PHOTOS: Teenage dreams and disappointments after world’s longest COVID school closure

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KAMPALA, Uganda — On January 10, Uganda reopened schools after the longest closure in the world due to the coronavirus pandemic. For most of the students, it was the first time they had returned to class in nearly two years.

When the buildings first closed, the Ministry of Education broadcast lessons on television and radio stations, and some schools distributed printed materials. But it didn’t last for lack of funding. Thus, the approximately 15 million children affected by this closure have suspended their studies.

In August 2021, Uganda’s National Planning Authority predicted that 4.5 million of them were unlikely to return to school. There are several reasons for dropouts. the teen pregnancy rate increased significantly. According to a report released by the UN in 2021, nearly 645,000 teenage pregnancies were recorded in Uganda between March 2020 and September 2021.

And many poor children in urban and rural areas have been forced to start working to help support their families. “They turned children into workers and it was a loss,” says Munir Safieldin, the UNICEF representative in Uganda. “It’s not easy for a family that has been dependent on child labor for almost two years to give up that income and say to the child, ‘Now it’s time to go back to school.'”

Additionally, in an economy pinched by the pandemic, many families currently cannot afford fees, which start at around $135 per term for high school, and other costs (including school materials and uniforms).

Children who are able to return to school have been promoted up one grade level, a decision taken by the Ministry of Education to guarantee places for newly enrolled pupils. But many families and experts are concerned. Marie Goretti Nakabugo, the executive director of Uwezo Uganda, a non-profit organization working to promote equitable quality education, says that even before the shutdown, many young Ugandan students had yet to learn the basics, such as than reading and understanding a text. “Now is the time for us to rethink our curriculum, our teaching and our learning,” she says, because students who are unprepared for class will only fall further behind.

We asked the opinion of six teenagers living in Kamwokya, one of the largest slums in the capital Kampala. They shared what they’ve been through over the past two years and how they feel about going back to school – or not.

Avoid the gangs, complete a challenge

Kusemererwa Jonathan HENRY, 16 years old

Kusemererwa Jonathan Henry had just started high school and had made some new friends when the lockdown began. “We were used to short school holidays, but it was too long. At first, all I did was stay home and sleep,” he says. “Until I thought of a business idea I pitched to my dad.” His father’s finances help combined with his personal savings enabled Jonathan to open a fruit and vegetable stall.

“Before the confinement, I never knew how to work and depend on myself, but since the confinement was difficult, I have now learned to manage.” The success of his business meant that he no longer had to ask for money to buy clothes and helped him stay out of trouble. “I saw a lot of my age mates join gangs but my father was very strict and warned me constantly and that kept me going,” he adds.

Still, Jonathan was eager to get back to class. “I missed school so much that whenever I was bored I would shine my shoes, wear my uniform and ask a friend to take pictures of me which I posted on Facebook,” he says. “The day a date was announced for us to resume school, I woke up the next day and washed my uniforms, my bags and shined my shoes, that’s how excited I was to resume school.”

But he will not close his business. “I get up at 5 a.m., go to the market and stock the fruit stall,” says Jonathan, who has hired a young man to help him sell during the day. “I take over as soon as I finish school in the evening.”

Reading gave her hope

Tusiime Agnès, 14 years old

Tusiime Agnes feared that grade seven was the end of her formal education. “I thought we were never going to go back to school, and I felt bad. I didn’t like staying home,” she says. “But I continued to read my books with the hope that one day we would reopen the school.”

She is now enrolled in Kololo Higher Secondary School, which offers specialization courses and the opportunity to pursue various careers. “My dream is to be a doctor or a midwife,” says Agnès.

She should be back in class but she is not

Naigaga Rebecca Mercy, 14

“Going to school meant I was learning,” says Naigaga Rebecca Mercy. “Staying at home means I haven’t learned anything.”

But she already knew enough to focus on her chores and her books. “I’ve heard of girls who got pregnant and had to find jobs. I thank God that I never got pregnant like other girls, I stayed safe,” she says.

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Two years is a long time, and many people worried that teenagers wouldn’t want to go back to school because they might feel too old. But if someone teases her, Mercy says she won’t mind: “As long as I study, their words won’t hurt me.”

That should mean Mercy is back in class, except she isn’t. “I see my friends going to school and I wonder why I’m still at home,” says Mercy, who has to wait for her parents to raise enough money for her school fees. In the meantime, she is focusing on the high school program and preparing for new academic challenges.

Excited for what comes next

Joshua Mwesigwa, 17 years old

Mwesigwa Joshua hoped the lockdown would be brief. “But after the first year, we entered the second,” he says. “I had no choice but to look for work. I started working for my mother’s friend who sold fruit along the road. didn’t like it. I couldn’t answer him.”

He dreamed of finding a way out but did not know when or how it could happen.

“Out of the blue my older brother called and said, ‘You’re going back to school,’ I thought he was joking,” Joshua said. “He called back and explained. I asked him where we would find money to pay my school fees and he said he would send me the money. In the evening he sent money to my mother. So the next week I went to school, enrolled and started school.”

Joshua is excited for what’s to come. “I have my dreams and selling fruit wasn’t what I wanted to do, but it was what I had to do at that time,” he says. “Now that I’m back in school, I have to study for what I want to be – a software engineer.”

No money for tuition this term

Kisakye Melissa, 14 years old

There were some things Kisakye Melissa, 14, liked about the shutdown. She could visit friends, read books and play all kinds of games. “But there were difficult days when we had nothing to eat at home. My mother was barely working and there was no money,” she says.

Melissa’s mother’s laundry job still doesn’t pay enough to feed her children, so sending them back to school remains out of reach. “I won’t be going back to school this term because my mum has no money for school fees,” says Melissa, who hopes she can find a way to pay. “I am strong that I will go back to school.”

Learn new skills to survive

Joel Joseph, 17 years old

When school closes, Joel Joseph created his own curriculum. “Lockdown taught me how to work. I learned how to fix bikes and radios, do photography, mend shoes, fry dry corn and the like,” he says. “I really wanted to learn how to do so many things because you don’t know what tomorrow brings. My mother might not pay school fees in the future, so I have to equip myself with everything I can for these uncertain times ahead.”

He found a variety of ways to earn money, including working at a friend’s clothing store and partitioning his house to set up a stall that allowed him to sell clothes, music and DVDs. He also began sculpting metal wires into children’s toys.

The reopening of schools left Joseph conflicted. He doesn’t want to miss any white-collar job opportunities because he didn’t go to school, but he would like to be able to take classes that are more in line with his interests.

“I realized that we spend so much time in school and we don’t get the skills needed for the jobs we do,” says Joseph. “For example, in physical education, the teacher asks you to write a 2,000-word essay on volleyball. How will this help me in the future? I’m not a fan of volleyball. I know I want to be a mechanical engineer.”

Halima Athumani is a digital and broadcast journalist based in Kampala, Uganda. She has covered politics, health, human rights and social affairs since 2010, hosted a newscast on 93.3 KFM in Kampala and contributed to Voice of America, The Washington PostAl-Jazeera and the BBC.

Esther Ruth Mbabazi is a photographer based in Kampala, Uganda. Her work explores changing conditions on the African continent. She is a National Geographic Explorer, former VII Photo Agency Mentee and Magnum Foundation Photography and Social Justice Fellow and has been published in The New York Times, Time Magazine, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

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