St Benard School Manya shines on after catastrophic fire

Some of the students of St Bernard’s SS Manya leaving the school after they were instructed to return home. PHOTO | URN

What you need to know:

  • St Benard SS, Manya, had always been one of the best schools in Rakai District.  After the fire gutted a dormitory that left 10 students dead in November, 2018, the school has slowly but surely risen from the ashes.

In the wake of November 12, 2018, the school and residents of Manya, Rakai District were rushing up and down to rescue a number of Senior Three students who were locked in a dormitory that was on fire. The door was eventually brought down using an axe, and 40 out of 50 students were rescued, losing 10 to the fire. At least 30 students sustained injuries. To date, though suspects are still in police custody, the cause of the fire has never been known.

Boasting of a population of up to 930 students St Bernard’s Secondary School had a steady record of good academic performance even before the inferno, branded as one of the best schools in Rakai District.

Boosted by donor support from an Australia based NGO Cotton On Foundation, the school had a well-built infrastructure in form of classrooms, dormitories, staff accommodation, as well as a well stocked library and fully equipped computer and other science laboratories. 

The fire

“The fire outbreak intrigued everyone. The school is so much loved by the natives that it is one of the most popular schools. Even without a signpost anywhere other than at the entrance of the school, almost everyone in Rakai can easily tell its location” Geoffrey Alisenghawa, the headteacher of the school says.

It is alleged that suspects of the tragedy were Senior Four students who had been expelled from the school earlier. They had regrouped in the nearby trading centre from where they would trek to the school to do their Uganda Certificate of Education exams. It is believed that they locked the Senior Three dormitory with padlocks from outside and lit the dormitory with petrol.  

Minister of Education and Sports Janet Museveni and other officials visited the school after the catastrophe in 2018. PHOTO | COURTESY | SOFTPOWER

“They even sent information that they were going to burn the Senior Three dormitory, but no one treated it seriously. It remained a rumour,” Moses Ssekiyimba, a parent at the school, says.

Fires in recent incidences

A 2022 police report revealed that 17 schools, out of 40 that caught fire across the country between January 5, 2022 and June 27, 2022 were burnt deliberately. Four other fire incidents occurred out of sheer negligence and four were accidental and the rest were yet to be investigated.

Police believes that affected schools were boarding sections and were privately owned.

The report indicated that the fires were caused by criminal conduct of students trying to sețtle personal scores like reacting to disciplinary action by school administration or as a result of quarrels among students.

Police also cited the use of illegal electric equipment by students, unattended electrical appliances, careless handling of cooking materials, unsafe hot electrical metal welding, cutting and repair works as some of the causes.

Failure by the schools administration to implement basic requirements and minimum standards of the ministry of Education and Sports was also cited among the causes of fire in schools.

Instilling discipline

Alisenghawa, who has been at the helm of the school for the last four years, insists that the indiscipline at the school had reached its peak. 

“At the time of the fire, the school had 68 teachers of whom only eight were on the government payroll. Most of these private teachers would come, cover their subject content and go, leaving the management of the school in a few hands to man more than 930 students. The ratio and respect of the students to staff was so poor that it was not uncommon for a student to punch a staff member and leave scot-free,” he says.

Indiscipline, Alisenghawa says, was alleged to have been the major cause of the misfortune. It is alleged that prior to the fire, a certain group of students felt they were untouchable and their indiscipline would go unchecked. The school administration agreed with the key stakeholders to instill discipline in the students. When a student misbehaved and was expelled from the school, he or she lost the scholarship (if he or she was on one) and soon, students started behaving well.

Geoffrey Owor, the head of the disciplinary committee explains that prior to the debacle, committee members would preside over cases they had not investigated.

“In the new comittee format however, we created a position of a registrar, who receives cases and allocates them to a particular committee member to take statements from the students and investigate thoroughly before coming to a verdict. This has ensured that students get a feeling of a fair hearing,”Owor explains.

He adds that a policy of involving parents in the indiscipline cases of students has also been adopted. Whichever case, big or small, both the parent and student sign joint warnings. This has greatly curbed on the indiscipline in the school.

Restoring the school

Since the fire incident happened towards the end of third term, the school leadership saw it fit that the school opens on the general school calendar like others the following year. Cotton On, the Foundation that had wanted to rebuild the burnt dormitory with a new lacked enough time to execute the project since students had to report to the school for first term. The school, therefore decided to renovate the burnt dormitories.

“Apart from repairing the burnt dormitory, we also improved the security of all the dormitories by removing the burglar proof. We also introduced a two-door policy on all the dormitory rooms and replaced triple decker with double decker beds. Other safety measures include the installation of fire extinguishers and fire detectors in all the dormitory rooms to lower fire risks,” the head teacher explains.

Alisenghawa adds that the safety measures were extended to the entire school in addition to installing up to 20 CCTV cameras and security lights. These, he says, will enable them to have an eye on everything that happens in school as a counterattack in case of any attacks and fires.

we ought to know that the government issued stringent guidelines last year that must be followed by all schools, with the Ministry of Education, warning to punish those that will defy them.

Government directed all education institutions to activate safety and security committees for staff and learners whose major role is to draw up and oversee implementation of safety and security policy. 

Schools are also required to have guards at dormitories, preferably two per building, one at the front and one at the back, on a 12 hour shift.

Conduct regular and snap checks of the students possessions and key installations to be able to detect dangerous materials like match boxes, inflammables, acids and drugs.

Students should not sleep on the floor and provision of at least 02 emergency exits for each dormitory and more other guidelines.

Coping with the aftermath

By the start of the first term the following year(2019), the school was ready. However, one thing that was quickly manifested among the students was trauma. Something had to be done.

“We had to transfer the Senior Three students from their original dormitory to a different one. They said even passing by the classroom reminded them of their friends who died in the fire and they would get hallucinations. Some of the students were nursing a deadly spirit of revenge and planned to avenge their dead friends,” says Alisenghawa.

After registering a sizable number of students, the first thing on the agenda of the school was counseling. With support from their donor,  they managed to acquire the services of topnotch counsellors from Makerere University. A number of counselling sessions were scheduled weekly to h the teachers and students and slowly, the school community started accepting reality.

“External counselling was not sustainable due to the costs involved. We also needed someone on ground, who would be available anytime students needed one. We introduced family groups in the school, where each teacher was assigned a number of students to act as a father or mother, try to understand make friends and guide the students where necessary. Every Tuesday, teachers meet the students’ families. This has enabled students to trust their teachers and many a time, students have gone ahead to cinfide in them,” Alisenghawa explains.

Regaining the lost glory

The school is slowly reclaiming its position as one of the top schools in the Greater Masaka region. In academics, the school registered 29 First Grades in the 2021 UCE exams out of 109 students. In the Uganda Advanced certificate of Education, out of the 77 students, 63 registered two or more principal passes, the prerequisite for entrance to University in Uganda. Last year in UCE exams, the school registered 70 First Grades, as record performance in the school’s entire history.

In co-curricular activities, the school excels in volleyball, netball and football (the school reached up to the regional level in the three disciplines last year), not forgetting music and drama, where the school is a powerhouse. 

The school also encourages critical thinking through innovations, debates and essay writing. In 2021, one of the students at the school emerged third in the East African Federation Essay competition Awards. The awards are sought after by students from countries in the East African Federation. 

Among the many clubs at the school is the Junior Achievers Club, a skills-based and innovations club that looks at solving day to day problems. In 2021, the school emerged first runner-up in the National Junior Achievers schools competition, and won Junior Achievers National Schools Competition in 2022. They went to represent Uganda at the continental competitions in Abuja, Nigeria, where they won the Most Sustainable Project Award.