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From Dreams to Destitution – the Price of Teaching in Uganda, by Harriette Athieno Onyalla

published 17 January 2006 updated 17 January 2006

Parched lips betray their sweet smiles. The three pale boys in tattered blue shorts and shirts, shove their little hands forward, eager for a handshake. Their innocent eyes glow with inquisitiveness. But the youngest boy will not move near the car just entered their compound. He is probably 5 years old. His brothers chuckle shyly. They hurry back to the tree shade where they have been playing. They look hungry. Their mother Grace Oluka sits in a smoke filled kitchen. The grass-thatched roof is coated with black soot. A two–roomed house a few meters away towers over the tiny kitchen. This is the home of a teacher in Bululu primary school, Kaberamaido district. 37-year-old Oluka adds wood into the traditional three-stone fireplace.

Her firm handshake reveals a woman who loves taking charge. Dressed in a wrinkled but neat long black skirt and flowery blouse, Grace's face creases in worry. She dreads rainfall. Yet it is one thing she should cherish. Because of her meager income as a teacher, she depends on the rains for food, so she can save every shilling she can spare to ensure that her eldest daughter reaches 'A' level."My roof leaks," she begins to say, then bites her lower lips quickly. Her hands move restlessly as if searching for something to hold. Embarrassment masks her face. For Oluka, rains mean sleepless nights. Her family doesn't own beds. They lay their sisal mattresses stuffed with cotton on the floor. Oluka is a widow."Rain floods my house. This year I will save for a bed so I don't move the boys to the kitchen when it rains. The kitchen is too small for my two elder daughters and me so we spend such nights on chairs with our legs in the chilly rainwater," she says, dejected. Teopista Birungi Mayanja, the General Secretary of the Uganda National Teachers' Union (UNATU) says Oluka's life is one many teachers in Uganda share."Issues of accommodation, the cost of living compared to earnings, a heavy workload because of increased enrolment due to Universal Primary Education (UPE), the teacher recruitment ceiling and the general work environment – it is saddening," she says. A study carried out by UNATU reveals that teachers are underpaid. They cannot meet their living costs. 71% of them spend their salary on feeding and educating children."Teachers are being increasingly disrespected in communities because poor pay forces them into debt. Many teachers are permanently indebted," the study reveals. The April 2005 study says this is a major contributory factor in high school drop out."The deteriorating relationship between teachers and communities prevents follow up of children who don't report to school or stops parents from discussing a child's problem with the teacher. This undermines efforts for achieving education for all," it says. For Charles Amuret, indebtedness is part of life."Teachers had borrowing power. That power is rapidly diminishing because of our level of indebtedness," he says. Amuret is the head teacher of Bululu Primary School. His school runs on debts due to UPE funds delay. 35% is for scholastic materials, 20% for co-curricular activities, 15% for management, 10% for administration and 20% for contingency. The last release was for October 2005, three months late. But teachers are expected to keep the schools running. It is the same with teachers' salaries. Amuret's dream to be a teacher budded in 1980. The stout man, sporting a potbelly was in primary seven when he met a man who changed his life. As he sat in Milton Opio's class the young Amuret was impressed by his teacher's dignified manner. Born in 1960, Amuret's journey of life has been one of gratitude however bad things get."That teacher became my icon. He used to carry himself around with such dignity. He was stern but treated us with dignity too. To me, everything about him was perfect. I wanted to be like him," he says, a fond smile lighting up his dark complexion. Seven years later, Amuret entered his first classroom as a teacher. He made sure to wear the type of shoes Opio wore back in his primary school days. He had achieved! Now sitting in his stuffy office with school textbooks cramped everywhere, Amuret is not sure whether to call his life an achievement. Not when he can hardly provide for his family, not when his children are dropping out of school because he cannot afford fees, not when university is out of reach for his children. It is another day. 1:00 pm. The sun is blazing. The old school buildings are deserted. It is early January. Children are on holidays. If it were school time, their laughter and shrill screams would be afloat in the air at this time. It is lunchtime. But now, the place is tranquil. This is also the time when there would be a long queue of pupils at the entrance of the pit latrines. These are shared with teachers. Some teachers would probably be trying to make their way past the children. The Christian Missionary Society founded this school in the 1940s. After Uganda's independence in 1962, government took over the school's management and put up one rectangular block of seven classrooms, the headmaster's office and a staff room. This block has never been renovated. Huge cracks on the walls worry Amuret. Following the setting of the Education for All campaign goals, the Ugandan government is among those that committed themselves to, among other things, ensure safe, healthy, inclusive and equitably resourced education environs in schools."It will not be a surprise when these structures will bury our children and teachers. I have raised this issue in vain. But when the walls collapse, we teachers will be arrested. For teachers, there is no way our voice can be heard. We are oppressed. When you point out an issue, you are branded anti-government," he says. The old block has neither windows nor doorframes. A new block of two classrooms was built in 2002 using School Facilitation Grant (SFG) funds. But substandard work has caused the floors and paint on its walls to peel off. The supposed staff room now houses a teacher. So, the school has no staff room. Teachers work under a tree. There is no library. The school's textbooks are kept i the headmaster's tiny office, which he shares with his deputy. The UNATU study shows that 51% of Uganda's teachers work in schools without staff rooms."The success of teaching depends on preparation and evaluation outside classroom assessment. Teachers need adequate room for preparation and storage. 59% of the available staff rooms are congested with no furniture," the report says."Sometimes we keep quiet but these problems bite so you can't hold your peace. The condition of teachers' accommodation is alarming in all schools in the district. We appreciate government efforts but there are crucial things that can make teachers happy" Amuret says. A father of nine, he says,"The salary doesn't favour the teacher. There is no way a teacher can save for personal investments. We barely afford basic needs," he says. The UNATU study further reveals that 69% of teachers don't do any other job except teaching."They survive on debts and handouts. They live as beggars," the study reports. And as they teach, their children cannot go to be taught. Amuret says,"Teachers resort to pseudo schools for their children's education, they can't afford good schools." Amuret's eldest son dropped out of school last year. His father says,"He got division one in PLE but I couldn't afford the school he was admitted to, so he went to a nearby school. When he sat Uganda Certificate of Education examinations, he got division one but I failed to raise the fees. He stayed home last year. He will join a vocational institute. I have no hope of getting money. I was banking on the Presidential pledge for teachers' pay rise but the raise was insignificant.""Government should consider teachers as useful parts of the system. It is a matter of being fair, knowing that we too are humans with needs and responsibilities." In 2005 more pupils passed PLE nationwide but fewer got distinctions. No pupil in Bululu primary school got a distinction or a division one. For this Education Minister Hon. Geraldine Namirembe Bitamazire lashes at teachers."Absenteeism of teachers and pupils remains high in rural areas. There is no optimal utilisation of time as stipulated in the school programme. These have negative effects on learning. Wastage of time must stop come 2006 school year," she warns. However, Mayanja says,"Government attributes the problem of failure of pupils to achieve acceptable competencies to lack of commitment of teachers as shown by rampant absenteeism. Societal expectations from the teacher in the provision of quality education are not realistic considering the amount of support given." Emmanuel Eunyu, the Local Council III chairperson of Bululu Sub county local government is particularly unhappy with the policy of automatic pupil promotion."It makes teachers useless since all children are supposed to be promoted whether they work hard in class or not. This is worsened by the issue of staff ceiling. However much the number of pupils increase, recruitment of teachers is restricted. All in all, teachers work and live under very poor conditions yet they are over worked," Eunyu says. President Yoweri Museveni recently said teachers' salaries will be raised this year. Hon. Bitamazire says,"15% of SFG funds is addressing housing. Teachers should be patient, soon or later all schools will be covered." And so Oluka waits. It is 5pm. A heavy downpour has forced them to crowd the kitchen. Because there is hardly space to move one's knee, the family has to wait to have their only meal of the day. Like the saying ‘No nation is better than its education and no education is better than its teachers', education in this nation is perhaps like the little boy groaning with hunger on Oluka's laps. His mother is a teacher…