Sunday, August 14, 2005

What Next?

Entebbe, Uganda
Sunday, August 14, 2005

What are the best ways to work with Ugandan colleagues and friends for the benefit of all?

In our understanding and observation, one overarching principle has emerged during Elizabeth Ross's experiences with the Kasiisi and Kanyawara schools in Uganda. Permanent change can come only from the inside, only from the people themselves, never from the outside. We on the outside can only prime the pump to the best of our ability, and sometimes advise carefully based on our own knowledge and experience. We on the outside can never know the full story as the Ugandans themselves do. We cannot exercise good judgment on our own about what will work and what will fail. Therefore:

Fundamental principle: The Ugandan people must themselves make all decisions about allocation of resources that come from the outside.

In particular, we on the outside must not seek to help individual people directly. We must only deliver resources - money, goods, time, other things - to those people in Uganda who are in the best position to make well-informed, effective, far-seeing decisions. Elizabeth's experiences have shown this to be true again and again. We can advise in cases where we have direct experience, for example in certain applications of technology. But we must not take on actual decision-making, however tempting that might be.

Kasiisi School, Kanyawara School, and any other local school or schools that might become “adopted” by us in America, are all overseen by a School Committee that meets at least once each term and that follows progress both informally and formally. Committee members include the schools’ headmasters/mistresses, a designated teacher representative from each school, the chairperson of the parent-teacher organization, and two or three members elected by parents. The current Committee for Kasiisi-Kanyawara is chaired ex officio by Professor John Kasanene of Makerere University, husband of Kasiisi headmistress Elizabeth (Lydia) Kasenene. Professor Kasenene, an indefatigable organizer and get-it-done person, works with Richard Wrangham on chimpanzee research at Kibale.

The school committee is now considering, or might soon consider, any of the below areas as being worthy of near-term investment of funds raised in American and/or provided by the Ugandan federal government. The areas are listed in no particular order.

Shelter: Any school has to provide shelter from the elements. Elizabeth Ross, with direct and indirect assistance from many people, has brought Kasiisi and Kanyawara schools from teaching outdoors under trees to where these schools are today, fully sheltered with only relatively few structural improvements seen as being critical.

Water: Both schools have water collection systems for runoff from roofs. Both systems are broken, and both are truly repairable only with some significant investment. Local people have either sabotaged the systems, or the systems were not designed and/or built properly. The primary challenge with water is to provide it reliably during the two dry seasons as well as the two wet seasons each year. The secondary challenge is to provide water that is not co-opted by nearby local residents, and not sabotaged by them out of malice or out of a sense of deep-down unfairness: "why should those children from far away get to use water that comes from sky and ground here where I live, but I am not allowed to use it at all?" What then is the right approach to providing water at the schools? Only the local people themselves can see all of the complexities and find the right way.

Food: It is well known that effective learning requires good nutrition. A small minority of students at the schools appear to eat enough during the day to stay alert and engaged. Their families simply do not have enough food. Cate Wrangham-Briggs, Elizabeth Ross's sister-in-law, is investigating funding for a program that would feed each P3-P7 child once per school day. This would seem to be an essential next step. Again, only the local people will understand the full details of how to accomplish this. What foods will really work? What about workers to prepare the foods and deliver them? Where will food be stored? Can food be supplied without also supplying water?

Security: Schools suffer from frequent break-ins and theft. Though most windows have heavy steel bars, the openings are large enough for hands to reach in or even small children to wriggle in. Often, posters and other materials hanging on walls are torn down, perhaps maliciously. Water systems are broken. Books would be taken if offices and library rooms are not secured very carefully. Kasiisi has a night watchman who is not always punctual or reliable, and this partial security services costs real money. How then to protect a school, especially on weekends, when the cost of 24 hour security services becomes prohibitive? One thought is to build housing for teachers on the school grounds. An occupied house or apartment next to a water system is enough to deter nearly all ill-wishers. At the same time, offering housing for teachers will tend to attract better teachers and keep the better ones nvolved and engaged in the school. New staff housing already has been built near Kanyawara School - but not on the school grounds - and it is under active consideration at Kasiisi.

Staff improvement: Except for the very brightest of children, learning is no better than the teaching used to guide it. The Kasiisi and Kanyawara teachers are highly motivated and effective. But their own training and backgrounds are often limited. There is a large amount of room for expanding and refining teacher knowledge and skills. A key direction could be to fund more advanced training for teachers, or more numerous and advanced seminars and in-service training. The teachers are more than willing to put in time. The obstacles, as always, are resources, time, organization, and specific plans to achieve the improvements. Where in the relative priorities should teacher improvement be? Again, we believe that only the local people can make the right judgments.

Health: Any number of health initiatives could be viewed as absolutely necessary. Malaria kills 80,000 people every year in Uganda. Proportional to population, this would be equivalent to nearly 1 million deaths per year in the US, which would of course be an enormous health issue. Use of mosquito nets could significantly reduce the number of parents and children affected by malaria. Could this be the most important investment for health? The HIV infection rate in Kabarole District is relatively high. Sufferers can rarely afford anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs that can dramatically prolong useful and productive lives. Investing here could have major impact, as could extensive new preventive measures. The current Ugandan initiatives on HIV are focusing on abstinence for prevention. In another direction, providing special latrines for girls in P6 and P7 (corresponding to our grades 5 and 6) could keep many girls in school who now drop out to deal with the problems and challenges of entering adolescence. This could be a very cost-effective investment.

School materials: The school library is locked unless there are teachers or other staff members in close proximity. We did not see any children check out items from the library. There are many, many old textbooks. There are also very many excellent materials ranging from wall maps to globes to textbooks. There have never been enough textbooks for the numbers of pupils at the school. Would this be a very high priority direction of investment? We did not see children reading on their own, which might suggest no, but the reason we didn’t see them reading could be the lack of books for all, i.e. a vicious circle.

Electricity: Power is more expensive in Uganda than in the US (as are gasoline and other petroleum derivatives – gas is $1 per liter). Electricity is a prerequisite for teaching about modern technologies and applying those technologies. But the costs may be prohibitive for now, and the question of security remains for any electrical or electronic devices that may be brought in.

Student scholarships: There are currently some 27 scholarship students from Kasiisi and Kanyawara in secondary schools in and around Fort Portal. A year of day or boarding school costs between $150 and $500, plus costs for uniforms, books and other materials. Each scholarship student represents a shining hope for a family and a child. Possibly the best thing that could happen to a school like Kasiisi is to have a graduate succeed in a highly visible and remunerative fashion. Such cases elsewhere have galvanized entire communities to focus attention and resources on their schools, seeking to gain similar rewards. Placing money in scholarships could be the single most important kind of investment. Again, as with all forms of investment, only the members of the community, as represented by the School Committee, are in a position to make good decisions about whom and when and how much.

There are undoubtedly several more areas in which funds from any and all sources could be very usefully invested. We on the outside can provide funds and a certain amount of advice, but permanent progress can come only from the hearts, minds and efforts of the Ugandan people themselves. Our brief experience in Uganda has made us confident that her people are more than sufficiently capable and devoted to bring such progress. We hope we can be a part of it, and that we can enjoy and admire successful outcomes along with our new-found Ugandan friends and colleagues.


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