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UPE 17 years later: Mangoes for lunch and mango tree for classroom
Publish Date: Jul 15, 2014
UPE 17 years later: Mangoes for lunch and mango tree for classroom
Amoding is one of the many children experiencing the pain, fear and hope of 17 years of free primary education. PHOTO/ Caroline Ariba
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Mwalimu, for the next two days will be running a series, following the situation of Universal Primary education in the country. What are the great strides and hitches of the programme, and way forward? Conan Businge, Stephen Ssenkaaba, Jonathan Angura, Angel Musinguzi & Caroline Ariba take you through.

A day in the life of a rural UPE pupil

By Caroline Ariba

IT takes us bravery to cut through the thorny bushes and evade the mini-floods covering the only path meandering into Aputi-puti primary school in Bukedea district.

As our motorcycle makes its rounds through the thicket, a line of bare-footed children, clad in old green uniforms, comb through the same bush and spring to view.

Suddenly, the sound of a loud gong peals through the village as we arrive at the school compound. The pupils dash to the school’s daily morning assembly and slowly settle into silence. Away from the assembly, a movement through the high bushes catches my eye.  

Twenty minutes after the 8:00am gong, a little girl, probably 12 years old, books in one hand, a half-eaten mango in the other runs into the school. Carol Amoding is late.

Midway in her sprint, the skirt of Amoding’s green dress trips her.  She stops to loosen the knot on the hem of her stained uniform that is obviously impeding her movement, inspects her bare-feet and plucks out what seems to be a tiny thorn. She spits in her palms, rubs her hands together and smears her pale arms and legs and then dashes to catch-up with the rest, who are already breaking up from the assembly to get into their classes.

Pupils eating mangoes for a meal on their way home from school. PHOTO/ Caroline Ariba

She dashes to her classroom. The Morning session goes on well, with no big hustle, apart from the teacher who arrives a few minutes late for her class; like it happens in a number of other public schools.

The head teacher of school, Annette Igunyo says that even when some of her teachers come late, much as she forbids it, there is not much she can do.

“At this point you are glad at least he has arrived, even though he is dripping wet with rain or sweat,” she says.

Unfortunately, after break time, one of the teachers, supposed to handle the lesson does not turn up. She did not communicate to the head teacher, why she was unable to come.

This is common in rural UPE schools. Several studies show that at least one teacher misses on any given public school day.

Unlike in the past where school inspectors would monitor and penalise absconding teachers, it happens no more. The 2012 Judicial Commission of Inquiry in UPE and USE found out that the capacity of the systems to inspect schools is poor, compromised by structural and logistical bottlenecks.

Since there is no teacher in class, Amoding’s classmates resort to playing and making noise the minute their head teacher disappears at the corner of the building. Amoding is seated on the floor since there are no enough desks in the classroom.

Few of the pupils are lucky to sit at desks in this school. Some of the counterparts in the higher classes study under the mango tree, since there are only six classroom blocks.

Some pupils sitting on the floor in a classroom. PHOTO/ Caroline Ariba

“When I joined this school, we were very many in class and at that time there was not even one desk in this school,” Amoding narrates. The higher she gets, the more spacious the class gets since there are fewer pupils in class and the more respect they get in school. “When you pass to Primary Five, because many children repeat Primary Four, then there is more space,” she says.

This is despite the Government’s automatic promotion policy under UPE. As a result of pupils repeating classes, the country loses sh53bn annually.

Amoding has been one of those who have not repeated a class.

She hums away while occasionally digging into her raw mango before long, the lunch gong sounds, releasing them to go for lunch.

Lunch time

Lunch time at Aputi-puti is an every-man-for-himself-and-God-for-us-all affair. Despite the constant reminder for parents to pack lunch for their children, very few in this community school do so.

Amoding is one of those who are unable to pack lunch to school. When the gong sounds, she speeds out of the school through a tiny path to her home, to scout for lunch. A kilometre later, she branches into a tiny compound, with two grass thatched huts and one incomplete hut.

She halts abruptly, looking painfully at a woman in the compound sorting through a handful of green vegetables which she plans to prepare for soup to accompany the food which is not yet ready for the little girl.

Nothing said, Amoding rushes to the tiny compound’s mango tree and plucks a mango and runs back to school. Her unspoken words say volumes about her disappointment.

 “My child did not have food yesterday. This morning she got the mango that was in the house for her breakfast, and now I have failed to find food on time, because I had to first work in people’s gardens to raise money for books,” Amoding’s mother confesses.

“When we harvest crops in the village, we are asked to take at least three handfuls of beans and about nine handfuls of maize grains for the whole term to feed our children at school,” she explains in Ateso. But there hasn’t been a harvest this season, and even if there was, this mother says that her sons now in secondary schools, need about sh42,000 each to stay in the only Government aided secondary school in the community.  

Carol's first real meal in two days. PHOTO/ Caroline Ariba

Amoding says that some of her friends do not want to continue with schooling because on top of suffering with hunger every day for seven years, they may not pass the national examinations, or even find money to join any of the good private schools.

“Most of our schoolmates who join Government schools under Universal Secondary Education fail national examinations. This makes me feel like I should give up. It is the same reason why some easily give in to men and teachers, get pregnant and leave school,” Amoding explains.

Of every 10 pupils who join Primary One in Uganda’s primary schools, only about three make it to Primary Seven. But of the three, it is always one girl or at times none of the girls reaching Primary Seven, yet there are more girls than boys who join Primary One.

Back in class after lunch, the pupils drag their bare feet, raise their hands lazily and will do anything to spare a nap. Those at the back of the classroom are dosing.

A good number of the little pupils in this class wear tear-stained faces and dry lips, since they did not have lunch.

Amoding’s after-lunch class delays because of inadequate chalk. Indeed, it is not only about chalk that is insufficient in this school. Children are subjected to old blackboards, limited number of charts and some teachers do not have enough aid books to use in classroom teaching.

“How do you expect us to prepare our Schemes of Work and plan for teaching, if we can hardly even get exercise books at times,” laments one of the teachers. The inadequate scholastic materials partly stems from delayed capitation grants from Government. Even when it is sent, it is still inadequate, according to the school authorities, since each child is allocated sh7,500 for a full academic year of three terms.

The head teacher of school, Annette Igunyo is almost speechless when discussing the impact the delay of the capitation monies. “As of now, Government officials are telling us that the money will be released in August. We have to run the school on borrowed monies. At times, I have to use my own money to run some of the school activities!” she laments.

“Mark you, I do not earn a head teacher’s salary. I earn a class room teacher’s salary, earning about sh300,000. Now tell me, because I have my own children to educate and to feed?” a frustrated Igunyo laments. Being the administrator, Igunyo says that even when these monies come, she can barely retrieve her money.

Not a single building in the school was put up by the Government until recently when a NUSAF staff built two unit structures for the school. “We have six class rooms and seven classes. Primary Seven pupils have to sit under the tree shade to study since the classes are few. When it is raining, they share a class with Primary Six pupils,” she says. Lower classes enrolments are high, but can never be broken down into streams due to inadequate space.

Pupils themselves can hardly get books, pens and pencils from their parents. A good number of Amoding’s friends are not even in school uniform, since their parents say they cannot afford purchasing all these scholastic materials.

Amoding partly blames failure of pupils in her school on the lack of scholastic materials. “I have to write in a very small handwriting so that I can use one book for a long time. It is very disturbing,” she confesses. “But even if I want to read, it is hard because we only have paraffin maybe once a week for light,” she adds.

Aputi-puti is just one of the public primary schools in the country whose administrators are pressed to provide an education for the children with a constant lack of scholastic materials, inadequate school infrastructure, on their own -- the inspection and monitoring system collapsed.

Although the numbers have been attained, low quality education, meager budgets, suspicions of corruption, and questionable policies have largely eroded any gains.

Almost 17 years ago, a much needed universal education programme (UPE) started in Uganda. Parents who had lost hope of ever sending their children to school were relieved of the burden of paying school fees, and excitedly started sending their children to school by the millions.

But Amoding and millions of others now face a myriad of difficulties: congestion in the classrooms without furniture and stationery, teachers who are and often absent because they are trying to make ends meet, impacting their learning.

Recently, Amoding says she started her menstrual periods and she had to sit under a mango tree, until darkness fell, because her dress had been soiled. At her school, teachers, boy and girls; all share the same toilet stances. “Wherever I’m in my periods, I never go to school,” she says.  

“It is hard for these pupils to concentrate and sometimes end up staying in primary school for over 10 years, repeating probably every class,” the head teacher Annet Igunyo says.

End of school day

I spot Amoding running off at about 4pm, and follow her home. This time round, it is a different story. Her mother has a bit of food, boiled greens, without tomatoes or onions anyway and she can hardly get cooking oil. It is not a balanced too, not that she does not understand what it means, but because her hands are tied and prefers to call it, “a luxury.”

“This is the first meal I’m eating since morning. We did not have food except mangoes,” she explains in a soft voice.

In the tiny hut that she shares with her mother, is a mat, with a frail looking bed-sheet atop it. Sun rays stream through the sparsely thatched hut.

There is no way mosquitos can spare them or rain water when it rains. So from a night of no sleep, comes a day of no food and stressful schooling and yet Amoding and must carry on and perhaps one day become the teacher she hopes to be.

Next in the series, will be a story unveiling the life of teachers under the UPE programme.

 Related Stories

17 years later, is free primary education going off rails?

Experts push for free nursery education


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