Educating Akello

A small girl I encounter outside a Ugandan refugee camp somehow persuades me to pay her school fees. I soon find myself caught up in an ambiguous African story of doubt, mistrust and guilt
August 26, 2006

Too small to reach the seat, she cycles with one leg through the frame of the old-fashioned bicycle and stops in front of me, blocking my way. She greets me with full African solemnity, looking straight into my eyes and says, "Please help me, sah."

Her long green skirt and bright white shirt say student, but it is late morning and she is not in school. I guess what is coming next: "I beg you please sah. Help me for school fees."

I have just come from one of the squalid, disease-ridden encampments that the people of northern Uganda, some 2m of them, have been imprisoned in since the early 1990s. Strangely beautiful from a distance, they consist of hundreds of traditionally built circular huts of mud and thatch. Jammed together without sanitation, they are sprawls of squalor, breeding disease and hopelessness. Known in NGO-speak as "displacement" camps, they are home to a population that has been forced into dependency and for some, almost 20 years of purposeless, barren days.

The people are kept there as protection from the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), the vicious insurgent group that has harried this region for two decades. But according to a WHO report, there are 1,000 more deaths a week in the camps than the norm for the area. Not even at its murderous worst did the LRA achieve that rate of killing. The medicine is killing more people than the disease. An end to this war is again tantalisingly close—as it has been so many times over the last 20 years.

As I leave, I am caught between tears and rage—more likely to punch someone than to pay their school fees. I am walking to try to calm down and use up my last two hours in Kitgum, as my last meeting has been cancelled.

"Please sah. You can help me," pipes up this tiny dark girl with huge solemn eyes.

"What is your name?" I ask, stepping around her.

"Akello Corine." She swings the bike around and follows me.

"What about your family?"

"I live with my grandmother and brothers. Our mother and father they died from Aids."

"What about other relatives?"

"My other brother was taken by the LRA six years ago. We never seen him again."

"Do you have any other relatives?"

"They are far."

I saw a thousand girls like Akello Corine in the camp I have come from. And there are many camps scattered across northern Uganda. She says she is 15—though she looks more like ten—and was at secondary school until she was turned away because she could not pay. Her only source of income is the old bicycle, which her elder brother uses as a taxi. That brings about 1,000 shillings a day—about 30p. School fees are 148,000 shillings a term.

I have paid school fees in Africa before, but only for children of families I know well and can stay in touch with. I am not going to hand over a term's school fees to this girl in the street. Anger at the suffering created by a pointless war has gouged any kindness out of my heart. But an idea is growing in my mind. I have recently been asked to be a trustee of a small charity for education in Uganda that gives scholarships. Bursaries go to children, mainly girls, who have done well in primary school but cannot afford to go to secondary school. If Akello's marks are as high as she says, she would qualify. Perhaps I can play fairy godfather and get rid of this girl.

I suggest to Akello that she write in my notebook her details and the name of her school, class and headmaster. But I can't escape that easily. After writing all this down she hands back my notebook and says firmly, "It is better you come with me now."

I tell her that I am in a hurry and have no money. I suggest that I write a note to the headmaster which she can take to him. I will tell him I will find someone who could pay the fees. "It is better that you come now," she says.

Her blunt demands are beginning to penetrate my dishonest replies. I hate being seen in Africa, as Paul Theroux put it, as a "wallet on legs," but I feel guilty for lying about having no money on me. Most of all I am simply overwhelmed by her determination.

We set off for the school about a mile away, through another camp of squatters. People give us knowing looks as they see a middle-aged white man accompanying a small schoolgirl. Akello is unconcerned, telling me that all she wants to do is to study. She repeats the ghastly fate of her family. I look around us at the idle camp. The only ways a girl in her position could earn money for school fees—or even for survival—are brewing beer or prostitution.

We are stopped at the school gate by a guard—employed not to protect the school from attackers but to keep out scores of children desperate to study. As we walk through the school in the glaring sun, rows of eyes look out from dark packed classrooms. The only sound is that of teachers' voices.

As we are ushered into the headmaster's office, Akello rushes forward and kneels in front of his desk, averting her eyes. Her voice, which had been clear and strong when speaking to me, becomes a barely audible whisper. This girl is smart. She knows that when you address white people, you must look them in the eyes and speak boldly. You don't have to show servility as you do with your Acholi elders.

The headmaster of Kitgum Town College is surprised by the arrival of a white man accompanying an excluded pupil. A pleasant young man with the same name as Uganda's most famous poet—Okot p'Bitek—he started the school in town with a group of teachers a few years before. They did well, buying a piece of land on the edge of town and building two single-storey blocks of classrooms and dormitories. The science laboratory is unfinished and has no equipment, and there is no library. The school has 800 students, of which 360 are girls, though, as Mr Bitek explains, the dropout rate among girls is high.

He checks her story and place in class. She had not lied to me, or even exaggerated. I ask if there is anyone local who could support her. "There are thousands like her," he shrugs. "We can only keep those who pay."

I explain how we met and that her boldness and determination had impressed me. His expression suggests he may not share my admiration. He says she should not have troubled me; he had already chased her out of school many times. I describe the trust and how it could help his school. We would, I say, fund students and build a library and a laboratory. Finally I pull a $100 note from my pocket and hand it over. School fees for more than a term.

I cannot describe the effect on Akello's face. No lottery winner goes through such a transformation. Her name is suddenly inscribed in the book of life. Forty million African children are not in school, according to last year's Commission for Africa report. One is now rescued from a life of bare survival in an ocean of stifling poverty, plucked by chance—and a little desperate determination. She did not waver from the moment she met me. A frisson of joy instantly purges my anger and depression. I have played fairy godfather. It seems so easy.

For years I have thought that if I had one gift to bestow on Africa, it would be education for girls. It would be a gift that multiplies. If the women are literate and numerate, the next generation will start their education before they get to school.

As soon as I get home to London in early March, I email Caroline, the trust's director in Kampala:

It was an extraordinary experience meeting this girl in the street and checking out her story and then realising that I had the power to change her life completely. I usually do not get involved unless I know someone well and I don't allow myself to get sentimental about Africa but every answer she gave checked out and she seems EXACTLY the sort of girl we are aiming at. Strange tingly feeling when I saw her realise it was the luckiest day of her life.

"Great," replies Caroline, and Akello's name is put on the bursary list. Caroline warns that if the parents have died of Aids, there is a possibility that Akello too might be HIV positive. Then—just to remind me of the basic problems of existence in Africa—Caroline adds casually: "I had to send last email before power cut and I lost it. Due to low level of Lake Vic we are now off from 6am to 6pm." Among African countries, Uganda is said to be doing well, but drought and the water being taken out of Lake Victoria mean that the hydroelectric station at Jinja is only providing two thirds of the country's energy needs.

Delivering education in Africa is not as simple as it appears. Despite the huge thirst for it, the continent will not reach the millennium development goal of universal primary education by 2015. It doesn't take much to build a basic school in Africa, but the only institutions that can organise local people to build a school in a village are the churches. There is often an alarming lack of agency at local level: people just wait for an outsider to bring schools, clinics or roads. But in Uganda the government has built thousands of new primary schools and church schools are still supervised and supplied by the government, which also pays teachers' salaries—the biggest cost in education.

I have never heard of an African child not wanting to go to school. But children have roles to perform within the family—digging, harvesting, looking after cattle and, for girls, looking after younger siblings. In some families these duties come before school, even though in Uganda primary school has been free since 1997. Schools are crammed, children have to walk miles to reach them and often have to spend all day without food or water. Another problem is that teaching is in English—Uganda has at least 30 local languages. Children find it hard to learn in a strange language, or learn only by rote. They are often beaten for giving the wrong answer. Many drop out—especially girls. Only half of Ugandan children finish primary school and only a quarter go on to expensive secondary school, which only about 4 per cent complete.

Even when children have passed through school, there are problems. Most Ugandans still lead rural lives, but as elsewhere in Africa school is the escape route from rural life to the town and a job with a suit, tie and desk. But such jobs are few, and most school-leavers drift to the towns and pick up casual work or sit idle. To return to the village with no money would be shameful. Education does not integrate old ways and new; it deepens the division.

In rural Africa, the iron age remains intact but the industrial age has been leapfrogged by the age of connectivity. People still carry water on their heads from springs miles from their homes but mobile phones and the internet have reached everywhere. A week after my return to London, Akello emails me from an internet café in Kitgum. I quote verbatim:

I would like to give my appreciation to the almighty God for His Gudiance to us all. How are you over there? Here in Uganda we are fair. I would like to appreciate you for what you have done to me and I belive I will now study since your blessed hand has touched me. Richard I personally have a lot of problems which makes me not fullfil what you want for me. Eg: opening an Account with some money. Since the connection between us is poor and our headmaster could not tell me what you tell him.

Therefore if you are able, you send me some money to open an account which need Uganda Shillings 20,000 and if possible you also buy for me a phone for easy communication between us. As I told you, I have a brother and he stopped with his studies last year because of financial problem. And he is the one now taking the responsibility for me though his earning is poor. So I also apeal to you that, if you can assist him or you can connect him to somebody like you, it will be of great appreciation. The headmaster of Kitgum town College is not efficent. Worse of all he did not give me any thing you left for me. He also denied me to read the letter you send to me. You can use this E-mail address of mine if you want to send any thing.

Please relpy me soon.

May God bless you all

Yours Faithfully
Akello Corine

I am not worried about the request for money for her brother. She would not be human if she did not try to get for him what she has achieved for herself. I write back saying I want to see how things go with her before taking on her brother, and ask if she needs extra money for food, books and uniform. I tell her that I have asked Mr Bitek to give her the change from the $100 to keep her going.

I also tell Mr Bitek that he will be getting a visit from the trust's representatives to check on her and the school. A couple of days later I receive this email:


This is followed by a list of 20 girls' names, and the email is signed by Mr Bitek. He certainly isn't making much effort to sell the school's ability to teach English. I write back explaining that the trust will do the selecting, not the school. We have been warned that if we leave it to the schools, the teachers' children will all get free education. I call him on his mobile to make the same points. He replies:

Dear Richard Dowden,

I recieved the two messages you sent but could not reply you immediately because of unreliable electricity power in our District. However I'm so so greatful for the trust you have put in our school. Indeed you have beccome a great friend to Kitgum Town College.

AKELLO CORINE is now settled and we will do every thing possible to make her study as you have promised. What you requested I have given her.

Remember I sent the names of the twenty grils but you can now sellect as we have agreed on phone to reduce to ten.
May God bless you!!!!

A few days later Akello emails to say she hasn't got the money and returns to the plight of her brother:

Richard my brothers name is Ochola James, and he is 17 years old and he was a student in senior four but unfortunately he did not sit for his examination due to financial problems. This was worsened by the death of our parents in the year 2000 which left three of us to be picked up by relatives that is to say Ochola James, Akello Corine and our last born Odong Phillips in Primary five. Despite the fact that he is young, he cannot get education due to above problems. I am not praising him, but he is a good person, God fearing and loving that is why he normally exposes our problems to the Church Elder. And I believe God mercy is working through you. If its possible let him sit this year for his Examination and the registration is in progress it will stop on the 30.03.2006 which requires him to pay registration fees of Ush8000 for 10 subjects and school fees as well.

Soon afterwards Akello emails me again, in some distress, saying Mr Bitek has still not given her the money, which she needs for skirts, t-shirts, shoes, a bible, books and pens. Reluctant to use Western Union—they take 24 per cent on £50—I write back asking if she can find another way of receiving money. Meanwhile I again ask Mr Bitek to give her the money and whatever else she needs, and promise to reimburse him. A week later Akello replies, saying that Mr Bitek is still refusing to give her the money, and is threatening to force her to leave the school.

Is she telling the truth—or is she trying to get more money from me to get her brother into school? Who am I to believe? I know from my own time as a teacher in Uganda that teaching is one of the last jobs a school-leaver goes for. It is badly paid, and after training, teachers are often sent by the education ministry to rural areas far away from friends and family. Male teachers do not have a good reputation with girl pupils. Schools display HIV-Aids posters urging girl students not to go to teachers' houses if they offer out-of-hours tuition. When I taught in Uganda, if a teacher got a pupil pregnant, the girl had to leave, not the teacher.

Kitgum Town College, however, seems organised and principled, and the teachers well motivated. But what do they think of me? A white man walks into their school from nowhere with one of their ex-students in tow, dishes out dollars and offers a library and a science laboratory. Then he disappears. Why should they believe anything I say? And what is my motive for supporting this strange girl anyway?

I call the school but get no reply, so I again email Mr Bitek. I spell out bluntly what is on offer if they look after Akello. Then on 11th April I get an email from an Owot Fred, a director of the college. He says he has followed up Akello's case with the headmaster, and that it now seems she has disappeared. The teachers "suspect she has eloped with some man."

Taking a chance on Akello's honesty, I email back, telling the director that Akello has not disappeared but that she has been forced away from school through lack of funds. I ask him to find her and let her back into the school and provide what she needs until the trust is able to provide the rest of her funds.

But there is a further problem. Mr Owot replies that Akello's brother has come to the school to collect her possessions. He has told Mr Owot that their grandmother has died and that Akello has developed mental problems. She has had to be taken to another town for treatment. He promises to keep me updated. Akello's brother, Ochola James, soon makes contact by email saying she asked him to contact me.

Ever since we have been controlling her at home because she can run away from home if not well looked after but now the condition is now worse. This started some days after the death of our grandmother last month. To this we are praying to God to help her in her sickness.

Again the questions. Is Ochola James real or has someone got hold of Akello's email to try to squeeze money out of me? I send a message asking what exactly the doctors have said and what medicine is required. Another message arrives saying they have taken her to the hospital but that she has been turned away because they had no money.
Then a message arrives from Mr Owot. He tells me that he has found Akello, who has told him that she suffered mental problems after the death of her grandmother and was taken to a medicine man. She has told Mr Owot that she plans to return to school in May, and he promises me that he will provide her with money and any personal guidance she needs.

I am concerned about the medicine man. At best, Akello would have cuts made in her head and some potion rubbed into them. At worst she could be subjected to all sorts of unspeakable rituals. But at least someone has seen her and promises to look after her. My relief is tempered, however, by Akello's next message. She says she is still sick and needs to travel more than 200 miles to get medicine. Through gritted teeth I phone Western Union and send £50. They have a simple code system to identify the recipient: you provide a secret question and its answer to both them and the person picking up the money.

Three days later Akello's brother emails:

In fact I have collected the money you send but after a long struggle because they rejected my ID. So pertaining Akello Corine she had a mental problem [phsiotheraphy] as the doctor told us and she was supposed to take a medicine 1x2 per day of which it was expensive one cost ug/sh5000 and she was to take for four months. Her condition is not yet very fine she likes talking alone, crying and moving away from home.

In June, I am emailed by an NGO that I had asked to try to find Akello to see if I was getting the full picture. They say Akello is three months pregnant and living with her boyfriend in a refugee camp, having left school after refusing to sit her exams.

I paste the NGO's message into an email and send it straight to Akello. Ochola replies a few days later, apologising for not getting to the internet café for a few days due to "rebel activities."

Now I have fear that the false message may discourage you from helping her in her problem and if I tell her she may lose hope in herself since no one will help her since the money you send helped her in starting the dose and she is hoping for more assistance from you to get more drugs.

Ochola attributes the pregnancy story to the school which, he says, they have invented to make me drop her and adopt their list of students. He also suggests it is probably an invented list so they can take the money for themselves. He blames "Ugandan jealousy."

I ask Caroline to check the whole story out, though I realise even then we may not find the truth:

She struck me as so determined and straightforward and her story was confirmed in every detail by the headmaster—so I trusted her. Do I trust her brother? Do I trust the head? Someone is telling lies.

Then comes an email with Akello's familiar voice:

Thanks God for giving me this chance to reach Town to talk with you. Hope you are all fine. This is what is wrong with me and I am not yet okey according to hospital result.

There follows the hospital diagnosis and treatment. It is dated 12th March and says her illness began with a sudden fit two days before. The doctor had diagnosed epilepsy and malaria. The problems started a lot earlier than I thought. The doctor referred her for follow-up, and she went to the government hospital in Kitgum. Not having money—I should have sent some sooner—she was dismissed and went more than 250 miles to Masindi to visit a traditional healer. The message ended: NB. PLEASE AM NOT PREGNANT AS SOME ONE TOLD YOU BUT AM SICK.

Why should she go to Masindi to visit a traditional healer when there would be plenty closer to home? In early July comes an opportunity to find out more. Josephine, a worker from the trust, is to visit Kitgum. I send her all the details and ask her to report back. I am pretty sure Akello has been telling the truth but there are many unanswered questions.

On 6th July I get a text telling me to call a mobile in Uganda. I call. It is Josephine: she tells me she has seen Akello and that she is pregnant. Ochola James is not a brother but the father of her child, and they are living together in the camp.

My first reaction is anger at my humiliation. I believed her, and I was wrong. Now I have to apologise to the school, for doubting them. But I lied to her too and compared to the all-or-nothing world Akello inhabits, my humiliation is a petty matter.

That evening there is an email from Akello:

Dear, I really have been delivered from my problem. Only I need to tell you that am unworthy to my sponserer. I and James we are planned to meet the Josephine because we wanted to deliver to her the right things. So I feared to tell you the truth since I feared that you may abandon me since I lied to you. Please forgive me. I told Josphine the truth now and she will give you all facts. Forgive me and James and look for a way of helping me and James
God bless you

There is also an email from Caroline:

She has been lying to you from day one but that does not mean she is a bad girl. She is doing various things to survive, including lying and having a boyfriend (who she may be helping more than he is helping her). These things are happening all over Uganda. This is a story of adolescence and how hard it is to help girls. Josephine was sad NOT indignant. Akello is very young to be pregnant, although such early pregnancies are not rare. Josephine would like us to give her another chance once she's delivered. This may be hard since there is no one to take care of the baby. Also school is hard and boring and does not ensure future prosperity so Akello may opt for being a wife and mother.

Akello has another chance if she can take it, something that does not happen often in Africa. I suppose you could say Africa itself has been given another chance with the G8 commitment last year: debt relief, a doubling of aid and a host of other measures. But only when you walk down the street in a place like Kitgum and become involved in helping do you realise just how tough, how close to the edge is life there. And how tough the people are too. I have no doubt Akello will find a way of getting back to school. This time she won't blow it. Will she?