Returning to school, Acholi style

written by Helen in early Feb 2023

I visited Acholi Quarters recently to catch up with the lovely friends there who play such a key part in my love of Uganda. Several of the usual group weren’t there, as they were out doing what they could to earn some extra money ahead of the start of the new academic year on Monday.

For several years now, various UK folk have been supporting some of the Acholi children to go to mainstream school. We have 20 that we support in total, ranging from a couple at the start of their academic journey through to one who is entering her final year at secondary school, and is the first person in her family to ever achieve this.

The way in which we support is that we pay 75% of the school fees for each child (or 100% if they are a total orphan). This level of support was as requested by Harriet and Miriam, the two Acholi ladies that I liaise with regarding all input that we give. Although we could give 100% to all, it was preferred that we only do 75%, so that each family has the opportunity, and responsibility, to raise the balance (or ‘top up’ as they call it). In so doing, the parents have the dignity of knowing that they are helping their children go to school, and there is also the responsibility of saving enough money during the months to ensure that they do actually have the top up ready to be paid at the start of term.

The parents are also responsible for paying for the ‘educational requirements’ that are needed for the child to be allowed to enter the classroom – uniform, school books, pens, shoes. Again, the reasoning for us not covering this cost is to encourage dignity and responsibility, and discourage a culture of dependency.

When I visited, I was chatting with some of the older children who are soon to return to school. At various points in the conversation, they were telling me with great pride what work they had found in order to get their ‘top up’. One did a waitressing job for the school vacation, another spent a few weeks selling water at the side of the road to passing cars and pedestrians. One helped his gran in the quarry with breaking up stones, another did some portering at the market. What was evident from all was how good they felt about having been able to raise their own funds, and not have to rely totally on charity. Some who had younger siblings (whether by birth or fostered) also raised enough to help their parents cover ‘top up’ for the younger ones. NB: Before you think that this is child labour, bear in mind that these children are all 15 / 16 year olds, and employment laws are very different here.

As is so often the case, I came away from Acholi Quarters with lots to think about. In this case one of the points of reflection was the effort that these young people put into being able to go back to school. For them, school is a privilege, not a right. For them, school is the way to get an education that means that they have more chance of getting good employment that will help them climb out of the poverty that has been their experience for all of their days so far. For them, they will do what it takes to be able to get to school each day – and I wish them well in it all.

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