Uganda’s hardest mile: Racing to rescue an endangered generation

Photojournalist Paddy Dowling travels to the borders of DRC to report on the serious challenges Uganda’s underfunded humanitarian sector faces as it fights to educate the most marginalised

Paddy Dowling
Friday 18 October 2019 18:13 BST

As her feet shuffle beneath her desk, rasping on the smooth dusty floor of the classroom, Sylvia Owemana,13, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), looks up to the shaft of light pouring in, raises her eyebrows and tutts. Her soft quiet voice washes over the desks and chairs, explaining how she had not heard from her parents and siblings for more than two years, the latest news from relatives suggesting that they had all been killed in recent violence in DRC. Sylvia now lives with her 81-year-old grandmother Yosephina, forced to work the plantations on nearby farms around the Kamwenge District, Western Uganda, to provide for them both.

Uganda for years has shouldered the burden of conflict in neighbouring countries, hosting 1.2 million refugees; almost 800,000 South Sudanese, and arrivals from the DRC have been on the rise since the beginning of 2019 due to ongoing fighting. These large influxes place enormous strain on limited resources of the humanitarian system, in particular the provision of food assistance to the most vulnerable: children make up 62 per cent of the number, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), while a 2016 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey report found 29 per cent of children under five in Uganda are stunted due to chronic undernutrition, which has considerable impacts on health and learning outcomes.

Uganda was a pioneer in setting the goal to achieve universal access to basic education. After Universal Primary Education (UPE) was introduced in 1997, primary school enrolment increased, growing from 2.5 million learners in 1996 to 8.3 million in 2015. Uganda’s educational system simply could not afford to maintain quality along with the rapid increase in enrolment, thus access to primary education was not accompanied by adequate progress in learning outcomes, partly due to swelling class sizes, in some cases doubling overnight.

Dr Mary Joy Pigozzi, executive director of Educate A Child (EAC) a global program of Education Above All Foundation (EAA), explains: “Primary education serves as the basis for successive levels of education and many kinds of training and employment. It is a critical foundation for the wellbeing of individuals and societies. This is why our EAC programme is successful in 50 countries across the globe.”

Building Tomorrow Uganda, in partnership with EAA, has enrolled 53,373 out-of-school children back into quality primary education. They have achieved this through constructing 60 new primary schools and boosting enrolment at 450 existing schools, placing university graduates into the community as role models to encourage school enrolment into the primary level.

Primary education serves as the basis for successive levels of education and many kinds of training and employment. It is a critical foundation for the wellbeing of individuals and societies

Dr Mary Joy Pigozzi, EAC

Amanda Grossi, communications manager at Building Tomorrow Uganda, adds: “When the community is empowered to take notice of those who aren’t learning, suddenly these hard-to-reach children become within arm’s reach instead.”

Uganda’s government is fighting the odds stacked against it to provide a quality education for indigenous and refugee children living in cities and on the fringes; these are the hardest to reach. They are going the last mile to ensure children have a brighter future and they know that the country’s prosperity relies on it.

The global challenge for educating the next generation remains: 59 million children of primary age are without schooling, an estimated 400,000 in Uganda alone. Investment in building new classrooms and training teachers is not enough, it requires sustainable partnerships, like this one between EAA and Building Tomorrow in Uganda, delivering quality education.

Meanwhile, Uganda’s next generation, like Sylvia, have made their choice. They would rather go to bed hungry than be denied their right to education.

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