By Nigel Nassar
HIS wife left him. â€œYouâ€™re so broke,â€ she told him. â€œA secondary school teacher and you canâ€™t support just me and three kids? I am leaving.â€ Isaac Jogues Ngorok, a Grade 5 teacher at Kaabong SS in Karamoja, watched in dismay as his wife of seven years quit.
He pleaded with her in vain. Nicholina Nadou, a primary school teacher, didnâ€™t want to hear his stories of trying to get onto the government payroll and promises of a bright future.
Itâ€™s five years now and Ngorokâ€™s bright future is nowhere near his single-room grass-thatched hut down in Komuria village, Kaabong Town Council.
â€˜A drop in an oceanâ€™, is what best describes his monthly pay â€“ a paltry amount improvised from the pockets of his studentsâ€™ parents, and not a legitimate salary from the Ministry of Public Service as he had hoped 10 years ago.
Recently, his five-year-old child got ill. Ngorok didnâ€™t have the luxury of tapping into his â€˜teacherâ€™ coffers to pay the little boyâ€™s medical bills. Helpless, he prayed to God to deliver his child, but the prayer didnâ€™t score. Little Anthony Loiki succumbed to severe malaria. Ngorok didnâ€™t speak to a soul for two days as he mourned and reflected on a tragedy that, in his view, resulted from the choices he had made. Todate, he blames himself for the boyâ€™s death. Maybe if I hadnâ€™t insisted on staying in the teaching profession without accessing the payroll for 10 years, I would have got another job and saved some money to salvage my boyâ€™s life,â€ he regrets.
For a moment, Ngorok is overcome by tears. The interview has to wait for about five minutes. We are seated up a rock that overlooks the school. Itâ€™s atop this rock that he quietly reflects his choices whenever his torrent of problems comes rushing unto him.
â€œI love it up here,â€ he says of the high rock that relays a beautiful view of Kaabong.
â€œWhen my problems weigh down heavily on me and I feel low, I sit up here and the fresh air sweeps over me. It suddenly feels as though I have no problems at all,â€ he adds, gazing meditatively far across the small town... Then a pain-laced smile flits across his face. Then, seemingly in another world, he starts talking.
â€œHe was so handsome, my little boy. In the beginning, there were three of them. And then, because of my weak pocket, I buried one.â€
The scene gets so emotional. I can feel his pain but I donâ€™t even know what to say to make him feel better. I wait.
Moments later, Ngorok feels light-hearted. The interview continues.
For the last 10 years, all the 37-year-old has done, other than teaching, is try to get onto the government payroll, in vain.
It turns out the education ministry doesnâ€™t even know him, because he was employed by the school, an arrangement Paul Muzaale, the ministryâ€™s deputy publicist, referred to as private.
â€œHis dilemma attracts sympathy,â€ says Muzaale, â€œbut the ministry cannot recognise him unless he responds to the Education Service Commissionâ€™s job adverts, does interviews and passes them.â€
But being a Geography, CRE and Divinity teacher, rarely does an advert for a teacher of his subjects show up in the papers.
â€œHis area of specialty is over-subscribed. In fact, even when we forward our teacher recruitment needs to the commission, science subjects usually dominate the list,â€ Muzaale says, pointing at a clipping on his office wall, of a recent advertisement without any of Ngorokâ€™s subjects. â€œHe should perhaps go back to school and study Swahili and Computer, which are marketable,â€ he says.
Ngorok is so frustrated that he curses the optimism that made him wake up early that Independence morning. October 9, 1998, the day Uganda celebrated 36 years of independence, was the same day Ngorok first set foot at the school, having graduated with a Diploma in Secondary Education from Ngetta National Teachersâ€™ College.
â€œI had gone through school being dependent on people. Reporting for duty on Independence Day, to me, meant I was going to be independent. But can you imagine I still depend on friends for basic needs?â€
Ngorok says whenever openings in his specialiality showed up, they have been taken without Kaabong catching wind of their existence because newspapers are a rare item in the remote district.
Last year, in an attempt to take care of hard-to-reach areas like Karamoja, interviews to get teachers on the payroll were carried out in Moroto district.
But Kaabong S.S teachers were not interviewed following the death of their headteacher, George Washington Obwosch, who had not yet delivered their application forms by the time he died.
Now Ngorokâ€™s future and that of six others with a similar problem, is clouded by uncertainty. However, the other six have waited between four and six years, which makes Ngorokâ€™s case the extreme.
He says having missed the interviews in Moroto, his other chance was with the next interviews that were carried out in Mbarara district.
â€œBut going there would have cost me about sh300,000, money I havenâ€™t touched in a long time.â€ The last time such money went through his hands was in the mid 90s, when he sold goats to raise tuition for his teaching course.
Today, Ngorokâ€™s monthly pay is about sh50,000, a partial payment from the schoolâ€™s association of parents and teachers (PTA).
Ngorok says sometimes the partial payment is delayed. Not that the administration keeps it intentionally, he says, but there is just no money in the coffers. The PTA owes Ngorok about sh3.1m in salary arrears.
A government school teacher of Ngorokâ€™s qualification and period of service earns an average net salary of sh400,000 per month. This excludes money from PTA. If put on the payroll, Ngorok says he would upgrade to degree level and take his son and daughter (nine and three years respectively) to good schools.
The children are with their mother, who remarried 72km away. The boy is in P.3 at Karenga PS, where his mother teaches, while the girl has not yet made school-going age.
Ngorok hates it that his ex-wife detests him. â€œShe didnâ€™t even want to know I was present when I recently went to visit my children,â€ he recalls, adding that he rode his bicycle the entire 72km in order to save about sh20,000 he would have used in transport costs.
â€œI love my students, and when I am almost giving up, I feel like I am betraying them and the entire Karamoja region. At moments like these, I get my books, red pen, chalk, and hit the road to my school.â€
Mathew Okot, deputy chairperson Education Service Commission tips on getting onto the payroll
Compiled by Carol Natukunda