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FEATURE: Maddu, Uganda – A story of service above self

In Maddu, in Gomba district, Uganda, two women are extending education services during the Covid-19 pandemic to ensure a bright future for the children. Allen Lunkuse reports in this continuation of the ‘Voices from the Frontline’ series of stories from CDKN and ICCCAD.

Maddu is located in the central region of Uganda and is home to 28,076 people. Maddu sub-county is predominantly pastoralist, but the semi-urban part of Maddu is known as a budding centre for businesses such as trade in cattle and other agricultural products. Most economic activities here are male-dominated, which leaves women and girls economically vulnerable  and dependent on male relatives.

The Maddu community attaches a lot of value to cattle, at the expense of priorities such as education, and particularly the livelihoods of women and girls. “With a “reasonable” number of heads of cattle, most parents in this community would not think twice about getting their daughter out of school and marrying them off to the next stranger” says Betty Zalwango (22), a resident of Maddu.

Given the above background, Covid-19 left the already-poor members of the community more impoverished and the vulnerable more hopeless. The community experienced food scarcity as most people did not grow their own food and depended on foodstuffs ferried in from Mutukula, one of the border points that were closed off when the pandemic broke out.

The closure of schools only exacerbated the plight of the students. High poverty and illiteracy levels in their homes worked against the children’s ability and capacity to self-teach. They were slowly becoming restless because they were not gainfully engaged in formal education. That environment coupled with lack of communication on clear and inclusive strategies for the education sector from area and national leaders led to pessimism.

During this time, many children started fending for themselves, and were unfortunately also exposed to daily obscenities. “The boys went off to find minor jobs at motor garages and hair salons. With the money earned, they joined older men to lure girls. Cases of early and unwanted pregnancies and marriages skyrocketed among the children of Maddu,” Betty shares.

Government initiatives falling short of meeting education needs

Government interventions to make the education sector resilient were not only inadequate but also not inclusive enough using a “one size fits all approach.” These students from the rural communities and most of whose parents are illiterate, were expected to study by televisions, radios or the internet, at a time when their parents’ priority was on the next meal and basically survival. Also, the education standards and approaches of most rural schools before Covid-19 did not equip students with the ability to self-study and self-supervise.

“When I first started this coaching in the first lockdown, the aim was to keep my little brother’s mind in school mode. I had noticed he had regressed and forgotten even the smallest of basics! But when I checked with two more siblings, it dawned on me that all of them had not only regressed, but lost interest in school as well!” says Betty.

There was a sigh of relief when the Ministry of Education and Sports announced that local television and radio stations were to dedicate some of their airtime to teaching various lessons for various classes. “I noticed that in the beginning when lessons were first introduced on TV, my siblings were excited, and always on time for the classes. But after a short while, sometimes lesson hours would be overtaken by other events and they eventually lost interest,” Betty adds.

Shortly afterwards, the government announced the printing and distribution of home-based study materials. These too were not adequate; their distribution was not well planned and thus caused another source of conflict and tension in the community. Students and parents were frustrated about how progress was to be assessed after covering the provided material, given that there were no teachers involved. 

Setting the pace for new innovations in delivering education

At a time when the education and future of the children in Maddu sub-county were hanging in balance due to the Covid-19 pandemic, two women were playing different roles to restore hope for the future. Sarah Namugga is a 40-year-old mother and resident of Maddu, while Betty is a 22-year-old aspiring teacher for pre-primary and lower primary school education. These two women fuel the hope in the future of education of the children of Maddu.

Betty’s journey of ensuring that the children of Maddu do not lose their dreams for an education started when she took some time to engage her little brother and two other siblings in a simple chat about their school.

Seeing the unfolding situation, Betty did not want her siblings to reach the point of hopelessness. She therefore created a classroom-like schedule that occupied half of their days with learning. Soon after, her nearby relatives and neighbours started sending their children.

Since the very beginning, Betty has volunteered the furniture for the classes from her home. The space is her family’s compound. She brought home from school the materials such as flips charts and markers. She also borrowed textbooks books from the school where she was working as a student teacher to help her teach children from pre-Primary up to Primary Three.

Betty is also creating awareness about the Covid-19 standard operating procedures by reminding the children on a daily basis, to wear their masks, sanitise and avoid crowded places or keep social distance. She believes that the students can champion change in their homes. Furthermore, the school director and head of the school, where she worked as a student teacher, supported her by lending books which allowed her to have more content to cover with her children.

Interactions with the students’ parents made Betty resolve to continue and persist with these classes even during the second Covid-19 wave to protect the children from domestic violence and gender-based violence that could cost them their future education.

To support the initiative, the parents found it prudent to encourage her with a monthly financial remuneration, which Betty receives according to each individual parent’s capacity. The highest amount paid by any parent is Shs.20,000 ($5.60) a month and it can go as low as Shs. 5,000 ($1.40) a month.

While Betty would be willing and able to take on more students, she cannot proceed in that direction given her current space limitation. Betty’s model has been adopted by a new NGO in the area, innovating around education sector resilience to Covid-19. The NGO has engaged teachers from private schools and formed learning groups of 20 students per teacher and supported both parties with text books. The teachers are given a stipend by the NGO.

Creating awareness about children’s right to education

Sarah Namugga, on the other hand, was at the forefront of creating awareness about children’s right to education and in one such case, she managed to put an end to an early marriage between a 15-year-old girl and 17-year-old boy. Both children’s parents were penalised and both families counseled.

In another case, Sarah reports that “a father had refused to take his daughter back to school after the first wave and lockdown, claiming she was overgrown, despite her desire to continue with school. When the mother sought my assistance, I explained to her father the legal implications and that the impacts of the pandemic are not just in their home. When education institutions were reopened, he took her back for a vocational course”.

However, both Betty and Sarah’s work are limited by inadequate financial support and distribution of educational materials. The high illiteracy levels in the community also made people easily led by misinformation. Some political leaders even shunned the exercise of distributing face masks and study materials to citizens. Sarah strongly believes that if the citizens of Maddu are adequately skilled to prepare for such crises, they would be self-reliant and able to complement government efforts during such crises. 

Interviewer’s perspective

The potential of women to lead or navigate their way through a crisis such as Covid-19 can be undermined by so many barriers including a lack of access to resources even as basic as information or huge limitations like cultural connotations about how a woman should be.

Regardless of this, this story goes to show that women have in both small and grand unimaginable ways demonstrated that they are indeed a force to be reckoned with, especially when they commit to a cause. Therefore, if the women who have managed to free themselves from the barriers or learnt to work around them would turn around and guide both fellow women, and men out of the same, there would be no crisis too big to overcome.

Furthermore, the government should rethink the one-size-fits-all approach to its response to disaster, as it has proven to leave the most vulnerable worse off. The education sector interventions completely ignored children with visual impairments/disabilities, for example.

Betty’s initiative is plausible as it has helped to respond to the immediate effects of the Covid-19 crisis on the education sector. In the long run however, the approach cannot address the long-term impacts, unless it is adopted nationwide, funded and implemented by the government, which is very unlikely.

This said, I strongly recommend the Ugandan government prioritises safe reopening of schools by adequately financing schools to procure equipment and facilities required for the observance of the Covid-19 standard operating procedures, and vaccination of all school staff and students by the end of 2021.

About the interviewer

Allen Lunkuse is a 31-year-old frontline community development worker leading implementation of activities in the four districts of Gomba, Bukomansimbi, Butambala and Kalungu found in Central Uganda.

About the interviewees

Betty Zalwango (22) is an aspiring Lower Primary School teacher who finally wrote her last training examinations, which had been disrupted by the first wave of the coronavirus.

Sarah Namugga is a para-social worker who currently volunteers with ACTADE as one of the Community-based Civic Educators and Monitors.

 

Image: stock photography from Uganda (Courtesy Brian Wolf)

 

 

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