Home > Eye on Africa > In Uganda’s Refugee Schools, Books and Pencils Are Few and Far Between

In Uganda’s Refugee Schools, Books and Pencils Are Few and Far Between

South Sudanese refugee children dance and sing before class on a dirt playing field at the Ombechi kindergarten in Uganda’s Bidi Bidi refugee settlement. The overcrowded settlement is struggling to provide education to a steady stream of refugees. (Ben Curtis/AP)
South Sudanese refugee children dance and sing before class on a dirt playing field at the Ombechi kindergarten in Uganda’s Bidi Bidi refugee settlement. The overcrowded settlement is struggling to provide education to a steady stream of refugees. (Ben Curtis/AP)

At this kindergarten on the edge of the world’s largest refugee camp, there are no notebooks. When it’s time to practice writing skills, children sit under a tree to doodle in the dirt while teachers use a blackboard.

“Maybe this term we will provide the books,” said Kevin Afura, who teaches at the school for 500 children operated by the aid group Save the Children. “They write on the ground.”

Schooling is the latest challenge in this overcrowded refugee settlement where basic facilities such as toilets are in short supply. This school’s only classroom is a tent in which dozens of kids swarm an overwhelmed teacher. She soon releases them to the playground, where they either swing and slide or simply go home.

One recent morning, parent Reida Yeno said the children, including her 4-year-old son, are falling behind in their studies: “They are just only playing.”

The sprawling Bidi Bidi refugee settlement in northern Uganda is home to more than 270,000 refugees from neighboring South Sudan’s civil war, most of them women and children. There is an urgent need to keep the thousands of children in school despite funding shortages that have slowed the pace of humanitarian work, including a reduction in food provided to some refugees.

This month the East African nation hosts a United Nations-backed summit at which it hopes to raise global awareness of the crisis. Ugandan authorities have said they need about $2 billion as thousands of South Sudanese continue to pour in.

In Bidi Bidi, the children often have to walk long distances to the nearest school in the roughly 89-square-mile settlement. Students are often absent, and some have dropped out.

At Ombechi Primary School, supported by Uganda’s government, head teacher Olega Drangu said some children attend in tattered clothes. Pencils and notebooks are few. Temporary classrooms have been battered by heavy winds.

Drangu said he hesitates to be as strict with refugee students as he might be toward locals. When a refugee child heads home at lunch break and doesn’t return for afternoon classes, he said, it’s probably because there was no food at home.

Nearly half of Ombechi Primary School’s 1,470 students are refugees from South Sudan, where tens of thousands have died in often ethnically targeted violence since December 2013. Hundreds of thousands of people have poured into Uganda in the past year, creating what has been called the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis.

Julius Ochen, the education settlement manager for aid group Windle Trust International in Uganda, said that so far 82 temporary schools have been set up in Bidi Bidi. But overcrowded classes are common. Some schools have only one teacher for every 200 students.

“We need quite a lot. We need permanent buildings, and the sanitation is not good,” he said.

Despite the challenges, some teachers report quick improvement in students who once couldn’t communicate in English.

“After one month they are better,” said Afura, the kindergarten teacher. “Now if you ask them, ‘How are you?’ they will know.”

The young refugees also know how to reply, though the word doesn’t reflect their bewildering new lives: “Fine.”

SOURCE: Associated Press