BUSIA, Uganda (AP) – Dressed in his school uniform, Mathias Okwako jumped into the mud and began his daily search for gold, a commodity that may be closer to his reach than another valuable asset: an education.
His rural school in Uganda sits unoccupied right across the swamp where he and dozens of children now work as informal miners. Weeds grow in some classrooms, where window frames have been looted for firewood. Another nearby school rents rooms to tenants.
Ugandan schools have been totally or partially closed for more than 77 weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic, the longest disruption in the world, according to figures from the United Nations cultural agency.
And unlike many parts of the world, where classes moved online, most public schools, which serve the vast majority of children in this East African country, were unable to offer virtual education.
In the vacuum left, some students got married. Some are faced with unwanted pregnancies. Others, like 17-year-old Okwako, have found work.
The pandemic has made “outcasts,” a lost generation of learners now “in a battle over how to integrate,” said Moses Mangeni, a local government official in Busia, where Okwako lives.
Efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 have disrupted the lives of children around the world, squeezing their parents, complicating their care, and often removing their safety nets. Perhaps more importantly, it plunged their schooling into chaos.
The result is the “biggest global education emergency of our time,” according to aid group Save the Children, which last month identified 48 countries, including Uganda, whose school systems are at risk. extreme or high to collapse. Most are in sub-Saharan Africa, a region long marked by high dropout rates and a shortage of qualified teachers.
Some other parts of the world that have experienced prolonged shutdowns have also struggled to teach students. Mexico, where internet connectivity is weak in many places, has opted for educational programming via television. Ultimately, the pandemic has been devastating for children in Mexico, which has seen millions of people drop out of school as well as an increase in child homicides, teenage pregnancies and domestic violence.
In Iraq, distance learning was also “limited and uneven,” according to the World Bank.
Some richer countries have fared better. In Kuwait, because most public schools were not equipped to go online when the virus first hit, all studies were suspended for seven months in 2020. But then the Arabian Sheikh of the Gulf, rich in oil, poured $ 212 million into an online learning platform, and all the schools went online. The deployment is considered a success.
But in Uganda, there is no real success.
The country closed its schools for the first time in March 2020, shortly after the confirmation of the first case of coronavirus on the African continent. Some classes were reopened to students in February, but a full lockdown was again imposed in June as the country faced its first major wave. It is now the only country in Africa where schools remain closed, although President Yoweri Museveni announced last week that they would reopen in January.
It comes as cases of the virus have declined in recent months, with the country now recording an average of 70 new infections a day and a few deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. Uganda has so far fully immunized about 700,000 of its 44 million people.
First Lady Janet Museveni, who is the country’s education minister, dismissed criticism that the government is not doing enough to teach children. In a speech in October, she asked “why our children cannot be safe at home. What happened to the family?
The problem, some Ugandans say, is that the government has not found an effective way to continue learning during the lockdown. A suggested national program to broadcast lessons via free radios has not materialized, and in rural areas many children lack any kind of learning material.
As elsewhere, schools usually also provide shelter for vulnerable children: they can be fed or given their routine childhood immunizations or have access to other services not readily available at home.
But in Uganda’s poorest households, children are now often left to fend for themselves, without the private lessons or Zoom classes that wealthy families can afford.
In Busia, even before the pandemic, the sight of children hawking goods on the streets was not uncommon. Things only got worse.
Many children who spoke to The Associated Press expressed their desperation amid the extended lockdown.
Okwako, who said he wore his school uniform while looking for gold because he had nothing else to put on, looked for work out of boredom but regrets that the tiring days left him with little energy. to study alone.
“No time (to) read books,” he said. “If you try to open a book, you just fall asleep and sleep until tomorrow.”
At the informal gold mine, students work alongside adults, including some of their teachers, under the blazing sun. Witnesses said the risks and frustrations of precarious work led to fights and some children broke their limbs while digging.
A typical day can earn just over $ 2, enough for a child to buy a used pair of shoes. Okwako is proud of the two pigs he bought with his winnings. Other children said they used the money to look after their families, regularly buying salt or soap.
“We come here to make money,” said Annet Aita, 16, whose job it is to wash the sandy soil in which the gold dust is trapped, using highly toxic mercury.
But work also offers a refuge from other dangers that lie in wait for those who are not in school. Aita said she felt luckier than some friends who “had pregnancies at home”.
Teacher Francis Adungosi said he now worked at the mine “Monday to Monday” and warned he would need a “refresher course” before returning to class.
As for his students, “they are traumatized. Remember, they have a lot of challenges. Some of them are pregnant. Some have already married. Managing these children is going to be so difficult.
It is for those who return. Many say they won’t.
Some children now say, “We don’t remember what we read, so why should we go back? Said Gilbert Mugalanzi, of the Somero Uganda group, who conducted a survey in November to assess how the pandemic was affecting schoolchildren in parts of Busia.
At Owako’s Mawero Elementary School, teacher Emmy Odillo said he expects a small fraction of the 400 students to return next year.
Others have equally low expectations.
Bosco Masaba, the director of studies at Busia Central Primary School, the nearby private school that has been converted to rental, said he regularly sees students on the streets selling tomatoes or eggs. He has heard that some girls have become domestic workers across the border in Kenya.
“Some have completely given up hope,” Masaba said.
Christopher Sherman in Mexico City, Zeina Karam in Beirut and Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed to this report.