The cost of being a teacher, refugee at Dadaab - Daily Nation

Ugandan teacher recounts violence and journey to Dadaab

Friday September 21 2018


Mr Abdi Mahat, a teacher at Hormuud Primary Secondary School in Ifo-II Refugee Camp, Garissa County, takes Standard Three pupils through a Mathematics lesson on September 17, 2018. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Walter Michael Kagwa took the first step towards becoming a refugee in 1987.

The previous year, Uganda's National Resistance Army had toppled the government of President Milton Obote and shortly thereafter Yoweri Museveni had installed himself as president.

A few months later, Alice Lakwena, a self-proclaimed priestess, formed a ragtag militia and started a rebellion against President Museveni.

However, her poorly-equipped Holy Spirit Movement could not withstand the fire power of President Museveni's army and the rebellion lasted barely a year.

By December 1987, it was evident that Alice Lakwena's insurgency had been contained.

At one point, the remaining band of the Holy Spirit Movement fighters found itself sandwiched between Ugandan soldiers and the dreaded General Service Unit on the Kenyan side.


Ms Lakwena asked to meet a government official from Kenya and, according to Mr Kagwa, she was given an audience by the then Vice-President Mwai Kibaki. The talks eventually led MsLakwena being granted asylum in Kenya, but not before serving time in prison.

By the time Ms Lakwena crossed into Kenya on December 18, 1987, only 120 of her army was by her side, and all of them were teachers.

Mr Kagwa, now an assistant education officer with the Lutheran World Foundation, was one of them. Today, he is one of the 65 Ugandan refugees domiciled at the Ifo camp in Dadaab, where Ms Lakwena died as a refugee 11 years ago.

Mr Kagwa has had a tumultuous journey both as a refugee and as a teacher. First, he served one year at the Kodiaga Prison from where he was to be repatriated.

However, with the intervention of the United Nations, he was taken to the Thika reception centre for refugees where he started a school.

"Because of the situation in Somalia and Ethiopia, women refugees came and occupied the classrooms," Mr Kagwa, a graduate of Fine Arts from Makerere University, told the Nation last week.

That marked the end of the informal school that he and his colleagues had started for the refugee community at the centre.


Eventually, in July 1995, Mr Kagwa found himself in Dadaab. His first posting was at Halane Primary, then one of the five schools for refugees there. Two years later, he became the deputy head teacher.

One of the highlights of his career came in 2004 when he became head teacher of Midnimo Primary School, which had 73 pupils.

When 43 of the students qualified to join Form One but found no school that could take them in, Mr Kagwa started a secondary school within Midnimo.

It came to be known as Ifo Secondary School and Mr Kagwa remembers that only one of the Form Ones was a girl.

Four years later, the pioneer class sat the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education exam and the best student, Abbas Hassan Mohamed, scored an A.

"He went to Princeton University on a scholarship," Mr Kagwa, who is one of the 896 Dadaab refugees who are also teachers, recalls.

Two years ago, he took a shot at the Global Teachers Prize, a $1 million (Sh100m) award presented annually to a teacher with an outstanding contribution to the profession. He finished in the top 50.


This, however, is the only silver lining in Mr Kagwa's otherwise dark cloud.

Pay for refugee teachers like him remains low although trained and qualified teachers are few in the refugee camp.

This means that qualified refugee teachers work more for less, given the high numbers of learners.

And when Kenyan teachers left Garissa in the wake of attacks against non-locals by terrorists earlier this year, the burden for the trained teachers increased.

"The host community hired 10 refugee teachers to replace them," Mr Idriss Shurie, the Dadaab sub-county director of education, says. That meant fewer qualified teachers in refugee schools.

Their work has been made more challenging by large class sizes, which are as a result of humanitarian agencies encouraging refugee children to go to school.


Mr Shurie says that the ratio of teachers to students ranges from 1:60 in the smaller classes to 1:80 in the more congested ones. This affects both the qualified and unqualified teachers.

However, the latter carry a bigger burden because of their professional limitations and also because they are the majority.

According to Mr Mohamed Ahmed, an education specialist with the UN Children's Fund (Unicef), 80 percent of the refugee teachers have not undergone proper training.

"Teachers in the refugee camp are not recognised and they cannot be employed by the Kenya government," Mr Ahmed says. Neither can they be issued with work permits.

Because their pay is poor — most earn the minimum wage of about $100 — they cannot sponsor themselves to pursue higher education.

And even if they could, their movement to other parts of the country is restricted, unless one secures a scholarship which, thankfully, is not too hard to come by in that part of the world.


Although Mr Kagwa is one of those who have opted to remain in the education system, most trained teachers in the camp have left the profession to take up less demanding and better paying jobs.

Others were repatriated when two of the camps were closed down in May.

According to Mr Dahir Sigale, the deputy head teacher at Hormud Primary School, others go back to Somalia as soon as they complete their training. Once they return home, it is easier for them to get jobs.

According to another teacher, only those who have unresolved issues remain in the camp after qualifying.

That means many of the teachers who choose to remain in refugee schools are unqualified.


Unfortunately, such teachers cannot be enrolled in teacher training colleges because many do not meet the cut-off points for admission.

"The entry grade to teacher training colleges is very high for refugee teachers, expensive and restricted," Mr Ahmed says.

One way to resolve this conundrum would be by converting schools like Mwangaza Primary into a teacher training college.

Mwangaza was built in Ifo2 camp, which was closed down in May. As a result, its learners were dispersed to other schools while others went back to Somalia.

Today, the high quality facilities at the school remain unused. Converting it into a college would create a pool from which refugee schools can draw qualified teachers while also addressing the question of attrition.