“IF we weren’t here, we would be warriors,” young boys from the Karamajong tribe at Moroto High School explained to Irish Aid workers.
Education has taken them away from a life of killing to one in which they can hope of breaking out of the poverty trap where four out of five people live on less than a dollar a day.
In Karamoja – one of the most dangerous and poorest regions in Africa – cattle raids are a traditional right of passage for young men. Based on a centuries-old spiritual belief that the cow is sacred and all cattle in the world belong to them, armed raids have become a major security issue in this area of north-east Uganda.
They were once carried out using spears, but when free guns were handed out by dictator Idi Amin, particularly to younger men, the ritual lead to numerous mass killings. Last year, a large number of deaths also took place at the hands of security forces, trying to prevent cattle raids, who have been accused of human rights abuses.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin travelled to the region and was welcomed in a traditional homestead (a Manyatta) where the children performed a dance that involved jumping high into the air, after which he told them: “We have a game in Ireland called Gaelic football and a number of you this morning can jump so high, I think you would be very good at this football. And we have another county in Ireland too called the Kingdom and I think you could sort out this Kingdom too.”
Mr Martin was there to announce €36 million in Irish aid for the area over the next five years, most of which will go to education. He later visited Moroto High School which was built by Irish Aid and where students this week sang Amhrán na bhFiann for the visiting minister and demonstrated science experiments as an example of their educational accomplishments. In their new science labs they learn physics, including the purification of water, which will benefit their communities in the long term.
Until the 1990s, not a single child from this area of one million people had graduated. “Boys were going off as warriors and girls were staying at home,” said Brendan Rogers, head of Irish Aid.
The first secondary school was set up in 1995 with the help of an Irish nun, Carmel Flynn, who taught hundreds of children the Irish national anthem. Since then, at least 13 schools have opened and there is an Irish-funded teacher training college.
“It’s a difficult operating environment, it’s a little risky, it’s a difficult pastoral environment, it’s very difficult to get families to send the children to school, but we decided to take the risk,” said Mr Rogers.
“Most families want to educate their children but there are cultural norms here as well. We worked with one warrior who said ‘I was brought to school and my father cried outside the school every single day and we were conflicted. But now here I am, a university professor, and I represent a community and we are proud of it.’
“It’s a bit of a balance in all of this,” he said. “Now we have a while cadre of girls and boys coming up through the primary system, they are now going into secondary school and the university system. For the first time there is real hope for this community.”
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