The ‘Kafunda effect’ on Uganda’s education

Author: Charles Onyango Obbo. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

These Ugandan peculiarities suggest that we need a franchise system of education

In the first part of this column last week, we argued that the appalling state of schools in Uganda – just like the squalid barracks housing for rank and file Police and Army in Uganda – is not 100 per cent a result of the NRM’s government incompetence, and the plague of corruption.

Other factors make this state failure worse than it should be. They are mainly political, in the case of the poor state of barracks. It’s a cynical policy that keeps the ordinary police and soldiers angry enough they are willing to unleash their frustration through extreme violence against what they see as “privileged” sections of society (e.g. university students, journalists, civil society that has grown fat on donor money, and an “elitist” opposition – e.g. Kizza Besigye lives in a nice house, with exquisite art hanging on the walls, and a nice garden). As cases in some African countries, South Africa, for example, have shown, a police officer or soldier with a house mortgage, a car loan, and a girlfriend with a thousand followers on Instagram, cannot be relied upon to brutalise protestors - or deal firmly with rebels.

This radicalisation-via-denial is applied less in education. Because the state is less vested in bad outcomes, the public education sector in Uganda can get its groove back, but it would require a very different role for the government.

But we would have to understand where we come from. Consider, for example, that Ugandans start going to clubs after midnight. Many visitors who come to the country find this club-going habit extremely strange.

One reason is that many Ugandans, including ministers, will first go to their local intimate “kafunda” (an informal or modest drink and meat-roasting joint) before heading out to an expensive club. The bufunda can sometimes be extremely modest. Often cost has nothing to do with it. Someone will go from a rundown kafunda, to a fancy club where he spends Sh1 million on drinks.

The kafunda has its roots in military ruler Idi Amin’s time, where abductions and disappearances of people were common, and scarcity was the order of the day. If someone was selling smuggled beer, they needed to be sure that none of the patrons was a government spya who would snitch on him. Then, they needed to be sure that no one would report the customers whose tongues were loosened by waragi and criticised the regime. Finally, people preferred to hang out with fellows who were close enough; they would report their abduction to friends and family, so the search for their bodies in the Namanve forest would begin if they didn’t appear after a week.

It was necessary for the kafunda to be  dingy so that it doesn’t attract “strangers” with its glamour and lights. The places where Ugandans felt safest were, therefore, the crampiest. The sporadic repression and lately abductions by security people in “drone” vans have only been a boon for the kafunda culture.

The fact that schools, where children are supposed to feel similarly safe and turned into precious leaders who will inherit the kingdom, are run down isn’t a sign of ONLY failure. It is also a symbol of a split national personality.

The above flows into another inconvenient fact: an overwhelming number of great schools in Uganda were started by missionaries and Asian business people, not the state. It had to do with the fact that, in the books, Uganda was a protectorate, not a conventional colony, and the intense competition for the hearts of the “natives” between European Protestants and Catholics through education.

Education was not something where the state was the main education provider until after Independence in 1962. The Milton Obote government became the first and last in Uganda to invest in a consequential and game-changing way in education. The view that the government was king of education took root between 1962 and 1971.

The Obote I government was so successful in education for ideological and historical reasons. It oversaw Independence, and the political elite that came to power were infused with a deep idea that they had to “build the nation”, create a new nationalist mindset, raise an intellectual army to craft an African future for the country, and show the colonialist we were not lesser human beings.

They did an excellent job of it. Subsequent governments have lacked that philosophical depth on education, nor necessarily been faced with a similar need.

These Ugandan peculiarities suggest that we need a franchise system of education. The government can own the buildings, but it should look to sub-contract for a good fee to a diverse range of institutions, individuals, religious organisations, and businesses to manage the schools and teaching infrastructure.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3