stevehurd@uhst.org Uganda Humanist Schools Trust

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.

Kanungu School makes flying start

Opening the doors of a new school is an anxious time. This is especially so for schools in Uganda, which are mainly privately run – and even more so for Humanist schools opening amid communities where many people have strong religious ties. Over the past two years, UHST has provided funds to ensure that the school has all the classrooms and other essentials it needs: toilets, water, electricity, kitchen and staffrooms. We have also ensured that the site has a protective fence and has gardens and trees to make it a pleasant place to work and learn. Having made the investment, we rely upon the community to support the school by entrusting their children and paying fees. The initial signs at Kanungu are that the school has strong community support, and it is making a very promising start.

Kanungu children learning in the open air

Here is a report of progress from Robert Magara, the school’s Director:

“I kindly report to you that the school has recruited children to all classes from nursery to primary six, Next year our current primary six students will form a P7 class of children preparing for their Primary Leaving Examination.

Kanungu School has 11 well qualified teachers, 2 askaris (security guards) and 2 cooks.

5 Teachers who come from afar stay in houses with rents paid by school.

6 Teachers come from within the community near the school.

They all earn the same salaries apart from the head teacher, director of studies, and deputy head teacher who earn more.

Teachers of primary three, primary four, primary five and primary six carry out remedial teaching at weekends to enable children to catch up on work they missed during the long covid closure. For this extra work the teachers receive an extra 15,000 shillings (£3.20) each week. Our major challenge is to meet the monthly salary bill, which comes to 6,700,000 shillings (£1,440). As our community is poor and has no savings after the Covid lockdowns, total income from local fees falls well short of what we need to cover our costs. For as well as salaries we need to find money for: school meals, learning equipment, books and educational toys and games.

We are recruiting well and already have 120 children in the school. This is a great start.

There are 22 children in our nursery, 15 in P1, 17 in P2, 18 in P3, 11 in P4, 15 in P5 and 22 in P6.

Total  number of Boys  54

Total number of Girls    66

We expect enrolment to grow as people realise that we have a well run, well resourced school with high standards of education and welfare. We intend our school to stand out as a happy school.

There are parents who will not send their children to the school, because they prefer schools with boarding facilities. This is something we may need to consider in the longer term but for the moment we will see how things go as a day school.

Our main immediate challenges are to have enough money to keep going. We also must meet requirements identified by school inspectors. At the moment they are putting us under pressure to have a dining room, as at present the children eat while sitting on the school lawns.”

Robert Magara, Director, Kanungu Humanist Primary School

Lunchtime