As the schools were celebrating the previously released Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE) results, 26 candidates of Opolacen Primary School in Gulnam parish, Ogom Sub-county, Pader District of northern Uganda were among those waiting anxiously following delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Of the 26 candidates, none passed in Division One. Three were graded in second division, seven in Division III and IV while nine registered failures. This is a big contrast to the previous sitting of 2019 when the school celebrated 13 first grades.
“We could have done better but with coronavirus distraction, this was a decent performance,” head teacher, Alice Ataro Otto, says.
But this is a school where no one wants to teach. School officials do not remember any outstanding personality studying from there in the 57 years it has been in existence despite being a stone’s throw from the home of Aruu County MP Odonga Otto’s late father’s residence.
Isolated from the main road with a naturally levelled football pitch overlooking two iron-roofed blocks, Opolacen Primary School struggles to stand to be counted. Paradoxically, the school’s name is translated as “realise late” in Lugbara!
When pupils returned from the coronavirus lockdown before the second closure of schools in 2021, only 100 pupils resumed studies out of the 368 expected.
PTA chairperson Patrick Ogwang explains that most had dropped out, others moved with their parents to new areas while some girls were reported to have become pregnant.
“We are used to such cases. Covid-19 just made it worse,” Ogwang says.
The school established in 1964 only offers accommodation to the head teacher while other members of the teaching staff have to travel not less than 14 kilometres every day to come to work. Ataro, who was transferred from nearby Latanya, a journey of about two hours explains that life at Opolacen is the most intriguing she has had to deal with in the more than 20 years of her teaching career.
“Not many people are willing to work here. The school is so isolated and you have to struggle every day,” Ataro said in an interview.
Until 2008 when the Irish Aid through the GOAL Global project and Pader District constructed two classroom blocks with six classrooms, pupils were studying in grass-thatched classes. Yet until now, Primary Four classes are conducted under a giant tree shade in the compound. This is the same place teachers use as their staffroom.
“Teachers have decided to find accommodation near Pader Town and they have to walk or ride a bicycle to get to work every day,” says Ataro.
“And this is affecting their attendance a lot. You find that they normally have to return home at around 3:00pm.”
Almost the entire population in the area is dependent on international humanitarian relief, including access to education, food and health following years of the insurgency caused by warlord Joseph Kony. Opolacen Primary School’s entire infrastructure is centred on projects. This is a school focused on learning to cope.
“We give children the opportunity to get interested in learning. Our approach is to encourage as many children from the area to attend school,” says Ataro.
The staff, who are responsible for around 36 pupils each, also have to ensure there are tangible results and genuine development, as well as work with each student on ways to continue developing the learning journey. Though they do their best for the children, one of the biggest issues facing the school has been finding the right accommodation for teachers. Ataro is aware of how motivation is key to attracting and retaining teaching staff.
In 2019, the school embarked on a journey to construct two rooms in a bid to have decent staff quarters at the school.
The new building is as a result of the advocacy programme of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA). By partnering with local communities, community-based organisations, non-governmental organisations and local governments, ADRA is able to empower communities to be able to speak up on issues concerning service delivery.
Through such advocacy, ADRA initiated a parents’ meeting that resulted into creating awareness that led to community members to make bricks for the structure. The humanitarian body contributed 25 iron sheets and 33 bags of cement to start construction works on the teacher’s house. John Bosco Okwera, the chairperson of the management committee says parents contributed Shs10,000 each to meet the labour costs for constructing the new classroom block.
“Every parent was told about the importance of having decent accommodation for teachers and they worked as a unit to realise this dream,” Okwera says.
The building is at beam level awaiting roofing.
Ataro says it is essential for the teachers to have access to housing as close to the school as possible.
“This will still not be enough but it is a good start, especially that parents have embraced the work,” Ataro says. The school has eight enrolled teachers and two parent teachers.
“The new house will be used by the head teacher and the deputy. The other teachers will still be without accommodation,” she adds.
Yet Ataro singles out lack of meals as the biggest challenge facing the learners.
Studies have found that hungry children are more likely to come to school late, or miss it entirely because of illness, and more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. She explains that previously, parents used to contribute food that would be prepared at school. Each child was asked to bring 15kg of beans every term. But there were obvious challenges. Most times supplies would run out before the term ends yet the beans were not uniform bringing difficulty in cooking.
Through ADRA intervention, they have planted three school gardens in the community. Two have been planted with cassava and the other for beans. ADRA offered the cassava cuttings and quality bean seeds.
“We need to find a way of bringing children to school. There is no way we can have them at school while they are starving,” Ataro added, stressing that this is a common problem during the second term.
“This is when we experience the highest number of dropouts,” she says.
In July, the gardens were planted. But they expect very little to be harvested from the gardens because of the drought. The school feeding programme encourages children to stay at school. Our goal is to ensure that every child, everywhere, attends school and completes their education so they can fulfill their God-given potential. This is why we are empowering communities to have a strong school system,” Diana Balaba Sande, the advocacy and public relations officer at ADRA Uganda says.
The school is found in a low-lying area which is prone to flooding. Some of the learners stay at home when the swamp floods, exacerbating late coming and absenteeism of both teachers and pupils. The 2018 floods in the area destroyed many gardens including the school gardens.
The school is located on land measuring 270m by 210m and has also opened up some pieces behind the classroom blocks for simsim, groundnuts and bean gardens. Vegetables such as cabbage, eggplant and tomatoes have been planted in the compound.
In 2020, Covid-19 disrupted the plans, catching the school unaware. Recently, the school was affected by teenage pregnancies and a high number of dropouts.
The head teacher noted that two girls wrote their PLE papers while pregnant. The other had just delivered. For the first time, the Uganda National Examinations Board (Uneb) allowed pregnant students to sit for the final exams, following the coronavirus-induced break while allowing them an additional 40 minutes to complete their papers.
Ataro says the girls were always counselled by the senior woman. Unlike the girls, boys mainly drop out to go fishing on the tranquil River Agago. Boys normally help their fathers set up new beaver dam looking barriers (kek) in order to mark territories in which to trap fish during the dry seasons. Traditionally, along River Agago, men and their sons fish in groups.
A typical fishing group ranges between 50 to several hundred in both groups, creating a spectacular scene. Local fishing groups use traditional fishing baskets (ogwar in Acholi). The local name comes from the fact that the basket collects about anything in its way. Fishing is significant in buffering poverty and hunger.
Of course Opolacen is still recognisably a school. It has a well-maintained football pitch and on a normal day, the compound is full of children who are messy and noisy like children everywhere else.
Ataro’s plan for the future is to serve the local community in terms of empowerment. By working with ADRA, the school management committee partners with the district education committee to conduct radio shows by encouraging parents to keep children in school. The radio programmes are mainly discussions or in the form of drama and music.
“The approach has had far-reaching results as some parents keep learning a lot. We want to keep empowering them to make better decisions for their children,” Ataro says.
Ocira Labejja, the area LC1 chairman, says the children’s rights clubs at schools have helped create more sensitisation by motivating them.