An education to die for

9th August 1996 at 01:00
Forget food, they say. Education is the priority for Sudanese refugees scrambling across their border into northern Uganda. Hybrid primary and five self-help secondary schools are testament to their determination. Wendy Wallace visits one near the village of Koboko

Imagine pupils so keen to learn they walk up to 15 miles to school each morning, then cram into classes of 90, three to a desk. Imagine teachers dressed in ragged clothes, paid just enough to buy a few bars of soap, giving their all out of a sense of moral duty.

Welcome to Nyangilia Self Help Secondary School in Koboko County, northern Uganda. The eight teachers and 500-plus students are refugees from the merciless war in southern Sudan. The school, which the refugees opened in 1993 with help from the Ugandan government, is three miles outside the small town of Koboko, buried deep in the Ugandan bush and not far from the Sudanese border.

Most students come from camps at Adranga and Wajo; some lodge in town, others sleep on the ground under United Nations tarpaulins in a makeshift campsite behind the school. After classes, they cook their meagre ration of beans on open fires under the trees.

For more than 10 years, the fundamentalist Islamic regime in the capital Khartoum has waged war on the black African people of the vast river-crossed land that is southern Sudan. In the resulting diaspora, the people have fled and the education system in the south - always fragile - has collapsed. Meanwhile, a generation of southern Sudanese are growing up without education. A new survey by the All Africa Council of Churches, and Radda Barnen (Swedish Save the Children) estimates that fewer than 4,000 children are enrolled in secondary schools in east Africa - in Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, south Sudan and the Central African Republic. Three-quarters of these are in Uganda.

By this calculation, one-eighth is at Nyangilia Self Help Secondary School, Koboko County, motto "Work Hard for Progress". Staff here are painfully aware of their responsibility to the future of the south.

Headteacher Oliver Lowela, 52, sits in his small square office. There is no electricity, it smells slightly rank and giant wasps hover uncertainly at ceiling level. The diabetic Mr Lowela appears exhausted. The Ugandan government's constructive attitude to refugees has not extended to paying teachers.

"We are just giving voluntary service," he explains, sitting behind his rickety desk. "We have no salary. We charge the students 9,000 Ugandan shillings (UKPounds 6) per year, then we give this money for soap and salt to the teachers.

"We have no food. Students arrive hungry and go back the same. But we want to help our children. Without education, if there is peace, they will be meaningless to the nation."

The quality of education at the school appears to belie the desperate conditions. During The TES's visit, lean teachers give animated performances in front of packed classes, with serious academic work in progress. Discipline is strict, but students can be heard laughing en masse, and making contributions. This year, 28 will sit the Ugandan O-level. Last year, nine got through.

This disparity between the conditions and the apparent quality of the education is both unexpected and moving. "The students are committed, and that urges the teacher himself to put in more effort, even if there are not the materials around," says Mulai Cherubin, a 47-year-old maths and physics teacher.

Nyangilia is one of five "self-help" secondary schools set up by Sudanese refugees in northern Uganda. Some of the teachers have been boosted recently by in-service training sponsored by the British development agency Christian Aid. With money from the Irish government, Christian Aid's local partner, the New Sudan Council of Churches, arranged for 23 teachers to take part in a short course at a Ugandan teacher training college at Muni.

Some of the refugee staff, although qualified in their subjects, have no teacher training. At Muni, they were introduced to child psychology and teaching methods, and brushed up on the Ugandan curriculum. "Most were able to pick up very easily what we were giving them," says Dradria Ogono, deputy director of Muni National Teachers College. "Others had some difficulties. But the good thing was that constantly they kept asking questions about things they did not know."

Some Sudanese students at the self-help schools have fled not the bombings in the south but the dearth of educational opportunity there.

Josephine Sarabewe is one of only 65 girls. She walked more than 200 miles from Yambio in southern Sudan, with her sister, in search of a school. When asked why, she laughs incredulously. "If I stay like that, without school, I cannot get knowledge. My mother did not go to school. She used to dig and that is all. But I want to know more about the world. It is better to know."

The war in southern Sudan is partly for cultural survival - with education as a major battleground. Some schools still operate in the government-controlled towns of the south. But the medium of instruction is Arabic, and the curriculum an Islamic one. The de-culturation of the mainly Christian and animist people of the south is a prime aim of the Khartoum regime. A report from Amnesty International earlier this year describes southern children being abducted by militia groups, and forcibly taken to a Koranic school in western Sudan. "The school appears to be run as an armed camp. A number of children are reported to have been shot dead in April after trying to leave," says Amnesty.

In the rebel-held areas of the south, some 500 rudimentary primary schools are operating. But the two secondary schools run by the Sudanese Peoples' Liberation Movement are barely staffed or equipped. With the war still raging, education inside the south is very vulnerable.

The Ugandan government treats its refugees relatively well. The 300,000 Sudanese who have flocked into the north west of the country since 1993 are being given patches of land to grow their own food. There are no restrictions on movement or employment, as there are in neighbouring Kenya, and more than 1,000 Sudanese pupils are in Ugandan national secondary schools, paid for by UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) scholarships.

Still, education has not been a priority, admits Carlos Twesigomwe of the Ministry of Local Government. "We concentrated first on food and health, " he says. "Education is coming up now."

For the Sudanese though, education is a priority. "If you ask the refugees what they want," says Ndole Kwama, a 38-year-old Sudanese academic, "they name education first. Food comes as a second or third priority."

It's barely exaggerated. Sister Lolin, an American citizen who has lived 20 years in Uganda, works with the Jesuit Refugee Service in refugee education at primary level.

"I have been very moved," she says, "by the fact that as soon as a new settlement is established, the next morning people come to me saying 'sister we need a school'." The Sudanese have made considerable efforts to establish their own schools.

Most of the camps have a number of primary schools, even if some are little more than a barely-literate teacher sitting in the shade of a tree with his pupils. "Ninety per cent of the teachers are untrained," says Sister Lolin. "They are people who have some schooling and are willing to share what they have. But if they were badly taught, they do the same."

The Jesuit Refugee Service supports and trains primary teachers. Many of the volunteers, says Sister Lolin, "don't have a repertoire of methods, or know how to cater for individual differences. But you can also spot the ones who are natural teachers." How? "You observe them with a class, and everything in you reacts with a smile."

Most opposition groups now agree that peace in southern Sudan is likely to be achieved only through secession. The Sudanese Peoples' Liberation Movement, the main rebel grouping, recently held a conference in southern Sudan about the type of civil society they wish to create.

Central to their vision is the develop-ment of a curriculum for southern students, educated first in a British world view, then a Muslim one, now in a multiplicity of host country systems.

Ndole Kwama has been involved in the development of the new prototype curriculum. "We have to look to education as a unifying factor," he says. "If our people have all been trained under different programmes, it could be that when we go home education is going to divide us." Swahili is on the new curriculum, but so is Arabic. "There is no harm in the language," says Ndole Kwama. "Only in the literature that is published in Khartoum."

Central to the new curriculum will be a southern perspective on Sudan's history. Mr Kwama sees the lack, up till now, of a south-centred curriculum as one factor behind the war. "One of our weaknesses is that we haven't looked back into our history. We have to know what we fought this war for."

Donations to support Christian Aid's work with the teachers of Nyangilia can be sent to PO Box 100, London SE1 7RT

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