Mbale – By the time my boda boda rider finally switches off his engine, I am off the motorcycle and standing by the roadside, having had enough of the long journey from Mbale Town through Mt Elgon National Park to Bunawile in Busano Sub-county, up Wanale ridge on the slopes of Mt Elgon.
Three hours of riding on the dusty and poorly maintained feeder road hardly used by vehicles has left me tired and worn out.
We arrive here a few minutes after 11am and I hoped that we had arrived in Bunawire Village where Bunawire Primary School is located only to be told that the school is another four kilometres uphill, where we had to walk.
As we walk through the village bushy paths, residents can be seen in their gardens harvesting carrots, onions, tomatoes and peas. However, something is strange here; each of the adults in the garden has school age-going children.
A new term has started but unlike many pupils who are assured of the comfort in their classrooms, teachers and scholastic materials, the situation in Bunawire Primary School is different.
Although under the Universal Primary Education Programme (UPE) with well-constructed structures, the school is characterised by a set of unfortunate circumstances that have eluded children from realising the value of education. This probably explains why many children have to get up early in the morning and go to gardens before going to school.
Ms Justine Wakhasa, a Primary Three teacher, says following sensitisation through home visits, many children are eager to go to school but that when it is time for learning, most of them would rather stay home because teachers come to school at about 10am as all of them come from about seven kilometers away and uphill.
Ms Wakhasa welcomes us warmly and ushers us at the verandah of one of the classrooms. A few books for the teachers, register and pupils are seen through the window in one of the classes, which serves as one of the offices.
“We welcome you to Bunawire Primary School; we hardly receive visitors, so when we see you come to our school, it is a great privilege because this place is far deep in the hills where district inspectors hardly visit. Although they know this school exists, it is very far and given the bad terrain that involves walking up hill, they don’t come,” says Ms Wakhasa who is also a neighbour of the school.
Mr Joseph Namakhako, a former teacher at the school, says it started in 1985 under the foundation of the Catholic Church before government took it over and that it is now under the UPE programme with a population of about 510 pupils.
“This school has seven classrooms, no houses for the teachers, an office for the headmaster created out of one of the classroom blocks and there is no staffroom. This means that teachers walk long distances up hill to come and teach,” said Mr Namakhako.
Mr Namakhako says as a result, the school has never got a first grade since it started. “Like this year, our best student got Aggregate 34,” he adds.
Mr Joseph Wamono, a neighbour of the school, says the number of pupils drops to as low as 200 during rainy seasons because teachers do not report for duty for fear of the landslides in the hills.
“Life is hard for the teachers who come from Nyondo, Nabumali and other places that are in the valleys. They walk to school through these bushy hill paths, they have no accommodation and once it rains, we dismiss pupils and we have to go away ourselves because this place is not safe,” said Mr Wamono.
Irene Nabutsale, a Primary Six pupil, says the school teaches them up to 2pm and closes for the next day during rainy seasons.
She adds that their teachers mainly use Lugisu as the medium of instruction.
“We attend lessons from 1am to 2pm and we go back home and during the rainy season, we just sit in classes and we go back home because teachers don’t come. But we do Science, SST, Mathematics and English,” says Nabutsale, who fails to communicate to this reporter in English, instead using Lugisu.
The scenario at Bunawire epitomizes the struggles faced by pupils studying in the hard-to-reach schools on the slopes of Mt Elgon in the districts of Mbale, Kapchorwa, Bukwo, Kween, Sironko, Bududa, Manafwa and Namisindwa.
The District Education Officer in-charge of special needs, Mr Hannington Bakumba, acknowledges the district is aware of the challenges faced by Bunawire Primary School and that because of budgetary constraints, they are yet to address them.
“It is one of the schools that suffers during rainy seasons. We are aware and that is, why although they have an index number U006505, we have allowed them to sit Uneb examinations in one of the schools in the low lying area at Butsongola Primary School,” says Mr Bakumba.
He reveals that the school has received one classroom block and one classroom block from government under UPE and that it has also received books from government to help teachers and pupils.
“And many of the schools around Mt Elgon hilly areas that are hard-to-reach go through the same problems every rainy season,” adds Mr Bakumba.