Fight depression and aim for top grades in exams — that’s your teen’s homework

Wednesday January 29 2020

But all the money spent on health caters for infections and physical injuries. Yet the education system adds a million emotional patients every year to the population. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGA | NMG


As Uganda’s government and its development partners invest $1billion every year in the country’s health sector, every January the education sector condemns one million teenagers to a terrible illness—depression.

The sector starts enrolling them into depression a year before by labelling them ‘candidates’ for the national examinations and their anxiety levels shoot up.

The biggest category of the targeted one million victims are pre-teens aged 11 to 12 when they join Primary Seven. Numbering nearly 700,000, they wake up before daybreak and arrive at school when it is still dark.

Promising candidates

The whole day they are drilled in cram work and carry loads of homework, which they must complete before going to bed around midnight. That goes on for a year until November’s dreaded PLE (Primary Leaving Examinations).

Along the year, some schools ‘sieve’ promising candidates from the less promising, and register the former at their exam centres, in the hope of recording top grades, so that they can shout all their pupils scored As!


The ‘less promising candidates’ are registered at other centres and start sinking into depression long before the exams. The final stroke to slump into full depression comes when results are released mid-January. No amount of consolation can help the poor 500,000 souls believe they are not fools for not scoring Division one.

Every year, the media is used as an unwitting accomplice by school owners when multiple pages are splashed with photos of the ‘star’ pupils who are quoted as they explain their dreams to become doctors, lawyers or engineers. The irony is that Division one and two students are separated by just a mark.

So a candidate is regarded a success while the other who got one point less is regarded as a failure. It is just Russian roulette, with adults and the media holding the gun on the child’s head and pulling the trigger.

After condemning half a million candidates to depression, the week following the release of the results, only a small fraction of the PLE graduates are admitted to ‘good’ schools.

Many of today’s Ugandan adults who grew up before we got here may not know how painful emotionally induced illness or depression can be. So they don’t realise that announcing those PLE results is as traumatic as getting lab test results confirming a terminal illness.

Degree programmes

A week after torturing the 12-year-olds, the same trauma is unleashed onto the 17-year-olds who sit for ‘O’ level.

And finally the same is inflicted onto 19-year-olds ‘A’ level candidates. These ones are even punished more directly because the admission to public universities and the categorisation into government sponsored degree programmes is even more pronounced.

Now you know why Ugandan workers these days tend to lack confidence compared to nationals of other countries.

But all the $1 billion spent on health caters for infections and physical injuries. Yet the education system adds a million emotional patients every year to the population.

Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. Email:[email protected]