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Unstable pillars of tomorrow’s Uganda: Benet children’s education woes

29 November 2023

‘We are the pillars of tomorrow’s Uganda,’ sings a line from Uganda’s schools’ anthem. Thousands of pupils up and down the country belt out this anthem every week during morning assembly.

In Kortow village, Kwosir sub-county in Kween district, over twenty indigenous Benet children do not get the chance to sing this anthem because they do not go to a formal pre-primary and primary school. These children are between the ages of three and six. Kwosir sub-county has only two primary schools which are far from many villages, making access for young children difficult.

Sam Ayeko, a passionate Benet youth, decided to volunteer instructing some of these children that are too young to trek kilometres, across valleys and rivers, to the two schools. From a makeshift classroom, lined with rudimentary seats and an old chalkboard in dire need of a fresh coat of paint, Sam, who does not have formal teacher training, does his level best to attend to the needs of his young learners.

‘The children I work with are too young to walk several kilometres to the nearest school. I was approached by some parents who asked me to at least teach their children how to read and write basic things like the alphabet,’ says Sam.

‘The hope is that when the children become old enough to walk to school, they have some basic foundational literacy and numeracy skills, and still have the enthusiasm to continue with their education until they complete primary school.’

Education can be a powerful tool of transforming the fortunes of indigenous and ethnic minority communities, and yet the harsh reality is that such communities are often neglected by authorities when it comes to quality education access.

Kween and Bukwo, the two districts in eastern Uganda that the Benet call home, consistently rank among the worst performers in national primary school examinations. By not building more primary schools in Kween and Bukwo districts, the Ugandan government is going against the frameworks it established to protect children’s right to education. Article 34 of the Ugandan constitution enshrines the right to basic education for all children in Uganda.

A visible section of the makeshift classroom in which Sam Ayeko instructs his young learners. Credit: Billy Rwothungeyo/MRG.

As the state slacks on its duty of providing quality education to every child, selfless people like Sam, driven by a sheer will to make a difference in their communities, are forced to step up and fill some of the void.

For all the virtuous individual intentions, these individual sacrifices can only go so far. At only twenty-four, Sam too, is still putting together the building blocks of his own pillar. He dreams of pursuing university or tertiary education upon the release of his ‘A level’ results. At that point, the parents in Kortow village will have a scramble for someone to replace him.

The marginalization of Benet people stems back to the loss of their ancestral land to the British colonial government in the 1930s, when the slopes of Mount Elgon, their home, was turned into a forest reserve. The Ugandan government has merely worsened, rather than rectified, this injustice. This has resulted in high rates of poverty among the community, which presents a barrier to completing education even when a school is accessible. Although primary education in Uganda is free, for many Benet parents the cost of school lunches is so prohibitive that their children are not sent to school. The dispossession of their lands has also resulted in high levels of statelessness among Benet people. Without a legal identity, children cannot be registered for education at all.

What does the future hold for the Benet children of Kortow village? Are they not too, the pillars of tomorrow’s Uganda?

Sam Ayeko, the volunteer teaching basic literacy and numeracy skills to young Benet children in Kwosir sub-county in Kween district, Uganda. Credit: Billy Rwothungeyo/MRG.


Billy Rwothungeyo

Former Africa Media Officer

Minority Rights Group