If the lockdown throws you into deep waters, swim fast to survive

Friday September 25 2020

Any time now Uganda’s education institutions are to start a phased opening after six months of total closure due to the Covid-19 lockdown. But while everyone is apprehensive about their capability to fully comply with all the standard operating procedures as stipulated by the Health ministry, the school managers have another rather strange reason to be apprehensive.

The return or not returning of teachers to work. It transpires that when the lockdown was instituted mid-March, actually starting with education institutions, private sector teachers immediately lost their earnings unlike their public (government) schools counterparts whose salaries continued being paid. The private sector teachers should in theory have started dying off of starvation. But they didn’t. What happened?

When you are thrown into (deep) water you swim or sink – stupid!

That is what has happened to the private sector teachers. They chose to swim. And after the initial difficulties choking on some water, they became steady and even started enjoying the swimming. Some are enjoying the swim so much that they are no longer interested in walking even after the flood!

It was around July when feature stories started appearing on television about teachers learning new skills. The first ones were rather shocking; seeing this man covered with mud from head to toe, pasting soil until it becomes a homogeneous mix from which to shape bricks for building.

A horrible experience for a first-timer but which, after shaping 1,000 or 2,000 kilograms into bricks using a small wooden mold and baking them, fetches the equivalent of one month’s salary for a teacher. But nobody makes a mere 1,000 bricks; they start with 10,000, so we are talking of about a year’s salary for a teacher, earned in a month or less.


You get paid that amount and you stop feeling the muscle aches from pounding the soil and firing the kiln. Would you respond when the headteacher calls to say school is reopening, after making six years’ teaching salary in six months of fruitful Covid lockdown? Demand for bricks is now insatiable as construction was among the few essential activities that were allowed to continue even at the height of the lock down – for everybody now wants to own a house, however small.

It got even more interesting when stories started being told of teachers who had gone into mining. In Busia district at the Kenyan border for instance, teachers have over the past few years been punishing pupils who dodge school to go and look for gold, literally, in the alluvial gold mining fields. When the lockdown came, the tables were reversed when some teachers went into the gold fields where the pupils they had been flogging became their seniors, teaching them how to sieve the brown water for specks of gold.

And then of course there is the country’s so-called economic backbone - agriculture. Any seasonal crop that a ‘locked down’ teacher or other employee planted in March or April is now being harvested or has already been harvested and sold. Even layer chicks have started laying eggs.

Several institutional heads interviewed by journalists have expressed real worry that they don’t expect those teachers and instructors whose economic eyes have been opened by the covid-19 lockdown to be interested in returning to the classroom.

So, should the headteachers panic or take a leaf from the Busia teachers who started learning from their pupils how to wash gold from sand, and also learn from the teachers who have become brickmakers and gold miners? Why not learn from the shortage of teachers to run the institutions differently? How for instance do you get one teacher to do the job of two with the output of four?

We have seen the middle class kids enjoy the virtual classes from the comfort of home, not having to wear uniform and even eat snacks as the class is going on. One famous disciplinarian at a top Kampala private school is the butt of jokes in that schools’ circles for continuing to wag his notorious bamboo cane at children who no longer fear it as it can not touch them through the screen of their tablets or computers. In short, schools could become more profitable as they pay less teachers to do the work of more.

And the ex-teachers who are now making bricks and mining gold? Well, those are the immediate future of industrialisation, For Uganda’s ‘educated’ are now finally ready to roll up their sleeves and start doing jobs that mean really making something.

In this country of so many minerals (in addition to the gold that they wash out of sand), educated people wanting to become artisans can really make a difference, give the country the real leap we have just been talking about since independence.