The story of the two friends – one dropped out, the other happily returning to school – is also the story of millions of Ugandan children, as many returned to class on Monday after schools were closed for nearly two years. induced by Covid-19.
The shutdown in the East African country was the longest disruption of educational institutions in the world due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the United Nations.
“I am delighted to be going back to school. It has not been easy for me to stay safe at home for so long, but I thank God, who has protected me,” Rachael, 16, told Reuters .
“I have always dreamed of going back to school so that I could achieve the career of my dreams: to become an accountant.
But Ugandan officials expect a third of the children who were in school at the start of the pandemic will not return, which could be a blow to the future prospects of the new generation in a country with one of the youngest populations in the world and already struggling with high unemployment and poverty.
Ugandan authorities are basing their projections on the widespread incidence of children having to work to help their families make ends meet, as well as teenage pregnancies and marriages.
Rachael’s friend, Fridah, was not among the crowd of young students who flocked to class on Monday.
Fridah was Rachael’s age when school closed. Although she loved biology and chemistry and dreamed of becoming a doctor, she said that she “buried” that dream to help support her family by finding a job. Uganda’s strict Covid-19 lockdown plunged many families into poverty as people working odd jobs were left with no income.
Now Fridah fears for her future.
“I’m worried as a girl. Without being in school, I might be tempted to get married,” she said as she served the tables.
“I work here, but I know my friends are currently going back to school or preparing for it. The thought drains me of energy. I feel hopeless and angry.”
Another 16-year-old girl from the town of Kayunga, 65 km (40 miles) northeast of the capital Kampala, told Reuters she had fallen prey to the same temptation as schools were closed.
Sara Nakafero said she was bored and stuck at home when she was attracted to an older man in a relationship.
A few weeks later, her grandmother forced her to take a pregnancy test. She said she spent her pregnancy crying frequently.
The little teenager now avoids leaving her grandmother’s house with her three-month-old baby, Sumin, because of prying neighbors. “People are staring at me… Every time I go for a walk or go for a vaccination, people ask me, ‘Is this child really yours? Nakafero said.
“I feel embarrassed. I feel angry.”
School closures, along with other strict measures to stem the spread of the virus, have helped keep the death toll from Covid-19 low in Uganda. The country has so far recorded around 153,000 cases of Covid-19 and around 3,300 deaths.
But UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency, said the shutdown was too long and costly for young Ugandans.
“Millions of children are at risk of losing their right to education,” said Munir Safieldin, UNICEF representative in Uganda. He cited a projection by the state planning authority that a third of students would never return to school.
UNICEF predicts that Uganda’s economic growth and labor productivity will ultimately be reduced by the dropout rate caused by the closure, Safieldin added.