New Internationalist

The Last Weapon

Issue 283

The last weapon
Refugees see education as the way – possibly the only way – to a better future.
And so they are prepared to make many sacrifices to ensure that their children go to school...

Primary importance: refugee children learn in English and follow the Ugandan curriculum. Education is the burning issue,’ says Jacob, a slight man with a long list of complaints. The crowd around him who have been listening quietly to speaker after speaker suddenly bursts into spontaneous applause.

The meeting has been organized so that I can hear what refugees in southern Ikafe want to tell me. Everywhere I go people speak of the importance of education. An education in English for their children is one of the main reasons people say they came to Uganda. Some of those who originally fled to Zaire even made a second long and arduous journey over the Ugandan border so that their children could learn in English – the Ugandan curriculum is taught in English – rather than French.

‘Children are our future,’ says Johnson Mayen, deputy headteacher and an adviser to the Dinka people in Ikafe. ‘We need to stay here so that they can continue their education. Education is our last weapon. Perhaps the only one we have left.’

‘I have not been to school myself,’ admits Fatima Amelie. ‘But I want my daughter Loyce to go. She is already attending nursery school. I want her to learn.’

People are understandably bitter about the things that prevented them from attending school in Southern Sudan:

‘Without education there can be no development,’ stresses Moses Abure Daniel, headteacher at Imotong, a large primary school with over 1,000 pupils. ‘In Sudan the war interrupted our children’s education. This means that we will not have enough people to run our country when we finally get back on our feet. We will need teachers, doctors, lawyers and civil servants.’

In the Government-controlled areas of Sudan an escalating campaign of Islamization is depriving Christian children – and most Southern Sudanese are Christian – of the education that their parents want them to have. Even primary children are having to learn in Arabic. And now, the refugees tell me, if their children want to go to college back in Sudan, they have to pass an exam that includes not only Arabic but the study of the Qur’an.

I visit the school at Point M, behind Bidibidi, where the 11 classes ranged in front of blackboards sit with their pencils and exercise books. Some of the classrooms have grass roofs and no walls; the younger pupils are mainly being taught under trees.

‘This is a P7 class, the oldest group,’ said Raymond Mule Kenyi, the headteacher. ‘Normally they would be aged about 13. But some because of the years of schooling they’ve missed are much older, 16 or 17.’

Each class has about 40 children. The total register is 611 pupils but only 483 are attending the day I visit – 321 boys and 162 girls. A neatly marked blackboard in Raymond’s ‘office’ – a small grass-roofed hut – shows the roll call in each class for that day.

Attendance is low today, I’m told, because there has been no food distribution for a long time. ‘The children are hungry and when they are hungry they can’t study,’ says Raymond sadly. ‘There is also a problem because some of the children have no clothes – the ones they came with from Sudan are all worn out and not all have received second-hand garments. So the older ones in particular are ashamed to come to school naked.’

I had seen a number of children in other parts of the settlement, who, though not exactly ‘naked’, were wearing trousers which revealed all or most of their buttocks.

The scale of the operation is staggering. There are 40 primary schools in Ikafe, with 463 teachers and 14,750 students. Most buildings are just rough structures with no walls and straw roofs which mean the children have to be sent home when it rains.

The majority – 13,212 – are refugees. But there are also 1,538 Ugandans, proving that the rhetoric about integration and benefit to the existing community is not just a pipedream.

I visit one school at Okuyu in south Ikafe where the proportion of refugees to nationals is almost half and half. The teachers feel that the children benefit from working alongside each other. The school existed before the refugees arrived, with only a couple of hundred pupils. Today there are over 600.

Keen to learn - like the other refugees, these children at the school in Point M see education as the key to developing their country once there is peace. The biggest difference between the refugees and the nationals is not language or culture, but the price of learning. For the refugees education is free (except for examination fees); local people have to pay. And it is expensive: tuition fees, examination fees, parent-teacher association fees. ‘The parents are very hot about this,’ explains John Baptist, a teacher in a blue shirt who does most of the talking.

The tensions do not seem to be between the refugees and the nationals, but rather against the system that divides them. President Museveni, who won the first proper presidential elections in Uganda in May this year, promised free education for the first four children in any Ugandan family. And the abolition of all extras except examination fees. If he keeps his promise he will be a popular man.

‘The success of a school depends on the attitude of the parents,’ says John. ‘My view is that if a father is able to take tea every day at a café or to buy cigarettes, he can afford to send his child to school.’

‘Yes,’ added one of his colleagues. ‘But you see because many of the Ugandans here were refugees themselves they lost everything. And now if they have a cow or a goat they feel it is a waste to sell it to pay school fees – they would rather keep it to pay their son’s dowry.’ John chips in again:

‘It is a shame. If parents do not pay their children’s school fees we have to send them home. And once a child is sent home, they often do not come back.’

This is particularly true of girls. Since primary education is free for the refugees, more of them are prepared – and indeed keen – to send their daughters as well as their sons to school. At Okuyu there are 261 refugee boys and 107 girls. But for Ugandans, who must pay, the ratio drops radically. There are 233 boys and only 67 girls. And in the top class there are 50 Ugandan boys and only two girls.

At the secondary level there are other problems – the main one being that there are no secondary schools in Ikafe. Then there is the question of cost. ‘For the nationals, it is expensive, for the refugees impossible,’ says John. ‘A refugee has to obtain first division in the final primary examinations to qualify for a Ministry of Education scholarship. Otherwise they have nowhere to go for secondary education. And last year there were just 25 scholarships for refugees.’

Sister Margaret is a doughty Australian who heads the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). JRS is responsible for running the primary schools, supplying materials and recruiting and paying the teachers. I ask her about the problem of secondary education and she nods her head. ‘The kids are keen. Last year we had 234 taking the final exams and 179 passed. This year 740 registered. But only 25 or so will be able to go study further. And the rest of the teenagers have nothing to do all day.’

I meet two of those teenagers in Bidibidi Base Camp. I am sitting on a wall outside my room writing up my notes when they suddenly appear round a corner and stand in front of me. ‘Hello,’ they say. ‘Hello,’ I reply. One is slightly older than the other but both are in their mid-teens. They are wearing T-shirts and look a little nervous. ‘Hello. I am John.’ The older one points to himself and then gestures at his companion. ‘And this is John.’ ‘Well that’s easy anyway,’ I joke. He ignores me. His mission is a serious one.

‘We are very eager to go to secondary school. We have completed our primary education in Sudan and then two years of secondary school there, but there is no bucket for us to attend school here.’ (It takes me a while to figure out that by ‘bucket’ he means scholarship). ‘So what we want to ask is – can you find us work here, any work, so that we can earn money to go to school? There is a good school in Yumbe but it costs money. And we want to have an education, to be a teacher and a nurse. We want to help our country. Can you help us?’

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