English words here in this part of Africa may have different meanings than they do in the United States. The word “orphan” is a good example. Here in the region an orphan is a child who has lost one parent. A “double orphan” is one who has lost both parents. When you consider that, for a child in Africa who has lost even one parent, growing up is going to be difficult, this makes sense. If the father has died, the mother is going to have financial difficulties raising her children and, if the mother is the one who has died, then the “orphan” may be raised by a step-mother with all the dangers that Cinderella faced and no likelihood of a prince coming around to try on a slipper.
Another word which has a different meaning here is the word “motivation.” For me motivation is why a person wants to do something – be useful, accomplish something of importance, perform civic responsibility, not be bored, learn something, have fun, or engage with the larger society. Wikipedia comments, “Motivation is an inner drive to behave or act in a certain manner.” But in this region of Africa, “motivation” means “money.” This really bugs me because no one will do anything unless they are paid. People want to be “motivated” (i.e., paid) to come to workshops. We refuse to give them this “motivation” since we want people to come to our workshops because they want to learn something. After the election observing for the 2010 referendum on the new constitution in Kenya, I realized that Kenyan observers were being paid $35 to perform what I considered their “civic responsibility.” I decided that AGLI would not pay people to be citizen reporters and election observers for the 2013 Kenyan election. Their motivation had to be civic responsibility. When I first broached this idea at the Friends Church Peace Teams Board and then with Quakermen (an organization of Quaker men in Kenya) of Lugari Yearly Meeting, it was received very badly. I was told that this was not Kenyan custom and, if people were not paid for their work, they would not do it. I was quite discouraged, but decided that it was not right to use funds donated by our supporters in the US and elsewhere to pay people for what they should be doing without such “motivation.” If we got only twenty-five to fifty people willing to start a new “Kenyan custom,” I would work with those I had. In the end we were overwhelmed with volunteers, training 1200 citizen reporters and over 500 election observers.
But the real purpose of this report is to indicate that “free” does not mean free at all, that is, without cost. When Mwai Kibaki was running for president of Kenya in 2003, one of his platform promises was “free” primary school education. When he won the election, he implemented this immediately, meaning that they no longer had to pay tuition to attend primary school. One million extra students showed up the next year for classes, but there were no more teachers, classrooms, etc so these extra students were just stuffed in. Consequently classes sometimes have up to 100 students. All the countries in the region have adopted the same policy of “free” primary school education. But in Rwanda and Burundi this means not only that there are up to 100 children in a classroom but the teachers have one class in the morning and a second one in the afternoon so that children really only go to school half a day. So where is the quality? Every year in Kenya, when the exams results come out and it is clear how badly the students are doing, there is a great outcry. Yet the government does not see fit to hire the additional 70,000 teachers needed and there are hundreds of thousands of trained teachers waiting for a position. So is the education “free” when little is being learned?
Even though governments in the region announce that the education is “free,” this does not mean that there is no cost (the definition of “free”). First there is the mandatory uniform, copy books, pencils, and drawing set for older students. Part of the donations for the Magarama II Peace Primary School in Burundi are used to buy uniforms for destitute students because when they don’t have a uniform they are picked on and bullied. In Kenya, students are not allowed in school until they have the appropriate uniform. If the student is going to a boarding school, then the family pays for the boarding part. Then the schools themselves charge fees. Most schools have a building fee since the government does not pay for the classrooms – even in Kenya many students study under trees as there are no buildings. Since there is a shortage of teachers, schools often hire trained, but local hires who are paid about $50 per month. The students are assessed fees to pay for this also. Then, something that irritates me, the school system is based on an exam at the end of primary and secondary school which solely determines the students’ educational future. At the end of each of the three terms, teachers give a practice exam. For our two grandsons, we have to pay for the school to give this exam – about $12 for the year for each student. So we are being charged for what the school ought to be doing. Of course, if a student doesn’t have this fee, he or she will not take the practice exam and probably will do poorly later on the national exam. Even more outrageous is a custom for the secondary students that we support in Uganda. The science teachers do not teach any new material during the five days of the week when students are in class, but then require them to attend a Saturday morning session where they have to pay the teacher – only then does the teacher cover the week’s new material. If we want our students to do well on the exams, we have to pay this bribe. At first these “pay to learn” classes were actually held in the school, but since this is obviously illegal, they were later moved to another off-of-school premises. In the end, this “free” education costs lots of money.
Each morning about 8:30 to 9:00 AM when I am in Lumakanda, I take a walk around town for about half an hour to buy the daily newspaper. Often I notice school-aged children who are not in school. Now and then when I pass Lumakanda Township School where our grandsons attend, the students are pouring out of the school to be sent home to bring funds for one purpose or another. Clearly no learning happens that day and students whose parents don’t have the funds handy – or contrary to the myth of proper parenting aren’t particularly interested in having their kids go to school – don’t return and these are the ones I see during my walk around town. I have entered these classrooms with up to 100 students in Kenya, Burundi, and the eastern Congo and I noticed that the students in the back are paying no attention whatsoever to what is happening in the classroom – some of the students in Burundi are clearly severely traumatized. They are learning nothing even if they are present.
So “free education” does not mean it is free. The education is substandard and all the extra assessments mean that schooling still costs money and many students, even if enrolled, continue to be absent due to lack of funds.