In northern Uganda, VSO volunteers are bringing communities together to drastically improve education.
Some say it takes a village to raise a child. This is certainly true in Karamoja, the most impoverished region of Uganda, plagued in recent years by insecurity and violence. It’s also been hit hard by drought and hunger, with the UN reporting in 2016 that fully half the region’s population were in dire need of food aid.
Some children, even today, are getting by on just one meal a day. For such children, and the others living in Karamoja, even getting to school can be a struggle - the road network in the area is poorly maintained, with some schools unreachable when there are very heavy rains.
It’s no wonder that many rural schools have so few children attending.
But some students won’t be stopped from fulfilling their potential, whatever the barriers.
Eighteen-year-old Stella Nagir knows just how difficult it can be to attend school in challenging circumstances. Stella was a star student until she became pregnant when she was just fourteen, prompting her to drop out of school.
Now, supported by her teacher and headteacher, Stella has returned. She’s received top marks and has won a bursary so she can attend secondary school. Now in her first year, Stella has big ambitions, saying “when I grow up I want to become a doctor.”
Despite success stories like Stella’s, however, teachers in Karamoja need more help and support. That’s where volunteers like Lisa Barrins from Ireland come in. She’s providing such support, helping the teachers as they seek to encourage the children to attend.
Lisa has also helped set up health clubs where children can learn about personal hygiene. These are led by the students themselves, who spread their knowledge to the wider community by performing songs and giving talks to their parents and others in their villages.
Volunteers have also run sessions with parents on a range of educational issues, including difficult topics such as the role of teachers in reducing child abuse.
There’s also an increased emphasis on getting women involved in the education of their children. In the past, mothers rarely went to parent-teacher meetings, with only fathers attending. But volunteers have encouraged mothers to attend, with many more now involved and contributing at the meetings.
Efforts are also underway to boost the confidence of female students, with pupil-led debating contests seeing the girls gradually becoming more outspoken during the debates. Many girls, like 12 year-old Monica Ayugi, pictured above, now take on the role of main speaker for their teams. She says “debating has removed fear. If a girl begins menstruating they can fear reporting it to anyone, but for me now, I don’t fear anything and I can tell anyone who can help me.”
In addition, teachers have received guidance and counselling training from volunteers like Lisa Barrins. That means students with personal problems or difficulties at home can now discuss such issues with adults who are now more qualified to help and can provide sympathetic advice.
Three years ago, Mojo Scovia dropped out of school and was at risk of early marriage. A donation from a VSO volunteer meant she could return to her studies, and she now attends school regularly.
“Three years ago I was sad because I was afraid I was going to be married early. Now I’m going to school and will become someone important,” says Mojo.
If it takes a village to raise a child, the villages across the Karamoja region are now much better equipped to do so. Students like Mojo here now have a much stronger support network, so that a family crisis or financial difficulty doesn’t mean the end of their education.
Volunteers are an incredible resource, who are making a vital contribution to the delivery of the sustainable development goals. They are also stepping up to question, to challenge, to hold decision makers to account for their actions.
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