Sunday March 2 2014

Is thematic curriculum a panacea or a gimmick to hoodwink the wananchi?

By Harold Acemah

As one who was educated in vernacular, I should naturally agree with Morris Komakech of Toronto whose article on thematic curriculum was published in the Daily Monitor of February 14 under the title, “Thematic curriculum is effective,” but unfortunately I don’t.

Like most African pupils during the colonial regime, I studied from P1 to P4 (1953-1956) using my mother tongue, Lugbara. Unlike today, we had many good textbooks in Lugbara.

English was the language of instruction from Primary Five onwards and since my father and mother were from the same ethnic group, there was no problem with regard to what constituted “mother tongue” but in my case, my wife is an Acholi who speaks Luo and consequently our children had to contend with two mother tongues.

Thousands of Ugandans in a similar situation have, like me, opted for English as “mother tongue” for their children and, I believe, it is a positive trend which will enhance nation-building in a multi-ethnic country.

Mr Komakech argues: “The basis for introducing the mother tongue in lower grade school emerged from scientific evidence from many years of studies by scholars and Unesco. Consistent evidence illustrated clearly that the overall quality of comprehension and articulation in scholarship are significantly enhanced when a child has mastery of the mother tongue.”

I agree with him that one’s intellect should not be measured by one’s ability to communicate in English, but there are people whose grammar and pronunciations are so gross that it must surely reflect intellectual mediocrity.

I respect Unesco whose work I was privileged to be associated with when I was in the diplomatic service, but their “scientific evidence” reminds me of some ideas which were more or less imposed on many African countries, including Uganda, during the 1980s and 1990s by the World Bank.

These ideas were translated into Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) and privatisation. SAPs literally sapped Uganda and much of Africa dry during its heyday and after the enormous damage it did to our people, the World Bank came round to admit that SAPs were one big mistake despite the bank’s good intentions towards Africans! The World Bank’s regrets have not undone the colossal damage which SAP did to Uganda and Africa.

On privatisation of public parastatal organisations, such as, Uganda Electricity Board (UEB), Uganda Development Corporation (UDC), Uganda Commercial Bank (UCB), Coffee Marketing Board (CMB), Apolo Hotel Corporation and many others, I believe that Uganda will never recover fully from the damage done by the sale, for peanuts, of these national assets!

What government of Uganda should have done is privatise management, not ownership!

With the benefit of hindsight, it is abundantly clear that privatisation of Uganda’s national assets, against wise counsel, was a tragedy of monumental proportions. One day Ugandans must reclaim their assets which were looted in broad daylight!

When the World Bank colluded with some willing accomplices in the government of Uganda to privatise most of our national assets, anybody who dared to challenge that reckless adventure was branded an economic saboteur, a traitor, backward, anti-development and many unspeakable adjectives. Water and the air we breathe were spared by the grace of God.

The World Bank is yet to make a formal apology to the millions of Africans who suffered, with bitterness, and even perished as a direct result of SAP; a few opportunists, however, reaped enormous benefits from privatisation and became millionaires and billionaires! Some of these men who sold Uganda’s silverware for peanuts are now preaching the gospel of patriotism. May the Lord have mercy!

Uganda’s experience with the World Bank and IMF makes me reluctant to accept Unesco’s prescription as gospel truth; if I must, I would take it with a pinch of salt.

With regard to thematic curriculum, what has intrigued me is why the political elite and policy makers of Uganda have not set a good example by sending their children to the UPE schools where this “new scientific idea” is being implemented! If it is true that children who learn in vernacular do wonders, how come none of the top schools in Kampala and elsewhere in central and western Uganda are using thematic curriculum? They all use English from kindergarten up to S6.

It is the height of hypocrisy for our political elite to insist on thematic curriculum as a panacea for Uganda’s poor academic performance at elementary school when they do not practice what they preach!

Before thematic curriculum was introduced, I consulted Mr F.X. Lubanga, then permanent secretary of Education, on the matter and expressed my misgivings about the proposal. Mr Lubanga empathised with me, but said it was too late to reverse a political directive!

Thematic curriculum is not a new concept; it was used during the colonial era and progressively phased out from mid-50s until around 1960 or 1961 when English became the language of instruction from Primary One. I am not convinced that reinventing thematic curriculum is a step in the right direction.

I fear that in a decade or so, the gap between the haves and have-nots in the contaminated moral environment of Uganda will widen at an accelerated pace if thematic curriculum is maintained. The gap between the north and south will become a rift valley. The political decision to impose thematic curriculum is a reflection of the on-going class struggle in Uganda.

Mr Acemah is a political scientist, consultant and a retired career diplomat.