What you need to know:
- Community literacy in Stem and health enable critical thinking and empowers students.
Child marriages, teenage pregnancies, abuse at schools and lack of school fees keep many teens, especially girls, out of secondary schools. The Covid-19 pandemic saw children dropping out of school.
However, many Ugandans are coming up with ideas that will attract financial aid to help children. One of these is the Nile Explorer Bus, an initiative of the US Mission in Uganda, implemented in partnership with Open Space Centre. This enteprise extends extracurricular educational opportunities and possibilities to young people in underserved communities across districts in Uganda. Since its re-launch on November 5, 2021 in Kawempe Division, the bus has made 12 stops in seven districts including; Kampala, Wakiso, Mukono, Rakai, Sembabule, Gulu and Amolatar.
Wakibu Bunnya, the team leader at Open Space Centre, says the bus idea was birthed by the need to put the dreams of Ugandan youth in motion. They inspire children to stay in school, pursue further studies, and acquire skills necessary to live healthy and productive lives as well as become community leaders.
The initiative provides youth in underserved communities opportunities to engage in hands-on science, technology, engineering and math (Stem) activities. This is coupled with improving core computer skills; and equipping youth with the knowledge and confidence to stay healthy and to address public health challenges in their communities such as HIV/Aids, school-related gender-based violence(SRGBV), and malaria,” Bunnya shares.
Kevin Apio, a Senior Three student at Gulu Crested Crane College, says the Nile Explorer enabled him to learn how to use a computer and Internet.
“I have also learned to say ‘no’ and refuse engaging in sexual practices while still in school in order to protect myself against HIV/Aids and teenage pregnancy,” says Apio.
The Nile Explorer was launched in 2017 as a mobile library to promote literacy among Ugandan youth. However, upon relaunch, the bus’s first stop was in Kawempe Division at Mamtaz Secondary School which was part of the pre-selected schools obtained at the initiation of the project through a mapping exercise.
“Our target audience is students aged 13 to 19 years in vulnerable and underserved communities in districts across Uganda,” Bunnya shares.
The bus offers- health and Stem curricula. Stem component aims to inspire students to pursue innovation in their communities. It also gives participants a scientific understanding of the world around them. This enables critical thinking.
Arthur Ssozi, the Stem trainer, says during interactive learning activities, students use the scientific method and test hypotheses in a safe environment that allows them to fail and try again.
“Examples of experiments performed include constructing a tall tower from building blocks and building a small rocket using everyday objects. This allows students to build the confidence and resilience to embrace technology in their education and future professional lives,” he says.
He adds that students are also taught basic computing skills, such as how to create folders, save and delete documents, use the internet, and open up email addresses.
Eron Namirimu, a 17-year-old resident of Masulita Town in Wakiso District, dreams of becoming a lawyer. During the Stem training sessions, she made new discoveries.
“I learnt how to start a computer, and how to use Microsoft Office. I also learnt how to speak up when something is not right. Our trainers spoke about HIV/Aids and its dangers, and how we are supposed to handle the situation when a friend confides in you,” she says.
Namirimu also got more passionate about physics, engineering, and computer literacy.
“The activities involving connecting wires and voltages in the electromagnetic experiment, and even the computers were interesting,” she says.
With support through the US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar), Rehema Ssesimba, the health trainer, says the objective is to create awareness of health-related issues and reinforce messages of prevention in order to reduce their prevalence.
“Sessions on HIV/Aids debunk myths and misconceptions about the condition and provide up-to-date, age-appropriate information that reinforces students’ understanding of consent and HIV/Aids prevention. These sessions also cover teenage pregnancy and healthy decision-making,” Ssesimba explains.
Juliet Nabukenya,15, a resident of Rakai District, says the programme has reinforced her ideals concerning, especially young people, living with HIV/Aids in her community.
“Every problem has a solution. For example, in the Covid-19 lockdown, if a boy or girl found out they were HIV positive, they got worried and even considered suicide,” she says.
On the other hand, sessions on SRGBV are student-led through discussions and role plays and short skits relating to their communities on how to prevent GBV, and what to do if they face the vice,” she adds.
Namuwonge notes that evaluations indicate the sessions have had measurable impact on students’ understanding of such health issues.
“For example, prior to health sessions, only 30 per cent of students across six districts in Uganda reported finding it easy to refuse sexual advances at a young age or to refuse to have transactional sex. After the training, more than 60 per cent reported feeling confident in their ability to refuse sexual advances and transactional sex,” she says.
While the bus will move to other places, a network of volunteers in Stem and health conduct follow-up sessions in the respective schools.
“The sessions include creating student clubs to champion Stem and health issues in schools. They also engage in practical life skill sessions such as making liquid soap, sanitary pads, designing school health prevention messages and smart agriculture at home and at school,” Bunnya says.
Trainers get the opportunity to understand young people’s challenges that can affect their progress in school. That information is then used to create solutions for their communities.
Bunnya says the learning environment is unique to every community in the different districts in Uganda. Besides physical resources offered by the bus, the Nile Explorer offers digital versions of its curriculum and activities free of charge through its social media pages. These activities are designed for teachers, community leaders, health workers, and student leaders who wish to implement the Nile Explorers’ activities in their schools and communities.
In addition to its mobile activities, the Nile Explorer team has conducted a week-long student leadership retreat this month, bringing together 24 youth from previous stops. The goal is to support the development of future leaders across Uganda.
From each school, 30 students were selected as the sample number to take part in the Nile Explorer Bus activities. These then create clubs in their schools open to all students, which then become a platform for them to be ambassadors of the trainings.
Richard Ocen, the patron of the Stem and Health Club at Agwingiri Girls’ Secondary School in Amolatar, says in his community families cannot afford sanitary pads which prompts the girls to opt for transactional sex or even drop out of school because of lack of pads.
“ I like the liquid soap-making session, which is beneficial to the school, especially during this Covid-19 times and the enforcement of SOPs. The school and community need the soap,” Ocen says.
Meanwhile, Brenda Namuwonge, the monitoring and evaluation officer of the initiative, says after the training, 99 per cent of the students reported to have acquired basic computing knowledge after Stem sessions.