Between a shark and the deep sea

Education by e-book? A Bridge academy in Uganda
Education by e-book? A teacher and her class at low-cost private school Bridge in Mpigi, Uganda. By Jon Rosenthal/Alamy

Mention Bridge International Academies and the wrinkles on 70-year-old Veronica Akumu’s face relax, bringing a smile to her lips. Of course, she knows the Bridge school near her village in Tororo district, Eastern Uganda. Had it not been for Bridge, she says, her five-year-old grandson, would not be speaking English in the pristine way he does. He would be like her other grandchildren who went to the nearby government school and can hardly write their names.

Akumu struggles to raise several grand-children, many orphaned by HIV/AIDS, and feeds them off land that is exhausted, thanks to erratic rains. She is exactly the kind of person targeted by Bridge, a chain of low-cost private schools that operates in Africa and Asia. It professes to give quality education to children of low-income earners, the rural and urban poor who find a way to send their children to private schools – even if it means going hungry.

And that is the quarrel education activists such as Salima Namusobya, head of Ugandan NGO Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER), have with Bridge and similar low-cost private schools – the fact that parents trade everything to afford education whose quality has yet to be proven.

Bridge is not shy to shout about its success in bringing what it considers quality, affordable education to under-served families. A high-profile operation, it has attracted over $100 million in investment from the likes of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and other philanthropists, as well as international donors.

Its model is predicated on scale. Bridge beams out standardized lessons, devised in the US, to its 500 or so schools around the world. The lessons are read off, word for word, from e-readers by teachers, often high-school graduates without formal teaching qualifications.

With an investment of about $3 million, Bridge has built 63 schools over two years in Uganda alone, and runs a sophisticated marketing operation. From Liberia to India, stories abound of contented parents and children achieving amazing results beyond their dreams.

But critics say it is too early to measure the success of Bridge schools, which have existed for less than a decade. In most countries, including Uganda, there is yet to be one entirely Bridge-educated cohort to sit national exams. Bridge’s own, internal studies register high scores, but the system has so far proved resistant to external monitoring, and criticism in general. An independent researcher in Uganda was arrested at the request of Bridge last year. (Over in neighbouring Kenya, Bridge is suing the National Union of Teachers for defamation.)

Besides, Namusobya explains, uneducated parents like Akumu, are not always best placed to judge the quality of their children’s education.

‘They will tell you that their children speak English, but there is great value in teaching young children in their mother tongue language. Also, education is beyond numeracy and literacy, it is about the whole being. There has been no fair assessment, no evidence that Bridge schools are providing wholesome education,’ Namusobya says.

While Bridge says that educating a child costs parents on average 5 per cent of their household income, a 2016 report by Education International, a federation of teacher unions, worked out that parents spend closer to 25 per cent of their income educating one child at Bridge.

‘They should stop describing themselves as low cost,’ says Namusobya. Bridge schools charge about $7 dollars a month but with other costs such as uniforms and materials, it can rise to over $15.1 ‘Also, they never set up in places where people are really poor or where there are no schools at all. They go to places where people have some money to sacrifice and where there are already public schools.’

An independent researcher in Uganda was arrested at the request of Bridge last year

Namusobya is also sceptical about Bridge’s highly automated system. ‘Teachers are not comfortable with the things they are talking about – faraway places that they have never been to,’ she says. ‘They tell us that the script leaves them no time to explain. Sometimes in rural areas, teachers need to explain in the local language but this is not possible.’

Bridge appears to have strained relationships with East African governments. Last November, the Ugandan High Court ordered the closure of all Bridge schools for failure to have a school licence, unsanitary conditions and unqualified teachers. Bridge appealed, and was overruled again in August. It rumbles on. Kenyan Courts have ordered the closure of 10 Bridge schools for not ‘meeting national education standards’.

Parents have protested passionately to keep the schools open. Victoria Achieng, 26, whose six-year-old nephew goes to Bridge school admits the buildings are basic but is quick to point out that they are better than some government schools. She is weary of what she sees as a government intent on entrenching its rule rather than giving people the basics like a decent education.

‘Pick out any pupil in primary four at any government school and put him or her alongside my nephew at Bridge and you will see the difference,’ she says confidently.

It’s no surprise that parents who can afford it, have opted out of the public education system. Universal primary education (UPE), introduced in Uganda in 1996, should have given more poor people a chance to get an education and better life. But UPE is grossly underfunded and mismanaged. In 2015, the government spent $2 to educate a child through the entire school year, a figure unchanged since 1997. Teachers miss up to a day’s work a week, costing Uganda millions for paid services that are not delivered. They often prefer to spend time in their gardens or running side businesses, such as bodabodas (motor-cycle taxis), to supplement their salaries, which are among the lowest received by public servants. Close to 70 per cent of Ugandan children do not complete primary school, one of the highest dropout rates in the world, according to UNESCO.

For many parents, it is easier to take a child to Bridge than to demand that the government fix the inadequate public education system.

‘Where else would the children in Bridge be?’ asks Achieng, her face breaking into a subtle sneer. ‘The government schools do not teach but they want money, almost the same amount as Bridge. Bridge wants money and teaches. We are between a shark and a deep sea here.’

Namusobya insists that private schools such as those provided by Bridge are part of the problem rather than the solution. Even if they ultimately proved to be better quality, over the long run, they will only deepen inequality. Meanwhile, the government is diverting valuable public resources towards regulating errant private schools.

Bridge insists that they are now co-operating with the Ugandan government. The company has promised to revise the curriculum, employ qualified teachers, and improve infrastructure to comply with regulatory standards. But will this be enough? Namusobya worries that Bridge is selling an illusion.

‘In the developed world, where Bridge founders are from, they would never accept schools such as Bridge. But they are here selling us the lie that quality education can be cheap. Education is not cheap: it requires investment and our governments have a duty to make this investment,’ she says.

Patience Akumu is a freelance journalist based in Kampala.

Testimony from Dr Joanna Härmä to UK Parliament’s International Development Committee’s recent inquiry on Department for International Development’s work on education

Country Profile: Uganda


Left to right, from top: Jessica Agiro washes clothes while keeping her sleeping baby close in Angica village; keen pupils vie for attention at the primary school in Obalang; jumping for joy in the Teso region of central Uganda; a midwife using a Pinard stethoscope in the Aketa health centre; and 40-year-old farmer Tom Opila consults his daughter in the village of Opot, near Obalang. © Mikkel Ostergaard / Panos Pictures

If you visit Uganda, be careful when taking public transportation to State House, the official residence of the President. The real thing is a sprawling white building in Entebbe – a town on Lake Victoria that houses the local offices of the UN and where the ostentatious living is a legacy of the British colonialists who used it as an administrative base until independence in 1962. But you might instead find yourself on the dirt road to Kasangati – a neighbourhood on the outskirts of the capital, Kampala, that opposition leader Kizza Besigye calls home.

In February, Uganda held a presidential election where Besigye’s campaign centred on defiance of President Yoweri Museveni’s 30-year rule, which many now view as a certified dictatorship. After the elections, Besigye was slapped with treason charges and thrown in jail, where he has since remained. He has now run against and lost to Museveni in four elections – each of them marred by bribery, voter intimidation and trumped-up charges against the opposition. Besigye’s supporters’ nascent expression of resistance is the assertion that Kasangati is the de facto home of the presidency.

In the run-up to the 2016 elections, foreign direct investment dropped, with investors fearing the instability that is part and parcel of the country’s political history. However, after the elections, there was a furtive return of investors who realized that it might, after all, be business as usual. The involvement of these investors, many of them Chinese, backs up the statistics that indicate that Uganda, like many African countries, is turning east.

Having dropped any pretence at democracy, Museveni now advises the West to borrow a leaf from the Chinese book and to do business with African regimes without questioning their human rights and governance record. His nuanced response to criticism from the West is threats to withdraw Uganda’s troops from peacekeeping missions in Somalia and the Central African Republic.

Uganda has strategically positioned herself as the region’s police officer, lending forces to stem instability in South Sudan, Congo or wherever it may break out in this volatile part of the world. Museveni has himself warned that, were he to be deposed as President, he would not rule out the possibility of ‘going back to the bush’ – a euphemism for waging a guerrilla war similar to the five-year one that brought him to power in 1986.

In the name of peace and stability, Museveni has held Ugandans and the world to ransom while managing to maintain a semblance of development. He drowns out all the noise on inequality, corruption and poverty with massive, albeit questionable, investments in infrastructure and a promise to deliver middle-income status to Uganda by 2020. The recent discovery of oilfields of the order of 6.5 billion barrels, despite allegations of corruption and human rights violations that have blighted the road to production, is expected to generate revenue that will aid this transformation.

The country did achieve a notable success in the fight against HIV and AIDS but even here it has stalled: the introduction of morality laws, most notably the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which has justifiably garnered international opprobrium, has reinforced discrimination and is partly responsible for regression on this front.

Only the effortlessly green vegetation, fertile soils and wildlife treasures still hidden in pockets of the country remind you that Uganda is still the Pearl of Africa, as former British leader Winston Churchill once put it. But it is hard to see a glimmer of that through all the rot that has piled up. It will take a very skilled technician to excavate this pearl and once again reveal its true beauty.

Patience Akumu

The anti-gay gospel

Ssempa blesses Bahati

Not doing the Lord’s work: Pastor Martin Ssempa (wearing spectacles) blesses politician David Bahati, who introduced Uganda’s notorious Anti-Homosexuality Bill as a Private Member’s Bill in 2009. The ceremony took place at an anti-gay church service at the Christianity Focus Centre in Kampala’s biggest slum, Kisenyi. © Benedicte Desrus/Alamy

Pafla Basuza rides a boda boda, a motorcycle taxi, by day and preaches at his village Pentecostal church by night and on Sundays. Like most evangelists in Uganda, the themes of his gospel are recurrent – abortion is murder, homosexuals have an assured ticket to hell, and poverty is a curse from God resulting from these and other such evils.

Basuza’s message echoes that of US rightwing Christians he has never heard of. He, however, first heard about the evils of homosexuality from his idol, Martin Ssempa. Ssempa is a Ugandan anti-gay crusader who is inspired, mentored and funded by conservative Christian groups from the US – a fact Basuza does not know or care about.

Thanks to the efforts of Ugandan anti-gay agitators and their overseas funders, parliament passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act in December 2013. The law, which initially proposed the death penalty for some homosexual acts, brought the East African nation international criticism for being one of the most gay-hostile places in the world.

Some of the blame was placed on Western, particularly US, evangelists. Critics accused them of evoking questionable British colonial laws and liaising with local politicians to fan the fire of hate against homosexual people – many of whom were initially attracted to Pentecostal churches because of their lively and liberal style of worship.

‘I do not know whether it is the music or the mini-skirts, but everybody goes to the Pentecostal church. Even we kuchus [as gays fondly refer to themselves in Uganda] used to pray there,’ says Sandra Ntebi, who heads the Ugandan LGBT security task force. Her group became necessary after the anti-gay law was passed and media outings, mob justice, evictions and other attacks on gay people increased. 

‘In church, everywhere, they talked about us,’ Ntebi says. ‘The pastor said: “It is your neighbour, that homosexual next to you, who is responsible for all your problems.” So we had to leave church.’

Inspiring hate

According to Kampya John Kaoma, who researches sexuality and religion, Uganda’s anti-gay law was born out of a series of meetings held in Uganda in 2009, orchestrated by US Christian conservatives like Scott Lively, Don Schmierer, Rick Warren and Lou Engel. Kaoma, who attended some of the meetings, says they inspired other US Christian rightwing groups, like the American Center for Law and Justice (founded by televangelist Pat Robertson) and Family Watch International (a Mormon-led outfit) to extend their influence in Africa.

Conservative Christians also directly funded David Bahati, the Ugandan MP who originated the Anti-Homosexuality Act. Research carried out in 2009 and 2012 suggests that their African beneficiaries do not necessarily appreciate who these rightwing Christians are or the dangers of extremism they pose, says Kaoma.

‘The pastor said: “It is your neighbour, that homosexual next to you, who is responsible for all your problems.” So we had to leave church’

Kaoma’s work, done under the auspices of Political Research Associates, a US-based liberal social justice thinktank, chronicles the influence of rightwing Christianity on politics and human rights in Africa. He points out that the US Christian evangelists enjoy a close personal relationship with the most influential politicians in Uganda, including Janet Museveni Kataha, Uganda’s First Lady and MP.

‘They sponsor orphanages, Bible schools, universities and social-welfare projects. By providing education and small-business opportunities, US conservatives have convinced Africans that they are the perfect partners,’ he says.

They have also convinced their Ugandan followers that homosexuals are a threat to African traditional values. In the local preachers, they find willing cohorts who gladly take funding in return for doing what they believe is the noble job of protecting traditional values.

Ntebi says that aside from the poverty and desperation that lead Ugandans to lap up the anti-gay gospel, colonialism and neocolonialism have put them in a position where they cannot question what a white person says.

‘To us, a white person – a Christian white person – is always right. The people believe everything that the white man says. That is why Scott Lively and his friends have been successful in Africa.’

While Uganda’s constitutional court annulled the anti-gay law in August 2014, the penal code still maintains ambiguous provisions on ‘unnatural offences’ that are used to target gay people. Frank Mugisha, Executive Director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a group suing Lively for persecution of sexual minorities, says the effect of Uganda’s anti-gay campaign is extensive and nearly irreversible.

Last year, a report by SMUG indicated that the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act had created a ‘virulently homophobic atmosphere’ and increased attacks against gays by up to 2,000 per cent. Even as Lively and other US Christian conservatives now distance themselves from Uganda’s anti-gay campaign, their incidental protégés, like Basuza, continue to fierily preach the gospel they promulgated.

‘It is not hard to see Ssempa is a man of God. I like his American accent and his polished shoes,’ says Basuza, whose ageing coat is covered with a film of dust from riding his motorcycle taxi on dirt roads. ‘We all look up to him. We all must join him in the fight against homosexuality.’

Patience Akumu is an award-winning Ugandan journalist living in Kampala, specializing in social issues.

Brave Father Musala

Father Musala

‘Injustice must be resisted,’ insists Father Musala. ©

Father Anthony Musala waltzed into Uganda from England, where he was ordained, with change up his sleeves. When the Irish national of Ugandan origin released a music video in which he danced with abandon in his priestly robes, he dazzled and shocked conservative African Catholics.

‘It was something they had never seen,’ Musala, now 57, recalls. ‘A priest was supposed to be quiet.’

At first, he pulled crowds with his dashing celebrations of mass, his passionate and compassionate preaching and use of lively music. But there was an uncomfortable undercurrent. In a country of unbridled homophobia, Musala welcomed gay people to his church. He dared to speak openly about sexual abuse of boys and girls by Catholic priests who he said kept secret wives and children. As a confessor and counsellor, he knew how prevalent it was.

Last year, Musala wrote to the Archbishop of Kampala, Cyprian Lwanga, asking him to investigate sexual abuse and warning that the issue threatened to blow up in Uganda as it had in Europe. He also advised that the Catholic Church revise the rules on celibacy.

The authorities reacted by suspending him indefinitely and accusing him of homosexuality. The Archbishop said that the priest’s letter was threatening the morality of the Church and its followers. But Musala maintains that the Church, like the State, is using homosexuality as a diversionary tactic in order not to tackle the issue of clerical sex abuse.

‘They are promoting injustice. They do not know what it means to be abused,’ he adds, referring to his experience of molestation, aged 16, in a Catholic school. ‘There is hostility towards victims whenever they come out.’

‘I am an African. I belong here’

Still, many lauded Musala for his brave revelations, hoping it would lead to a proper investigation. But allegations about Musala’s sexuality soon took centre stage.

‘They asked me on television if I am gay – in a country that wants to imprison gay people for life.’

Like many countries in Africa, Uganda clings to old British colonial laws criminalizing homosexuality, but a new law has increased penalties. Passed last December, it was presented in parliament as a ‘Christmas present’ to the populace. At first, the Catholic Church in Uganda had not supported the bill, saying it went against Catholic teaching. But later, together with the Orthodox and Anglican Church, it endorsed it.

US evangelists further fanned the anti-gay flames. It was they, according to Musala, who first sowed the seeds of homophobia in the country after a lesbian wedding in Wandegeya – a small Ugandan town known for a robust night life – in 1999.

‘Two women held a ceremony. They moved on to the street and people were fascinated. They were curious. They were not homophobic like they are today.’

But it was not all innocent curiosity. Solomon Male and Martin Ssempa, renowned anti-gay pastors, approached the media, saying that the ‘gay agenda’ was out to destroy Africa.

‘That is when they began to say that gay people were getting money from Americans; that they were sick and they needed help.’

Musala alleges that the subject of celibacy is particularly sensitive in Uganda because top Catholic leaders have sired children. He blames this on Africa’s culture of patriarchy that views women as no more than baby-making machines.

‘They feel like they too should get a woman to have a child with. It does not matter [to them] if she is under-age.’

The priest regrets that while the Church chooses to condemn some atrocities in the country, like the rampant violation of political rights, it metes out similar injustices itself.

Musala appealed to the Vatican against the decision to suspend him six months ago but received no reply.

In desperation, he travelled to London to ask the Archdiocese of Westminster, where he was ordained, to intervene. Or, at the very least, to provide him with employment, not necessarily as a priest, so he could meet his daily needs. The diocese would not get involved, fearing that any comments might prejudice the final decision at the Vatican.

‘There is a deep tradition of silence in the church. Westminster could not speak out, even if what the Catholic Church in Uganda is doing would not be allowed in England,’ he says. ‘In England they were forced to speak only because the church was sued for similar violations.’

Musala returned to Uganda but his quest for justice has left him weary and uncertain, a shadow of his old enthusiastic self.

‘I do not know where to go. I do not know what to do. Do you think the civil courts can help me?’ he asks.

But he is not daunted. Not even by Ugandans who dismiss his criticisms as evidence of foreign influence.

‘Injustice must be resisted. I am African. I belong here.’

Patience Akumu is an award-winning Ugandan journalist living in Kampala, specializing in social issues.

Are Western evangelists responsible for Uganda's homophobia?

Evangelical preacher

Could spreading the gospel that gay people are normal and productive members of society be possible in Uganda? under a Creative Commons Licence

They came in brandishing the bible and promising hellfire to the man who walked around the neighbourhood in a dress and high heels singing and dancing and making the children happy for a change.

The entrance of Western evangelism into Uganda was fervent but seemed quite benign. Getting drunk with the Holy Spirit, claiming all the riches of the world and giving a twist to God’s name – Gawd! Who would have thought that a ludicrous campaign would turn into a full-blown witch-hunt of those who dissent?

Today, thanks to the evangelists, Uganda is one of the countries with the harshest anti-gay laws in the world, following President Yoweri Museveni’s agreement to the Anti-Homosexuality Act in February.

Human rights activists have challenged the law for being unconstitutional and a violation of Uganda’s obligations under international human rights agreements.

As kids, we were fascinated by savedees (as evangelicals are known here). We would sneak out of the house while our nanny thought we were having an afternoon nap and go to watch them through the holes of the papyrus-ribbed structures they used as churches in the early days. We enjoyed joining in with the music and dance as much as we loved watching the man with the dress and the high heels perform.

Even then, the evangelists preached hate beyond what our young minds could fathom. They advised parents to cut their children’s African hair, saying it was too untidy and ungodly for Sunday School. They told members of the congregation to throw out their wine bottles and leave churches that still played music from evil African drums. Then they went on the national stage, offering Members of Parliament money if only they could find a way to deal with homosexuals once and for all.

The weeks following the signing of the anti-gay law were a nightmare for gay Ugandans. The law and threats threw them into confusion and shook their resilience like never before. Yet the HIV/AIDS advocacy efforts continued, gay rights organizations voiced their condemnation and gay Ugandans still went to work and school and lived among us. They might have gone about their lives with a slight stoop, a heavy heart or a confused facial expression, but life went on, one day at a time.

There was only one question that they could not answer: what did they plan to do now that the law had been passed? Fleeing to countries that offered asylum was certainly an option. They might go to Scotland, they said – or the US or Canada. But then many of them have never set foot outside their villages or cities. Some belong to the third of the population that can neither read nor write. ‘What would I do in Scotland?’ they asked.

The Constitutional challenge to this hate is being handled by some of the best lawyers in the country and, critics say, is likely to be successful. Uganda has a non-discrimination clause in its Constitution and the courts have twice upheld homosexual people’s right to privacy, life and freedom from inhuman degrading treatment.

On the day the challenge was filed, gay people and their supporters openly addressed a press conference and vowed to fight the injustices (including arrests, harassment and illegal evictions) that citizens and government have meted on them.

Buoyed by this new hope – a chance to have the law declare them innocent so their country can stop hounding them – the gay community is slowly picking up the pieces and rising to fight yet another battle.

Still, it would be naive to think that Uganda’s homophobia, sowed systematically by determined evangelists, will disappear with a Constitutional Court decision. The institutionalized harassment began the moment the bill was tabled and people called upon the state to ‘hang them’.

It took a lot of effort to convince parliament that perhaps life imprisonment is a more befitting punishment. Spreading the gospel that gay people are now acceptable, normal and productive members of society will be even harder but, I dare say, not impossible. My two-year-old daughter may never see the man in the high heels and lipstick dance. But maybe, if the Ugandan judges resist the allure of cheap popularity, her children will.

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