‘I’ll never go back’: Uganda’s schools at risk as teachers find new work during Covid

Many private schools may not reopen after staff laid off during lockdown say they will not return to the profession

The last message Mary Namitala received from the private school in which she taught was in March last year, the day all schools in Uganda were ordered close due to Covid-19. The message read: “No more payments until when schools open.”

“My husband and I decided to leave our rented house in town and shifted to the village, to our unfinished house. We could not afford to continue paying rent,” says Namitala, from her home in Bombo in central Uganda, about 20 miles north of the capital Kampala.

She had no choice but to find other sources of income.

“I have transitioned from teaching into farming and there’s a ready market for our produce,” she says, pointing to rows of tomato plants in her garden, and the chickens she is breeding. She has even rented an extra plot of land to grow more crops.

“I will not leave my business, which I started, to devote all my time to teach again,” she says, adding that other former colleagues have done the same.

About 40% of Uganda’s primary schools and 60% of its secondaries are private institutions, run by individuals, religious organisations, charities and businesses, with no help from the local authorities. Their main source of income is through school fees, which cover all running costs, including teachers’ salaries, which range from $100 to $250 (350,000 to 880,000 Ugandan shillings) a month.

Some private schools offer a high-quality education and good facilities, some are started as business ventures, purely to make money for the owners. But many others are opened and funded by families or villages in areas where government schools are overcrowded or too far away.

When schools closed, parents stopped paying, income dried up and most schools had to reduce or stop paying teachers’ salaries.

The government continued to pay the wages of state school teachers, but its promises to assist private school teachers have gone unfulfilled.

The Economic Policy Research Centre, a thinktank in Kampala, reported in May that 85% of private schools were not paying full teacher salaries due to financial challenges brought on by Covid-19.

Across sub-Saharan Africa, 50% of private school teachers (15% of the total number of teachers) saw a drop of 50% in salaries on average.

Like Namitala, many teachers in Uganda have found new careers, which threaten the future of private schools. Hundreds are being put up for sale due to pressures from banks to repay loans and disinterest from owners to reopen.

Robert Kimenya, headteacher at Green Galaxy nursery and primary school, near Kampala, says many of his teachers left because of Covid closures. “I have two teachers who have joined the army. Some have relocated to their villages. That means when we open, some schools will not get teachers, including government schools.”

George Wakirwaine was unable to support his family after his teaching salary stopped.
George Wakirwaine was unable to support his family after his teaching salary stopped. Photograph: Alon Mwesigwa

George Wakirwaine, 30, a teacher for seven years at a community school in Kampala, could not afford to keep his wife and two daughters in the city when his wages dried up. He sent them to his family’s village. His survival has largely depended on the goodwill of the parents whose children he taught. He also fetches water for homes in the neighbourhood for a small fee.

“I am looking for other ways to survive. It makes me sad that I have to leave this profession,” he says.

Some teachers have no plans to return to the profession.

“I will never go back [to teaching],” says one former teacher, who now runs a tailoring shop in Kampala. Another, who is also running a shop, says: “It’s not worth it. First, there is no money, and when you find yourself in such a situation [long closures], no help whatsoever.”

Nicholas Bwire, who leads the Mukono Private Teachers Association, a loose association of up to 500 private school teachers in Mukono district near Kampala, says: “It reached a point where teachers started begging parents to give them something to eat. They now call us beggars who go to them to beg what to eat.”

Racheal Namugaya, 30, a teacher at Global junior school in central Uganda, says she will not leave teaching, but she will keep her fresh food market stall running when schools reopen, as a cushion against future closures. She is among the lucky ones. Although her salary stopped, the school still provides her accommodation and occasionally food.

Teacher Racheal Namugaya and the market stall she started to support herself during Covid school closures.
Teacher Racheal Namugaya and the market stall she started to support herself during Covid school closures. Photograph: Alon Mwesigwa

But it is the market stall that has supported her. “I get what to eat, feed my child and provide medication, in case she is sick,” the mother of one says. “I got a loan from friends to start off. They trusted me. I have paid off the loan. The business is doing well.

“I will not close [my business] when schools open. I will get someone to help, but keep very much involved.”

For now, there is little chance of schools reopening, despite appeals from teachers’ unions and Unicef. The government is insisting teachers are vaccinated before returning to work. More than 80% of teachers have yet to receive their first dose. The government confirmed last week that schools will remain closed until January, continuing the disruption to education for 15 million children across the country. Universities are expected to reopen in November.

Education minister and first lady Janet Museveni called for patience, saying while “teachers in private schools have suffered … [the] government has chosen to let schools remain closed … to ensure that the lives of children remain safe from the danger that the Covid-19 pandemic brings”.

Namitala says Covid had taught teachers a big lesson. “We’re supposed to create other ways of survival.”

Contributor

Alon Mwesigwa in Bombo

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
There is support for Uganda’s private schools during the Covid pandemic | Letter
Letter: Within our own means, we are doing everything possible to assist, writes Janet K Museveni, the minister for education

Letters

06, Oct, 2021 @2:53 PM

Article image
Liberia turns to the private sector in controversial overhaul of failing schools
Companies and NGOs are set to take over 120 of Liberia’s primary schools under a pilot scheme aimed at raising standards, but not everyone approves

Nadene Ghouri in Monrovia

31, Aug, 2016 @12:31 PM

Article image
‘Lost generation’: education in quarter of countries at risk of collapse, study warns
Covid, climate breakdown, poverty and war threaten return to school after pandemic kept 1.5bn children out of classes

Lizzy Davies

06, Sep, 2021 @6:01 AM

Article image
UK urged to stop funding 'ineffective and unsustainable' Bridge schools
Civil society groups call on foreign donors not to fund Bridge International Academies, citing high fees, low pay and poor teaching methods

Rebecca Ratcliffe and Afua Hirsch

03, Aug, 2017 @11:00 AM

Article image
Zimbabwe teachers refuse to return to work over low pay and lack of sanitation
An acute shortage of sanitiser and clean water is putting pupils and school staff at risk, say unions

Nyasha Chingonoin Harare

05, Oct, 2020 @8:36 AM

Article image
West and central Africa's closed schools putting children at risk, Unicef warns
Only seven out of 24 countries have reopened classrooms with Covid-safe measures, leaving millions unable to access education

Kate Hodal

08, Oct, 2020 @8:38 AM

Article image
‘Their future could be destroyed’: the global struggle for schooling after Covid closures
Hundreds of millions of children fell behind around the world as schools closed during the pandemic. We look at four countries as pupils try to resume their education

06, Sep, 2021 @6:01 AM

Article image
Half of Zimbabweans fell into extreme poverty during Covid
Poor families cannot afford healthcare and schooling but good harvests offer some hope, World Bank finds

Nyasha Chingono in Harare

21, Jun, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
‘Money makes money’: Uganda’s Tarantino raises funds with rap
Wakaliwood’s Isaac Nabwana swapped directing shootouts to parody music videos to support rural projects hit by Covid-19

Tracy McVeigh

17, Jul, 2020 @5:30 AM

Article image
Free school meals a recipe for success for young learners in Liberia | Nadene Ghouri
As Liberia faces acute food insecurity, the work of a UK charity is encouraging school attendance by ensuring children do not have to learn on an empty stomach

Nadene Ghouri in Montserrado

27, Oct, 2016 @12:02 PM