View from here - Job dearth blights pupil successes

15th January 2010 at 00:00
Employment levels are failing to match demand for Uganda's universal education, writes Luke Norman

"I am fine!" Wherever I have been in Uganda recently, this has been the unasked-for greeting from groups of smiling young people.

But nearly half a century after the British left what Winston Churchill described as the "pearl of Africa", what are the prospects for the country's children?

Education has often been hailed as the solution to Africa's problems, and perhaps nowhere has this message been listened to so closely as Uganda.

President Yoweri Museveni, now reaching his 24th year in power, was widely acclaimed for opting to introduce universal primary education in 1997, with secondary education following, to an extent, in 2007.

But having recently spent a term living and teaching in the south-west of the country, it concerns me that the system is still providing few answers.

I shared living quarters with a barman called William who, as one of a family of 10 children, had to drop out of school before reaching GCSE-equivalent level. "Universal education is a joke," he told me. "There is a whole generation of Ugandans who have got their qualifications and exams and who want to work in an office, but there are no jobs. Then they have their families relying on them to bring in an income that their education promises."

In Kabale district, the national sewage and water company is the biggest single employer, yet it pays the salary of no more than a couple of dozen people. There are almost no other big businesses in the entire region, so prospects for school-leavers are slight.

Some 80 per cent of the country's workers are subsistence farmers, yet the vocational route - whether into the building trade, tailoring or agriculture - seems as frowned upon as it is in the UK.

One institution trying to prepare students better for work is the Lake Bunyonyi Christian Community Vocational and Secondary School. On the side of a mountain, it has views over the lake, which looks like a Scottish loch but with sunshine, pinprick islands and volcanoes.

Its director Tumwijukye Patrick is a local hotelier who founded the school in 2007 because he wanted to give people applying for jobs at his island tourist camp the practical skills they needed.

In just two years, the school has flourished from its original 80 to the current 260 students. Nearly all are, by necessity, boarders, though many are excused from paying the school's tiny fees, which are barely enough to feed the pupils, let alone buy teaching equipment. High numbers have lost one, or both, of their parents.

The school's motto is "skills for sustainable development", something Mr Patrick feels strongly about. "We must give these kids a real go at life," he says.

Last January's enrolment for vocational courses saw 40 pupils apply for the one-year tourism and hotel management course, with just four interested in bricklaying and concrete practice, and four signing up for tailoring.

How optimistic you can be about pupils' careers depends on how badly you think the global recession will damage Uganda's tourism industry - but that is another question.

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