Left: vocational training students use their new tools, which they will be allowed to keep after completing the course
Pupils in a makeshift school in a camp. The Salvation Army has provided permanent facilities for these children
Children from the camps, like the boy at the front of this picture, often find it hard to settle in town schools because they can’t afford uniforms. One of The Salvation Army’s proposals includes providing school uniforms to aid integration
Ugandan Salvation Army officer Captain Davis Wafula (right) and Major Chuck Eyre (Canada) by a sign to the new training centre
Gordon Lewis speaks to teachers at a primary school for 1,000 children which now has a new home, pictured above left
Education – a very unusual response
by Gordon Lewis
In August 2004, UK Salvationist Gordon Lewis took part in a needs assessment in northern Uganda and then spent three months setting up the projects that were decided upon. He reveals here how The Salvation Army ended up putting into action a very unusual emergency response – but one that fulfilled the people’s greatest need.
There is no room here to delve into the causes of the conflict in Uganda – referred to by the United Nations as the ‘forgotten war’. Whatever the history, there is no doubt that hundreds of thousands of people have been forced from their homes by the war. Many of them now live in large camps, often in terrible conditions, and are caught between the hope that they will return home and the fear of what might happen if they do.
Emergency responses usually entail providing food or water or perhaps building houses but in Uganda there were other priorities.
According to The Salvation Army’s assessments, there was a considerable gap in the provision of education. It’s an unusual need in the world of disaster management but one which was very much a reality. Schooling had been almost totally neglected during the long periods of displacement experienced by many hundreds of thousands of people over the past 18 years. It is estimated that there are currently more people displaced in northern Uganda than in the more high-profile disaster in the Sudan.
From personal experience I could write about the many thousands of people I saw living in unbearable conditions and the misery I witnessed, but I would rather relate the positives and talk about what is being done to make those lives more bearable and even to secure a better future for some of them.
Within a few weeks of arrival in the town of Lira we were able to set up a project office which also doubled as living accommodation for me and a Ugandan Salvation Army officer, Captain Davis Wafula. We had also put together a series of proposals to support a primary school for up to 1,000 children in the municipality of Lira and the entire education system of Bala Camp – including learning centres that will cater for young adults who didn’t have the opportunity to go to school.
The camp is home to 18,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). About six weeks into the programme we were joined by two more Salvation Army officers, Captain Julian Rowley from the UK and Captain Yulia Savina from Russia.
Our proposals were a result of detailed conversations with teachers in all the local schools as well as with the camp leaders, who were very specific as to what they saw as their needs, now and for the future of their respective communities.
The response we were proposing was very complicated. It would have been much simpler to create a single-dimension solution and multiply that a number of times as funds allowed. However, this would not have addressed one of the most important issues – raising the people’s feeling of self-worth.
What we arrived at was a fairly wide range of measures, some building on the inadequate facilities already in place and some setting up forms of education that did not exist but were crucial to any positive future for these heavily disadvantaged people. The proposals were not only approved by the teachers and camp leadership, but were also officially seen and approved by the Lira District government leadership, a factor that is important in creating systems that will be sustainable in the longer term.
We were given some hard-won funds from the reserves held by the International Emergency Services section and later we received donations from individuals and Salvation Army groups.
Again, it would have been much easier to have worked out a plan of action based on our capabilities and the amount of funding in our possession, but we felt it was important to listen to the needs and desires of those we were there to serve. So we returned with our list of proposals and asked them what the priorities were, given that we could not do everything straight away. What we got from that was a discussed and agreed decision which impressed me in its thoughtfulness and the way it looked to the future of the most dispossessed and disadvantaged.
Within the existing primary school we were asked initially for some sanitary provision, as the 600 children and 32 teachers were having to use a single pit-latrine that you really did not wish to get close to. The school should have catered for 1,000 pupils but the parents of 400 were keeping their children away. We constructed a segregated seven-stance pit-latrine and a similarly segregated male and female urinal facility that may have been totally unacceptable in the United Kingdom and elsewhere but was a gift from Heaven for the teachers and children.
The teachers estimate that this step alone was responsible for up to 300 children returning to the school.
We were fortunate enough to be able to return later to ask about their next priority and, on 18 November, three months exactly from my arrival in Uganda, we were able to hand over to the headmaster a new semi-permanent structure of eight classrooms, each more than double the size of the previous rooms and built to withstand the tropical thunderstorms so prevalent in the area.
At Bala Camp, the first priority for the leaders was the creation of a vocational training facility. So from nothing but a dream and with very little relevant knowledge we set out to create something that might resemble a school. Just two-and-a-half months after we began the process we witnessed the first 33 of an intended 70 students – all affected by the conflict and with no other possibility of education – sitting down for the first time in their fully equipped classes to learn tailoring, carpentry and brick-laying.
All students were equipped with the tools to carry out their chosen profession, and they will keep these when they successfully complete their course. The school has a secure room to store equipment, six classrooms and a complete suite of sanitary buildings. The Salvation Army is committed to operating the school fully, including the employment of instructors, for a full year – including a complete nine-month course for 70 students.
The next choice of Bala Camp was to complete a kindergarten for 1,000 pre-school children. A structure had been started by the camp’s parents but could only be described as a collection of tree trunks. Again, just before I left Uganda we were able to view the completion of a complex of three classrooms, a similar structure for use by carers, a secure food storage building and the necessary sanitary facilities for the children and carers.
In all these situations it is important to recognise the most significant issue, which is people. In environments like northern Uganda it can be a surprise to discover how wide a range of people are affected by a long-running disaster. There were very few people I met in the entire Lira District who did not have a horrific tale about the impact the war had on them and their family, but perhaps the most surprising and significant for me was one I heard in my last few moments in Lira.
Most of the above construction, amazing in its speed and attention to detail, was made possible by an engineer called Ongole Simon. I got to know Ongole well and developed a huge admiration for him. He did far more than complete the work on time.
As we worked together on making dreams come true, I was aware that he was constantly improving and extending the specifications of the buildings we had requested. These were significant improvements that he never sought payment for. In short, he was contributing from his own pocket to the work of The Salvation Army.
It was only in our final moments together that I learned he lost his father in the early days of the war, killed brutally by the rebels, and that he himself had been abducted, escaping to freedom after two months. At least he was alive to tell the tale, unlike many thousands of others.
There is still so very much to be done, even parts of our original proposal, inadequate though it was. Furniture and uniforms are still to be provided, desperately needed health services have to be put in place, as well as the many other small proposals we hope will enable people to feel wanted and will allow a dispossessed people to work for their own future.
I know the need is still great. We have only been able to scratch the surface of the seemingly unending suffering and deprivation. And that is something I deeply regret.
Since Gordon returned from Uganda, Major Mike McKee (International Field Operations Officer, International Headquarters) visited the Salvation Army team now in place there. He gives this update about the work that has now been completed:
Profound changes have taken place in Bala and Kakoge Camps. Kakoge Camp has seen its learning centre expanded and vastly improved, giving students who had to study under trees a much more comfortable and productive place for learning. New latrines are making it much more comfortable for the students – and other camp residents – and the improved sanitation will greatly reduce the likelihood of disease.
Bala Camp has also seen dramatic improvements with the addition of new kindergarten classrooms, a new vocational training facility and new latrines. There is even new playground equipment, thanks to Justin and Nathan Rowley – sons of team member Captain Julian Rowley – who heard about the children in the camps and wanted to help their dad make a difference.
While the physical improvements at the camps are the most obvious change that’s been made, the most significant difference I saw was in the faces of the children playing on the new playground equipment and the students now using the new learning centres and vocational training facilities. There’s a certain gleam in their eyes. Their situation is still far from acceptable, but there’s a new sense of hope that things may finally be getting a little bit better.
Children attending classes in the learning centres feel a little more normal. Young adults enrolled in the vocational training programme can now see a faint glimmer of hope for their future as they learn skills that can help them support themselves and their families. Perhaps most importantly of all, they feel that someone obviously cares about them and their situation.