One of Uganda’s key concerns in education over the years has been the growing rift in performance between urban and rural schools. Primary and Secondary school grades in the national examinations largely tend to decline with distance moved from the country’s capital, Kampala. Solutions to bridge this gap and restore parity, however, could be in a book gathering dust in Gulu University’s library. Dr. Stephen Odama is fully aware that the knowledge in his PhD thesis could go unutilised, the way of most academic research in Uganda, unless there is publicity and awareness about his findings and recommendations.
The determined teacher
When I meet him at Gulu University first I am struck by his jolliness. Then I discover that this is one of the most determined people I could ever meet. In 1972 Odama graduated as a Grade 2 primary school teacher. He went on upgrading as he taught and in 1979, he qualified as a Grade 3 teacher. He had sat and passed mature entry examinations by that time so straight away he joined Makerere University. In 1983 he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Education with a concurrent diploma. He joined Tororo Girls Secondary School and taught. At the end of 1984 he was back at Makerere for a Masters’ degree and he was later retained as a lecturer. He joined NGO work1 for some years before seeking employment at Gulu University in 2002 where he has been until now.
“My job is to train people who are going to become teachers of secondary schools,” he says.
From a primary school teacher in 1972 to a PhD recipient 46 years later, I can’t help but admire his resolve.
Odama registered for his PhD in 2015. The National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) had asked Gulu University to submit three names of academic staff for capacity building and his was among. The NCHE would pay his tuition while the university would provide his research grant. He chose to study why secondary school students in northern Uganda were performing worse, in examinations, than their counterparts in central Uganda.
“My question was why, and what can be done to make sure that that gap is not widened because it used not to be there before,” he tells me.
Northern Uganda suffered two decades of an armed conflict which ended only in 2006. Many people were displaced and had to live in internally displaced people’s camps. It was tempting to conclude that the decline in performance in the region’s schools was due to that factor. But Odama’s findings point to something else.
Surprisingly, as Odama found, even at the peak of the insurgency, several schools were performing much better than they are now when there is peace. To back up the argument that war was not necessarily the problem, he brought in the comparison with eastern Uganda schools whose performance has also declined even when they have never experienced a serious conflict.
Resource availability (money, books, equipment) is important, Odama found, but more important is how to utilise the resources, and how to mobilise people to contribute those resources.
“When you go to some of these schools the resources are there. Why are they not being used? The issue of leadership comes in, the issue of capacity to lobby parents to contribute comes in, the issue of encouraging students themselves to work hard, to always aim at the best, comes in,” he says.
I am interested in the issue of leadership. Is the problem from the appointing authority, that they appoint weak leaders to these places? I ask
“No. I think the problem is, once the leaders are appointed, they are not supervised, they are not inducted, and I think also that there is lack of general encouragement from authorities who appoint them. Of course we cannot rule out the possibility that some people appointed may not be people who qualify.”
“When you talk about supervision it brings me to the Ministry of Education. Where is the weakness?” I probe. The ministry has a directorate for education standards and local governments have District Education Officers.
“People complain of lack of money at the government level. I don’t know,” he says, preferring to laugh it off. “I can’t talk for them.”
Weak leadership certainly translates into less capacity to lobby. Odama found that although the government has a ceiling, whereby, for example, a secondary school with 1000 students is supposed to have 60 teachers, schools in the central are likely to have more teachers within a ceiling. Teachers in the central are also more likely to be on the government payroll than their counterparts in the north.
“You find that a good number of teachers in the north are on the payroll of the board of governors. Sometimes salary payment delays because fees collection is not quick enough. All these contribute to weaker grades,” he says.
Odama also found that as compared to the north, the involvement of parents, in terms of follow up, was much higher in the central.
In his recommendations, Odama says that the government should try its best to carry out supervision, induction programmes, as well as treat schools equally while allocating resources.
“The teacher, the parents, the local leadership all need to work together for the improvement of the child in education,” he adds to the recommendations.
Applying the research
Odama has been picking and presenting at a few workshops parts of the research from his thesis. His audiences have included teachers, head teachers, schools’ boards of governors and representatives of students.
“I have been presenting a few areas like ‘Parenting,’ what roles parents could play in encouraging girls. Hopefully they will put them into practice,” he tells me.
Although Odama’s research bears significance for Uganda’s education2, especially in pursuit of Goal 4 of the SDGs3, he does not think anyone at policy level has picked up interest in his findings.
“You know academic research. Sometimes the books are there in the library. I don’t know how it is done in developed countries,” he says “Unless organisations like UNESCO are the ones which have commissioned the research may be they would publicise it wider. In Uganda results from academic research, in most cases, just remain in book shelves,” he says.
In the long term, he feels, if findings in his research were utilised, it would bridge the gap between the best and the worst students. “All schools should be able to perform at par. The difference could be there but should not be as wide as it is now,” he says.
Keeping on the job
By now Odama should have retired but for the PhD. The university added him another two years.
“That is the way the PhD has helped me,” he tells me. “And I have now fulfilled the conditions for promotion to Senior Lecturer.” When he finally retires, he hopes to start a consultancy firm in education.
The BSU experience
Odama’s tuition was paid by the NCHE, the university sponsored his research, so how does the Building Stronger Universities in Developing Countries (BSU) program come in? The program sponsored his two months stay in Denmark which proved fundamental for his PhD award.
In Denmark he was based at Aalborg University. He had three guides, two at Aalborg and one at the University College of Northern Denmark. His main purpose of going to Denmark was to prepare articles for publication.
“I came back with three articles in the two months and two were accepted and published immediately4,” he says proudly. The BSU sponsored him again in December 2017 to present his third paper in Nepal and that one was also subsequently published.
“Denmark somehow prepared me for putting up a good defence for my thesis. Some of the questions I was asked when I was preparing my papers were also asked here during my defence,” he says.
The short stay in Denmark provided him with the perfect study environment. “I was very free in Denmark. The people were friendly. We were staying in somebody’s house. That person became part of us, he was friendly to us and I didn’t feel that I was an outsider,” he says. “All the people I approached were ready to help and they were very useful. You send your article to them they would read, make comments and send it back to you however busy they may be. It was a good experience.”
Living it Gulu
For 16 years Odama has been at Gulu University. For a man who got here when he couldn’t even use a computer to the PhD crown, Odama has reason to smile his way into retirement in a few years.
“I got a PhD here, and it is Gulu University that exposed me to the outside world – Denmark, Germany, USA, Kenya, Malawi,” he mentions some. “When I was joining Gulu I did not know how to use a computer. As I talk now I am computer literate. I typed my PhD thesis. I am able to communicate through internet. I am able to search. I leant all that here.” I can feel the pride and joy of accomplishment through his low tone.
When we have almost talked and laughed our throats dry, I ask him if there is anything else he would like to share with me. After a shot reflection he asks rather rhetorically: “You said you are an environmental journalist?” I answer in the affirmative, adding that I am broadly a science journalist.
“I don’t know when we shall reach the level of those people [the Danes] in keeping our environment clean and also conserving it. They are at a very high level. I don’t know how you people can help”
I share with him a bit about the Tree Billionaire Generation, a nascent conservation movement I am promoting. Outside the BSU office where we are holding this conversation the wind continues to hiss, the sun burns. But inside me is this feeling of gratitude. I have met a great man in his own right.
I can still see his smile and feel his tone.
William Odinga Balikuddembe is a science journalist based in Kampala, Uganda