When I visited the Gentle Bells School in the Rift Valley, one class performed a choreographed rap for me. The students were energetic and excited about the message. It was a little hard to follow, but the refrain was easy: “Education, education, education!” And everywhere I went, the thirst for education, the motivation for learning, and the belief in its importance was strong. From the Kwa Watoto School in the Mathere slum, to the Gentle Bells School in the Rift Valley, to the campus of Uganda Christian University, I heard the same refrain. Education is the path to progress.
As an educator, this was an appealing notion. I too believe that education leads to all kinds of good things, so I set about trying to understand how education functions in these two African countries.
In Kenya I visited two schools with very few resources, serving children from poor homes, often from illiterate parents. The most striking aspect of these two schools was the dedicated, effective leadership. It reinforced my belief that school leadership is the key to effective schools in Kenya, Uganda and Massachusetts. It did not seem related to an overall education strategy, but to the presence of innovative leaders.
I saw school names posted along almost every road I travelled in Kenya, especially outside the city. The country is burgeoning with schools. In a place where there are many uneducated families, perhaps, just the presence of schools is a strong signal. Parents are willing to sacrifice much to send their children to school. However, I also know that there is probably much variation in the quality of these many schools. The fact that I was able to visit two outstanding schools, is probably not fully representative, although I hope it is. Nevertheless, the growth of an educated population is the most positive sign I witnessed in Kenya as well as Uganda.
My experience in Uganda was similar, although my view into the culture was from a different perspective. I visited a university campus, and was present at the graduation of 1688 degree candidates. I talked to people who were training teachers, who understood the history of education, and who saw the topic in a more global way.
The population statistics we heard in Uganda were stunning. 48% of the population is 14 or under. Only 2.5 % of the population is 65 and over. As an educator, that spoke to me of the need for schools, especially primary and secondary schools. As in Kenya, there were signs advertising schools on every road we travelled. Some schools are government sponsored. Many are private schools, run by various groups, including Christian and Muslim organizations, or even parents. Some are boarding schools; others are day schools.
What surprised me was that there were very few graduates of Uganda Christian University who were training to become teachers. The business and law schools were much more popular. It was explained to me that the pay for teachers was so low ($160 per month), that a teacher could not support a family with that profession. Government schools are overcrowded. Different people cited class sizes of 50 to 100 children to one teacher. Clearly, little education takes place in such a setting. Teaching is a profession that draws only the most dedicated individuals. Even with such conditions, some people give everything to be teachers. These were the kind of young graduates who earned an education degree.
Yet schools are everywhere. The enrollment at Uganda Christian University is booming. Of the graduates we saw, many were from families where the parents were illiterate Parents sacrifice much to pay tuition for their children.
The most encouraging development is not the number of schools, or the love of education. It is the fact that many young men and women are earning university degrees in order to go out to make their country better. Perhaps the education system is not working the way it should, but university graduates are individuals who will make sure it works for their own children.