Reaping the fruits of labour
In the morning heat, the quiet streets of Gulu town in northern Uganda stir only to the sound of market traders advertising their goods, and commuters on their way to one of the many newly established businesses along the main street. Only two years ago, the town was at the heart of violent conflict in the region.
The north of Uganda, once the 'bread basket' of the country, is still suffering the consequences of over twenty years of civil war. Slow and faltering peace talks in Sudan began in 2006 with the Lord's Resistance Army - the rebel army which declared war on the government. But even now, peace is uncertain. Behind the gleaming buildings are stories of loss: abandoned villages, devastated cropland, and a lack of livestock. The war has displaced up to two million people, and with recent flooding, people are once more dependant on food aid. In such a context, agricultural skills offer a chance to rebuild what is left.
Digging the land
At ten o'clock in the morning, an hour's drive from Gulu, a line of children make their way from the nearby camp for internally displaced people along the wet dirt road to Koch Koo Primary school. Classes are delayed because of the rain - but also because of the distribution of food by the World Food Programme (WFP) in the school playground. Parents, children and teachers from the surrounding area queue to receive bags of maize meal and other food supplements. When asked whether this makes people lazy, Kinyela Boniface, a teacher at the school replies: "No, it does not. This is just a supplement. The food that is given cannot even last a week. In order to survive you need to go and dig."
Koch Koo primary school is one of nine 'Food for Thought' schools, a programme operating in the Mubende, Kampala and Gulu districts of Uganda. Although not specifically designed for the northern region, the programme teaches improved methods of growing food, and the importance of good nutrition. It enables teachers to learn and pass on their skills to children and the community in water and soil conservation, compost making, grafting or pruning techniques, and horticulture. It also teaches organic food production as an easier and cheaper option for people with no access to chemicals.
According to Flugencia Tumwesigye, co-ordinator for the Food For Thought programme in Mubende district, as well as the Vice Chair for the Small-scale Farmers Union of Uganda, such skills are vital in Uganda. Although the government has ensured free primary education throughout the country, only 40 per cent of primary school graduates go on to complete secondary education. "Agricultural skills are important," she says, "because most children drop out from school from the age of 14 or 15. They go back to their village and basically what they do for their living is agriculture. Other skills like business management or computing need more education than just primary school," she notes. "80 per cent of our people live in the countryside and do farming."
In primary school, agriculture has recently been incorporated into the national syllabus as a subject. But there are still problems. "One of the problems with agricultural education", says Flugencia, "is that teachers are not trained to teach it. Agriculture was not on the syllabus when teachers were taught. They need to be trained to teach agriculture practically in schools. And that is what we are doing with the Food for Thought Programme," she concludes.
Teaching to teach
Many of the children that attend school in Gulu suffer trauma. They have either been directly involved in the war, drafted among 20,000 other child soldiers by the LRA, or they may be disturbed by the return of their classmates from the bush. For these children, the Food for Thought programme can offer a different kind of educational reform. It promotes an entrepreneurial spirit. "This helps the next generation to be self-reliant in the future," says Boniface.
For Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, agricultural programmes such as the Food for Thought programme offers therapeutic support for children suffering the effects of trauma. She teaches vocational courses at St Monica Girls Tailoring Centre in Gulu, which besides tailoring and catering, feature agricultural skills for former child soldiers. "We need to develop people so they can cope in the future," she says. "Many of these girls are not accepted by their families when they return from the bush. So it is very important for them to be self-reliant, to know what to grow for their children. It is a way of rehabilitating them indirectly because it brings them a sense of dignity."
Date published: November 2007
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