Constant water supply encouraging learners in Karamoja to stay in school
“What KOICA has done for us is simply fantastic!”
There is a new wave of energy sweeping across the schools of Karamoja – Uganda’s semi-arid north-eastern sub region which is officially considered a ‘hardship area’. The provision of water in one hundred schools over the past five years by the Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) working with UNICEF is achieving what was considered almost impossible – making the Karimojongs enthusiastic about school.
To understand how near-miracle has worked, we called on Anthony Lam, the District Education Officer for Amudat, who is considered to have the harshest learning environment in terms of attitudes of the (nomadic) culture, lack of water and extremely low household incomes.
“What KOICA has done for us is simply fantastic!” Lam says unreservedly, and we ask him to elaborate.
“Just look around!” he starts. “Even by Karamoja standards, Amudat is the worst off by all the relevant indicators. Poverty is so much, malnutrition is acute and above all, water is very scarce. Without water, education is impossible. Getting a single first grade in the whole district is a cause for celebration. Drilling for water in most places was considered impossible. Since UNICEF and KOICA took up the matter two years ago, the transformation is unbelievable! Enrolment is shooting through the roof. Moreover, we now have to accommodate children attracted from outside like Sebei region and even from as far as Kenya!”
Setting off to confirm the DEO’s enthusiasm, this last matter of children from ‘outside Karamoja’ in Amudat schools first hit me at Pokot Secondary school. We arrived during break time and my ear picked a conversation between two teenage boys which was clearly in a language of the south western region of Uganda, here in the extreme north east. I greeted them in the same language and asked how come they are in Amudat.
It transpires that their parents figured out, like others are beginning to, that at less than a tenth of the cost, you can get your teenager educated at the same standards in Amudat as you can find in another government-aided school around Kampala. What is more – discipline is assured since sneaking out of the school campus is out of question, for insecurity still lurks in some parts of Karamoja. So the students concentrate on studies.
The learners in the school, like those in all schools covered by the water supply programme as smart and clean, actually cleaner than their counterparts in other parts of the country. And the explanation for this is simple – they have all the water they need and all the soap, which they make under the same water, sanitation and hygiene in school project by UNICEF with funding from KOICA.
The head teacher, Boniface Oculi, tells us that on his first assembly at the school in November 2019, there were only 54 students. There was gross indiscipline as the teachers had little control over students in a situation of no water which the learners had to collect from a river two kilometres away. Hygiene was horrible, teacher absenteeism was high and lack of menstrual hygiene ensured there were hardly any girls in the school. The COVID-19 closure that lasted almost two years soon followed.
The re-opening of school in early 2022 found the water system installed. 449 students enrolled – almost ten times more than the number at closing, and attendance has been constant at 100 per cent for both learners and teachers! Meals are now served on time which greatly boosts punctuality. And the meals are more balanced since with water and irrigation, the students now grow a variety of vegetables. And finally, the school got a candidate who passed with Division 1 in 2021 national examinations, something that had previously been unknown.
The head teacher is confident of the sustainability of the water supply system because the school sells water to the community and the money is kept strictly for maintenance of the water system.
Elsewhere in Kotido District, the head teacher of Kotido Army Primary School, Sam Lagura, is equally savouring in the bliss that the clean “KOICA-UNICEF” water has brought to the school. Here, there was a borehole that was only spewing very salty water which was “good for nothing”.
“Our problems ended when UNICEF and KOICA brought clean water that is piped,” he says. “Before that the children were very dirty simply because soap does not work in salty water. The teachers did not look much better. Meals were horribly cooked and always late, adversely affecting studies. But now we have moved to the other extreme because of abundant water, and meals are not only served on time, they are nutritious as we use irrigation to grow a variety of vegetables. We even sell some to the public. We are now planning how to deal with the new problem of so many children struggling to join the school.”
Similar enthusiasm abounds in other schools where the programme has been effected. At Orwamuge Primary School, we found girls whose confidence levels are palpable and seem to exceed even that of their counterparts in Kampala schools. There are actually more girls than boys, the gap being biggest in Primary Four with 73 girls to 42 boys. The girls’ confidence partly stems from the sudden change that the KOICA-UNICEF water brought a year or so ago. As Deputy Head Teacher Moses Ojok narrates, although the school had a borehole, the children used to ‘fight’ with the neighbouring community for the water. And of course the community always had the upper hand.
After the borehole was improved and a motorized solar powered system was installed, the school have their water piped to where it is needed most, in the girls’ washrooms and the kitchen. Then water for the community is also channelled where they get it without interfering with the serenity and activities of the school. The children feel liberated. Although their school is not yet fenced, the garden section has been fenced off, so the vegetables grown by the children to supplement their diet are safe from roaming goats and humans like.