Ten of Fred Ssegawa’s children may never go back to school.
Due to Uganda’s strict coronavirus containment measures, they have been unable to receive formal education since March 2020, and they have fallen into one of the longest school closures in the world.
The youngest two of his 12 children were too young at first.
Mr. Ssegawa-a 20-year teacher-was deprived of a meager income of about US$40 (£30) a month.
When he had a job, he worked hard to keep the children in school. Now that the 49-year-old has started to work full-time in agriculture, he has given up teaching. He wants to develop the small amount of land he owns.
He asked three children between the ages of 10 and 15 to work with him. Older people try their best to put together money.
President Yoweri Museveni insisted that continuing to close schools until enough adults are vaccinated is essential to ensure people’s safety.
It is true that the number of coronavirus cases and deaths is relatively low, but the experience of Mr. Ssegawa and his family shows that health measures have a wider impact.
I found him, his two daughters and one son, picking beans from the season’s harvest at their Luweero farm, located about 3 hours north of the capital Kampala.
They bent over and got up, picked the bean stalks and harvested them into a bundle, with sweat beading on their foreheads.
These beans are grown with corn and cassava-food for a family of 14 people.
“Some [of my children] At boarding school. They have never done this kind of farm work before. But in this case, they are forced to learn,” Mr. Ssegawa said, because the children rummaged in the weeds and picked beans.
When the school closed, his two older children, both boys, had been preparing for important exams. When they temporarily reopened for students to take the exam in October 2020, only one was able to return.
‘I would rather be in class’
It was 21-year-old Daniel who originally planned to go to college.
Instead, he now makes bricks for sale on the edge of the family’s land, digs up a huge anthill, mixes the soil, and then compacts it.
He and a cousin were covered with golden brown dirt from head to toe.
Although his dream of continuing education is now shattered, by selling each brick for 80 Ugandan shillings (US$0.02), Daniel hopes to support his younger siblings to go to school for a few more years.
But for now, his 16-year-old brother Paul spends time cutting tomatoes and onions at a thatched stall a few minutes’ walk from their home. He makes pancakes and omelet snacks, called “Rolex” here, and sells them.
“The pandemic has affected my studies. I have to work and pay my tuition. I don’t like this job. I would rather be in class,” he said, adding that he didn’t think he could make enough money to go back to work. When the school reopened.
Although public schools in Uganda do not charge fees, parents still need to pay for school uniforms and some basic materials, which some people cannot afford. In addition, in many rural areas, there are simply not enough teachers and classrooms to absorb all potential students.
Mr. Ssegawa said that watching his children struggle and made him feel heartache.
“At least I hope all my children can complete secondary school. But I think it’s impossible.
“I know the value of education. Nowadays, you can’t get a decent job without qualifications. I am sad to see my children like this,” said the former social studies and science teacher.
There are some courses on radio and television, newspapers and some schools provide printed materials, but they have not reached everyone yet.
A study by the Forum of African Women Educators in April found that out of the country’s 15 million schoolchildren, only more than half of them stopped their education altogether, with elementary school students being the hardest hit.
Wealthy Ugandans have been able to access online courses and tutors, but Mr. Ssegawa cannot.
“I heard on the radio that the government is producing learning materials for learners. But we didn’t get them,” he said.
“When I was pregnant, my life changed”
His niece, 17-year-old Madina Nalutaaya, lives a 30-minute drive from the village of Ssegawas.
She will not go back to school.
Before the lockdown, she was in the penultimate year of primary school. Now she is the mother of a two-month-old baby girl.
Her current situation seemed overwhelming, and it proved to be quite difficult for her to open her heart.
Looking down at the baby in her arms, she spoke very short sentences.
“When I was pregnant, my life changed. My child’s father ran away.”
The Uganda National Planning Agency estimated in August that 30% of the country’s learners will not return to school due to teenage pregnancy, early marriage and child labor.
The government’s health data show that from March when the school was first closed to September 2020, the number of pregnancy cases for girls aged 10-14 has more than quadrupled.
Uganda’s education system allows young mothers to return to school, but many mothers lack a support system at home or are unable to raise their babies.
“I have someone who can leave it to my children, but I can’t increase my tuition and money to meet my children’s needs,” Madina said.
The government has reopened the vaccination plan for students aged 18 and over and all teachers in January.
But the authorities may face a problem.
Some teachers, such as Mr. Ssegawa, who work in agriculture or other higher-paying jobs to support their families are unlikely to return to class.
Mr. Ssegawa himself does not see the future of teaching, and hopes that one day his farm can make some money for him.
According to the National Planning Bureau, school buildings are in dilapidated condition and approximately 4,300 schools may be closed due to financial problems.
Children will also be far behind their expected goals.
Officials suggested extending the school week and shortening the holidays to help make up for the lost time.
The Minister of Primary Education, Joyce Moriku Kaducu, said that her Ministry of Education is hiring more teachers and funding the school’s renovation project.
“The curriculum has also been revised so that we can get key content… [the pupils] Complete the education cycle within the specified time,” she added.
The impact of less education
It also plans to target children who are at high risk of dropping out or provide technical and vocational training as an alternative.
But there are long-term consequences that need to be addressed.
Dr. Ibrahim Kasirye, research director of the Center for Economic Policy Research at Makerere University, said that poor education reduces the chances of finding decent, high-paying jobs, making it harder to escape poverty.
“This may lead to an increase in the rate of juvenile crime because these young people must find a way to survive,” he told the BBC.
Returning to Mr. Ssegawa’s farm, he felt hopeless.
After the harvest of the day, he and the children rested in the shade of the tree. He said that when he thought of their future, his heart was broken.
He hopes to expand the free elementary education program in rural areas, but this may not happen soon.