When The Fields Become the Classroom: Transforming Education in Karamoja

Literacy rates in Uganda’s northeastern Karamoja region are some of the lowest in the country. To encourage parents to send their children to school, the government is coming up with innovative ways to provide access.

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MOROTO, KARAMOJA REGION, UGANDA — During World War II, British colonists governing Uganda at the time used pens to draft men into military service.

Some of those men never returned home.

Infuriated, leaders of the Karamojong community buried a pen to symbolize their refusal to allow colonial power to govern them.

Along with that refusal came a disdain for formal education – another practice that the Karamojong felt was a form of conscription.

Decades later, the same pen was ceremoniously unearthed to acknowledge that the community needed education. Even so, the majority of children in the Karamoja region, a vast area in northeastern Uganda with little infrastructure, don’t attend primary school. Just 2% of children in Kotido, the district where the pen was unearthed, attend secondary school, according to UNICEF data. The overall literacy rate for the region is 25%.

In 1998, the Ugandan government began a program called Alternative Basic Education for Karamoja (ABEK) to hold classes where children graze their family’s livestock and perform other tasks such as cooking and tending to younger siblings. Often, those classrooms are set up beneath trees.

The ABEK program has been partly successful, says Paul Oputa, the education officer for Moroto district on the eastern edge of the Karamoja region. Some parents send their children because the makeshift schools provide meals through the World Food Programme and others because the children can attend classes without neglecting their cattle-herding tasks.

Some children have gone on to university, Oputa says, noting that the district’s human resource officer and agricultural officer were both educated in the ABEK program.

Four years ago, a new initiative in which girls receive goats was launched as an incentive for those girls to attend school. Goats are considered a form of wealth in the Karamoja region. As long as their families recognize that the goats they’re raising will bring in money, the girls can take classes. When a goat reproduces, the kid is passed along to another girl.

So far, the program has given out 2,000 goats to girls, says Pamella Bella Nyamutoka Katooro, acting regional director in Africa for the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction, the development organization which implements the program.

But basic school supplies are scarce. Fred Angella, a parliamentarian for Moroto district, says children lack books and pens. And many parents don’t want to send their children to school even when they can, he says, adding that he’s an advocate of imprisoning parents who don’t ensure that their children receive an education.

“If they can afford to get money to buy beer, which is 5,000 shillings ($1.35), why can’t they give children 1,000 shillings (27 cents) for books?” he says.

Click here to read GPJ’s previous coverage from Uganda’s Karamoja region.


Photo Gallery: Education in Karamoja
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Christine Nangiro, 16, tends to her fledgling goat herd. She received two goats in 2017 from the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction. She now has seven goats in all. She sold one to pay for care for her sick father and to buy books, pens and other school supplies.

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Michael Lokopir teaches at Moroto KDA Primary School. One of Lokopir’s students, Henry Ongom, 9, stands beside Lokopir as he reads aloud.

To increase school enrollment, the government holds parents accountable. Joseph Oumo, Assistant Inspector of Police and Child and Family Protection Officer in Moroto district, says Christopher Dowan, 13, reported his father to the office in February for refusing to enroll him in school, despite his admission to Moroto High School. According to Lokopir, Dowan’s father had two wives and 14 children, and couldn’t afford to pay basic fees or for supplies. The father was advised on how to get a loan to pay for those basics. Now, Lokopir says, the boy is in school.

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Primary school children attend school in an outdoor classroom at Nachere Community School in Moroto District, near an area where their livestock graze. Lowal Korobe teaches the class from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. – hours when children typically herd their families’ animals.

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Children pore over their schoolwork in an area designated as an outdoor classroom. The Alternative Basic Education for Karamoja program was created to provide schools for children in areas where their families expect them to herd livestock. Here, children study while their animals graze nearby.

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Children at the Moroto Police Nursery and Primary School gather for porridge provided by the World Food Programme. Veronica Nangolere, a staff member, serves Logiele Steven, 4, and Olang Marcus Damian, 4. Many parents in the Karamoja region send their children to school because food is provided there.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct photo credits.