19

Covid has added to the difficulties.  There have been 19 confirmed cases of Covid, including the District Health Inspector and the District Speaker. Fortunately, there have been no deaths from the virus. However, as a precautionary measure, markets for both food and cash crops have been closed, making it difficult for farmers to sell any surpluses they may have produced. Households on low incomes have been forced to switch to less nutritious foods, such as cassava. Some households have savings to enable them to cope with the loss of income. However, in Katumba, most of the families are headed by mothers who are struggling to cope as single parents. The women face the additional workload of caring for sick members of their family, on top of their heavy domestic workloads. A good number of them have had no option but to withdraw their children from school. They cannot afford to pay fees and are desperate for their children’s assistance with the work falling on their shoulders. As schools restart after the Covid closure, it will be difficult for many parents to find the money for tuition, school meals, uniforms, scholastic materials and examination fees. This will, in turn, make it hard for the mainly private schools to pay teachers and to stay open.

An old lady worried of where to get food to feed her grandchildren,
whose father died during the 2014 cult rebellion
and whose mother succumbed to HIV/AIDS.

Assistance from Uganda Humanist Schools Trust

UHST has been helping Katumba Parents’ Humanist Primary School in a number of ways:

  1. We are building the community a completely new school on a better site, above the flood waters. 3 nursery classrooms were completed in July. Work is almost finished on a new infants’ section with 4 classrooms. A 10-stance toilet block has been completed. At the same time, we have provided funds to bring mains water and electricity to the school and the village. These last two will transform prospects for the whole community by bringing the health benefits of clean water and lighting and power for local homes and enterprises.

Recently completed nursery section of the new Katumba School,
with pole bringing the new electricity supply.

  1. The school was closed, along with all other schools in Uganda, from April until this month. Teachers had to find a means of subsistence. Many were able to return to their farming roots, but others had to take whatever casual work they could find. UHST has provided money to alleviate some of the hardship, but we have only scratched the surface of the genuine financial stress faced by teachers and their families during this period.
  2. We have helped the school to prepare for re-opening in the face of the Covid-19 challenge by purchasing handwashing stations and for infra-red thermometers.
  3. Finally, we have helped those parents, mainly mothers, who are unable to pay school fees, by providing funds to cover reduced fees for those in the greatest need.

We are determined to lift the fortunes of Katumba School and of the whole community and its children. Over the next year or two we aim to complete the building of the new school. However, we do need additional funds to complete the work and to build up the school. New classrooms require tables and chairs and there is a desperate need to provide the children with play materials, books and other learning resources. A kitchen must be built to prepare school food and the staff need decent pay and working conditions. If you think you would like to help us, then please visit our donation page: https://ugandahumanistschoolstrust.org/donate/make-a-donation/.  If you would like more information about Katumba please contact Steve Hurd: stevehurd@uhst.org 07773 972601.

Isaac Newton School’s Covid-19 Challenge

Back in February, Isaac Newton School was doing well. It enrolled 600 students for the new school year – 400 boarders and 200 day-students. The O-level exam results, published the same month, placed the school 143rd out of 4,123 schools in the country. Results were particularly good in Science subjects. A month later, the school received the best A-level results in its history, placing it in the top 5 of 35 schools in Kalungu District.

In March, Uganda had its first Covid-19 case and since the 1st April the school, together with all educational institutions in Uganda, have been closed as part of the Covid lockdown.

Cleaning school for reopening

On October 15th the school was allowed to reopen but only for O and A-level finalists. Until December, schools have been instructed to operate a long teaching day, from 7am to 9pm at night, to complete the missed work from term 2. Work that should have been covered in the third term of 2020 will be undertaken between January and March 2021.  To accommodate this shift, the 2020 exams have been moved back to April 2021, to enable students to be assessed on the full syllabus.

Before schools reopen, they must obtain a Certificate to show they meet the following provisions:

  1. Provide hand-washing facilities at the main gate and outside every toilet, classroom, computer lab, science lab, dormitory and library.
  2. Have infra-red temperature guns and agree to take temperatures twice daily.
  3. Display posters on Covid prevention.
  4. Prepare rooms to house teachers, who are required to sleep on school premises.
  5. Have a standby vehicle in case of emergency.
  6. Have alcohol-based sanitizer gel.
  7. Use anti-mosquito repellent where students work to cut malaria transmission.
  8. Ensure that vitamin-rich fruits are included on the school menu.
  9. Divide students into smaller groups of not more than 40. This increases staff costs.
  10. Limit access to the school to outsiders.

Most schools in Uganda are private since the liberalisation of education in the year 2000. Isaac Newton’s district has 35 high schools, 28 private and 7 state schools and, to date, Isaac Newton is one of only 5 schools to meet the stringent requirements for reopening.

To limit the spread of Covid, schools are no longer allowed to mix day and boarding

Newest boys’ dormitory

students. As Isaac Newton has 4 good dormitories, it has been designated for boarding only. To limit transmission, room occupancy has to be reduced from 8 to 3 students. This limits the capacity of the school to 120 students, which will drastically cut fee income and put a severe strain on school finances. Additionally, the Ministry of Education expects the school to accommodate some bright students from schools that have not been allowed to reopen. Priority for places will go to existing Isaac Newton students but, after consulting families, Peter Kisirinya, the school’s Director, has agreed to take 25 O-level and 13 A-level students from other schools. New students have had to consent to relocation and to pay full fees. As part of the deal, the government has agreed to attach to the school a paramedic from Masaka Hospital with a standby ambulance, should students or staff need urgent treatment. Some of the incoming students were studying French, which is not offered at Isaac Newton, so a French teacher will be brought in to support these students.

Survival during school closure

School closure from April to October was challenging for staff and students alike. Many teachers returned to their crop growing roots. The Headteacher, Ezra, grew the local staple foods of maize and beans, but supplemented ginger to bring in extra income. 12 teachers formed a cooperative to grow tomatoes as a large-scale cash crop, with a view to selling in Kenya and South Sudan. They had a fantastic harvest but the closure of national borders, due to Covid, prevented them from exporting their crop, so they earned little from the venture. Lydia, a teacher who is a single mother, bought fresh caught fish from Lake Victoria and sold it to the growing population around the school. She managed to sustain her family in this way. Two teachers crossed to Northern Tanzania to work in the gold mines. Another used his motorcycle as a bodaboda (taxi) to earn money ferrying passengers.

The biggest problem experienced by staff during lock down was an inability to fully pay their house rent, and a few have suffered eviction. The fact that food has been cheap during this period has really helped those who do not grow their own.

Students labouring on new school hall

Most students come from subsistence farming backgrounds and they became labourers on the land and did work around the home. Four students were employed as labourers by the contractor constructing the new hall at school. They received enough money to help their families and saved enough for two-terms school fees. 8 teachers and 3 non-teaching staff found alternative employment and will not be returning to school.

Effect of Covid Measures on local incomes

The Covid lockdown has devastated the local economy. Most local people are subsistence farmers with small scale coffee production. Others, who relied upon trading activities, labouring or working for others, lost their income during the Covid lockdown, which closed all shops, markets and public transport. Agriculture was not locked so local people worked their land more intensively. With the extra care and attention, yields of staple

Subsistence smallholding

food crops, such as maize and beans, were high. Unfortunately, the biggest market for surplus food was from schools and neighbouring countries. The closure of schools and international borders left little demand for their produce and prices fell dramatically. Many small traders of non-food items lost their livelihoods through the closure of local markets. Likewise, bars and entertainment businesses closed, and still remain so. The financial situation is dire. It has caused huge distress to local families, who do not have the capacity to pay school fees now our school is reopening.

Isaac Newton has become a vital source of income to the community. Many local people provide the school with food and services. Emergency help from UHST has enabled permanent staff to be paid 50% of their normal pay and part-time employees to be given emergency food parcels. However, the school has been unable to help those local farmers who provide the ingredients for school meals nor local transport operators who ferry people and goods to and from school.

The school encouraged students to borrow books from the library during the closure. Unfortunately, most were unable to take advantage of this. In the daytime, they had chores to do and, in the evening, there was no light for reading, as few houses have electricity. Girls particularly experienced a problem due to the lack of sanitary pads, which UHST generally provides through the schools.

A distressing consequence of sending children home from school is that some, especially orphans, have suffered exploitation and abuse. We have learned that 4 of our girl students have become pregnant. Religious schools would refuse to have such girls back, because they believe they serve as poor role models. As a Humanist school, the Isaac Newton Headteacher will visit the families of affected girls to explain to parents that the school would like the girls return to school to complete their education.

With fewer children in school with even less capacity than before to pay school fees, Isaac Newton and the other Humanist schools need additional cash support to help them through the Covid crisis. If you would like to help with this, then please visit the donation page of our website: https://ugandahumanistschoolstrust.org/donate/make-a-donation/ or contact Steve Hurd for further information: stevehurd@uhst.org +44 (0) 1782 750338.

 

 

 

 

A new start for Kanungu

Kanungu is in a hilly area in the west of Uganda. It borders the Congo and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, home of the mountain gorillas. The religious cult murder of 780 local men, women and children in 2000 caused many in the area to reject organised religion. One of these was the young Robert Magara who, returning from school, witnessed the aftermath of the massacre. Robert completed his education, abandoned his Catholic faith and, after reading ‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins, became a Humanist, vowing to do all he could to help his community heal the wounds of past religious divisions.

Hilly landscape

In 2017, Robert set up Kanungu Secular Schools Project.  He attracted funds from the US-based Brighter Brains Institute (BBI) for building classrooms and he recruited young teachers from the community who shared his Humanist vision for the school. Kanungu Humanist Primary School was established on a not very promising plot of land high in the hills and work started on a secondary school on land lower in the valley. At the start of the 2020 school year, the primary school had 186 children and the secondary school 45 in two classes. In 2019 BBI started to wind down as a charity and could no longer fund the Kanungu developments.

The primary school, while successful, was cheaply built and vulnerable to adverse weather. Last year, during a storm, the end wall of the main building collapsed. Earlier this year, after many exchanges by email and messenger, UHST worked with Robert on a plan to put the primary school on a firm footing. The first job was to get the school legally registered as a not-for-profit company. A Board of Directors was established, with Robert as Managing Director and representation for UHST. Robert is now working with UHST’s accountant in Kampala, Dan Kasanda, to create a robust set of baseline accounts for 2019.

The next priority was to help the school financially. We provided some cash to provide hardship payments to teachers, who had received no income since April, when all Uganda schools were closed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. A school is nothing, without its teachers.

The school has to meet the Uganda government’s Covid-19 operating standards before it will be allowed to reopen, along with other schools, in January 2021. As the school had no water on site, meeting hand-washing requirements was going to be a problem. Kanungu has heavy rain, well over 100 inches a year, so, at Robert’s request, we provided funds for a tank to harvest rainwater from the school roofs. This has now been installed (see picture of water tank arriving at the school site).

Given the loss of BBI funds, Robert had no alternative but to close the embryonic secondary school. Fortunately, he is managing to find the children places in schools around. In January the primary school will reopen on the former secondary school site. Over time, UHST has agreed to do what we can to help Robert to build the additional facilities the school needs.

Work on P2/P3 classrooms, now finished

Already funds from UHST supporters have enabled two partially completed classrooms to be completed for Primary 2 and Primary 3 children (see picture). The new site can now accommodate 5 classes, Primary 1 through to Primary 5. Covid is putting pressure on UHST funds at the moment but, as soon as more money becomes available, we hope to provide funds to add 3 classrooms for nursery-age children. This will cost £8,620. Should you wish to help with this, please email: stevehurd@uhst.org or phone +44 (0) 1782 750338 or visit the donation page of our website: https://ugandahumanistschoolstrust.org/donate/make-a-donation/.

The tragic massacre in 2000 left deep scars on the Kanungu community. We are delighted to be able to help Robert to bring hope for the new generation of children seeking a brighter future.

Acknowledgement: We are very grateful to Terri Julians for drawing Kanungu’s plight to our attention and for putting us in touch with Robert Magara. Terri has worked hard to maintain support for the school since it lost its main funding source.