issue 248 - October 1993
Peanuts and prayers
The right to free schooling is being eroded all over the world.
Geoff Sayer reports from East Africa, where parents are having to make
ever greater sacrifices to secure an education for their children.
‘I’m weak from digging our land for fees. I don’t see how I’ll ever get my children through primary school.’ Florence Muhindo conceded a moment’s despair as we picked our way through the rain-drenched coffee bushes growing behind her hillside home: ‘I’ve seven children in primary school and Lucy in secondary. It’s becoming impossible to keep them there. We negotiated with the headmistress last week so the children could continue. She said she’d wait a while for payment. Lucy was sent home from Kinyamaseke Secondary School last week because we hadn’t paid for her first term.’
Across the valley the steep foothills of Uganda’s Ruwenzori Mountains presented a patchwork of banana plantations, coffee gardens, maize plots and elephant-grass terracing that mirrored the fertility of Florence’s two-hectare farm. Apart from bananas, eaten as a savoury dish, the staple foods are beans, maize, millet, groundnuts and sweet potatoes. Some farmers cultivate second plots on the lower lands sloping down towards Lakes George and Edward, growing cotton on the drier soils. Families grow most of their own food as well – like most other East African countries, the cash economy is far less important than it is in the rich world. For many basic commodities, families exist without money. They grow, they exchange, they barter. But school fees have to be paid in cash.
Florence’s family are not poor. They grow almost all the food they eat, and some to sell. Cotton and coffee bring in further cash. Florence has always found time to continue her work as a health volunteer in her village. Four of her children are orphans that she has adopted. But for the first time she is finding that she can’t afford to refer her children to Kagando Hospital for treatment, or to pay the fees necessary for them to continue at school. These are higher for each grade, and have risen enormously over the last few years.
‘The fees for the primary children at Kinyamaseke have doubled in the last year, and are ten times what they were in 1990/91. Lucy’s fees in the first class at secondary school cost three-quarters of what we earn during a good coffee harvest.’
Florence has no means of increasing her income to meet rising charges for school fees and health care. The Ugandan Government has struggled to maintain the prices paid to farmers for coffee and cotton, liberalizing markets and abandoning the tax on coffee exports which produced a third of government revenue in the late 1980s. But world prices have fallen relentlessly. In real terms coffee is fetching only about half of its 1986 value (and Uganda depends on coffee for over 70 per cent of its foreign earnings). Like parents everywhere in Uganda, Florence and her husband Josia will have to choose which of their children will be allowed the luxury of school.
Despite her difficulties, Florence’s expectations of schooling remain high: ‘Education is terribly important. It always helps a person to be better... to be useful in society as well as to their family. The children have to go to school if they’re to develop. Of course it also gives them a better chance to get a job – it’s depressing if someone has a good education and can’t find a job.’
The government of the National Revolutionary Movement (NRM) which came to power in 1986 has taken a more pragmatic line than other East African governments, acknowledging from the start that it would be depending on parents to finance schooling. Fees are set by parents themselves through an elected Parent-Teacher Association; these provide about 40 per cent of teachers’ pay and help to finance the maintenance of school buildings. Without this tax-free supplement to their government salaries, teachers simply could not survive. They would be left in the situation of their colleagues in Tanzania – teaching huge classes without the most basic resources, and often forced to hold down two jobs or sell tuition privately to those who can afford it.
Despite the ‘extra’ money, schools and teachers are struggling. Dorothy Policeapuuli, headteacher at the local primary school, expressed her frustration: ‘We have only 438 pupils enrolled this year compared with 560 in 1992. Children are dropping out because their parents can’t afford the fees. The girls are more affected than the boys.
‘The average class size is about 40 children. There are never enough textbooks, especially in subjects where the syllabus is being extended. Children share textbooks... say 20 among a class of 50. Our income doesn’t allow us any luxuries. We’d like to improve the classrooms and teachers’ accommodation. Furniture’s a big need and we really need a better library.
‘If we had some capital we would utilize the school’s 14 hectares to generate income. We have a number of handicapped children – seven with physical difficulties and four deaf and dumb who have a special teacher. They pay very little in fees. The Ministry subsidizes the four boarders but I have to find food for them.
‘So we can’t manage without the income from parents. We can’t afford to waive fees. We have to send children home or parents won’t pay... The reaction comes slowly, though people usually end up paying. But sometimes a child just doesn’t return. And that child’s education is lost forever.’
The number of children losing their education is likely to increase. Uganda is bankrupt. Its national budget is a Kafkaesque combination of borrowings, repayments, foreign-aid grants and debt reschedulings. But there have been few cancellations – Uganda is allowed just enough money to keep playing the game to the lenders’ rules. In 1992 over 70 per cent of its export earnings had to be handed over to Northern governments and institutions in debt repayments – four times the government’s entire primary-education budget of just $33 million. Education expenditure, which in 1960 was 3.2 per cent of GDP, dropped in 1991 to 0.9 per cent. Since then it has slowly started to rise again but the Government’s goal of universal primary education remains a distant dream.
Everywhere in East Africa parents make immense sacrifices and call on all the resources of the extended family to secure a vestige of an education for their children, often in cramped bookless classrooms. No child complains at having to go to school. No salaried uncle escapes the call to support nephews and nieces through their school years. Parents desperately want their children to have an education, but even primary schooling remains out of reach for many families.
In Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, 14-year-old Mwangi and his younger sister Wangoi confide their prayer-like hope that their mother will earn enough selling peanuts in Uhuru Park to return them to their village home and primary school. And Serah Wanjira, labouring through the city’s wealthy Westlands suburb to sell her burden of vegetables, speaks angrily of the rising costs which are taking secondary education out of her children’s reach.
At Kagando, in western Uganda, Faith Tembao, who is 15, explains how she’s given up her hopes of secondary school and her ambition to be a nurse, taking a poorly paid job to help her brothers through school.
In Musoma, on the shore of Lake Nyanza/Victoria in Tanzania, regional education officer Mr Mwita is emphatic about the decline in funding. ‘State support is not on a plateau. It’s deteriorating year by year, not just in this region but nationally. I don’t know how we’ll manage unless some Good Samaritan steps in. The onus will be on the communities to put their hands in their pockets.’ The tragedy of people like Florence, Faith and Serah is that they are simply unable to do so.
Geoff Sayer works for Oxfam UK.
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