If you enter five minutes into a conversation with a Ugandan parent the topic of education will arise. It’s a guarantee. The people of Uganda have been well convinced that the primary way to break out of developing conditions is to educate their children as far as possible. Unlike most developed countries, education in Uganda is not free and the standards are not consistent. In a place where people have many children, the cost of educating just one can equal the annual salary of the primary earner in the family. Nonetheless, they make many sacrifices and utilize any help they can find to educate their children.
Historically organizations have so readily provided sponsors to children in developing countries that this becomes a primary goal of many parents: secure a good sponsor to pay for the child’s education. On playgrounds I have heard children brag about having a sponsor. In school administrative offices the dues collector goes easier on a child with a sponsor than a parent struggling to make payments. When there are insufficient funds a child is literally chased away from school in shame.
The sponsor phenomenon is a big help in developing areas, but it also becomes a common expectation, which eventually can exacerbate dependence. Although, I truly haven’t met a single family blessed with a sponsor that didn’t actually need it. Children who wouldn’t otherwise be able to go to school receive an education because generous and faithful sponsors provide what the parents cannot. (thanks for the compassion)
My own son Jack has been selling bread to raise funds to sponsor four children for the past five years. It’s some work and sometimes he’d rather do something more fun than mix and slide eight loaves of banana bread in the oven each day during sales season, but it’s definitely worth the effort to know these children can go to school. When has has collected the funds at the end of the year to make payment he cheerfully talks about doing it again the next year. Helping feels good.
At Kirabo Seeds we have a sponsor program but it is a more comprehensive, reach the whole child program for children who are completely orphaned. It’s difficult to imagine our children who are now so healthy, intelligent and eager to be successful as children at the fringe of relative’s homes in despair, hungry and afraid. It is such an honor to bless these children with the very best opportunities we can find to help them make a good start with an independent life. They can thank God, not any of us. God is making this happen for these seventeen children in our care.
As I mentioned all education is not equal in Uganda. And the closer we look at how the children are taught, we have begun to wonder if we shouldn’t aim higher for them. The basic teaching process is lecuture, memorize, regurgitate. There are no books in the school, only blackboards. The children have small notebooks for each class where they write down what they will be tested on later. The hours are longer than over achieving professionals work in the US. And the primary agent of control is the brandishing of shame.
To me, those parameters sound like a recipe to shut down learning. I wouldn’t be inspired by long hours, the same voice droning on and on all day, and fear of shame in front of my peers. And I don’t want that for our children. With that said the school where our children attend has a high standard, high achievement scores, and a fair staff. But we are dreaming bigger than this. Why wouldn’t we consider how we could inspire the love of learning to our children? The love of learning can last a lifetime if caught early enough.
Last November when the children finished their year of school the staff went to the teacher parent conferences. I’m pleased to say all of our children are at the top of their classes! The school loves Kirabo Seeds! Not only do we pay all our fees on the first day of school, but our students perform well. In these conferences we learned that five of our students would have to go to boarding school to spend their Primary 7 year preparing to take the national exam. They can board at this same school but boarding is compulsory. I was livid! We aren’t setting up a healthy environment balanced in social, emotional, physical, educational, spiritual and psychological provisions to send them away to be students from 6:30am until 9:pm each day with a couple short breaks. They also have half a day on Saturday and early Sunday morning school. My belief is that too much school actually decreases learning and that’s not the same thing as having cake for breakfast.
If we had known before the end of the year we might have been able to figure some way to educate them without boarding but we found out too late to get ourselves organized. Our students were actually eager to go to boarding school and study hard. It is almost like an honor to them. Every Ugandan they admire has gone through this rite of passage and they are eager to make their mark. Darren and Irene have been able to arrange with the school to have a “young life” type of club on Saturday afternoons with all the children who are boarding. This is a great start to our outreach ambitions. It will also help us connect weekly with our kids and make sure they are doing ok with all the educational pressure.
As we await our NGO status we are forming our ideas about how we can set up educating our children from home but still get the Ministry of Education’s support. We’d love to have them begin to find out that learning can be fun and there need not be any shame involved in the process. The best lessons come from the biggest mistakes. If it isn’t safe to make a mistake how can they really learn critical thinking skills?
Oh my goodness was the staff horrified when we suggested we want to teach the kids at home. “We can’t change things. That’s not done”. “New” is too scary. But I don’t think in a box about anything. And I assured them if it’s good enough for our own son Jack, who home-schools, then it could be good for our kids at Kirabo Seeds as well. Who knows what this will look like, but we’re getting ready to kick up some dust and find out how to do this. I’m hoping that if our next group of kids moving up to P7 don’t have to board then we’ll have done our jobs. Perhaps an authentic school can grow out of our grassroots approach to making school effective and fun in Uganda and our whole organization can be sustained by the bounty of others who hope for the same kind of education for their children. Or, even better, we’ll find children who can’t go to school and find a way to give them an education beyond their wildest dreams. Let’s just see what God has next for Kirabo Seeds.