In the last few years, Uganda has won global acclamation for its progressive policies on refugees and choosing to open its borders despite its meagre resources.
The United Nations Secretary General António Gueterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Fillipo Grandi along with several other world leaders are among those that have made statements lauding Uganda and rallying the rest of the world to emulate its model.
It is no mean achievement for a small country like Uganda especially at a time when larger economies like UK, Germany and the United States are taking harsher stands to restrict immigrants fleeing war.
When civil war broke out in the neighbouring South Sudan in 2015, the unrest resulted into a huge humanitarian crisis which to date as left over 4 million people displaced.
Many of these fled south and poured into Uganda seeking protection and food. More than 800,000 South Sudanese refugees are currently hosted in the 15 settlements spread across the remote West Nile region.
In the districts of Arua and Koboko, the refugee population has in fact outnumbered the locals and inevitably, resources and services have been overwhelmed.
Locals share water and energy sources, schools and medical facilities as well as land with refugees but the 40,000 average monthly refugee arrivals necessitate expansion of such resources.
This is a big challenge to Uganda, a country struggling to provide quality basic services to its 40 million population but President Yoweri Museveni insists that his government will keep its doors open to refugees.
Since back home, the civil conflict has devastated every source of livelihood, the only hope that South Sudanese hang on for a promising future upon arrival in Uganda is education.
Of the 1.2 million refugee population, 59% are children below 18. Unfortunately, the schools and other learning facilities both within and outside the settlement camps can only offer much.
I visited Arua last month ahead of UN chief António Gueterres’ visit to the Imvepi refugee settlement which is now home to over 100,000 refugees.
At Inyau Primary School where Gueterres landed in a UN helicopter on a Thursday afternoon, pupils couldn’t attend classes because the security detail considered them a security threat, the school staff told me.
The UN Secretary General António Gueterres (in sky blue shirt) and Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda (in cap) listen to Alex Seme a South Sudanese refugee at Inyau Primary School
A day had been wasted in the school calendar and they would never redeem it.
But that wasn’t the only problem the small school was faced with. Earlier that same day, one of the UN choppers had blown off and destroyed part of a staff house while it landed.
Inyau Primary School, built by UN back in 2002 has a pupil population of 1,642, majority (1,050) of whom are refugees while the remaining 584 are nationals.
Despite this figure, the school only has two buildings that can’t adequately accommodate the learners nor can the negligible number of teachers effectively do their work.
Charles Draga, the headteacher told me; “the teacher to pupil ratio according to the Ministry of Education should be 1 to 55 but ours here is abnormally high. It is 1 teacher to 226 pupils.”
The school has only 9 teachers instead of 28, he said.
“The classrooms are not enough. As a result of the refugee influx, the classrooms are congested,” Draga added.
With the seven classrooms, the over 1,500 pupils have to compete over the limited desks which means that some of them resort to sitting down throughout the lessons. But there’s an even bigger problem – hunger.
Most of the pupils spend the entire day on empty stomachs and this takes a toll on their concentration in class. The refugees are the most affected.
Robert Ngota, 16, a Primary Seven (P.7) was among the people who fled Yei in South Sudan in March this year for fear of their life.
He says the situation was very tense at the time he and his step brother left Yei and that the Dinkas had begun killing his tribesmen.
Before the conflict erupted, Ngota was in Primary 8 in Yei which is the equivalent of P.7 in Uganda. He walks about 4 kilometres every morning to Inyau Primary School from Imvepi settlement camp where he lives.
When I asked him about life in school, he said; “In this school, I cannot get lunch. When it is time for lunch, I just sit and wait until it’s time to resume classes. I return to class and study until evening then go home.”
“I will be patient because I don’t have anything to do,” he told me.
He says the distance between the school and the camp is long and makes it difficult for him to run back home for lunch. For this same reason, often times he arrives late for morning classes.
Back in Imvepi camp, “the situation is good but the problem is lack of food. My brother and I receive 5 kilograms of posho and 16 cups (8 kilograms) of beans to take us for a month. This isn’t enough”, Ngota says.
Many of the child refugees, like Ngota struggle daily to cope with this situation of need both in the camp and at school.
The only advantage those studying from Longamere Primary School which is situated within Imvepi camp have, is that they have the window to rush to their shelters and eat something, in case it is there.
“Some of these pupils arrive at 9am in the morning yet classes begin at 8:30am due to the long distance ant it affects the learning,” Stephen Anguti, 51, a P.7 teacher of mathematics explained.
“Most of them go back home at lunch time because they have nothing to eat which leaves us with a few pupils for afternoon lessons. If you try to stop them, they look miserable and you just leave them to go. So, maybe the UN can help them in this area,” Anguti added.
He says the problem cut across refugees and nationals because some of the Ugandan pupils trek as long distances to school as the refugees. Some carry no lunch to school either.
This year, Inyau will have its pioneering P.7 class. The 55 pupils in Primary Seven are readying themselves to face off with thousands across the country. But do they stand a chance?
Both the head teacher and the teachers raised the concern about the lack of scholastic materials like textbooks for the learners.
Three of the pupils (refugees) I interacted with including Ngota disclosed to me that they had no books to write notes. Without such basic scholastic materials, his dream of becoming a mechanical engineer could be shuttered.
“We need a school that is only for refugees. Here it is mixed. The local pupils and refugees are not friendly. They keep fighting,” he narrated to me.
As a female learner, Stella Monday, 16, is confronted by problems similar to Ngota’s only that in addition, she requires sanitary pads for her menstrual periods.
While we sat down under the scotching sun chatting, she too narrated how she lacks a school uniform, books, a school bag and other materials required at school.
“Teachers and desks are not enough. At times we feel stigmatized because other pupils (nationals) tell us that this school isn’t for refugees. They say we should go to Longamere Primary School in the camp,” Monday whose dream is to become a teacher lamented.
At school, she says, the 746 girls use only one toilet stance while in the camp, they defecate in the bush.
But the education problems don’t stop at the learners. Teachers too are neither equipped nor motivated to carry out their duty and produce desirable results.
Samuel Abiti, who teaches Science and Mathematics at the same school, said teachers are forced to borrow chalk from neighbouring schools.
Ordinarily, Abiti would be an inspiration for pupils like Monday aspiring to be teachers but not under the current circumstances that the teachers or the school is in.
“In a school where you have P.7, there should be morning and evening preps. There are teachers living in the quarters but the accommodation is extremely poor, some structures are leaking. If a teacher fails to sleep at night, I don’t think he can present well in class,” Abiti revealed.
Inyau Primary School is a typical example of an ailing education system that requires government intervention in different aspects but the same government appears to be equally short of financial capability.
When Uganda hosted a global solidarity summit on refugees last month to solicit for USD 2bn in financial assistance to establish education and health facilities within refugee hosting areas, all hopes came crashing with barely quarter of the sum mobilized.
For now, those seeking refuge in Uganda have to make the best of the security in the country while government devises means of providing them with the other equally important services including education.