The Story of Samson Watmon

Teaching in a mud brick school

Samson1Teaching in a mud brick school reinforces UMECS student Samson Watmon’s vision for his community.  Samson recently completed secondary school and turned twenty earlier this year. As he awaits admission to university, Samson is teaching in a mud brick primary school in his Attiak community in Amuru district, Northern Uganda. 

A major purpose of our Northern Uganda Education Programme (NUEP) – which sponsors war-affected children and youth in secondary school through higher education graduation – is to link education with community development so students like Samson can act on their visions and make tangible changes in their community to improve health, access to quality education and accelerate the eradication of poverty as they lead fulfilling lives.

We anticipate Samson’s admission to Gulu University where he will join our large cohort of sponsored students there in August. He plans to major in secondary school education and later teach agriculture.  In the interim, since February, Samson is teaching at Attiak Public Nursery and Primary School near his ancestral village, a school in which the leadership is conscious of the need for education of the girl-child. The majority of the school’s pupils are girls.

This mud brick school is in need of development. The building structures are weak. The few benches and desks sit on a floor that is not cemented but smeared with cow dung. The roofs leak when it rains. There are no teacher’s houses, no playing fields for students, no library and few teaching materials.

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April 13, 2015. Samson teaching social studies to his Primary 4 pupils

Yet parents who are able choose this school for their children, a local private school, because class sizes are small compared to the hundreds of students that often fill classrooms in government primary schools. Parents pay 50,000 Uganda Shillings ($17; £11; €15) for each of the three school-year terms and they are allowed to pay in installments.

“Although paid poorly, the teachers’ morale is high and we as teachers collaborate well” observes Samson, who teaches Primary 4 social studies, Primary 5 science and Primary 6 social studies.

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Despite the small classes and dedication of the teachers, Samson discovered his pupils have low literacy, numeracy and comprehension levels and are not learning well because of the conditions they face. The majority of pupils are from within the local Pupwonwa parish community and are mainly Luo speakers, the home language of Acholi sub-region. They hail from vulnerable households dependent on subsistence agriculture and live in extreme poverty.

The pupils don’t have shoes, wear worn out uniforms and have few scholastic supplies.  The school lacks adequate reading materials and has no provision for lunch. During the lunch break, the pupils run home for lunch, then return to their classes.

Of the eight teachers in the primary school and two who teach in the nursery school, many have years of practical teaching experience but only a few have higher education teaching certificates. The rest have only completed secondary school. Like Samson, who is teaching temporarily, they plan to upgrade their qualifications with higher education qualifications.

Samson is grateful to be teaching here. His students look up to him and are eager to learn.  Like his colleagues, he is committed to their academic improvement and social development.

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Samson reviewing lesson plans outside the school office

“I am not yet a qualified teacher,” notes Samson.  “At the beginning of my teaching experience in this school four months ago, it was difficult.  We are required to teach and explain concepts in both English and Luo. I have adjusted very well. I love my pupils and do my best to improve on their reading and understanding of concepts. We teach our pupils following the national syllabus. I consult text books, prepare my teaching notes, scheme of work and teach. I give assignments and homework, do corrections, mark scripts and assess my pupils one by one and in groups.”

Throughout Uganda, many children have similar primary school experiences, especially in rural areas where many families live in deep poverty. Despite the conditions and challenges, the education of children and youth in Uganda has many positives, creating hope and a strong foundation for the future of education.

Among these positives:  Children and youth in Uganda value their educations, are eager learners and avid readers. Teachers, despite difficult conditions and low pay, are committed professionals, dedicated to the success and well-being of their students. Local government officials strive diligently to improve the quality of education in their communities and the Ministry of Education, Science, Technology and Sports is ahead of the curve in sub-Saharan Africa in establishing Universal Primary Education (U.P.E.) and advancing Universal Secondary Education (U.S.E.).

Samson is moved by the sacrifices of parents to educate their children and the tireless commitment of his colleague teachers:

“What has humbled me over the last four months is seeing the struggle by parents to educate their children. They do all what it takes to make sure their children go to school. The teachers in this school are so dedicated in serving their communities. They get paid little but they don’t miss coming to school every day. It is quite humbling.”

Perspectives on enhancing Primary School Teaching and Learning

“I think primary school teaching and settings should be made interesting to learners. This is the foundation of their future career progressions. More emphasis should be put on critical thinking and practical solutions. Too much theory should be avoided. Assessments should be periodic and should form the basis upon which educational performances are assessed instead of end of year examinations. Strong emphasis should be put on reading, pronunciation and comprehension. Science and mathematics should be taught in a way that draws local examples relevant to the learner’s environment so that they can understand the application of concepts.”

Samson, like his pupils, is from Pupwonya parish in Atiak

Like the pupils he now teaches as he awaits university admission, Samson grew up in Pupwonya  parish  in  Amuru district’s Attiak sub-county.  Within Pupwonya, he was born in P’lubai, his ancestral village  on 27th January 1995,  the first born of six siblings, two girls and four boys.

His parents are peasant farmers. His father completed primary school and his mother did not.  Still, they both believe in the power of education to uplift families and communities from poverty. When he graduates from university, he will be the first from his family and one of the few from his village area.

Blessed with plentiful rainfall and arable soil, Attiak is a land of sub-tropical savannah landscapes  and diverse natural resources.  Rivers such as River Unyama flow into the Nile, the world’s longest river on its northward journey into nearby South Sudan and onward to Egypt. Indigenous flora and abundant wildlife have flourished in Attiak since time immemorial and local indigenous communities have called Attiak home for many centuries. Attiak is a land of great beauty and promise.

Nevertheless, peaceful as the earth is, by the time Samson was born, Northern Uganda was nine years into a twenty year war that had swallowed up Attiak. Before he was born, his paternal grandfather had been brutally murdered by Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels in their war against the Government of Uganda.

Three months after he was born, the infamous Attiak massacre of 20th April 1995 took place. Over three hundred civilians including children were rounded up by the LRA rebels and executed as their family members and neighbours were forced to watch. Then, the rebels selected some of the remaining children and abducted them. Among those massacred were some of Samson’s paternal cousins.

Samson and his family spent the next twelve years in a squalid, overcrowded Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Attiak where preventable diseases killed many, especially infants. Growing up in the camp was a difficult experience:

“I witnessed victims of land mines. My colleagues and peers were abducted. The majority of them did not make it out alive.”

Samson’s Educational Journey with UMECS

The war started winding down at the end of 2006 following a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement signed between the Government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army in August 2006. In 2007 and 2008, the almost two million people displaced to the IDP camps throughout Northern Uganda started resettling back to their ancestral lands. During this period, Samson’s family resettled back to their ancestral village in Pupwonya.

From age six, Samson attended the primary school within the camp and focused on his studies. After his family resettled back home, he completed Primary 7 in November 2008. His family had no funds to pay for secondary school. His educational journey, Samson concluded, was over.

In February 2009, a UMECS team selected Samson’s parish from which to recruit new students for our Northern Uganda Education Programme, then in year 5. Samson was selected as part of a new cohort of highly vulnerable war-affected students from Amuru to be sponsored in secondary school through higher education graduation.

We enrolled Samson as part of a UMECS cohort at Sir Samuel Baker School in Gulu to start his four year O-level secondary school programme. Samson describes part of his secondary school journey:

“When I was enrolled at Sir Samuel Baker School in Senior 1, I was very shy at the beginning. I had come from the village and my English language speaking skills were appalling. I was afraid to interact with town-based students. I equally feared to approach my teachers. My major companions were my UMECS student cohorts. After about a year, with constant mentorship from UMECS team, I started to gain my confidence and my social skills improved. I joined Scripture Union and the peace club. In these clubs, I served as Secretary and Publicity Officer respectively. These responsibilities helped to improve my communications skills. It also improved my self-image and interpersonal relationships. I made friends with many students. My English speaking and writings also improved.”

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October 12, 2013 – Samson Watmon, then in Senior 5 in his A-level programme at Sir Samuel Baker School, participates in a group discussion.

In fact, Samson became an academically proficient student, reading extensively, mastering study techniques, and participating in group discussions and study groups. He was also a role model and peer mentor during his four year O-level and two-year A-level programmes at Sir Samuel Baker School.

Sir Samuel Baker School has an excellent cadre of educators known for quality teaching and walking the extra mile with their students. This level of teaching commitment and professionalism helped to nurture Samson’s vision to become a secondary school teacher.

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Anthony Ojok, UMECS Education Field Coordinator, visits Samson at Attiak Public Primary and Nursery School in Attiak. Anthony, a former secondary school Head Teacher, is one of Samson’s chief mentors.

Samson’s university plans

Samson is hoping for, and we anticipate, his admission to Gulu University where he will join our large cohort of sponsored students there.

He plans to major in secondary education and teach agriculture at the secondary school level.

He also plans to establish a farm to practically demonstrate how a new approach to agriculture will transform Uganda from poverty exacerbated  by subsistence agriculture to prosperity generated by modernized agriculture.

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Samson regularly meets with UMECS staff who have been his mentors since 2009. Here, Samson and Charles Onencan, UMECS Executive Director, share a light moment at UMECS programme office in Gulu.

Samson’s community visions for agriculture, education and peacebuilding – and the roles he will play

1. Modernize agriculture, and poverty will eradicate in Uganda

Samson’s generation is adamant, especially amongst the youth empowered by education, that the key to prosperity and eradicating poverty in Uganda is through modernized agriculture.  This is because:

  • More than 80% of Ugandan households live in rural areas and agriculture is their primary source of income. Agriculture is the backbone of the economy.
  • Subsistence agriculture, which the vast majority of households practice, is not profitable and keeps most families locked in poverty.
  • Modernized agriculture as practiced by families and communities in Uganda, including its link to environmental conservation, has a proven track record of success and building family prosperity.

“The way agriculture is still being practiced today is wrong,” says Samson. “There must be a total change of mind sets. The use of land is poorly managed. Peasant farmers need to open up more of their land to farming.  Farmers should plant high-yield crops that are less labour-intensive and in more demand. The use of agro-chemicals should be greatly reduced. Peasant farmers should change from traditional farming methods which have low yields and low-demand markets to modernized farming that is creating prosperity. With increased prosperity, rural families will be able to send their children to school and take them all the way. That too will eradicate poverty.”

The role he will play:

  • Following graduation in 2018 with a degree in secondary education, Samson will teach agriculture at the secondary school level, promoting modernized agriculture to thousands of secondary school youth in Northern Uganda.
  • He also plans to establish a demonstration project farm as a practical means to promote modernized agriculture at the community level.

2. Educate each child, right through higher education

Throughout the developing world, including in Samson’s home community of Attiak, the majority of children are not fully or properly educated. Nationwide, less than 30% of the population completes secondary school and the completion rate in Northern Uganda is even lower, largely due to the war that disrupted peoples’ lives for over twenty years. In the 21st century, primary school is totally inadequate as the end-point of education. Higher education – whether in an academic, technical or vocational programme – must be the goal. This implies each child must complete secondary school.

Samson speaks for his generation: “No nation will ever develop without investment in its human communities. Knowledge and education are the keys to fighting poverty and unemployment. Girl-child education is also important and critical to development.”

Samson believes that because of  the good will of local and central government to fully and properly educate every child, the motivation of parents to educate their children and the dedication of teachers,  the foundation for every child in Uganda to become educated is there. But with limited resources, this is where the role of the family and community comes in.

“As families change their mindsets and transition from subsistence to modernized agriculture, the resources to educate their children will be there,” notes Samson.

The role he will play:

Samson believes that teachers who are role models influence children and youth to succeed in education and in life.  Upon attaining his degree, he plans to teach agriculture at the secondary school level.

“Teaching is my calling and we must believe in what we teach. I want to teach agriculture in secondary school to bring practical change to the lives of students and their families.  Children and youth in rural communities need more role models and teachers who are role models inspire students to pursue their dreams, no matter how difficult the situation they are in.”

3.  Peacebuilding – we cannot endure another war

Samson and his family endured war for most of his childhood. Family members were brutally massacred. Age mates were abducted and died. He and his family were displaced to a squalid IDP camp for the first twelve years of his life. What Samson, his family, his neighbours and Attiak community members endured mirrors the experience of two million people in Northern Uganda during the 1986 – 2006 war.

Not only has Uganda endured many wars since independence in 1962, regional wars continue to recur. Currently, a war in neighbouring South Sudan continues to devastate the lives of millions of civilians, thousands of whom have been killed and two million displaced. The border of South Sudan is thirty miles from Samson’s home community of Attiak.

“To me, human beings are born peaceful but violence is learned,” says Samson. “There is more potential for groups to build peace instead of resorting to violence. Violence should never be tolerated.”

“People must be able to trust one another. Relationship building leads to trust and that eventually leads to harmony.”

“War can be prevented through reconciliation but peace does not come about automatically. It must be worked on. Like agriculture, it must be practiced, nurtured and shared.”

Samson is a trained peacebuilder. When he was a UMECS student at Sir Samuel Baker School, we introduced our groundbreaking Peace Education and Guidance & Counseling in Secondary Schools programme (PEGC) there which, together with six other secondary schools in four districts in Northern Uganda, implemented the programme. One of the milestone results was eradicating bullying at all seven partner secondary schools.

Samson adds: “The programme  improved our relationship with the neighbouring communities. Teacher and student interactions improved. Students’ behaviour changed for the good. Academic performance greatly improved. The school environment became so peaceful.”

Samson, together with thousands of other students at the seven partner secondary schools, participated in the programme and were trained as peacebuilders, peer mediators and peer counselors.

“PEGC should be in all schools,” Samson urges. “The programme provides a platform for demonstrating that human beings can disagree but can still coexist in harmony without the use of violence.”

To learn more about PEGC, please click here

Samson’s vision for his community and society is to build peace together. He emphasizes the role of reconciliation to prevent new wars. Having endured war and being trained as a peacebuilder, Samson sees himself as a lifelong peacebuilding practitioner and plans to participate in peacebuilding initiatives in his community.

With gratitude to UMECS

“UMECS does a lot in my life – the educational sponsorship and the mentorship. The PEGC trainings made me a better peacebuilder. I am tolerant and can live in any multi-cultural environment with ease. I have a lot of admiration for the noble work UMECS is doing.”

“The student cohort system also works so well for us. The bonding amongst us is strong. We are a strong united family. We share everything and watch over each other. Even our families get to know each other. We are proud of the model. It creates a strong sense of responsibility. Each of us brings different strengths to the group and we learn from each other. Thank you so much.”

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