January 14, 2017
KAMPALA, UGANDA — Whenever Evas Kwarisiima, 13, speaks Runyankole, her native language, at school, she’s forced to lie down while a teacher beats her backside.
“I feel sad when that happens, and I cry,” says the primary seven student at Mbarara Mixed Primary School. “But I also know that I have broken the school rules, so I try to speak English, but sometimes I slip into Runyankole because [it] comes easily to my tongue.”
Such punishments occur because the school wants students to have a good understanding of English, especially as they prepare to be tested in the language, says Esau Gariyo, a teacher at Mbarara Mixed Primary School.
Lashings aren’t the only punishments meted out in Ugandan schools to students who speak a language other than English on school grounds.
“Some of the punishments served are wearing of dirty sacks or a bone of a dead animal around their necks, and sometimes the children are caned,” says David Prelwu, a math teacher at Kibale Primary School.
Such punishments have been illegal since March, says Joseph Ngobi, a senior communications officer in Uganda’s Ministry of Education. That’s when Uganda’s Parliament approved an amendment to the Children Act, which aims to protect youngsters from all forms of physical and emotional abuse. Among other changes, the amendment strengthens existing prohibitions of child labor; broadens children’s legal rights, including freedom of expression and the right to inheritance; and requires that doctors, teachers and others report child abuse.
“Punishing children for speaking the local languages at school will make them hate their local languages,” Ngobi says. “They will grow to despise them. In the long term, sometimes they will lose this part of their identity and will decide to communicate only in English, even when they become adults.”
But the ministry can’t enforce the law, Ngobi says. That’s the job of the police. Parents who are concerned about violence in schools should work with teachers, he says.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda
There are deep divisions among parents in Uganda over whether children should be punished for speaking their native languages.
Teddy Nabasumba, a mother of three, says she doesn’t support such punishments. Her 10-year-old son was once forced to wear a sack with foul contents for speaking Luganda, the language of most Ugandans.
“Wearing of sacks, which in most cases are dirty and [contain] the bones of a dead animal, could have a lasting psychological effect to a child, [more] than physical caning,” she says. “All punishments are terrible, and should stop.”
What’s more, she says, children are being humiliated for expressing their cultural identity.
“What message are the schools passing on our children — that our languages are inferior?” she asks.
But Peace Nankuda, a support staff member at Mbarara Mixed Primary School, says children should be punished for speaking languages other than English.
“How do you expect them to pass national exams, that are set in English, if we encouraged them to continue speaking their local languages, which they already speak at home?” she says. “At school they are preparing them to be future professionals, and only English can guarantee that.”
Katamba Maganja, whose children attend Stephen Jota Children’s Centre school, agrees.
“We send them to schools to learn English, and if they can’t abide by the school rules, then they should be punished,” Maganja says.
Some university officials question whether such punishments are effective.
“[Students] can’t freely express themselves at school in the local languages, and at the same time they are forced to despite it,” says Davina Kawuma, a Kampala International University administrator. “They see English as a language of torture, not a means of communication and professionalism. It becomes a complex situation.”
Still, punishments have broad support among some parents.
Lwazi Kizito, whose son attends Stephen Jota Children’s Centre school, says he supports punishments for children who speak local languages, within reason. Caning can actually kill a child, he notes, so alternatives should be used, such as forcing students to wear sacks with bones in them.
“It doesn’t cause physical harm, so it’s better than caning,” he says.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Luganda.