When COVID-19 hit Uganda in March 2020, teacher Ocwee Irene Trends knew she had to take drastic action. The country entered a strict lockdown and closed all schools. The teacher had a feeling it would be a long time before her students returned.
As director of Hilder Primary School, in a poor neighborhood in Gulu, north Uganda, she knew her oldest pupils, who were between the ages of 13 and 17, were at great risk of dropping out.
She brought 30 boys and girls to live in her family home, where she home-schooled them for free.
“The past two years were crazy,” she told ADF with a laugh. “But I loved the craziness. I didn’t know how hectic it would be to have 30 teenagers.”
The government offered no funding. Most of the parents were too poor to provide assistance.
At first, Uganda’s Ministry of Education offered remote learning options with lessons broadcast on TV, radio and in print. But the funding ran out, and about 15 million children nationwide put their education on hold.
But education did not stop at the teacher’s family’s 6-hectare farm. The students helped convert her five-bedroom house. One bedroom became a classroom, and three others turned into dorms for the students.
Breakfast was at 9 a.m. Three lessons a day were taught in the classroom. The students washed clothes, fetched water, and helped farm peanuts, soy, cassava and beans. In the evenings, the students bonded by discussing their parents, their home lives and the community.
That kind of perseverance during the pandemic has inspired Uganda’s Minister for Primary Education, Joyce Moriku Kaducu, who attended secondary school in Gulu.
“I don’t accept that there is a lost generation,” she told The New York Times. “What I agree to is [that] there’s a percentage of our children who have gotten pregnant, the young boys have gotten into the moneymaking economy and others have gone into things. That does not mean that we have lost the generation completely.”
In January 2022, Uganda ended the world’s longest pandemic-related education closure. It lasted 22 months. Hilder Primary School reopened, and the teacher’s home-schooled students took their national exams. All 30 will attend secondary school and Hilder, which is ranked among Uganda’s top 20 schools.
The students were recognized on the radio. Their pictures appeared in newspapers.
“Everyone was talking about them,” the teacher said. “It was then that I started realizing what I did. We did something good.”
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