Re-Thinking Education in Uganda

Every time a new parliament swears in and it is time to vet their qualifications for presidential appointments – Government of Uganda (GoU) ministers, for example, consciousness of education qualifications is heightened. This is the case also leading up to or during election campaigns at all levels. However, a deeper analysis of what is considered education in Uganda often leaves one baffled - especially so when one reviews so-called development strategies and policies that are intended for the benefit of Ugandans. 

For most such strategies and policies the premise often originates from the assumption that Ugandans need to be mobilised and sensitised, as in we don’t know and that we need an outsider to make  us know. And so it goes that we have become expectant of what others can do for us – the nsamba govumenti entuyambe attitude. 

One cannot but attribute the source of it is government-to-help-us attitude to Uganda’s formal education system which as well has had significant impact on socialisation and nurturing practices outside of the formal classroom. We are socialised to expect others to do for us as opposed to self-help ourselves and to help others.

A re-think of our education, socialisation and nurturing practices is of urgent necessity. A good starting point is to adopt methodologies that instil in us the attitude of self-reliance. One such methodology that has had a proven good record in Asia and in Uganda is the self-reliant participatory development (SRPD) methodology. A version of the SRPD methodology was developed in the 1980s and popularised in Uganda by Stan Burkey.

Burkey’s version of the SRPD methodology is well described in his book: People First – A Guide to Self-Reliant Participatory Development. It is based on the writings of the Brazilian adult educator, Paulo Freire, particularly his publication “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. 

Uganda’s education, socialisation and nurturing practices and as manifested in the attitude of Uganda’s policies, so-called development strategies and programmes fit well in the category of what Freire described as input-oriented programmes. According to Freire, input-oriented programmes:

  • Tend to view people as objects, particularly those categorised as ‘the poor’ or ‘the beneficiaries’, and thus the originators and implementers of such programmes do not allow people to participate in helping themselves, but rather it is the service providers who ‘help’ the people. 

  • Nurture relationships of dependence and domination – the people become dependent on service providers, while the later dominate the former. 

  • Like an anaesthetic which blocks the sensation of pain (sometimes putting one to sleep), input oriented programmes distract people from the true causes of their suffering; since in the short-term, during the duration of the project, the service providers will give handouts to people that relieve their suffering, but the service providers often do not take the time to address the root causes of the suffering. Once the handouts stop the suffering returns and in some cases it is even worse than before the project started.

  • Deepen the self-depreciation of people. This comes as a result of the often derogatory manner in which people are regarded by input-oriented service providers, which leads people to further internalise the derogatory opinion that some with power have of them – consciously or sub-consciously. People start thinking of themselves as good for nothing, sick, lazy and unproductive beings needing handouts. 

  • Those in power are often quick to justify the reason for their not genuinely consulting the people by using the smoke screen of such assertions of: the people are backward, unlearned and are unfit to make their own decisions. Thus the people are told what is wrong with them and what they should do about it. Unfortunately, the people often internalise this derogatory view of themselves and they take on a defeatist attitude with which they put themselves down.

  • Can be instruments of manipulation – those with power misusing such programmes in order to manipulate people.

A big social problem in Uganda as whole is indeed that of a large proportion of the people live in apathy with feelings of helplessness with regards to their social, economic and political condition; usually becoming highly superstitious and believing that they are cursed. 

“I am just a simple village woman. There is nothing I can do to change the status quo”

“I am not well educated (formal education) and so I am incapable of being a leader.”

These are two examples of many put-me-down statements that many people in Uganda make in regards to themselves. Those who did not go through Uganda’s global-western-centric formal education or stopped at a lower level of that formal education despise their own capabilities and assume that those with global-western-centric formal education qualifications – certificate, diploma, degree - are more competent than they are. 

Worse still, some Ugandans with global-western-centric formal education qualifications actually believe that they are more competent than those with no or low global-western-centric formal education; a belief that is not always true. In some cases, in fact, the latter are more competent than the former. 

Global-western-centric educated Ugandans often fail to appreciate the abilities of the majority of Ugandans and, in some cases, they openly disrespect them and do not allow them room to utilise their skills and abilities. No wonder there is prevalent in Uganda a tendency among a significant section of Ugandans towards dependency thinking in which they believe that only the GoU and aid agencies can rescue them by developing their communities.

The solution to such a disturbing status quo, according to Freire, is that development assistance should be directed at helping people to become consciously aware and that this should be done through education programmes that promote critical awareness; this is indeed the essence of Burkey’s SRPD methodology. Such critical awareness promotion programmes if well designed and implemented would enable people to:

  • Analyse their own attitudes and behaviour – to awaken to what they themselves are doing that is affecting their development or keeping them in poverty. For example, their willingness to trade their political power for grams of salt or a piece of soap; or the attitude that they hold of themselves of thinking only witchcraft can redeem them.

  • Analyse their physical, social, political environment in order to determine the causes of poverty in their community – root causes and secondary causes. What are their priorities? Which priorities are development friendly and which are not? What can they do to begin their own development processes? Analysis that leads to answers to such questions facilitates the attainment of critical awareness.
     
  • Identify the real causes of their poverty so that they may positively change their attitudes and behaviour towards development and formulate their own concrete and practical solutions to their problems.

Burkey’s SRPD methodology asserts that critically aware people will realise that they must join together to fight poverty. This assertion can be demonstrated using a house as an analogy. The foundation of Burkey’s ‘SRPD House’ is the conviction that all development rests on human development. Human development is a process in which individuals become critically aware. They develop self-respect, self-confidence, tolerance and determination. They become innovative and enterprising. They develop skills of cooperation. 

Human development can be achieved through helping individuals to become aware of the costs of their misdirected priorities and of their opportunities for self-improvement - to develop skills and acquire knowledge, to eliminate their dependency thinking and to learn the skills of cooperation. Once individuals attain their own human development, they inevitably take interest in and become engaged in economic and political development processes. 

Within Burkey’s ‘SRPD House’ economic and political development are the walls, they are the pillars, which hold development together and without which the roof of Burkey’s ‘SRPD House’ – social development - cannot be sustained. Social development, as referred to here, is  the process in which a community or a nation mobilises resources through taxation and manages its resources through its political structures that are required to sustain social services - education, health, transport, communication, water -  for its citizens.

In essence, Burkey’s SRPD methodology puts people at the centre of development. Its central thesis is that the measure for development should be whether or not a society, a people, is being itself; this is when decision-making power – political, economic and cultural – is located within the people themselves. This means that the participation of people in all aspects of their community or nation is the true form of democracy – they contribute to economic, social and political development in their community. 

Development, therefore, should work towards strengthening a collective personality of a community in which men and women within a family, group or nation freely and richly express themselves. The ultimate goal of development, according to Burkey’s SRPD methodology, should be the growth of an individual within the context of his or her fellowship (family, development group, clan, village and nation) – measured by how development initiatives impact positively or negatively on the individuals within a unit. This is as opposed, for example, to measuring development in terms of infrastructure or physical structures.

Meaning that Burkey’s SRPD methodology is concerned with the question: What is the impact of human, economic, social, political and physical structures on an individual within his or her fellowship and consequently on the collective community fellowship? 

The individual should feel at home with the process of development in which he or she should be both the beneficiary of the intervention and at the same time be the one who is actively engaged in bringing about their own development. In other words, development should be about enabling men and women to become self-reliant so they can struggle out of poverty by engaging in productive actions, such as income generation. 

In practice, because of their seriously disadvantaged situation and their inherent lack of cohesion, the rural poor, especially, are seldom able to initiate a self-reliant development process without outside stimulation. An animator, motivator, facilitator, development worker from within such rural communities must therefore be trained to be a catalyst of change among his or her fellows. The rationale is that once they are trained, the change agents will work voluntarily to promote positive change in their families and in their wider communities. 

A shining example of how Burkey’s SRPD methodology has worked in Uganda is the training of Paineto Baluku as a change agent, after which Baluku voluntarily promoted positive change in his community at the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains in Kyalhumba in Bukonzo, in Kasese. At the time of his contact with Burkey’s SRPD methodology in 1991, Baluku was a senior four dropout working as a student learner for building mud energy saving stoves. He dropped out of formal education on grounds of material poverty – he and his parents were unable to afford education fees.

From a single change agent – Baluku – a significant multiplier effect occurred – Baluku trained others and shared the knowledge with others, who in turn did the same and continue to do the same. The Baluku multiplier effect has thus far culminated into the formation of one of the few genuine grassroots cooperatives in Uganda: Bukonzo Joint Union – now successfully producing and marketing coffee internationally and operating a very successful grassroots savings and credit institution, the Bukonzo Joint Cooperative Micro Finance Society Ltd.

Burkey’s SRPD methodology concentrates on those root causes which are within the power of the people themselves to eliminate or to minimize - in a way, therefore, Burkey’s SRPD methodology ‘blames’ people for their own poverty. Nevertheless, this seems the best place to start, where people analyse how their own actions are affecting their own development so that they can do something about it. This does not mean that Burkey’s SRPD methodology does not recognise the other root causes of poverty at national and at international levels.

It is time to move Uganda’s education curriculum away from a heavy focus on the geography and history of the global west to that of the geography, history and knowledge systems of Uganda’s first nations. Let, for example, the Baganda - Uganda’s largest first nation first deeply know the geography, history and knowledge systems of the Iteso – Uganda’s fifth largest first nation more than they know the knowledge systems of the English. And let the Iteso also first deeply know the geography, history and knowledge systems of the Baganda more than they know the knowledge systems of the Scots. 

Of what use is it for Ugandans to master the wisdom of the global-west; a life many Ugandans will never truly experience, and not deeply know the wisdom of the life they actually live? An education that teachers one that what is out of their reach is better than what is in their reach is a recipe for dangerous discontent; that is all it is good for truly. Time is now. Let us re-think what we call education.

This article is written by Norah Owaraga, CPAR Uganda Ltd Managing Director (April 2012 to date). Read more about her here. Please note that her views are not necessarily those of CPAR Uganda Ltd.