Magazine article New Internationalist

The Last Weapon: Refugees See Education as the Way, Possibly the Only Way, to a Better Future, and So They Are Prepared to Make Many Sacrifices to Ensure That Their Children Go to School

Magazine article New Internationalist

The Last Weapon: Refugees See Education as the Way, Possibly the Only Way, to a Better Future, and So They Are Prepared to Make Many Sacrifices to Ensure That Their Children Go to School

Article excerpt

EDUCATION is the burning issue,' says Jacob, a slight man with a long list of complaints. The crowd around him who have been listening quietly to speaker after speaker suddenly bursts into spontaneous applause.

The meeting has been organized so that I can hear what refugees in southern Ikafe want to tell me. Everywhere I go people speak of the importance of education. An education in English for their children is one of the main reasons people say they came to Uganda. Some of those who originally fled to Zaire even made a second long and arduous journey over the Ugandan border so that their children could learn in English - the Ugandan curriculum is taught in English - rather than French.

Children are our future,' says Johnson Mayen, deputy headteacher and an adviser to the Dinka people in Ikafe. 'We need to stay here so that they can continue their education. Education is our last weapon. Perhaps the only one we have left.'

I have not been to school myself,' admits Fatima Amelie. 'But I want my daughter Loyce to go. She is already attending nursery school. I want her to learn.'

People are understandably bitter about the things that prevented them from attending school in Southern Sudan:

Without education there can be no development,' stresses Moses Abure Daniel, headteacher at Imotong, a large primary school with over 1,000 pupils. 'In Sudan the war interrupted our children's education. This means that we will not have enough people to run our country when we finally get back on our feet. We will need teachers, doctors, lawyers and civil servants.'

In the Government - controlled areas of Sudan an escalating campaign of Islamization is depriving Christian children - and most Southern Sudanese are Christian - of the education that their parents want them to have. Even primary children are having to learn in Arabic. And now, the refugees tell me, if their children want to go to college back in Sudan, they have to pass an exam that includes not only Arabic but the study of the Qur'an.

I visit the school at Point M, behind Bidibidi, where the 11 classes ranged in front of blackboards sit with their pencils and exercise books. Some of the classrooms have grass roofs and no walls; the younger pupils are mainly being taught under trees.

This is a P7 class, the oldest group,' said Raymond Mule Kenyi, the headteacher. 'Normally they would be aged about 13. But some because of the years of schooling they've missed are much older, 16 or 17.'

Each class has about 40 children. The total register is 611 pupils but only 483 are attending the day I visit - 321 boys and 162 girls. A neatly marked black - board in Raymond's 'office' - a small grass - roofed hut - shows the roll call in each class for that day.

Attendance is low today, I'm told, because there has been no food distribution for a long time. 'The children are hungry and when they are hungry they can't study,' says Raymond sadly. 'There is also a problem because some of the children have no clothes - the ones they came with from Sudan are all worn out and not all have received second - hand garments. So the older ones in particular are ashamed to come to school naked.'

I had seen a number of children in other parts of the settlement, who, though not exactly 'naked', were wearing trousers which revealed all or most of their buttocks.

The scale of the operation is staggering. There are 40 primary schools in Ikafe, with 463 teachers and 14,750 students. Most buildings are just rough structures with no walls and straw roofs which mean the children have to be sent home when it rains.

The majority - 13,212 - are refugees. But there are also 1,538 Ugandans, proving that the rhetoric about integration and benefit to the existing community is not just a pipedream.

I visit one school at Okuyu in south Ikafe where the proportion of refugees to nationals is almost half and half. The teachers feel that the children benefit from working alongside each other. …

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