It is highly unlikely that one will find an adult Ugandan in their 30s who was driven to and back from school daily. Most of the 1980s and 90s school children walked to and from school and there were no qualms about it. It is realistic to say that as recent as the early 2000s, this was still the case even in the heart of Kampala.
Though walking to school is still the modus operandi in upcountry Uganda, this is not the case at all in the capital and other major towns. Today, urban parents are even forced to buy cars they would otherwise not buy because of this important chore.
Forced to buy a car
“When my daughter joined primary school, life changed. I was forced to buy a car. I wanted her to attend Lohana Academy in Kololo and I did not see how possible it was to move from Luzira and drop her to school by public means,” says Specioza Kawa, a marketing professional in Industrial Area, Kampala.
Like in the above case, the distance from home to a parent’s school of choice is often one of the major reasons parents have to endure such hectic routines.
Debbie Wule, drives her children for more than 20 kilometres each day, to and from school. She lives out of town and the two children, one in Primary Three and the other in Primary One, go to Kampala Parents School.
Even when the good school is not too far, or even when a matatu could suffice, many parents worry that something might happen on the way, like a road accident or kidnap. Worries about kidnaps are particularly more pronounced lately. Therefore, most parents have to endure this routine for at least seven years.
Create a Rota
To ease the burden, some families create a Rota by which they help each other to drop the children. This could be between husband and wife, neighbours or friends, especially with pickups.
Others involve the extended family too. Wule says, “My cousins, my husband and I alternate. When I am not doing field work outside town, I drop the children myself. But when the work gets hectic or I am away, my cousins chip in.”
The bigger the problem, it seems, the more we tend to work together as humans. The school run is one such problem.
Ronnie Habasa, who works with one of the FM stations in Kampala, says school runs are a necessary inconvenience. “Because of similar hustles, it is not uncommon to get calls from parents who live in the same neighbourhood requesting you to pick up their children. And although this can be a bit of an inconvenience, you have to oblige because you know it is only a matter of time before you need them to return the favour.”
The heavy expenses
Though many parents do the school run themselves, some are forced to pay through the nose on days they totally fail. The cost sometimes goes over and above just money.
“I leave home at 5am for my radio show. My wife normally drops our children to school. They get up at about 6am and have to be out of the house by 7:20am to make it to school before 8am. In cases where she cannot, like in this period when she has a newborn baby, I have had to pay someone to help me with the morning drop offs,” Habasa says.
He adds that on the days when he has other evening engagements, and cannot pick the children up, because the family has one car, his wife has no choice but to pick the children using alternative means such as Uber which can be a little costly.
But Kawa has it worse. “I pay an extra Shs600,000 per term for shuttle services. And that is the cheapest I could find. My job necessitates that I go to the field for several days every once in a while,” says Kawa.
She adds that though she rarely goes to the field, she has to pay the full amount for daily pickups. Asked why she does this, she says, “The reason I drop and pick my daughter sometimes is to create time to interact with her. Otherwise having just shuttle services is no different from having her in a boarding school. I pay for the shuttle because I can never forecast my work schedule.”
Why not boarding school?
Kawa says she can only think about boarding school at a much later stage. “Maybe when she is in Primary Four; at least at that age, I believe, she would have gained enough confidence to be able to look after herself.”
Like Kawa, most parents find it inappropriate to send little children to boarding school because they feel they will miss out on among others bonding time.
And so, they sacrifice everything, from a peace of mind, to a good night’s rest, to the last cent, just so they can hold onto their children for as long as possible.
“Boarding school!? Get behind me satan!” exclaims Habasa. “My ride back home with the children is the time I get to hear a lot about what’s happening in their lives. About 45 minutes to one hour of their captive audience. You get to hear all sorts of stories from “my teacher said this” to “this boy said that…”
“I’m able to correct or answer questions in real time. Sometimes you hear something like this boy loves so and so, and that is a good time to investigate a little more and find out what their perception of love is and I am able to throw in a quick lesson. What boarding school can fill that gap?”
This does not mean that there are no parents that find boarding school a viable option, especially because of unavoidable circumstances.
When Rayan Ntanda started Primary One, his mother had no choice but to send him to boarding school. She was working an 8am-5pm job and did not have enough time for school runs. “I sent him to Fountain Grammar in Mutungo where my friend had sent her child too. The children knew each other so I felt that boarding school would not be as torturous for him. I was wrong. At the beginning of school, he would cry and beg to stay home. By the time I changed him to a day school, he was doing really badly, so much so that he had to repeat Primary Two in the new school,” she says.
Children suffer most
But it is not just parents that suffer. Children could very well be the more aggrieved victims of school runs. Children are forced to wake up very early so that the parents can beat the traffic jam to drop them at school and still make it to work on time.
“Our wake up time in kindergarten was 5.45am or 6am. Now that they are older, we wake up 5.30am and we are out by 6am. However, waking up for the first one month was crazy for them. I try to balance this by making sure they sleep by 8pm to ensure they get sufficient sleep,” says Wule.
Sometimes, many children are made to stay at the office till very late when the parent works late. Kawa says she has no choice but to stay with her child at her workplace sometimes until 9pm.
“She gets to my place of work when tired. After tea, I seat her in the conference room and she starts doing homework. When she wants to sleep, I take her to the car, leave the windows rolled down then she sleeps. What hurts is that my girl suffers late nights and very early mornings. She is in Primary One, yet she has to be up by 5am and she does not go to bed until long after 9pm. I leave office late,” Kawa says.
Some children, especially those in lower classes are released at 3pm by the school, but they are not picked up until after 5pm. In worst case scenarios, parents arrive a lot later than 5pm because of different challenges. This can be quite torturous for a child as young as seven.
Habasa’s children are released by the school at 3pm and he is obligated to pick them before 5pm or else he faces a hefty fine. The paradox is that parents check out of work at 5pm but are expected to pick their children before 5pm. “How other parents do it, I am not too sure,” he says. “Luckily, my wife and I do not have regular 8-5 jobs.” He says he inevitably picks them up late sometimes and of course finds them hungry, tired and upset that they are the last to leave school.
It is no longer uncommon to see children doing their homework in matatus, late in the evenings in traffic jam. It is highly likely that in the circumstances, this homework will be poorly done because of not just the distractions on the road, but also because of exhaustion. By the time they finally go to bed, they have been tortured beyond their limit. The more fortunate ones do their homework in their parents’ offices.
Complications of the school run
Naturally, there are several problems associated with school runs. For instance, it is claimed that most of the morning and evening gridlocks on the roads are as a result of the school run. Parents rushing to schools cause the heavy traffic and get stuck in it. It gets ridiculously worse on opening and closing of school terms.
It is not inconceivable that this lazy way of going to school could be contributing to the increasing cases of obesity in children. And because schools are swamped by hundreds of vehicles dropping or picking children, driven by panicky parents, the risk of children being run over near their schools is much higher than in the past.
As it puns out, the school run is as painful as it is necessary. Dropping and picking a child from school demands more from the parent than boarding school and it is immensely more inconveniencing. However, parental love and responsible parenting necessitates that parents make painful sacrifices.
Tale of 9-year-old
Ntanda is now nine and in Primary 3 at Makindye Junior Academy. Although he prefers the day school to his former boarding school he hates the early mornings. “I hate to wake 6am because I am always too sleepy. My aunties who study at Makindye Secondary School have to drop me at my school before 7am when all my friends are not there. The distance to school is very short; I could do it myself. But they cannot let me. At 3pm, we are dismissed. But I have to stay around waiting for my aunties to come pick me after five,” Ntanda says he uses this waiting time to do his homework so that when he reaches home, he just watches TV and goes to bed by 8pm.
Aside from the children who have chronic illnesses, Dr Alex Kakoraki, a general physician at Murchison Bay hospital, says a child could develop respiratory complications such as cough, pneumonia and asthma due to much exposure to cold. This may not affect those who use vehicles but those who trek and use boda boda as a means of transport. “Less sleep may cause the child to have constant headaches and a psychiatric problem because the brain is being put to work for longer hours than it rests,” says Kakoraki.
The alternative choices
It is quite obvious that for many parents, the school run is an absolute necessity. The pain that comes with it is considered worth it and is endured with grace. But a time comes, for one reason or other, even the most well-intentioned parent will completely fail to do this important chore. At that point, a great alternative must be sought.
Partial boarding. Fortunately, some boarding schools in urban centers have started adjusting to cater for busy parents’ need to bond with their children. Today, some of these schools allow parents to pick their children from their boarding sections every weekend. They allow them to drop the children back to school on Monday morning. You will find such a school if you look closely enough.
Car pooling. This is becoming more common with parents who live in the same housing estate or neighbourhood. Many times it costs nothing (except time) because the parents take turns to do the school run for each other. This can come in handy for parents whose work takes them out of town every so often because in your absence, you will rest assured that your child has not missed school.