Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Unnatural Selection

Every November in Uganda hundreds of thousands of Primary 7 students gear-up to take their P.L.E. (Primary Leaving Exam). The results are of heavy consequence for both the individual students who hope for high scores that will enable them to enter the secondary school (high school) of their choice, and for the private primary schools who hope for a solid school-wide performance to attract new students in the following term. Government (or public) schools are already over-enrolled and are generally dispassionate to the outcome of their candidate’s exams. In late January the top scores are published in the newspaper for all to see. Unfortunately for many students who study for free from the government primary schools, P7 represents the end of their classroom education, as a state-subsidized secondary school program has yet to be realized, and secondary school-fees are unmanageable for the average Ugandan family.

Not every school qualifies for a P.L.E. testing or “sitting” center. Standards set by UNEB (Uganda National Exam Board) must be met before your school is allowed to hold the exam. In it’s current state Prince Primary does not qualify for a sitting center, so the P7 candidates must travel about 10 miles to St. Kizito Malongo Primary School (a government school) to test. Even though the distance sounds short, the change of environment can add to the stress surrounding these exams. In late November of 2008, 19 students from Prince and 96 students from St. Kizito sat for their P.L.E., and on January 16th, 96 students (12 from Prince and 84 from St. Kizitio) were informed that their exam results had been nullified due to “impersonation”. That’s it! A one-word explanation from UNEB as to why nearly one hundred children’s past 12 months of studying had been deemed “a dead year” and must be retaken. The head mistress of St. Kizito received the letter and shared it with Joshum, the headmaster of Prince Primary. Before informing Joshum, said mistress wrote a reply to UNEB in which she bent the truth regarding the student’s I.D. cards – the student’s photos and identification information were compiled in a book at the testing center, and in her letter she stated that they had individual I.D. cards (the book was officially accepted by UNEB’s on-site supervisor). They were given no proof or further explanation so it’s impossible to know if this had any actual bearing in the mess.

Apparently it’s not uncommon for exam mal-practice to take place, either by schools themselves or students (sometimes their parents) for the reasons I mentioned above, but I’ve discovered it’s even more common for UNEB to nullify without supplying evidence or remorse (it reminds me of our beloved patriot act). Students who wish to contest the decision are charged a non-refundable 200,000-shilling appeal fee per individual case, and all cases are closed indefinitely14-days from the initial ruling. At a rural school like Prince, the entire year costs around 100,000-shillings, and many vulnerable students are charged less on Joshum’s sliding scale, so UNEB’S appeal fee is inconceivable for any struggling rural family (and most families have more then one child attending).

A handful of students were sent into UNEB in Kampala and “investigated”, but none of them claimed to have been aware of any mal-practice. One of the students was Jackie, who I spent Christmas with in Lyatonde. She had her uncle contact me and asked me to come see her in Kampala. She was devastated, and told me she would not leave Kampala without her test results. Since Prince students were testing from a different school, their administration had little-to-no control over the situation, which means I had absolutely none. The 2-week window had already closed, and considering that almost 30,000 (out of approx 400,000) P7 students had their P.L.E. nullified across Uganda this year alone, a small rural school without it’s own testing-center is like a tiny gnat on UNEB’s windshield. Some folks tell me that when poor rural schools test exceptionally well, UNEB becomes suspicious and takes action without rhyme or reason. Jackie would have been a prime “suspect” for performing too well relative to her situation.

The fun doesn’t stop here. In a small village community like Kalegero – where Prince is located – a scandal like this puts the gossip alert into the red zone. Rumors spread like malaria that Joshum had intentionally neglected to register his students in an evil ploy to collect school fees from them again next year. The rumors came from an ex-Prince teacher who was recently recruited by a new school located in the Kalegero trading center. Since he knew the entire Prince guardian community, he literally moved door-to-door spewing lies like “Prince won’t be open this term”, “Joshum is a thief”, and “Prince has been sold to whites who are building it up for rich children only”. These were admirable attempts to lure students to his new place of employment (the school was also offering free uniforms as an incentive). Many guardians stayed loyal to Joshum, or at least came to him first to allow him to explain for himself, but a few were easily swayed and some even threw gas on the fire by contributing to the mud-slinging, so we printed flyers and announced on the Lyantonde loud speaker that we would be holding a community meeting in which Joshum would explain the details of the saga. I felt sympathy for him. He had no control over the situation, and after 11 years of service to the community he was clearly hurt that some people’s faith in his motivations could be so easily shaken.

Despite a death in the community on the morning of the meeting, people turned out in impressive numbers. Joshum presented all the evidence needed to clear his name and came to a compromise with the guardians of the students forced to retake P7. I took the opportunity to reiterate to the community that buying or controlling the school was the polar opposite of Project Focus’s objectives, and reminded them that the reason we have had so many previous meetings, interviews, and planning sessions together was so that a school that works specifically for them is what gets developed. I also reminded them that since exhibitions of their children’s artwork and their own stories are the real driving-force behind the school’s development, this project is theirs, and will only progress and survive with their cohesive efforts. It seamed appropriate to apologize for the way UNEB had marginalized their community, and by publicly expressing condolences to Joshum for the frustrations he had suffered, I was able to shine some light on the fact that they were all mistreated. By the end of the meeting community members were standing up and consoling the headmaster, and one man – thru a Ugandan proverb – compared the parents who so easily abandoned Prince on the brink of it’s improvements to a wife who toils alongside her husband while cultivating the fields for the whole season, and leaves him right before the harvest.

A sense of relief filled the air as we all filed out of the classroom, but the whole situation reminded me how easily things can fall apart if people are not together. This helped me to really see how so many other outsiders with gobs of money and worthy intentions have failed to truly empower communities like Lyantonde because they have put the people’s ideas and voices second to their own. Even though the planned renovations will qualify Prince for their own P.L.E. sitting center, it also became obvious that no amount of water tanks, micro-loans, or classroom blocks will ever substitute for the compassion-vacuum created by the UNEBs of the world.