Even education will not save the poor, so what will?

Friday January 24 2020

Benjamin Rukwengye

Benjamin Rukwengye 

By Benjamin Rukwengye

On an early November morning in 2009, four little children queued up to take their last Primary Leaving Exam (PLE). They had never met but one thing bound their fate – the individual dream that education would provide an escape from the poverty they were born into.

That morning, 513,219 other pupils also took the same exam. 513,219 individual dreams and ambitions, which were probably hoping to be realised a decade later, this week at Makerere University’s 70th graduation.

Of those 513,219 PLE candidates in 2009, only (should have put this in caps) 13,509, including two of those four, Grace and Moses, made it to Mak’s 70th graduation list, just 10 years later. If you throw in all the other universities, the total number of graduands might come to about 20,000. Everybody else? Unaccounted for.

How is it that in 10 years, nearly 99 per cent of a cohort can fall off the grid and it’s not business unusual? Using Uneb’s aggregated stats for PLE and Uganda Advanced Certificate of Edication (UACE) over the same period, you have up to five million children who have fallen off the grid. How is this acceptable? How is it not the scandal? The single most identifier for almost all of them – born into poor families.

It can be argued, of course, that the global population of graduates is about 6.7 per cent, so there should be no cause for alarm. But with focus on early childhood education, appropriate skilling, alternative education and a myriad of opportunities, it is easy to see why university education is not exactly a thing for elsewhere.

Here, it is. First, because nobody can track, with certainty, where those five million children are. That is nearly 11 per cent of the population – a big, dependent, poorly educated and unskilled population, and therefore, highly unproductive and with no purchasing power. A statistical liability.


Did you get the picture yet? Let me paint you a portrait of the consequences. That five million is most likely a girl. Sarah. Probably born out of Kampala. Definitely from a poor family. Her parents probably didn’t go to school.

Likely got married off or impregnated at 16. Is now raising a couple of children on her own. She is on the edge. May be it is a young man. Chris. He’s been in and out of police custody for petty theft, assault or for being idle and disorderly. Never really held a job, and not for lack of trying.

Maybe rides a boda boda. Will likely be arrested for schmoozing with an Opposition politician in the next election.

This, here, is the real blindside. Not the airheaded stories about imported gowns or broken air conditioners. You might even find reliable tailors and fundis among those five million children, but you will never reconstruct the stories and dreams of those who fell off the rails.

Education, especially for the impoverished, is deemed as the great enabler and equaliser, if done right. How, here, when the poorest who need it are the ones for whom its grip is loosened? When we can tell how many are sitting a national exam, but then can’t find them after. Like Abracadabra – now you see me, now you don’t. Except, these are real humans, with dreams.

Even for the 1 per cent, Moses and Grace who eventually squeeze through the eye of the needle, it gets harder. They now bear the burden of meeting societal responsibilities and creating opportunities, for themselves and for the other 99 per cent.

A simple scan of our demographic strata indicates that for the foreseeable future, primary and lower secondary school levels are where we are going to have the biggest segment of our population. Ironically, the two levels are also where we have the highest dropout rates. That’s where I would put my money – first, on retention and quality/skilling.

Grace and Moses just graduated. This year, they will try to find decent paying work. The stats say they will likely fail. Eventually, they will capitulate from the frustration and pressure, and store the degrees along with their dreams and ambitions. They will decide to try for opportunities in the mena, as security guards, on construction sites or as housemaids.

As they queue up at the airport, heading to Abu Dhabi for a cleaning and security guard gig, Sarah and Chris will be in the same queue. Graduate or dropout, their paths will eventually cross. Their destiny defined by poverty that a poor education system couldn’t offer an escape from.

Mr Rukwengye is the founder, Boundless Minds.