Monday (February 2) was the official back to school day for primary and secondary students in Uganda. (My college students have already been in school for two weeks) Many students attend boarding schools, so this also means packing up and saying good bye to family for 3 months. The stationery stores have been very busy, as have taxis and buses shuttling children to various schools over the weekend.
Parents and children greet this time with mixed emotions. Education is highly valued here, and children are anxious to go to school. However, being away from family for 3 months is difficult, and parents worry about how to care for children from a distance. There are 3 or 4 litanies of prayer for schools and students in the Anglican youth service book called Come and Worship, and we prayed many of them on Sunday. The Anglican church (and other churches) have also played a key role in establishing schools for children. This diocese has at least 100 different schools under its umbrella.
The other challenge for families around this time are school fees. The Uganda government has promised to pay primary school fees for 4 children per family. Families are still large here, so this means that many, but not all children here have the opportunity to go to school until the end of primary school. Secondary schools, however, cost approximately 300, 000 -400,000 Shillings/term/student (including books, pencils, and associated fees) This is the equivalent of $200- $275 Cdn. A night watchman may make 70-80,000 shillings/month. So many Ugandans take 2 or 3 jobs to scrounge school fees for their many children.
Many children who cannot afford school fees will continue to work until they raise enough to afford fees. This means starting the term late and trying to catch up. Others may eventually drop out due to lack of funds. For better or worse, bank loans are not common place here. Some of my own students have not yet shown up for class. Their classmates tell me they are still working to raise money for school fees. Last week, I met a woman studying at Ankole Western who is one of nine children. She is working in the library part time, which pays for her food and accommodation, but is not enough to pay for school fees in addition to this.
This poses a difficult dilemma for us. We are supporting the development of Ankole Western, an institution that aims to provide affordable schooling, but this schooling is not accessible to many. The Ugandan government is trying to move away from individual sponsorships, as many people rely on this lottery approach and depend on outside money to get ahead. On the other hand, when I meet an intelligent young woman who is working diligently and still unable to pay her school fees, which total $100 a month, how do I respond??