Literacy is a human right – 20 years of refugee work in Uganda

For 20 years the Finnish Refugee Council has been teaching adult literacy and English among refugees in Uganda

English for Adults class in Byabakora, Kyaka II in May 2017.

The Finnish Refugee Council started working among adult refugees in Uganda exactly 20 years ago. Our first classes of Functional Adult literacy (FLA) and English for Adults (EFA) started in Adjumani in 1997. Two years ago we returned to the busy northern border area again to four settlements: the Ayilo I and II and Nyamanzi and Pagirinya.

This year, we are planning to extend our operations to Lamwo.

In the meantime, we have been offering adult education for tens of thousands of refugees in Kyaka II, Kyangwali, and Nakivale. Additionally, we work with urban refugees living in Kampala.

Country director Tarja Saarela-Kaonga says, that in the beginning we educated only about 500–1 000 refugees per year, but during our best years we have been able to teach many necessary skills to about 7 000–8 000 refugees yearly.

“That brings the total number of people who have participated in our training programs to about 45 000–50 000. Some of the beneficiaries have been Ugandans living nearby settlements”, Saarela-Kaonga says.

But let’s visit one of our English classes in Kyaka II refugee settlement and see, what is going on there.

Kyaka II, is one of the oldest refugee settlements in Uganda, established already in the 1960s. Driving from Kampala to Kyaka takes about four hours. The settlement is spread out to an area of about 80 square kilometers and consists of small scattered villages. Most refugees are from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

One of the villages is called Byabakora, and here we are about to join an English for Adults class.

The class is taught by a volunteer teacher Emmanuel Upar, who himself came to Uganda from Congo over 40 years ago. He is standing in front on an old fashioned black board, still one of the most useful teaching equipments at a refugee settlement today.

Upar is asking: “200 shillings – what can it buy?”

One of the students responds: ”It can buy a banana.”

This is how it continues: “One thousand shillings – what can it buy?”

“Air time.”

The idea is to learn how much things cost in Uganda. Ugandan shilling is a new currency for refugees, and, English a new language. The refugees sitting in the room are from Congo and South-Sudan.

Our teaching is human rights based, meaning that according to the Universal declarations of Human Rights, we also consider literacy not only a human right, but also a foundation for lifelong learning. We believe, that any education, especially for adult refugees, really needs to respond to the everyday needs of the adult learners, like what do things cost at the market, or how to take this medicine?

FRC has created learning materials in Uganda which are based on work done together with the refugees, based on their needs not only as refugees, but also keeping in mind that one day they might return to their home country, or leave Uganda for resettlement.

Most of the refugees who come to Uganda from neighbouring countries are women, and, almost 80 per cent of them are illiterate. So, many of them also take Functional Adult Literacy courses.

Refugees need first of all food, shelter and basic health care, but then they have to start their new life in foreign surroundings and create a sustainable life style for themselves. They need to earn enough income to support themselves, their families and sometimes many dependants.

They need to learn English and put their children to school.

When we restarted our operations in the Adjumani district in 2015, we made a survey on the needs and wishes of the newly arrived, mostly South-Sudanese refugees.

75% of them told us, that they want to learn how to read. 87% wanted to learn English and almost all of them, 94% wanted to learn basic arithmetic skills.

Refugees need education, but they do not have time to sit in schools for years and years. This concerns also vocational training. The learning materials have to reflect their everyday life and they have to find use for it immediately.

Functional literacy means also, that a student learns to read maps and follow their children’s school work. The same goes with English: During of the first lessons, they learn to say: “I have malaria/ HIV/ typhoid.”

When food items are discussed, we bring in healthy nutrition: ”Fill only half of the plate with cassava, rice, maize or potatoes.”

Also human rights, life skills and many psychological issues are discussed in a more advanced class: ”Please describe to your class the events of human rights violence you have seen in your community.”

But today we concentrate on money:

“10 000 shillings – It can buy a kettle.”

After the class was over, I asked the students, why they study English?

One of them replied that he can go to different public offices, to run errands. Another one is about to go to Australia for resettlement.

“I can buy food from the market”, says one. “I can sell my products in the market”, says another.

“I can speak with visitors who come to our settlement.”

“I can work as an interpreter.”

“I can get a job in an office.”

Young refugees studying at the FRC Resource Center library in Kampala in May 2017

Today, our educational program extends from English and basic literacy to other courses on income generation and creating a sustainable life style, such as small business skill training and support to livelihood activities. In those activities, ecological agriculture or saving is introduced, and help given to establish savings and loan groups.

Now, in our savings groups, 80% of those who joined were able to put money aside, whereas only 20% were able to do it on their own before joining the group.

We have youth groups, in which we train volunteer teachers and facilitators for our courses, we teach life skills, leadership skills and some practical skills, like candle making or baking. By learning instructor training, we have been able to build refugee communities which have become more self-sufficient and self-reliant.

When our functions were evaluated by the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2015, it was concluded, that our work in Uganda is extremely cost efficient. Secondly, our literacy and English courses have an effect of sustainability that extends to a much larger number of people than those who participate in the courses:

When an illiterate mother learns basic reading, writing and basic math skills, she can help lift her family from poverty, and, she is more likely to support her children’s school careers, cook healthy meals, teach life skills and rights to her children and thus create a lifelong basis for a better future for herself and her community.

Text and photos by Kristiina Markkanen. Markkanen is a volunteer Public Information Officer of the FRC, and a journalist specialized in migration and human rights.