A Shared Responsibility:

Graduates Camp in Rural Uganda 'To Improve Learning'

Written by: Amos Desmond Wambi. Documentary Report by: Dan Ayebare. Film & Photography by: Richard Mugambe.

By the time Denise Mirembe graduated from Uganda’s premier Makerere University, her teaching career was cut and dry. She had interned at one of the best schools in the capital Kampala, and many others were courting her.

Mirembe would later settle for a high-end ‘international’ school in Gayaza, in Wakiso district, teaching Prose and Poetry, a paper in Uganda’s Advanced Level Literature in English curriculum.

International schools in Uganda symbolize the country’s education inequality and inadequacies. They run on the Cambridge International Curriculum–which is more practical and result-oriented compared to the national syllabus–and their cost makes them a reserve for affluent families. 

But for Mirembe, riding such a high horse “was not as fulfilling as I desired.”

“I was enjoying my teaching career. But given my background and upbringing, it occurred to me that there were many children, especially young girls from a background such as mine who needed assistance and inspiration to keep going,” she explains.

Mirembe was born and raised in Kashari in the rural Mbarara district of southwestern Uganda to a low-income family where education came at a struggle.

“My father was the sole breadwinner of our household, and all my mother would offer was to cook and clean. If both our parents were engaged in gainful employment, we would have been better as a family. This is why I am dedicated to ensuring that girls are in school and can compete for career opportunities like myself,” Mirembe narrates.

Denise Mirembe, a Teaching Fellow at St. Kizito Kanyabwiina Primary School in Buwaya Sub-county, Mayuge district speaks to teenagers about menstrual hygiene ahead of the sanitary towel-making training exercise PHOTO BY RICHARD MUGAMBE.   

Mirembe’s desire to get all disadvantaged girls in school is manifesting at St. Kizito Kanyabwina Primary School, in Buwaaya Sub County, in Mayuge district. It is one of the underperforming schools in the district. 

She moved to Kanyabwiina village in 2020 as part of a volunteer team of young professionals offering homeschooling to children during the Covid-19 lockdown.  

When Schools reopened in January 2022, Mirembe mooted creative ways to get all children back to class. One such way is the use of co-curricular activities, home visits, and skilling adolescent girls in menstrual hygiene and management as a response to the high dropouts in the village.

Her two close teenage learners Sylvia Ababyogera and Alice Byobona for example had abandoned school over scholastic materials. 

“I engaged the school administration  to give them a grace period. I then started crowdfunding among friends online who contributed and we got the girls back,” Mirembe explains. 

A new approach 

This pedagogical approach is not only new in Mayuge district, but alien to the national education training curriculum. 

Teaching Fellows Dinah Achola (Left) and Agnes Atala (Right) together with Fellowship Coach Denis Kinyera walk children to school in Kigandaalo village. PHOTO BY RICHARD MUGAMBE. 

Southeast of Mirembe’s location is  Kigandaalo Sub county. Agness Atala and Dinah Achola, graduates of Business Ethics and Business Computing respectively have served as classroom teachers at Kigandaalo Church of Uganda Primary School.

About 30 other young graduates are also resident in different community primary schools in the 12 sub-counties of Mayuge district.

They came at a time the district made headlines as the worst performing in the national Primary Leaving Examinations. 

“They have sensitized community members against marrying off girls at an early age and worked with us in creating solutions to challenges like hunger among learners among learners,” says Isiko David, the LC1 Chairperson, Kigandalo B zone.

Mayuge’s education and learning outcome challenges are cross-cutting according to Jalia Hellen Nabirye, the District Education Officer (DEO). 

Along the highway, which connects to the country’s eastern border town of Busia, truckloads of sugarcane are more visible than gardens of food.  With less food comes hunger and dejection among children, whereas sugar moguls are using the children and their parents for cheap labor on the plantations.  

“Feeding is a key ingredient if you are to have attainment levels in learning. And it should be for both teachers and learners … Some children are having one meal at their homes, this is affecting the children’s concentration levels,” says Jalia Hellen Nabirye, the District Education Officer (DEO).

Mayuge District Education Officer (DEO) Jalia Hellen Nabirye in her office at the district local government headquarters. PHOTO BY RICHARD MUGAMBE. 

Education inequality is not a reserve for Mayuge. 

While the introduction of  Universal Primary Education (UPE) in the country increased enrollment from 3.1 million in 1996 to 8.4 million by 2015(2021 figure), independent reports indicate that the quality of education has dropped especially in rural communities in East and Northern Uganda.

About 70% of children in rural and low-income community schools are not able to read and interpret a P.2 story according to Uwezo, a child education performance tracker.

These challenges start and stop with sector funding. In Mayuge, the teaching volunteers work against odds like infrastructure and inadequate staffing to pull children from the rock bottom.

“The teacher child-ration is 1:75 and that is the average of the entire district. But there are individual schools where one teacher is in charge of a full class which is up to 400 learners,” Jalia notes, adding that the district needs more 674 teachers to move from the current 1826 to 2500 to attain the nationally recommended 1 teacher for 50 learners. 

The district needs extra 23,700 desks, 137,515 textbooks and over 550 million shillings worth of salaries for the 674 required teachers, in order to meet national standard and reduce inequality in learning. 

Teaching Fellow Agnes Atala in her P2 class at Kigandalo Church of Uganda Primary School. The class has close to 152 learners. Photo by Richard Mugambe 

-A new dawn-

The volunteer teachers like Mirembe are part of the new special purpose agents of change in an all-round response model being pioneered by Teach for Uganda, a non profit organization currently operating in four other districts, including Namutumba, Mayuge in the East and Kayunga and Luwero in the Central region. 

Called Teaching Fellows, their role in these communities is to stitch together teachers, parents, the school, the community, and the local leadership to influence learning outcomes.

Teach for Uganda is part of the global network of 61 independent, partner organizations whose stated shared mission is to “expand educational opportunity around the world by increasing and accelerating the impact of social enterprises that are cultivating the leadership necessary for change.” 

The global system requires each partner to recruit and develop diverse graduates and professionals to exert leadership through a two-year commitments to teach in their nation’s community school system. 

In Uganda, their focus has been on the improvement of literacy and numeracy because it is the core stage of education attainment. 

Before they are recruited, the fellows undergo a rigorous selection process where they are assessed on; perseverance and resilience, critical thinking, mission alignment, leadership potential, and persuasive communication skills.

These aspects are key in persuading the community in fixing the major educational challenges and also gain community trust, according to David Moses Okello, the Operations officer Teach for Uganda. 

“We run a fellowship, which is teaching as a leadership program. We recruit graduates, finalists from different universities and we are able to train them on pedagogy and leadership. After the training, we place them in rural communities to lead in transforming learning outcomes, says Okello.  

The community then works with the organization to provide accommodation and support the volunteers to adapt to the environment they find. This is also a key element in strengthening their relationship.

The fellow’s pedagogical approach is centered on the organization’s rigorous training in leadership practices for the classroom such as lesson planning and delivery, classroom management, learner-centered methodologies of teaching, and community mobilization.

Kigandalo B Zone chairperson David Isiko shares with Solutions Now Africa reporter Dan Ayebare about the impact teaching fellows have created at Kigandalo Church of Uganda Primary School. PHOTO BY RICHARD MUGAMBE. 

At Kigandaalo, Atala’s Primary Two class is fun and engaging, and the children love it, thanks to the touch of fun and color to the lessons. 

However, she does not stop here. The routine involves cutting through lessons to meet parents whose children are dropping the ball. 

“Simple things like a hug mean a lot to children. They will work hard and be attentive in class in order to win it. Visiting parents is also critical in ensuring that they meet their obligation in the learning of a child,” Atala shares after reaching out to the parent of one of her learners. 

On these efforts, school has registered a spike in enrollment especially at the lower primary level because the children are finding the environment interesting.

At the upper primary class level, the number of girls returning to class after the pandemic have improved.

“We have seen the numbers increase and retention rate go high because; the dialogue we do at school with the girls around the importance of education. And also the follow up we do with the parents has been critical in pushing them to return their children to school,” says Dinah Achola, one of the Teach for Uganda fellows serving the community. 

The school population has risen from 1125 to over 1400 in the space of a year and half. 

Agnes Atala speaks to one of the parents of her P2 class learners. PHOTO BY RICHARD MUGAMBE. 

“They have helped us to fill in the staffing needs at the school because they are helping teacher to interact with things like technology to improve our output,” says Mary Frances Akello, the headteacher at Kigandalo Church of Uganda Primary School.

As part of her service to this community, Achola used her tech skills to launch an application that uses facial recognition of learners to track attendance and inform the administration and teachers in real time the children who are unable to attend school for a follow up. 

“We shall be able to have fluid student data available not only to schools but other external stakeholders like parents, local government officials and the Ministry of Education in real time … it is a one -stop center where participants in the education ecosystem are converging, to observe and take interest in their children’s learning processes,” she says.

For other challenges like feeding, the teaching fellows are growing vegetables and short-term crops in the school backyards as a quick fix to hunger. Even the children are getting involved in the activity. 

About the early dropout, a very common characteristic among girl children, according to the education authorities, the fellows have responded through weekly dialogues and engagements with the girls through the #GirlsNotBrides campaign. 

A child hits a gong using a stone, to signal to fellow learners the end of the day at  Kaluuba Primary School in Mayuge District. This gong serves as the school bell. PHOTO BY RICHARD MUGAMBE. 

“Teacher Mirembe has taught us that nothing comes cheap in life, and as girls, we need to be focused and work hard. I feel energized and encouraged,” says Alice Byobona, one of the girls who had dropped out of school. 

According to the district education officer, the model has helped to quick-fix the urgent schooling needs and also pushed teachers, parents and community members to take their responsibility to improve learning. 

“They have shown us that they can mobilize the community, put up enterprises in schools, and their relationship with the people has changed the attitude of the teachers in the schools where they are. If the Ministry of Education can copy what these people are doing, and we apply it in all schools, it can improve some of the challenges,”

In the end, a world where all girls and boys are in class and have a future of equal opportunities is a tedious task that each of us must undertake as a shared responsibility because, “we all have a part to play in building a literate generation for this country,” according to Mirembe.