African Migrants Return Home to Develop Social Programs


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KAMPALA, UGANDA – After living in the United States for 15 years, Ayele Egbuson returned to Africa in 2005 determined to change Uganda’s education system.

Egbuson says a lack of programs for secondary school students is driving a host of social problems in her home country, including high rates of unemployment and teen pregnancy. So she returned to Uganda and founded Hope for Better Future in March 2006 to help students from underprivileged families continue their education past primary school.

Today, the organization sponsors 55 students, five of whom have made it to the university level.

“It is because of HBF that I am studying,” says Coretta Nakalembe, an HBF scholarship recipient. “Having education is the best gift one can receive from someone, so I must admit that I got the most expensive gift anyone should have received.”

Egbuson says she knows she is part of a growing phenomenon in which the African Diaspora – migrants of African descent living outside the continent – is returning home to initiate development projects. HBF focuses on what Egbuson saw as the greatest need in her community – helping underprivileged girls to attend secondary school. In Uganda, 63 percent of girls attend primary school, but just 7 percent go on to secondary school. Egbuson says she returned to Uganda to help girls receive a better education, but not just in academics. Egbuson is determined to help give girls the social skills they need to become leaders, too.

Uganda is one of the seven African countries that is actively engaged in the African Diaspora Program, an initiative launched by the World Bank in September 2007 that encourages migrants to give back to their home countries. Kofi Anani, a World Bank operations officer, says Africans choosing to return home hold positive development potential to help combat what he called the “brain drain,” referring to the skilled, educated and qualified human resources that frequently leave the continent.

According to the International Organization for Migration, an estimated 30,000 African professionals leave the continent each year. In Uganda, as many as 50 percent of all college-educated citizens live overseas, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. By comparison, the OECD reports that just 5 percent of skilled citizens from Brazil and India choose to take their skills abroad.

For Egbuson, the desire to return to Uganda was based on a drive to promote education. Uganda’s Universal Primary Education Act, which provides free primary education for up to four children per family, was passed in 1997, with a promise that a Universal Secondary Education Act would follow soon after. By 2005, when Egbuson returned to Uganda, it had not yet been created.

Two years later, a similar act that guaranteed secondary education for limited costs was made into law, but Egbuson says the system is flawed and still too expensive. School fees remain high and exceed the 4 cents per child per day that the government provides. Across Uganda, the inability to pay school fees accounts for 62 percent of dropouts, according to the Ministry of Education here. Pregnancy is the second-highest cause for dropout, according to the Ministry of Education. Uganda reports the fourth highest fertility rate, or number of children born to the same woman, in the world.

HBF aims to reduce these figures by paying school fees based on students’ financial needs. Egbuson says HBF also makes special provisions for girls. Because most school-aged girls are expected to do all the household chores and babysit, HBF ensures that its scholarship recipients are admitted to boarding schools so they can focus on their studies.

In all, 70 percent of HBF scholarships go to young women. Egbuson says she is tired of seeing families choose to educate sons while they force daughters to drop out or to marry young because of limited finances.

“Ever since I joined the organization, my entire life totally changed,” Nakalembe says. “They have given me a new life, and they made me realize my dreams.”

Egbuson says she has seen changes in the demeanors of the scholarship recipients.

“This exposure boosts their confidence,” she says. “In the beginning, many were not able to look at you in the eyes when you spoke to them. I empower them to see that hard work is important. I have seen changes in confidence, in who they are and how [they] express themselves.”

But Egbuson says academics alone are not enough. She says she is now working to build her own school, one that also prioritizes leadership skills and social consciousness, as opposed to the sole focus on memorization and examinations that she says defines the education system here.

But basic skills are also necessary here, as a recent report by the Uganda National Examinations Board revealed that 28 percent of primary school students, up to age 12, could read and tell time. Moreover the board reports that there are few opportunities to cultivate soft skills, like the ability to convey ideas and communicate effectively, which Egbuson says she saw emphasized in education in the United States.

“How do you make a young person think differently about their circumstance and background to inspire them to become better leaders?” Egbuson asks.

She thinks she has the answer. Egbuson says her school, which she hopes to open by 2013, will also teach social responsibility and leadership capacity alongside a strong focus on basic education skills.

“Once a vision is shared and disseminated to the locals, it is an enduring vision,” Egbuson says. “That is what I am merely trying to do. I am building a platform, and the process should continue.”