COVID Leaves a Ugandan School in Crisis

Above and below, the children of the Life School take a first trip outside the district and visit Kigali.

By Jesse Masai
Correspondent

Paul Natuhumuriza remembers growing up without electricity and plumbing in a mud-walled house in Kyempene, a village in rural southwestern Uganda.

At a tender age he showed academic promise. His parents ensured that he attended a nearby school with brutal tutors. He sat on floors smeared with cow dung in rooms without window shutters, furniture, or books.

In time he studied at Makerere University, and then served with a youth and children’s ministry in Kampala. He went on to earn a scholarship in the United Kingdom, where he spent two years studying while volunteering at an English school and doing outreach to prisons.

“I came face to face with a functioning and well-equipped education system, which by far confronted the troubled one under which I had been raised, including at Makerere. I felt compelled to return home and dedicate my life to teaching and empowering young leaders in Kyempene, 15 kilometers from Ntungamo, our nearest town,” he said.

Equipped with £400 he had saved while working at a warehouse, and donations of used football uniforms, he returned to Uganda with a grand plan for founding the Life School, aiming to form “a generation of young people whose heads are informed, whose hands are equipped, and whose hearts are transformed.”

Some residents thought he was not serious, because they were used to rote learning, an approach Natuhumuriza rejects. This led him to consider breaking the barrier by working with local churches.

“The first bricks were laid down by 60 volunteers from across East Africa in early 2011 on land donated by my dad, and the first photos of the school showed just a mere brick shell of two classrooms,” he said. “The first classroom block was completed in December 2011. That same month we also built a temporary wooden classroom block for our nursery section. In 2012, our first students started their education at the Life School.”

COVID-related shutdowns stalled construction at the Life School.

By March 2013, he had more than 200 students.

“In the summer, our football team embarked on their first regional tournament, performing well against much more established schools,” he said. “Construction began on four new classrooms by the end of 2013 to keep up with the rapidly rising demand for school places. We always wanted to accommodate students in need. In 2015, our very first primary class sat for its National Primary Leaving Exam, achieving the best results in our subcounty.”

Natuhumuriza adds: “We also gratefully received two huge new water tanks for our water-harvesting scheme, helping provide water for our students and staff. In order to improve income generation, we started a pig-rearing project, purchasing piglets and selling them at profit once matured. This helped us grow the school further.”

Fundraising helped purchase computers and to launch new programs focused on tailoring, music and the arts, acrobatics, leadership development, and road trips. The school also began offering Bible study during morning assemblies, discipleship classes, and worship services, including Sunday chapel.

“By 2020, we had our first secondary-school classes, with students learning in their own classroom block separate from the primary section,” Natuhumuriza said. “This meant that we could now provide high-quality education for local children from nursery to secondary levels. We attracted those who could pay fees to cover our expenses and boost our ability to absorb and support the poor. Soon, we became the best in national exams in Rushenyi County.”

Before COVID-19, he was living his dream of transforming the lives of Kyempene’s underprivileged. The project attracted visitors, including a secondary-school group from London in 2018 and volunteer groups from Youth for Christ Rwanda, who have visited every summer.

With the pandemic, however, his nine years of work — embodied in more than 750 students and several staff — came to a standstill, following government orders for all learning institutions to close for an eventual 22 months, the world’s longest pandemic school closure.

The shutdown has been devastating for Uganda’s 15 million students, and the country’s National Planning Authority estimates that 4.5 million of them will not return to classes, due to huge spikes in teen pregnancies and so many school-aged children entering the workforce to help support their families.

Schools like Natuhumuriza’s are also in crisis. When classes were allowed to resume on January 10, “our pit latrines and fence had collapsed, solar lighting systems had expired, and half of the teaching staff had left the profession,” he reported.

Roofing is required for classrooms in the primary section to accommodate more students and attract new teachers. The school needs funds to pay a huge water bill and to purchase new tanks. Fencing, solar lighting, textbooks and at least 10 computers are required for the secondary section.

“We are rebuilding from zero, including by securing new furniture and benches,” he said. “We are still understaffed, but getting better. We close on April 15, and hope to be stronger when we return for second term on May 2.”

Jesse Masai is a freelance journalist based in Limuru, Kenya. Those who wish to support Life School’s recovery can do so via its website, lifeschooluganda.weebly.com.

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