The Story of Harriet Atimango
Creating the Future in Software Engineering at Uganda’s Top University
Designing websites, studying information systems and developing 21st century software programmess at Makerere University’s College of Computing and Information Technology is a long distance from the mass violence and chaos that displaced her family from their ancestral village in Amuru district to temporary displacements in Gulu.
Her family was deeply affected by loss from the brutal war in Northern Uganda, by displacement and from HIV/AIDS. Harriet Atimango grew up in this war-torn environment with nearby rebel attacks, her traditional family displaced and facing an uncertain future.
Her parents encouraged her to perform well in primary school. Her Primary Leaving Examination (PLE) results qualified her to continue in a top-ranked secondary school, but there were no family resources to continue her education. In 2005, UMECS enrolled Harriet at Sacred Heart Secondary School in Gulu for her O-level programme and in 2009, at highly ranked Bishop Cipriano Kihangire Secondary School in Kampala for her A-levels where she studied Physics, Mathematics, Economic and Entrepreneurship.
In 2012, exceptional A-level scores won Harriet admission to Makerere University – Uganda’s top university – in the College of Computing and Information Technology where she is being sponsored by UMECS in a four year Bachelor of Science in Software Engineering programme. Harriet completed her first year at Makerere in June 2013. In August, she starts her second year. She is scheduled to graduate in 2016.
Why software engineering? Harriet explains:
“I looked at the changes taking place in the world. The world is dynamic. It keeps on changing. I saw software engineering, a new programme at Makerere University, as part of the change taking place. I am good in mathematics and the sciences and I got interested in this. Software engineering is relevant to today’s development and marketing needs in Uganda and in our communities. Software engineering helps to upgrade management systems and improve education systems. It provides employment opportunities. It creates jobs. UMECS supported and encouraged my career decision.”
Only the highly talented are admitted into Makerere University’s software engineering programme. Once admitted, students undertake an intense, four-year degree programme. It is not for the faint of heart. Last semester, Harriet’s six courses included Programming Methodology, Software Development Principles and Research Methodology. In addition to classroom learning, she averages twelve hours each day on the computer in Makerere’s computer labs.
As she enters her second year in August, Harriet has been participating in a semester break campus programme in which she and other students are engaged in three group projects: Designing a website, designing an inventory management system and developing protective software. Learning how to work in teams is part of the objectives of this innovative major.
Education Built My Confidence
As with many war-affected children, Harriet found hope and saw her future through education. There were also challenges, especially overcoming lack of confidence.
“Education helped me build confidence in myself. Education built my self-esteem. There are people who are not educated. They feel they are not good enough, but I feel I am good enough. As my communication skills improved, my confidence increased. I discovered with myself and have seen with my peers that developing proficient reading, writing and verbal skills are related to confidence. The better we communicate, the more our confidence builds.”
Passionate about Education Reform
Harriet and her generation have a seasoned analysis about education reform. They are particularly concerned that most secondary school students who do not have post-secondary education seldom find jobs and are not prepared to develop their own sustainable livelihoods.
“It is something we as students talk about all the time,” explains Harriet. In addition to academic subjects, secondary school should “introduce practical subjects and teach entrepreneurship skills so that people become job creators, not only job seekers. Practical subjects like metal work, technical drawing, carpentry and joinery, so you can create a job and start your own business.
“Agriculture should be compulsory in all secondary schools. For most of us, agriculture is our primary source of income. We need to learn modernized agriculture, learn how to make agriculture more profitable.
‘More vocational schools and technical and agricultural institutes should be built. Many youth would be better off going to vocational or technical or agricultural institutes instead of following academic programmes.
“Career guidance should start in primary school. There are many pathways towards a career. For instance, you can become an electrical engineer without going to university. From O-level, you can go to technical school. There needs to be more career guidance so you know the different pathways.”
The Role of Technology in Education Reform
“Technology must play a role in education at different levels,” Harriet asserts. “Students must learn computer technology and information technology. In many Kampala schools, students have computers and become proficient in computer technology. However, in Northern Uganda and throughout rural areas in Uganda, many schools have challenges to introduce computers. The challenges are having power sources and teachers who are well trained in computer and information technology. Until this changes, some students will be computer literate and others will not. These are development issues.
“Learning from computers, information technology and online learning will improve learning in the classroom and motivate students,” notes Harriet, who will be designing educational software as part of her degree programme. However, Harriet is clear that computer learning should supplement, not replace classroom and textbook learning.
“Chalk board learning cannot explain everything well. Some students do not follow chalk board learning well. Computers provide visuals, pictures and illustrations. They are a good aid to chalk board and text book learning. I do not think computers should replace textbooks and classroom learning. They should be used as learning aids to help visualize what students are learning. Textbook learning should remain as the primary source of learning. Educational software is good, but it is not enough. It should aid learning.”
Harriet is adamant that rural secondary schools, including throughout Northern Uganda, would benefit from websites. Most have no websites, and many schools are struggling to maintain and improve their operations and education outcomes.
“Websites will market schools. Students can learn about the schools before they decide where to enroll. Schools will be able to raise funds and have supporters. Unfortunately, many head teachers do not know the value of websites for their schools. This is where software engineers can help develop schools in our communities. We can provide these services, bring our expertise and technological skills to rural schools.”
The Role of Technology in Uganda
Harriet is optimistic about the future of technology in helping Uganda to further develop:
“The impact can be positive. Currently, most things are done manually. Once tasks and systems are computerized, they will be done faster and more efficiently. Record keeping will be more efficient. There will be more employment opportunities. People will learn new skills. Money will be saved in some sectors with computerized systems. Youth will become more motivated as they develop their businesses. Their entrepreneurship will improve with computerized accounting systems, with inventory software, with all the innovations that are being developed with new software and programmes.”
Harriet Represents the Future of Uganda
UMECS Guidance & Counseling Director Joel Ojok who plays a key role in the Northern Uganda Education Programme and has been a significant mentor to Harriet throughout her educational journey observes that Harriet is the future of Uganda.
“Harriet Atimango will have impact in our communities, district and national development in two ways. First, she will be part of this new generation that is helping to develop our communities, institutions, districts and our country. Harriet will play her role through technology, as a software engineer. Second, she will influence youth like her to consider engineering, software engineering and communications technology as careers. Not enough girls are going into these fields so her influence will be especially on the girls.”