When people ask me about Uganda, the first image that comes to my mind is always the pre-dawn drive along he road between Entebbe Airport and the capital city of Kampala. The smell of tropical Africa drifts through the open window, damp and warm, heavy with wood smoke, diesel exhaust, and the lingering scent of the night-blooming Darura. By the roadside, cooking fires and oil lamps illuminate families getting ready for the new day. Children are lit by the headlights, endless lines of children, walking along the verge. In a rainbow of uniforms, often barefoot, carrying books and lunch, they are on their way to school before it gets light.
This scenario is repeated every school day all across Uganda. Dustier and longer in rural areas, more polluted and congested in towns, these walks span up to 8 kin in each direction. It is an enchanting sight. Pink and green and blue shirts and dresses move in and out of the shadows but as the sun rises, it shines not only on the children but also on the biggest problem facing education in Uganda. Twelve year olds outnumber 16 year olds and there are twice as many 6 year olds as 10 year olds. As the children get taller, there are fewer and fewer girls.
Actual figures are contested, but everyone agrees that the school dropout rates in Uganda are enormous and that they disproportionally impact girls. In November 2012, Ugandan national newspaper, The New Vision, claimed that 70 percent of the primary school graduating class of 2012 had dropped out in the years since they began kindergarten.
There is some argument over whether "ghost" enrollments, children claimed by schools that were never enrolled, inflated this figure, but whatever the truth, for a government committed to the Millennium Goal of providing education for all by 2015, this is an enormous problem.
A Struggling Education System
Uganda is the youngest country in the world, with a population of almost 35 million, and 52 percent of its citizens under 15. For any nation, this is a huge proportion of its population to educate, and with the third highest birthrate in the world, the challenges for the Ugandan government are going to get more acute.
When Yoweri Museveni became president of Uganda in 1986, he took over a country wracked by two decades of war and civil strife. Every sector of the country was suffering. Fuel was rationed, the roads were appalling, and schools, underfunded, understaffed, and in terrible structural disrepair, had to wait their turn. It was almost a decade before the government was able to make major commitments to primary education.
My arrival in Uganda in 1987 coincided with that of the new Museveni government, and 10 years later, we both became involved in the schools around Kibale National Park. My initial focus was conservation and it was the introduction of Universal Primary Education in 1997 that brought me face to face with conditions in local schools.
Primary education was now free for the first time since independence in 1962. The resultant doubling in enrollment brought already-struggling schools almost to the breaking point. Parents fought to get an education for their children despite absent teachers, enormous classes, and infrastructure that was frankly terrifying.
Staggering under a tidal wave of new students, disintegrating classrooms, and unpaid staff, Kasiisi Primary School principal, Lydia Kasenene, asked for help and a partnership was born. The Kasiisi Project was forged, like many small NGOs in developing countries, from overwhelming need on one side, and an urgent imperative to do something on the other. We soon realized that our other concern, conservation, was powerfully linked to the state of education in local schools. Children with no education, lacking options, are more likely to turn to forest resources to make ends meet.
A Project Takes Off
The Mission of the Kasiisi Project, to "conserve Kibale National Park through programs that promote scholastic achievement, good health, and care for the environment," reflects our dual objectives. …