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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 June, 2005, 08:28 GMT 09:28 UK
Ugandans desperately seeking education
By Nicki Stoker
Masindi, western Uganda

Eddie
As an orphan, Eddie has to work to pay his own school fees

Aminah Mukasa, the formidable headmistress of Masindi Secondary School in western Uganda, is on a mission - she wants to raise enough money to pay her teachers a decent wage.

Her methods are tough but effective - she has all the students who have not paid their fees locked out of the school.

This applies to three-quarters of students and the school is in a dire financial position.

The teachers have gone without full pay for three months, the staff are on the brink of revolt and teacher truancy is rife.

Eddie's story

Fourteen-year-old Eddie is one of the children stopped at the gate.

Mrs Mukasa
The moment you are educated it means a good job - it means everything.
Mrs Mukasa
Eddie is 10th in his class and dreams of getting far enough in school to become an accountant.

Eddie is an orphan and since his parents died he has had difficulty raising the 67,000 shillings he needs to pay his fees each term.

That's only about 20 ($36), but for the average Ugandan it is six weeks wages.

He works in a bar at weekends, helps his brother charge car batteries for 1,000 shillings (0.30 or $0.50) a time, and is waylaid by malaria as he struggles to pay the school.

"I like this school," Eddie enthuses. "They have good teachers, pupils who are bright and I have good friends here. [But] I am an orphan who lost my father, mother and also my brother so now it is very difficult to get the fees".

Economic struggle

Eddie is not alone in finding school fees a struggle. Uganda's economy has suffered from almost two decades of civil war.

Many refugees from the fighting in the north have fled to Masindi district.

And while the proportion of people with Aids has fallen nationally, local HIV rates in Masindi are 13% and there are many orphans.

Eddie's classmate is a lively boy called Justus. He refuses to be turned away.

"Today I will not stay without learning," Justus insists. "What I will do is just enter through the fence. In this world of today if you don't have plans you cannot survive."

He manages to sneak through a hole in the fence and tricks his teacher with a borrowed payment card to get into class.

At Masindi Secondary School the children's naughtiness is often motivated by their enthusiasm for education.

Mrs Mukasa explains: "In Uganda education means a lot. The moment you are educated it means a good job, it means good money, it means everything. That's why you find that these poor peasants are trying their best to educate their students - they have to go to school."

Teachers

Mrs Mukasa's clamp down on "fees defaulters" is inspired by her commitment to the school and its staff.

Even at state schools like Masindi, the students often pay fees. The teachers receive their basic salary from the Ugandan government, but that money alone is not enough to provide a decent standard of living.

Staff
Paying the staff a decent wage is an almost impossible task
A Grade 5 secondary school teacher nets 280,000 shillings per month - only 90 or $165.

Many state schools, including Masindi, collect fees from their pupils in order to increase the teachers' wages.

"It's the biggest administrative challenge we face," says Mrs Mukasa.

"We've convinced parents to allocate some little money so we can give the teachers a bonus."

But when these "bonus" payments are late, some staff play truant.

"We are forced to find a way to subsidise our earnings," explains one teacher.

"We end up sometimes even tending our tomato fields during the time we should have been here, so it is important that the fees are paid if we are to concentrate on this work here."

Uganda has been striving to improve its education system. And there have been significant successes.

Universal primary education was introduced in 1997, making all government primary schools free and leading to a doubling and more of pupil numbers.

That means there are now many more children completing primary education and ready to enter secondary school. And so for many more Ugandan parents and children, there is the potentially heart-breaking decision about whether they can afford to continue paying the fees.

Masindi Secondary School features in a BBC Four series made by Lion Productions on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 2030 BST beginning on Tuesday 21 June 2005.




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