Education in Uganda: impressions of a first-year Peace Corps Volunteer

By Taylor Pangman
Jan. 30, 2023

Ugandan culture is refreshingly community oriented. Perhaps more than in the US, Ugandan teachers assume a familial role at their schools and in their communities.

My mother has taught third grade for years at a school outside Schenectady, New York, a rust-belt city upstate; my father taught fifth grade for some thirty years at a rural school in Schoharie County, NY; so, at an early age I was introduced to the American public school system. Before I entered preschool, I was playing with plastic cars on the floor of my mother’s classroom. My father took me along on fun school trips to see whales in Boston and stalactites and stalagmites in Howes Cavern, a well-known cave close to his school. Both of my parents actively facilitated, encouraged, and obsessed over my academic development and success.

In the United States, it is not uncommon for the children of teachers to become a part of the school community. In three months of beginning volunteer work at a primary school in Uganda, I have found that my Ugandan school also serves as a focal point for community activities. Children of teachers trickle onto the school grounds in the early morning, at the end of the day, and around mealtimes. Kids from everywhere, including surrounding schools and towns, flock to the school to see friends and neighbors. They play ball with older students and hide in bushes with younger students. They make discoveries by asking everyone questions. They are almost always laughing.

Ugandan culture is refreshingly community oriented. Perhaps more than in the US, Ugandan teachers assume a familial role at their schools and in their communities. At the start of the holiday break, a teacher from my school began an impromptu physical education lesson when several girls and boys from the village appeared on the compound. One of the students, a young girl who lives next door to her teacher, referred to him as kojja, a Luganda word for uncle.

During the school year, many teachers behave like aunts and uncles to all students. Near the end of last term, a Primary Two Literacy teacher at my school was preparing her students for stressful end of year examinations. One clever student, who was expected to perform well at his end of year exams, started arriving late and unprepared for class, perhaps a symptom of nerves. Finally, this teacher invoked her familiarity with his mother. “What would your mother think?” A favorite phrase of Ugandan and American teachers alike, it somehow carries more weight in Ugandan villages, where two people must go out of their way to avoid each other. It also conveys and expresses comfort. “I will support you, with the help of your mother, if that’s what it takes.”

Despite deep, enduring, and productive social and cultural habits, Ugandans face daunting educational challenges. Less than half of primary school students in Uganda advance to Primary Seven, the final primary school grade level, before secondary school. Of these, a little over half move on to secondary school. Excessive contributing factors exist, but scarce availability of resources at home plays a critical role. In public schools like mine, students must pay school fees to attend primary and secondary school. Unfortunately, families rarely have access to savings and have barriers generating surplus income, especially in villages and towns. Parents simply do not have enough money to buy their children reading books.

In January 2022, Uganda was one of the last school systems in Africa to open its doors after the global lockdown due to the COVID 19 pandemic. It was reported as the world’s longest school closure. The learning loss can only be described as massive. Virtual learning options were limited to the few elites with access to the requisite resources. Aside from this learning loss, the economic impact of COVID 19 on individuals, families, and communities in Uganda is yet to be fully quantified and understood. In addition to the impact of COVID 19, the hardships imposed by inflation and rising food and fuel prices have added insult to injury.

In the long term, we hope that the economic situation that prevents most parents from fully investing in the learning outcomes of their children will improve. In the meantime, parents may do well to supply written text of any kind at home and to maintain domestic environments that prioritize and emphasize academic success. Parents and families can also emphasize the importance of providing equal access to education to the girls in their households which is the single most critical factor in a number of health, economic, and life outcomes.

I spent the last day of the 2022 school year on the steps of the office reading with students of various ages. They took turns singing the rhymes and studying the pictures. Parents arrived intermittently and drove their children home on the backs of motorcycles. When rain came, the remaining students and I went inside an empty classroom and played banana grams, a scrabble-like game. The students took turns forming words in English and Luganda, their local language. By the end of the afternoon, they’d abandoned the rules of the game, and they simply formed whatever words, sounds, or letter jumbles sprang into their thoughts.

Term One of the approaching school-year is scheduled to begin on 6th February. I’m so looking forward to seeing them again.