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Budo tragedy was a start of school fires

By Melina Platas

One of the most memorable and tragic moments of 2008 was the Budo Junior Primary School fire that took the lives of 20 students as they slept in their beds one April night. This was sadly only the start of the devastating trend of loss of life and property in Uganda’s schools. By the end of June 2008, 23 schools had caught fire in 12 districts. Public outcry demanded an explanation, but from who?

Someone is clearly asleep at the switch, but half the problem is that no one seems clear on who is in charge. Minister for Education and Sports, Geraldine Namirembe Bitamazire would seem to be the responsible for the education sector.

But when under pressure following the Budo fire, she largely deflected responsibility, instead pointing fingers at local government and all the while claiming, I’ve done my best. Decentralization was supposed to relieve her of any failures in the education sector, apparently.

A police report looking into the spate of school fires pointed to arson (often with students themselves as suspected arsonists) and carelessness on the part of school staff and students. All this is of little comfort to the dozens of parents who sent students off to school, hoping for good report cards, but whose beloved children were delivered back to them in coffins instead.

Uganda hosts one of the world’s youngest populations – an estimated 7 million or more children are enrolled in the country’s primary schools, approximately one quarter of Uganda’s entire population. President Museveni was an outspoken advocate of Universal Primary Education (UPE) in the late 1990s and more recently for Universal Secondary Education (USE), but the push to get children into schools has come at the expense of quality and safety. Thus, we see that schools are burning, overcrowding is commonplace and literacy rates are stagnating. Schools in rural areas struggle to fill their teaching positions, and everywhere teachers are underpaid, leading to, among other things, high rates of absenteeism.

Much like other public service sectors in the country, including health and infrastructure, the education sector in Uganda is sick. Foreign students still flock to Ugandan schools and universities, but the country’s comparative educational advantage will become compromised if whoever is asleep at the wheel does not wake up, and fast. Uganda’s children and parents deserve to be able to go to school and come home alive and well – and well-prepared to take on the world and pursue whatever their dreams may be. 2008 should be a wake-up call to those presuming to be in charge. It they do not come to their senses soon, Uganda’s once renowned education sector will continue to crash and burn, taking with it the lives and opportunities of Uganda’s children, both literally and figuratively.

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