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The painful question of priorities

A decade after the end of Uganda's civil war, Brendan O'Malley reports on its new strategy for educating the rural poor. By supporting a semi-formal system the Ugandan government has displayed a refreshing realism about the obstacles to be overcome if literacy is to reach the rural poor who barely eke out a subsistence living.

But a visit with field workers from British-funded NGO ActionAid to Mubende District, where they are preparing to replicate the semi-formal scheme, revealed the difficulties the government will face if it sticks by its goal of targeting only children who have never been to school.

For the overall drop-out rate in Mubende, a district of half a million people, is 78 per cent, with 38 per cent of children dropping out after their first year and only 22 per cent reaching Primary 7. Most families we visited had children who had spent a year or more in school but had not returned, while others had never been to school. "[The fathers] have too many wives and too many children and their income does not match the spending required on school fees," explained ActionAid researcher Aaron Muwangaa.

Maria Nakibwke, for instance, has eight children aged seven to 20. A peasant farming family in Muwoko village, Kiyumi subcounty, they have relatively rich soil and make around Pounds 70 a year from the sale of matooke (savoury bananas), maize and groundnuts. But at the moment this has to be divided between health clinic bills, commodities such as soap and sugar, clothes and the cost of schooling, which starts at around Pounds 8 per child per term.

It is common here for men to have two or three wives and since Maria's husband, who lives with his second family in another village, lost his job as a health worker supporting lepers, she has not been able to send her four youngest children to school. At the moment they are helping her plant tobacco trees and prepare the land for groundnuts in the hope that she will be able to afford the fees for one or two to study. But if they go to school she will have less labour available for growing cash crops: a catch-22.

Similarly in nearby Kawu Muwa village, Thereza Mauramba, 40, has six children. Her husband lives in another village and has two more wives and 18 children in total. Her 14-year-old son dropped out at Primary 4, her 13-year-old may not be able to stay on, and her 10-year-old and six-year-old sons don't go to school because she can't afford it. Thereza would be willing to send them instead to the planned ActionAid-funded classes, which could cost less than Pounds 1 per term per pupil.

But a short walk down a dusty track, sitting on the floor of a mud-walled house, Katalina Nalukwabe explains that none of her brother's seven children, aged four to 15, goes to school any more. The eldest two used to go but their father did not care much about their education and was living in another home with another wife.

This poses a dilemma for the NGO and local headteachers - should children who dropped out be denied a place in a learning centre if the mother wants them to go but can no longer afford to send them to a formal school, or would that undermine the existing local education system? And should children whose parents have never tried to send them to school be given priority?

ActionAid has decided on a compromise. Its semi-formal scheme will include children who have dropped out "before acquiring permanent literacy and numeric skills".

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