Challenge and Commitment: An Interview with Primary School Teachers in Uganda

The Ssemakula family lives in central Uganda. Lawrence and Josephine have been married for 13 years and have 3 daughters: Quinn (top middle), Genesis (left) and Genevieve (right). Both Lawrence and Josephine are primary school teachers in Uganda. 

Lawrence and Josephine Ssemakula are both educators in rural Uganda. They have been married for 13 years, after meeting one another at a teacher's college. For the last 8 years, they have been partnering with the work that G.O.D. Int'l has been doing in East Africa, specifically facilitating bible studies with the local youth and participating in bible classes offered via a distance learning curriculum through the Institute for G.O.D. International. As teachers, the Ssemakulas fully believe in the benefits that a proper education can offer, and provide that education to the best of their ability. I recently took time to interview the Ssemakulas regarding their experience.

When I spoke with Lawrence and Josephine about their occupation, I asked them what they find to be their greatest challenge. Though I asked them individually, their answers were exactly the same. One word: hunger. It wasn't the lack of resources, or the poor facilities, or the government's inconsistent pay (though those are all challenges as well), but hunger. As Lawrence states, "When we come to the end of the term and are assessing the children’s performance -- and really they are not performing well -- it all goes back to the idea that they don't eat enough. They are not able to pay for the cup of porridge that the school provides at cost to the children.” Lawrence states that their hunger results in a physical tiredness which limits their attention span and ability to learn what he is teaching.

Classroom conditions in the government school where Ssemakula teaches are poor, with no noise control from the classroom next door (no ceiling or walls that go to the roof), and a 40:1 student to teacher ratio.

Josephine's response to the question was similar, though replete with maternal concern. She recounted this brief episode: "Today, when Quinn (Josephine's daughter) was eating lunch, she told me, 'There is a child there -- he looks real hungry.' So I told her, 'Give the child this food of mine. Go to the child and give him the food.' So she gave him that food."   She recounted the story with an ease and brevity which suggested it was not an isolated moment, in fact, episodes like this are all too frequent.

Josephine is concerned by the desperate lack of interest by the government, which discourages parent participation and results in poor government schools (where both she and Lawrence teach). Her frustration is born from the reality that parents (mostly single working mothers) don't have the energy or confidence to participate in their child's education, and receive little encouragement to do so.”  Moreover, the government is too concerned with directing the budget toward schools in the capital or major cities to find ways to meet tangible needs (like hunger and parent participation) in the rural areas.

When asked what strategies Lawrence uses to capture the classes attention, he lets out a big laugh and says, "Sometimes I will use humor, trying to make the teaching lively, or I will bring up other subjects that the students are interested in to get them talking. I ask them things like, 'What do you want to become in the future?' It diverts their mind a little bit and then they are back to class. I also try to help them understand the value of education in relation to the kind of environments that they come from."

Despite the lack of supplies or the safety of a proper building, students are eager to learn. Sadly, sickness and hunger greatly diminish one's ability to learn. 

In Lawrence’s classroom, there is only one textbook--the one from which he teaches. It is a state textbook, which glorifies powerful men in their nation, and gives few appropriate lessons for village children. Because of the biblical education Lawrence has received, he says he is able to filter through the state curriculum to spend the most time on the lessons that are most helpful to the children. He believes that their education must help them think critically so that they can be a benefit to their community.

These challenges to education are overwhelming and systemic, yet Lawrence and Josephine find energy in the gratitude they receive from parents and students alike. Lawrence expressed that his desire to teach is a social service, one which is recognized by the members of the community. "Even tomorrow, if I said I'm leaving the school and going somewhere else, i know many of them are going to be affected...that I know really well. The majority of the parents have appreciated what I do so much." Likewise, Josephine states, "It's the love that I receive from the children that I teach; the just tells me to go on, and so I keep going on."

Currently, the East Africa regional team of G.O.D. Int’l is helping Lawrence get a diploma in Special Education by covering his children’s school fees, which in turn frees him up from working extra jobs to pursue further education. With this degree, Lawrence desires to focus on children who are overlooked due to learning difficulties and physical handicaps. He will graduate in Mid-September 2013. In addition, Lawrence, along with two other Ugandan cooperatives (Francis Lubega and Peter Kimbugwe), are enrolled in a distance learning course on the book of Genesis, taught by Gregg Garner, from the Institute of G.O.D. International.

Josephine's sincerity and love of education has made her one of the highest marked teachers at her school. She is also helping to plan and facilitate a weekly children’s education program where biblical values are taught to children.

Even though the Ssemakulas face desperate situations, we are grateful for Lawrence and Josephine and their continued commitment to education. Many people in Africa will tell you that education is the key to a good future for their children. But the only way that is the case is if you have commendable, hard-working, motivated teachers like the Ssemakulas.  Though resources lack, they have learned to make the most of a difficult situation by giving of themselves, day in and day out, to their students. We pray that they can be a model to other teachers as they exemplify character in their commitment to offer the highest quality education that they can.

Written by Rylan Aaseby