Ebola: Uganda’s schools were closed for two years during COVID, now they face more closures – something must change

Classroom. Luweero. Photo: Simone Datzberger

Children in Uganda missed out on more school because of the COVID pandemic than their peers anywhere else in the world. An estimated 15 million pupils in the East African nation did not attend school for 83 weeks – that’s almost two years. Statistical models predict a learning deficit of 2.8 years in Uganda because of the time lost through COVID-related closures.

Now the education system has been hit by another public health emergency. In early November the government announced that preschools, primary and secondary schools must close their doors for the year ten days earlier than planned. This is part of its attempt to contain an Ebola outbreak which had, by 16 November, killed 55 people; eight were children.

Of course, it’s crucial for Uganda to try and stop Ebola from spreading. The disease has a far higher fatality rate than COVID. The country’s packed classrooms and poor school infrastructure, such as poor ventilation and sanitation, make students highly vulnerable to infections.

But young Ugandans have already fallen far behind in their learning because of COVID. And, as the effects of climate change worsen, Africa is becoming increasingly vulnerable to health emergencies, including a number of infectious diseases.

That makes it incredibly important for Uganda to find a way to balance the realities of public health emergencies with children’s right to education. This is a particularly pressing issue in low-income contexts where many children struggle to complete their schooling even outside emergency situations.

Kids are already far behind

In a previous study emerging from a larger project called CoVAC (led by Karen Devries, Jenny Parkes and Dipak Naker), we outlined the many harms and losses Ugandan children and youth faced due to the prolonged closure of schools.

When schools finally reopened in January 2022, one in ten students did not report back to school. Some schools had closed for good.

The government tried to support distance learning through TV, radio, newspapers, downloadable curricula or, in some instances, via mobile phones. However, most interventions, in particular those that required access to a mobile phone or computer only benefited urban elites with the means to send their children to expensive private schools.

Almost all of the participants in our study had no or limited access to the resources needed to effectively engage with these materials. Girls in remote areas were especially disadvantaged, as they tended to have less access to mobile phones than boys.

Most of our study participants were not able to continue their schooling via distance learning. They eventually gave up on their education.

Homeschooling became a common practice in wealthier countries. But in Uganda it was a privilege reserved for only a few children from higher socio-economic backgrounds and expensive schools. The majority of Ugandan caregivers have to make an income in any way they can and often lack the time, space and resources to earn with their children at home.

Although schools will be only closed for a relatively short time, losing another ten days of learning may weaken the trust among Ugandans in the functioning of their educational institutions. Many Ugandans struggle to pay for their children’s school fees and will question the real value of education in light of current and potentially more interruptions.

Overhauling current model

Uganda’s education sector needs to be strengthened so that disruptions caused by future health emergencies do not leave children even further behind in their schooling.

This will require an overhaul of how education is governed, implemented and made accessible during emergency situations. Uganda inherited its education system from its former British colonial administration. The appropriation of western and former colonial education systems by countries in sub-Saharan Africa has been questioned and critiqued by many, particularly African scholars.

Schooling, it is argued, was initially used as a tool by former colonisers to “conquer the African mind”. It ignored local culture and context with the intention to sustain colonial administration and nurture exploitative economic structures.

Today, part of the problem with adopting a universal model of schooling is that the many flaws inherent in western-style education are exacerbated in times of crisis. For instance, the model champions a form of schooling that is time and location bound. It does not easily adapt to alternative forms of education that allow for a more flexible mode of learning in the absence of a functioning school.

If adequately resourced and well implemented, alternative modes of learning during school closures can help the most vulnerable children and youth in their educational trajectories and overall well-being. This could be in the form of supporting distance learning in a different manner, such as the potential of outdoors teaching and learning where there is enough space for social distancing. Nearby teachers could be engaged to support locally organised, small learning groups of children in their respective communities.

Another option could be to ensure safe and continuous access to education in a staggered manner under strict hygienic measures. Investments in partnerships with local agencies and community-based organisations could help to facilitate radio, TV or internet-based learning spaces for children and youth with no access to learning technology.


Some Ugandans told us that they fear schools will be closed for far longer than initially announced. This happened repeatedly during the COVID pandemic. It is also sadly likely that Ebola will not be the last epidemic the country must manage.

That’s why novel strategies and more resources are urgently needed to finally address deeply rooted social injustices in and outside education that arise before, during and after public health emergencies. Otherwise, children will be continuously at a high risk of dropping out of school, making them vulnerable to child labour or teenage pregnancies.

Authors: Simone Datzberger and Brian Junior Musenze

Originally published in The Conversation.

Uganda closed schools for two years. The impact is deep and uneven.

Closed School in Uganda
Photo: © Simone Datzberger

Uganda enforced the longest period of school closures worldwide – 22 months – during the COVID-19 pandemic. The strategy was subject to scrutiny by many local and international organisations in view of the multiple challenges the country’s education sector already faced before the pandemic.

Studies of the predicted and already visible impact of COVID-19 on education in sub-Saharan Africa are beginning to reveal how inequities that affected children and their families prior to the pandemic have intensified during and after school closures. It is estimated that 15 million pupils have not attended school in Uganda for almost two years.

Statistical models predict a learning deficit of 2.8 years in Uganda. Other effects include a 22.5% increase of pregnancies among Ugandan school-going girls and young women aged 10-24 between March 2020 and June 2021. There was also an increase of child labour from 21% to 36%, affecting girls in particular. Some schools have closed for good, as they were either destroyed for new real estate projects or sold.

To understand how the prolonged closure of schools affected the lives of adolescents in Uganda we conducted interviews with 36 young people (18 male, 18 female) living in central Uganda (Luwero and Kampala) and predominantly from a low socio-economic status. Interviews were part of a longitudinal qualitative study, the Contexts of Violence in Adolescence Cohort Study (CoVAC).

While the longer term impacts of COVID-19 on education in Uganda remain to be seen and still need to be studied, emerging evidence from our small cohort study, including other research, shows that the effects for young people have already been devastating. The compound effects of school closures, loss of livelihoods and caregiver stress (especially during lockdowns) also increased the risk of domestic violence, with instances of verbal and physical abuse of children.

Context and intersecting disadvantages

Our study participants were between 15 and 17 years old when we first met them in 2018 and over the next four years we conducted at least six interviews with each young person. We also interviewed their caregivers, teachers or peers so we already knew quite a lot about their lives and challenges.

During the lockdown, we conducted phone interviews between May and June 2020 with 18 girls and 16 boys (mainly aged 16-19 years) who had been participants in our longitudinal study. We interviewed all participants again in 2021.

For the 22 young people (out of the 36) who were in school before the lockdowns, the pandemic seriously disrupted their education. Their experiences varied depending on their socio-economic background, location and gender. We applied an intersectional lens to analyse how pre-existing and intersecting inequities had intensified, with detrimental effects on young people’s educational paths and life circumstances.

For example, young people needed to find ways to generate an income while schools were closed. This posed different challenges depending on gender or location.

Some boys in rural areas migrated to another region to find work, which was often precarious and exploitative. For girls, who tended to be more confined to their homes, and for girls in rural areas, options to earn money were extremely limited. This inability to complete their education, or to work, or to earn enough, was a heavy burden for young people. Some of them felt they had failed.

The pandemic has strained participants’ mental health in multiple ways. They were concerned about whether they would be able to afford to return to school. They expressed feelings of fear, loneliness, anxiety, distress and loss of self-esteem. Very few were able to use distance learning materials.

Several participants experienced unintended pregnancies, reducing their prospects for returning to school. School closures could add to the complex mix of reasons for getting pregnant. Financial pressures, stressful family situations and more free time could all have a bearing.

Structural barriers

Our data also shows that gender, socio-economic circumstances and location have a bearing on the effectiveness of interventions. Not everyone can equally use opportunities to get an education.

Take the example of Atala (not her real name). She is the oldest of five children and helps her mother with chores, childcare and informal sector work. She wanted to train as a nurse but her school results weren’t good enough because – as a girl – she had so many responsibilities. During the first lockdown she was offered a place in a government sponsored vocational training programme in tailoring. But hardly any teaching took place. When the programme finally resumed, classes were rushed. Atala said she got her certificate but didn’t feel qualified to work as a tailor. And she lives in a rural community with no financial means, tools or opportunities to start her own business.

Our study participants’ experiences are a reminder that Uganda’s current challenges in education due to the prolonged closure of schools are not new. Rather, the pandemic worsened existing inequities and structural barriers in education such as: not having access to truly free education; high drop out rates, low learning outcomes or lack of opportunities to find employment after completing school.

These impacts have far reaching consequences for education, reproductive health, mental health, working conditions, and earning opportunities.

Now that schools are open again, we will investigate existing and persisting grievances that affect and disadvantage adolescents, and how they cope with challenges such as paying school fees or catching up with teaching content. Strategies and interventions to ‘build back equal’ can learn a lot from an intersectional lens on the basis of young people’s accounts, their specific challenges, unique circumstances and everyday realities.

Originally published in The Conversation .

Authors: Simone Datzberger, Jenny Parkes, Amiya Bhatia, Rehema Nagawa, Dipak Naker and Karen Devries.

Karen Devries, Jenny Parkes and Dipak Naker are co- Principal Investigators on the CoVAC study

Uganda’s schooling system does not politically empower young people

Classroom. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2017

More than 20 years ago, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development stated that:

The lack of education stops a great majority of Africans from being citizens in their own right.

However, in the two following decades, there have been very mixed results on how education enhances political empowerment in sub-Saharan Africa.

Some researchers found that in Kenya civic education programmes had positive effects on political participation and engagement. By contrast, other scholars argued that higher levels of education did not increase people’s propensity to pursue “easy” forms of political participation, such as voting in the case of Mali.

One country that is struggling with democracy is Uganda. The country’s political environment remains severely restricted under the regime of long-ruling President Yoweri Museveni. In 2019 Freedom House – an independent watchdog organisation dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world – downgraded Uganda from partly free to not free.

The signs of restricted free spaces are there. Civil activism has been dampened by a controversial NGO act, enacted in 2016, which severely limits political advocacy. A social media tax was also introduced in 2018 to boost government revenue and end “gossip” on 60 social media outlets including WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter.

My research project “Democratisation through Education” sought to gain a better understanding of what role schools play in the political empowerment of youth. Does education help young people to better understand how Uganda’s government and political system works? Do they engage in critical discussions in school about social, economic or political issues that affect society and their everyday lives?

In short, I was interested in whether, and how, educational institutions empower Ugandan youth to participate in society as active, informed, critical and responsible citizens.

I found that while the majority of respondents felt they critically reflected on some societal issues in school, their reported knowledge of national political institutions, and on how they would claim and advocate for their rights as citizens, was remarkably low.

Shaping political agency

Civic education was initially introduced into the Ugandan curriculum by the government in the mid-1980s. The intention was to engage the population in the nation-building process.

In 2017, I surveyed a total of 497 youth between the ages of 15 and 29 years (201 females and 296 males). They came from various secondary schools and universities across four regions; Central, North, North-East and South-West. In addition I conducted 37 interviews with actors from the government, civil society organisations, community based organisations, school officials, education planners, teaching professionals and local academics.

When my data collection took place, civic education had just been suspended from the formal curriculum. Civil society organisations I spoke to however felt that offering civic education at school would still be very relevant. At the same time, though they cautioned that it can be (and used to be) misused as a political propaganda mechanism and had to be approached very carefully.

By and large, young people’s responses suggest that Ugandan schools only make a very modest contribution in shaping political agency. Barely 51% of all respondents felt that they had a clear understanding of how Uganda’s political system or government works.

According to their responses, critical discussions about issues that affect society did take place in schools as part of formal lessons. But they tended not to revolve around “politics”. Instead, data from the survey revealed that these discussions focus on apolitical topics such as teenage pregnancies, early marriages or alcoholism. According to one male:

Discussions are mostly about how the world is diverse, composed of plants, animals, buildings, water, bodies, that societies are made of families.

Youth did seem to learn about their basic rights as citizens, such as the right to education. However, hardly any reflection or discussion appeared to take place in schools on why political, economic or societal grievances occur. Instead, according to some respondents, these discussions would be held at home or in their communities. In the words of one of the respondents:

It is hard to discuss…issues of society and the world because even teachers fear attacking the evils of the world and society so even as students we develop the fear because we are afraid of being singled out as less patriotic.

Patriotism seems to have a certain priority in schools. Paintings stating “be a patriot” were found on school compounds. Young people also mentioned “patriotic school clubs” with the purpose to serve the country by nurturing positive attitudes towards their country, themselves and work.

Gender differences

There were some striking gender differences per region.

For instance, in the central region (Kampala) only 32.6% of young women said they understood national politics compared to 61.6% of young men. This suggests that the quality of education – which appears to be better in urban areas – does not necessarily translate into better understandings of politics among girls.

On average, more than half of the respondents reported an interest in politics, though their interest levels varied significantly between gender and regions.

The lowest interest was reported by females in Kampala (34.6%). The highest by men in the South-West (75%). Unexpectedly, 69.7% of females in the North-East reported to be most interested in politics, significantly more than young men in the same region (55.1%). The North-East, known as Karamoja, is one of Uganda’s historically most marginalised and impoverished regions.

A political role

It is highly questionable whether schools are democratic change agents that stimulate individual political agency in Uganda. The bigger question probably is, should schools take on that role?

If yes, then it is important to acknowledge that educational institutions are embedded in and dependent on surrounding social, political and economic structures. In other words, the education sector alone is not the magic bullet for democratisation, economic growth or poverty alleviation. It can only make its contribution towards systemic change at large.

For this change to happen, there needs to be a shift in thinking among education sector planners and actors (not just in Uganda) about the purpose of education.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation on 18 December 2020.

Afghanistan: When Conflict meets Education, Desire and Hope

Photo collection & commentary by Najeebullah Azad.

©Najeeb Azad: “Afghan Children”

Afghanistan is not only known for the war against terror but it is also the fifth youngest country in the world, with 68% of its population under the age of 25. For the Afghan freelance photographer and education activist, Najeebullah Azad (called Najeeb), this demographic boom not only creates risks but also many opportunities. Young people want to contribute to and benefit from the country’s development, yet much depends on older generations and the political as well as economic environment. According to a survey conducted by The Asia Foundation (2016), in total 71.2 % of Afghan youth are currently unemployed, 25.7 % illiterate and 13.8 % are addicted to drugs. At the same time, 69.8 % of Afghans reported that they are ‘sometimes’, ‘often’ or ‘always’ in fear for their personal safety. In addition, the percentage of Afghans with a family member who was either a victim of crime or violence increased by 1.2 points, to 19.4 % in 2016. Not surprisingly, 29.6 % of Afghans want to leave their home country due to security risks and lack of economic opportunities. Notwithstanding these challenges, Najeeb continues to be a proud citizen of Afghanistan, who embraces the diversity of his home country and deeply appreciates how gracefully Afghans live their lives.

In his photo collection, Najeeb reflects on the interplay of conflict, education and hope. In his view, Afghanistan’s youth remains the country’s greatest untapped resource for a better future. Below he comments on his photographs.

“War & Peace. The dilemma of Afghanistan”

©Najeeb Azad

About 104,000 people have been killed in the Afghanistan war since 2001. The war on terror is still ongoing, however there is nothing as precious as hope for a bright future for Afghans. In this photo, a young man is standing on an artillery which was used during the Afghan-Soviet war. The artillery is now used for recreational purposes, allowing people to understand their bitter history and hope for a peaceful future.

“The cost of war”

©Najeeb Azad

A father praying for his son at the cemetery of Enlightenment Movement. The cemetery is named in remembrance of the death of 80 Hazaras (a minority ethnic group in Afghanistan), killed by IS during a peaceful protest about the TUTAP (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan) power line project.

“Children rule Afghanistan’s present and future”

©Najeeb Azad

Children in a nursery school cheering for peace in Bamyan, the central highlands of Afghanistan. The school is located in Arzu Social Centre (Arzu means ‘hope’ in Dari) funded by an NGO, which offers English and computer classes, and a laundry room for women only. Currently, about 38 percent of school age children (4.2 million in real numbers) do not have access to schools, most of which are girls.

“Winter examinations”

©Najeeb Azad

Students attending examinations at Noor High School in Jaghori district, Ghazni province. The first Noor High School was established in Quetta, Pakistan by Afghan refugees who escaped the Taliban, supported by a charity from Japan. After the fall of the Taliban, a subdivision of the school moved to Ghazni province of Afghanistan. Most schools in peaceful areas of Afghanistan do not have proper buildings and facilities and schools located in insecure areas of Afghanistan that still have proper buildings and facilities are at constant risk of being targeted by the Taliban.

“Poverty affects children enrolled in schools”

©Najeeb Azad

A student searching rubbish bins in Kabul in the hope to find a used product which he can still sell to pay for his school expenses. Most school kids in Afghanistan are working part-time as street sellers and rubbish collectors to support themselves and their families.

“Child Labor”

©Najeeb Azad

A student reading in front of his father’s shop in Kabul, where he works to help his family. I talked to him, motivated him about his hard-work, and told him that he is the future of his conflict-affected country, a country which is now a ruin due to decisions of our old generation.

“Young Shepherd”

©Najeeb Azad

A young shepherd supporting his community and family by getting paid for every herd he takes care of. He told me that, the survival of his family is the idea of a bright future for him.

“Educated but unemployed”

©Najeeb Azad

University graduates celebrating their graduation from a private university in Kabul. Only 9.6 percent of college-age students (around 300,000) are enrolled in public and private universities in Afghanistan. The majority of youth does not have access to public higher education and can therefore only enroll at a private university if their families can afford to pay for the fees. However, those few who manage to graduate from a university struggle to find stable employment.

“A school bell made of the remains of an artillery”

©Najeeb Azad

I rang the bell and it was very loud! The noise of war is always so loud, but now this school in Bamyan province of Afghanistan is trying to keep the volume of war low, and shine the world with peace through the remains of war artilleries.

According to Save the Children, more than 400,000 Afghan children were dropped out of school in 2017 due to growing instability in the country and the forced returns of Afghan refugees from Pakistan. Conflict has also forced more than 1000 schools to shut.

“Kite runners of Kabul”

©Najeeb Azad

Afghan children flying their kite on Wazir Akbar Khan hill in Kabul. This photo reminds me of Khaled Hosseini’s book – A Thousand Splendid Suns.



Born in Afghanistan, Najeebullah Azad lived his childhood as a refugee in Pakistan during the Taliban regime, and completed his undergraduate degree in India. Najeeb is currently pursuing his Master Degree in Education Policies for Global Development (GLOBED). He has previously worked with NGOs and the United Nations in Afghanistan. He believes the world will be a better place for all through educating the uneducated. Najeeb is an education and civil activist, amateur writer and novelist, and a freelance photographer. He has been awarded by UNESCO, WMO, and many other organizations for his photography. He is currently organizing his photo exhibition about life in Afghanistan across Europe to raise awareness about the situation in Afghanistan, with the aim to collect donations to build a public library for women and children in his country. If you want to support Najeeb’s work, please contact him at: najeebullah.azad@yahoo.com

Karamoja: Lost in Transition

Tepeth Children Mount Moroto. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2017

The slopes winding up to one of the peaks of Mount Moroto (located in the sub-region of Karamoja in Uganda) are steep, at times very narrow and rocky. What I experience as a tough climb to the top is the everyday walkway for the Tepeth – one of the traditional societies belonging to the Karamojong people. The Tepeth have lived and worshiped their gods in the volcanic mountain chain for generations. Their lean and slender bodies are covered in colorful cloths and their dark skin is accessorized with bright necklaces, wristbands, belts or earrings. Shepherds, young women, elderly and children cross our way. Their glances are shy, though their facial expressions are full of pride.

Isolated from globalization for the past decades, mounting development aid, foreign investment and newly emerging eco-tourism in the area, now increasingly expose the Tepeth to the odd mozunogo (= white person) – who climbs and camps close to their homes. For now, they still hold on to their harsh lifestyle which is grounded in the firm belief to embrace a balanced relationship with cattle and nature. For example, the Tepeth would never cut a living tree when a dead one can be found. However, any romantic notion of living a life off the beaten track, is soon overshadowed by the sight of empty plastic bags that used to contain cheap alcohol and are now scattered along the walkway. Low-quality liquor is consumed by women, men, youth and children alike. “This is a recent phenomenon” – so my local tour guide – who no longer wears traditional Karamojong clothes (except on official cultural days) and proudly describes himself as ‘civilized’.

The Tepeth are a prime example of how some of the few remaining and endangered traditional African societies are suddenly surrounded by massive attempts to modernize and extract resources from a hitherto marginalized area. In fact, all traditional societies in the entire region of Karamoja have been lately subject to a fast appropriation of western norms and ways of living – thanks to an exponential growth of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), development agencies, private investors but also through local Karamojong and Ugandan elites. While the sub-region has been dependent on food aid since the 1960s, it used to be one of the most remote and underfunded regions in Uganda in terms of infrastructure development and social services. This seclusion allowed the Karamojong to maintain their cultural traditions and way of life. Today it receives a significant amount of development aid, roads are being constructed by foreign investors such as the Chinese and attempts are made by the government to improve access to public education and healthcare provision.

Karamoja continues to be the most under-developed part of Uganda, nonetheless. It displays the highest multi-dimensional poverty index (MPI) in the country: 79.1 per cent live in severe poverty compared to the 38.2 per cent national average and remains extremely vulnerable to shocks (security, environmental, political or health) and conflict. The region is characterized by several forms of structural violence, horizontal inequalities and unequal opportunities which are deeply rooted in the legacies of British occupation. When the borders between Kenya, Sudan and Uganda were redrawn, the majority of the Karamojong grazing regions were suddenly left outside Uganda causing several cross-border conflicts among different ethnic groups. Conflicts amplified from the 1970s onward through the acquisition of modern firearms, increasing the momentum for cattle raiding among pastoralists. Attempts by the government to forcefully disarm and settle Karamojong pastoralists led to decades of violence, human rights abuses and widespread poverty. Most pastoralists have now put down their guns but issues of land rights and illegal or exploitative mining activities threaten processes of sustainable development and peace. As the head of the UNICEF regional office put it: “Future conflicts here in Karamoja are about the land, and no longer about the cow.”

Karamojong Children in Moroto. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2017

Besides, the Karamojong have been at the sharp end of climate change and droughts frequently result in starvation. This intertwined relationship of conflict, ecological degradation, underdevelopment and lack of education has been often referred to as the so-called “Karamoja Syndrome” calling for solutions that fit the everyday realities of a nomadic pastoral community. It is questionable, however, whether current efforts to develop and modernize the region are a sustainable way forward. The vast majority of projects either build on or promote a settled lifestyle for the Karamojong. East African pastoralist communities have been adapting to climate variability for centuries and it is precisely their semi-nomadic lifestyle that allows them to cope with the impact of climate change and resource scarcities. According to a senior expert from the Coalition of Pastoralist Civil Society Organization (COPASCO), re-introducing or maintaining (semi-)nomadism would be one solution to fight poverty and starvation due to unprecedented long periods of drought. Conversely, most of my interviewees (ranging from government officials to development workers and local CSOs) did not share this view and believe that time has come to settle and ‘develop’ the Karamojong. In part this is based on the fact that land becomes more scarce and can no longer be solely used for grazing as it was previously done.

This nonetheless begs the question whether development aid and foreign investment will be soon ‘eating away the soul of Karamojong culture’? Certainly, the region needs humanitarian assistance, there is yet a striking tension between modernity, traditionalism and aid dependency. In the attempt to dig a bit deeper, I get mixed responses from local CSOs about whether and how Karamojong culture should and could be preserved in a rapidly changing environment? For many there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cultural traits. The former referring to practices like dancing, the way of dressing or local village structures such as councils of elders. Bad customs are related to human rights abuses in the form of forced marriages or violence against women. The term ‘culturally-sensitive’ is thus used with pre-caution depending on the custom and context.

Karamojong Dancing. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2017

In several respects development and traditionalism are supposed to go hand in hand yet strategies as to how to not wipe out a culture that has been in existence for centuries seem to be quite vague. For now, cultural days (usually 3 day long events held in July) and dances that are still performed in the villages are meant to cherish the Karamojong way of life.

In addition, children are supposed acquire deeper knowledge about their cultural background in public schools. Then again, during interviews with district education officials I learn that the majority of teachers in primary and secondary schools are actually not Karamojong and are deployed from all over Uganda – due to a severe shortage of qualified local teachers. Most of the teachers don’t even speak the local language and are not in a position to teach Karamojong children about their cultural background. The only non-formal education programme (ABEK) that was specifically designed in collaboration with the Karamojong to meet the needs of a semi-nomadic society and respond to local aspects of culture is severely underfunded and got recently downsized by aid agencies and the government due to a more settled lifestyle of the Karamojong. Notably, the sub-region has still the highest percentage of Uganda’s population with either no schooling or incomplete primary education (79.8 per cent being female and 64.8 per cent being male).

Karamojong Youth Leader. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2017

There is no doubt, that every society and culture is constantly subject to change due to global, social, economic and political structures it is surrounded by. As Knigthon put it: “Culture is the accumulation of human response to situation.” The question though is, whether the Karamojong really get a chance of ‘their’ response to adapt to an entirely new situation? Visiting one of the biggest villages in East Africa (Nakipelemoru) in Kotido district, I witness again how alcoholism among former warriors and young women is on the rise. Little do we know what their version, pace and rhythm of development would have been.

“N.G.O. Nothing Going On.”

A Ugandan-Congolese Movie.


“Colonialism was easier to fight than the massive industry of NGOs in Africa.”

says Arnold Aganze, a Congolese writer and director of his latest movie: N.G.O. – Nothing Going On. The movie starts off as a light story about how two young Ugandan men, Tevo and Zizuke, hook up and party with mzungu (white/western) girls. When one of the girls offers to help her newfound Ugandan fling to support poor women and children in the slums, the movie takes a sudden twist. Instructed by one of their mentors (Mr. Heineken – a successful Ugandan NGO owner himself), Tevo and Zizuke quickly learn how to play the game when it comes to get a piece of that juicy NGO pie. In order to raise “funds” they pull out all the stops: from a project called “Popcorn for Hope” that is supposed to “empower women” and “build capacity”; to restyling a girl from the slums for a photo shoot, as her chosen outfit does not fit the “African image” for successful fundraising.

What appears to be a light-hearted and entertaining comedy on how Ugandans screw mzungus over and over again (in all aspects of life); is at its core a deep critical reflection on the exponential growth of NGOs in the country – if not sub-Saharan African continent. The exact numbers of how many NGOs are currently registered in Uganda are unclear – but during conversations with local experts working in the industry, estimates range from 9.000 – 12.000. Of course, not all of them are operational and briefcase organizations multiply. It is an industry, according to Arnold, that perpetuates aid dependency, serves as a source of income while at the same time distorts our society and culture. In his critique, he refers to both Western and African NGOs alike. “I am as critical of my own society as I am of Western ones.”

For Arnold, those NGOs aim at creating a perfect society, which will never exist – neither within nor outside Africa. He continues “when a project fails and does not yield desired results, donors and NGOs simply cannot accept that failure, leave the village and move on. Instead they are writing new project proposals thereby creating new words for the exact same problem.” In Arnold’s opinion, it is the aid sector, most specifically NGOs, that are creating a picture of a poor, desperate and broken Africa. Against this backdrop, he felt the urge to tell his own story, as an African, and change the direction of that narrative.

Initially, Arnold wanted to shoot the movie in Eastern Congo where he experienced first-hand how for decades an invasion of NGOs (and aid agencies) did not bring about the change people were hoping for. As far as the filming was concerned, it was yet much easier to realize his project in Uganda. The entire budget for the movie did not exceed 2.000 USD and all actors (including Arnold himself) were not paid. “At first no one wanted to support us or even show the movie. A lot of those festivals where we could potentially organize a screening are sponsored by foreign NGOs.” Arnold got the impression that they did not feel comfortable with the content of the film and therefore declined. Similar reactions came from Ugandan organizations who argued that if they offered to help, they would shoot themselves in the foot. Eventually, Arnold and his team managed to screen the movie in several African countries and will be soon touring festivals in Europe. The film premiered at the oldest African film festival the Carthage Film Festival in Tunisia in and has been screened at the: Africa International Film Festival in Nigeria; Uganda Film Festival; and the Cameroon International Film Festival. It won in the category “best feature film” at the Mashariki African Film Festival in Rwanda and at the Pan-African Film Festival Fespaco in Burkina Faso.

Towards the end of our meeting, the conversation drifts away from the actual topic and we chat about how Frantz Fanon influenced his thinking and work. Arnold tells me that he would have liked to live a few decades earlier and take an active part in overcoming the colonial struggle. In his view, this was an exciting moment of being black as there was a united Africa fighting for a specific cause. He concludes:

“Today only a few Africans are proud to be African and that is the actual problem we face.”

Confirmed screenings of N.G.O. – Nothing Going On will be held over the summer across Europe at the following festivals:

Truth | Lies: 9 May 2017 (Malta)

Cinemas d’Afrique: 16 – 21 May 2017 (France)

Cinemondes: 10 -17 June 2017 (France)

Helsinki African Film Festival: 7- 14 May 2017 (Finland)

Arnold also offers to show his film at universities. He wants to engage in particular students in a critical discussion about the humanitarian sector, development aid and the continuous portrayal of a single story about Africa. If you want to arrange for a screening at your institution, please get in touch with: arnoldaga20@gmail.com

“Eva’s Mission.” A documentary by Martha Van der Bly


Eva's Mission. Documentary

Eva Schloss (87), one of the world’s last Auschwitz survivors and stepdaughter of Otto Frank (Anne Frank’s father), tirelessly fights against the resurfacing demons of the past in our world today: xenophobia, antisemitism, islamophobia, demagogy and the rise of right-wing parties all over the world.

Eva’s Mission – a documentary by Martha van der Bly – captures her path. It explores the experiences that shaped Eva’s identity, mission and life: from the flight from the Nazis in Vienna, hiding in Amsterdam, betrayal, deportation to Westerbork and later Auschwitz – to her role as a survivor, author of three books (Eva’s Story, The Promise, and After Auschwitz), mother, grandmother, public speaker and human rights activist.

QUESTION: – “Eva, how does it make you feel to see Anne Frank played by a girl who is black? And the role of your father by an Arab actor? To see Jewish, Hindi, Muslim, Christian perform your life story on stage? –  EVA SCHLOSS: ”Well, I don’t see that. I ONLY SEE PEOPLE” – (Eva Schloss, Constitutional Hill, Johannesburg – 16 December 2012)

Even though Eva advocates for other people’s rights she could actually not speak about what she personally has been through for forty years… If you find it important that her voice is heard and won’t be forgotten – become part of Eva’s mission! You can support Martha’s documentary on Cinecrowd.

Should you want to contribute to the film in any other way please email marthavanderbly@gmail.com.

Distortions by Andrew Delatolla

This month, Pol Art proudly starts off with an image that was part of a 2010 temporary series of installations by Andrew Delatolla. It critiques distortions with regards to media coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, particularly regarding the practices of youth detainment in the occupied territories by Israel. Andrew Delatolla is currently a final year doctoral candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics. He blogs at www.politicsmiddleeast.com.

'Distortions' by Andrew Delatolla
‘Distortions’ by Andrew Delatolla

Do you want to contribute to PoL ArT? Get involved.

Uganda: Digging for Social Justice in Karamoja

Co-authored with Tenywa Aloysius Malagala.
How the poor provision of education for the Karamojong affects the community’s ability to advocate for their rights.

Nakabaat. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2015
Nakabaat. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2015

Nestled amid the hills of the northeastern Ugandan-Kenyan border, a small Karamojong community in Nakabaat struggles to come to terms with a conflict-ridden past and the consequences of mineral resource exploitation by national and international companies. Uganda’s history of state formation was followed by anti-pastoralist policies and decades of drought, land disputes, and land dispossession, leaving the community deprived of food, water, healthcare facilities, and access to education. Locals from areas like Nakabaat have experienced cross-border conflicts for many years. However, what threatens the fragile peace today is no longer warrior nomads or border disputes but Karamoja’s nascent mining industry.

Although the area’s huge mineral deposits have the potential to revitalise the local economy, improve the living standards of a conflict-affected population, and foster processes of sustainable peace development, the region’s natural resources have fortified suffering, abject poverty, structural violence, and human rights abuses instead.

Karamoja remains one of the most underdeveloped sub regions in Uganda, and it displays the highest multi-dimensional poverty index (MPI) in the country: 79.1 per cent live in severe poverty compared to the 38.2 per cent national average. As such, the region remains extremely vulnerable to internal and external shocks, ranging from security, political, environmental, and health-related threats. Yet, Karamoja is rich in two assets: mineral resources (including tin, gold, iron, nickel, copper, cobalt, marble, limestone, graphite, gypsum, wolfram, uranium, and lithium) and cultural diversity (consisting of tribes from Kenya, Uganda, and South Sudan).

At first glance, the vast lands of Karamoja may appear vacant and unexploited. In reality, they are not—communities, not individuals, usually own the land. This clearly challenges any genuine attempts to identify rightful owners for consolation and compensation prior to engaging in mining activities. According to the latest report by Human Rights Watch (“How can we survive here?” 2014), there are currently three active mining companies in Karamoja engaged in different stages of the mining process. These include Jan Mangal Uganda Ltd (a Ugandan subsidiary of an Indian jewelry company), East African Mining Ltd (a Ugandan gold exploration company), and DAO Marble Ltd (a Kuwait-based group).

The report further highlights the difficulties of land rights and ownership and states that

“While Uganda’s mining law requires a surface rights agreement to be negotiated with land owners prior to active mining and payment of royalties to lawful landowners once revenues flow, the law does not require any communication or consent from the local population during exploration work.”

What makes matters even worse is the government’s resistance to implementing communal or collective land ownership based on the Karamojong’s communal tradition.

In a way, history repeats itself in Karamoja—only the exterior actors have changed. After colonial rule, the borders between Kenya and Sudan were redrawn, and the majority of the Karamojong’s grazing regions were left outside Uganda. The extent to which the long-term effects of externally imposed borders have caused civil unrest and conflict in the region remains a highly debated and often disputed point.

In pre-colonial Karamoja, political power was exercised over people and not over land or territory. In other words, the nature of semi-nomadic societal life rendered the whole notion of individual land ownership almost irrelevant. Any territorial claims would have endangered the very basis of survival for most pastoral communities. Upon independence, forceful attempts by Ugandan governments to settle Karamojong pastoralists have resulted in decades of conflict and widespread poverty. Today, the Karamojong’s lack of legal proof and land ownership puts them in significant jeopardy of experiencing rights abuses as mining activities continue to increase.

The small Karamojong community of Nakabaat serves as a prime example of how resource exploitation and land acquisition by mining companies increase structural violence and violate human rights. Disarmed by the Uganda People’s Defense Force, the community abandoned cattle herding (and raiding) to mine for small quantities of gold instead. Yet, between 2011 and 2014, their modest existence was severely disrupted when Jan Mangal Ltd entered their land.

Initially, Jan Mangal Ltd promised to develop and compensate the community in exchange for their gold-mining activities, but the company did not live up to its promises. When the community raised concerns about issues of land ownership, Jan Mangal Ltd asserted that the land belonged to the government. Four years down the line, the company has depleted the mine of its gold and has left the impoverished community behind. Miles of black pipes used to pump water into the mining site still remain and serve as a reminder of their activities. In a group interview, the community of Nakabaat claimed that throughout the period of Jan Mangal’s presence they were refused access to water from the pipes. Notably, Karamoja is one of the regions in Uganda that is most affected by frequent water shortages and drought.

These days, there are only traces of gold left at the site. Young Karamojong miners reveal that for one “point” (i.e. the size of a few sand corns) they earn 5.000 Uganda Shillings (UGX) or US$ 1.70, and one gram presently sells for UGX 50.000 or US$ 17. Ugandan businessmen from Kampala are their main clients. Sales figures are purely the result of chance, and there are periods when they sell no gold at all. A “point” of gold may easily take up to one day of mining and involve several members of the community. Fatalities occur frequently due to the poor set-up of the mining site.

Any local attempts to formally complain and report Jan Mangal Ltd have so far failed. Even when the community sought legal assistance from the International Federation of Women Lawyers, Jan Mangal neither responded nor attended meetings about the case.

Besides, communities such as Nakabaat simply lack educated individuals to advocate for their wants and needs, not to mention to engage in lucrative mining activities and businesses for themselves. When we asked community members how many of them attended school, only one young man raised his hand.

Karamoja has the highest percentage of Uganda’s population with either no schooling or incomplete primary education (79.8 % being female and 64.8% being male). Numerous efforts by the government in collaboration with international donors, aid agencies and civil society organisations are currently underway to increase educational attainment among the local people. These positive developments notwithstanding, it may take a time span of two generations until remote communities are able to advocate for their rights and needs.

This article was originally published by: Africa at LSE

Building Inner Peace: Yoga’s transformative effect on peacebuilding efforts in war-torn societies

How yoga has proved effective in helping conflict-shattered societies to overcome individual trauma.

Lamu Island Backbend Kenya Photo: Robert Sturman. http://robertsturmanstudio.com/africa
Lamu Island Backbend Kenya Photo: Robert Sturman. http://robertsturmanstudio.com/africa

In 2003, the international community-based HIV/Aids initiative, WE-ACTx, was founded in response to an urgent global appeal from Rwandan genocide survivors for help in accessing Aids medications. Initially, the WE-ACTx team, consisting of Aids physicians, activists and researchers, did exactly what most of us would do. They built a hospital and sought to provide as much medical support as they could. However, the medical team soon realised that in a post-genocide and conflict-shattered country, there were wounds that even the best doctors, hospitals and medications cannot heal.

In any society ravaged by violence, individuals suffer from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder both during and/or in the aftermath of conflict. Symptoms can range from depression and flashbacks to increased anxiety and emotional arousal as well as having nightmares, feeling emotionally numb, and in some instances, experiencing intense physical reactions. This clearly gives rise to an essential, yet frequently unaddressed, question in mainstream peacebuilding, development practice and research:

Where does a physiologically-starved society – not to mention the lack of safety and sometimes love, belonging and esteem – actually find the strength for self-actualisation, self-transformation and self-articulation?

Galtung’s famous book, Peace by Peaceful Means (1996), addressed the issue in arguing that in a conflict-shattered society, persons cultivating inner peace would be much more capable of bringing about outer peace as well. Surprisingly, research and practice still marginalise the topic of individual trauma healing and pay significantly greater attention to the various forms of collective methods and mechanisms directed towards reconciliation and societal cohesion. While these are undoubtedly extremely important efforts, they sideline one essential feature required for a stable, long-lasting and socially embedded peace: individual physiological wellbeing. It remains hitherto unexplored how individual trauma healing can actually contribute to the peacebuilding and development process of a society as a whole, either in the short or long-term.

In the case of WE-ACTx, the quest to assist locals to overcome some of the most intractable effects of trauma led to the launch of an experimental undertaking in 2007: Project Air. This is the first initiative, formally endorsed by the United Nations, to help vulnerable Rwandan girls and women to heal and mend both their minds and their bodies – with yoga.

The yoga experiment rapidly exceeded all expectations when key markers of health in the participating women and children began to rebound. Project Air reports that after only two yoga classes, participants regained their appetite and/or slept through the night for the first time in 15 years. An excerpt from an anonymous letter published on the project’s website reads:

(…) it seemed as if something inside them [the women] began to stir, to shift. This was something below the level of thought, below the level of memory, below the level of conscious feeling even, but when it was sparked, it was as if—and I don’t know how else to put this—it was as if the women became able to feel again and so love again the life that was in them.

It is noteworthy that Project Air is not the only yoga initiative in Africa. Other outstanding projects include the Africa Yoga Project and the Mandala House.

Bending and mending the body and mind, healing from a neurological perspective

A millennia-old tradition with roots in India, yoga has experienced a rapid growth in popularity in the West since the 1960s. Whereas for some, yoga is simply an activity to sustain physical health, mental health and strength, for others, it has also become a spiritual awakening. On whatever side of the pendulum one may stand, there are proven benefits.

In an article from The Journal of Internal Medicine, on the ‘Characteristics of Yoga Users’ (2008), medical scientists came to the following two conclusions. Firstly, yoga users are more likely to be white, female, young and college educated. Therefore, as a practice, it is still largely accessible to/and enjoyed by the privileged class in the West. Secondly, yoga users report benefits for musculoskeletal conditions as well as mental health, indicating that further research on the efficacy of yoga for the treatment and/or prevention of these conditions is necessary. Indeed, there is a growing consensus among medical scientists that mind-body techniques, such as meditation and yoga practice, assist the proper functioning of both the biochemical and the neurological systems.

Harvard psychiatrist, John Denninger, is currently examining the biology behind yoga in a five-year study funded by the U.S. Government. In an article by Bloomfield reporter, Makiko Kitamura, Denninger is quoted, ‘There is a true biological effect. The kinds of things that happen when you meditate do have effects throughout the body, not just the brain.’ In one of his studies, published in May 2013, Dr Denninger examines the molecular mechanisms that explain the clinical benefits of what he calls the relaxation response (RR), including meditation, yoga and repetitive prayer. The study concludes that such practices evoke the RR and indicate a reduction in the clinical effects of stress, such as hypertension, anxiety, insomnia and ageing. His findings agree with those of the recently-deceased neuroscientist, Dr. Candace Pert, who gained immense prominence with her book, Molecules of Emotions (1997). In exploring the human brain, Dr. Pert found proof for the biochemical and neurological expressions of meditation practices in the body. In her words:

Most psychologists treat the mind as disembodied, a phenomenon with little or no connection to the physical body. Conversely, physicians treat the body with no regard to the mind or the emotions. But the body and the mind are not separate, and we cannot treat one without the other.

In short, bending, twisting and flexing our body in all possible directions affects our brain, and meditation has an effect on both our physical and mental health. The maxim behind yoga is thus quite simple: practice and it will come to you. By addressing both mental and social factors and how they relate to the symptoms of a disease, yoga brings a holistic element to treatment.

Practical challenges towards healing individual trauma in Africa

Practising yoga in Africa not only brings about new challenges but also gains an entirely new dimension. Exercise makes one hungry and yoga practitioners cannot often afford the food required for a healthy practice. Project Air thus provides food for all participants. Likewise, the Africa Yoga Project is further dedicated to supporting economic development and the alleviation of poverty by creating a local market for yoga in Kenya. Now, almost all the yoga teachers in the country are of Kenyan nationality, therefore yoga is also providing some practitioners with regular income.

Besides, yoga is certainly not the only method in Africa for healing individual traumas. Local forms of chanting, praying and dancing as well as several other types of sports in combination with psychological assistance can all provide the same neurological effect. However, we are precisely at the juncture where current efforts to build peace and foster development have not kept up with developments in neurological science on the benefits of Denninger’s so-called ‘Relaxation Response’. Even though it is obvious to most of us that peace must be cultivated first from within before it can spread collectively the benefits of inner healing and the potential of local and cultural mechanisms and techniques in war-torn societies remain barely explored in research and practice.

One reason for this is that there are so many pressing needs. The big questions for officials and practitioners—as well as for academics pondering the rebuilding of failed states—are therefore very simple: Where do we start? What should be tackled first on such a long list of priorities? Which areas are crucial to ensuring that the country does not relapse into conflict? In acknowledging that peacebuilding and development have to be an all-encompassing and integrated process, international organisations generally provide support for areas such as security, DDR (disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration), transitional justice, good governance, water and sanitation, and employment generation or education. Even though these are all critical areas, they nonetheless obscure how people come to terms with the pressure, stress and anxiety of living in a war-torn and often severely impoverished environment and society. This is precisely the kind of stress that can eventually lead to recurring violence, anger and resentment at both the individual and the collective level. What is more, most peacebuilding and development initiatives simply do not have the mandate, funds, time or capacities to provide the urgently needed individual support for victims, veterans and (child) soldiers alike. Above all, how to overcome anxiety attacks and depression is neither an outspoken nor a widely socially accepted topic in Western societies either.

This is not to imply that the international community does not engage in trauma healing at all. For instance, the International Criminal Court’s Trust Fund for Victims (TFV) is a case in point in providing psychological support alongside physical and material rehabilitation. Nevertheless, much more needs to be done towards empowering individuals and assisting them to cope with various societal, structural and environmental challenges in an attempt to build inner and consequently outer peace in their fragile home countries. As Mahatma Ghandi reminds us:

There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.

This article was originally published by: Africa at LSE