A downpour characterised the early part of the morning. Clad in their multi-coloured clothes and dresses rolled up; they paddled through the flooded paths to school.
They neither wear uniforms nor have permanent school structures. Two mud-and-wattle and grass-thatched structures are their classrooms. All they care about are writing tools, and where to write.
Sitting on logs, and in some better-off areas benches with no desks, they support their books on the laps as they write. On a rainy day, they converge in one corner where the roof is still intact and shield their books from the rain, using their hands.
Welcome to rural Nakasongola, where the Child-Centred Alternative for Non-formal Community-based Education (Chance) schools, a project of Save the Children, are the order of primary education. A newly-formed district, Nakasongola is locally referred to as â€˜the land of milkâ€™, because of its peopleâ€™s way of life. The biggest percentage of the populace are cattle keepers, while the rest are into fishing and charcoal burning.
Geoffrey Ssegawa, the officer in charge of Early Childhood Education with Save the Children, says: â€œThe flooded roads you saw are a result of a three-day cats-and-dogs downpour. It has not rained that heavily in many years, so we are blessed to have rain, though we did not expect floods.â€
But the determination with which the children move is what gets to oneâ€™s heart. Wiping their feet on the grass and some pressing dry their dresses, they take their positions in the muddy classrooms. Ssegawa says they cannot afford to stay at home, digging and looking after cattle. They want to go to school, for they harbour hopes of becoming doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers and journalists when they complete education.
Using slates and chalk, the children copy what the teacher has written on the blackboard.
â€œThey use these small boards until they learn to write properly. They get books after gaining writing skills,â€ Ssegawa explains, adding that going to school is not only for imparting knowledge, but another way of avoiding home chores and also a chance to play using the materials the schools have. The children storm out of their classes for a break at 10:00am.
It is break time, but there is nothing to eat. The children have to wait until lunch time, which also marks the end of the school day, to eat. Their parents cannot afford to pack for them snacks.
Unlike their counterparts in formal schools, who must be at school early in the morning for three months a term, Chance pupils attend lessons till late. Lessons start at 9:00am and end at 1:00pm.The duration of their term depends on the season of the year. â€œInstead of studying three months and having a month-long holiday, like in formal schools, they get two weeks of holidays,â€ says Moses Bukenya, an extension worker with Save the Children.
The intention is to ensure that they do not miss a lot of school work, but have enough time to cover the syllabus prior to sitting for Primary Leaving Examinations, explains Bukenya.
Esther Kaggwa, the Chance officer for Nakasongola district, says: â€œChance schools were started to give an opportunity to needy children to access education.â€
As the name suggests, these pupils study by luck. For instance, if it is the planting season, they will go to the gardens and when that time ends or when the rains are over, they return to school. â€œThe school time table states that classes end at lunch time. This is because it would be unkind to keep and teach children on empty stomachs,â€ Kaggwa says.
Chance schools have been a blessing, says Scovia Nalugo, an adult education facilitator and parent whose children are benefiting from the programme. â€œOriginally, we did not have a school for young ones, but with early childhood education, our children can attend an equivalent of nursery school,â€ she explains.
She also adds that children have not only learnt to read and write, but also acquired better communication skills.
Moses Bangile, the headteacher of Katuugo Chance School, says despite Save the Children paying their initial salaries, the organisation also provides scholastic materials for the children. â€œProviding reading charts, books and writing materials has enabled parents to send more children to school,â€ Bangile adds.
He says if it were not for Save the Children, many of the children would be in a poor state, with many girls married off. â€œWe are so much indebted to them. Prior to starting Chance schools, we, the adults, were taught how to read and write so that we could understand the advantages of education,â€ he says.
The Chance Schools programme had its first candidates sitting Primary Leaving Exams in 2005. Ssegawa recalls that moment with utmost joy. Out of the 103 pupils who sat for the exams, only three failed. These did not get the minimum grades for enrolment into secondary school. Chance was introduced in 1999 in Nakasongola to bring schools nearer.
Nakasongola gets a chance of a lifetime