Wind beneath the wings – documentary photography assignment

Documentary Photography for FSMU

Last week I travelled to Uganda with a British educational charity, Okwasa and FMSU, who currently support two schools in a rural parish in Eastern Uganda a few miles from Busembatia, and a house for former orphaned students in nearby Jinja. My role was to document the school, the students and the work of the charity.

The people of Busembatia live hand-to-mouth, mainly working on small patches of land to grow food for themselves and to trade with.

Documentary Photography
Boy in field in Uganda
Young boy working the fields

Infrastructure consists of poorly maintained roads, electricity that comes and goes on a daily basis, bore holes for water, and a reasonable cellular network for those who can afford the phones.

The education system in Uganda relies heavily on the community, the church and charity. For every 70 pupils the government will provide a paid teacher and a modest amount towards the running of a school. It won’t however provide capital funding to build classrooms. Without external support, communities without schooling facilities mean that children go without any education.

Teacher marking books – her class has 86 pupils

St Michael’s Primary School

I stayed at St Michael’s Primary School for girls that is run by Sister Judith and her team of over 40 teachers and support staff. Nine of the teachers are funded by the government and, as headteacher, Sister Judith receives the equivalent of about £100 per month from the government towards stationery, teaching materials, and other operating costs. To attend school parents need to pay the equivalent of about £10 per term for each child, which is sometimes paid in maize or another tradable crop, which Sister Judith needs to convert into cash in order to pay non-government funded teachers and other staff.

The school currently teaches approximately 700 girls, aged 4-11 years who are either boarders or day pupils. For those in the last two years of primary education, the school insists that the children are boarders so as to ensure that their education, leading up to national exams, is uninterrupted. It is not unusual for children to be kept from school to help manage the land or help out at home, particularly if a parent or other family member is ill or not around. The hope is that once the children leave St Michael’s they will enrol with at Bishop Willigers, the secondary school next door, to continue their education.

Pupils of St Michael’s Primary School
Students of Bishop Willigers School

A student’s life

For someone used to hot running water, wifi, TV, comfortable sofas, soft pillows and a fridge full of food, living on the St Michael’s campus, which most staff and teachers do, was a humbling experience.

The day starts at 5am when an old car wheel is hit with a stick to wake-up the children – and everyone else within earshot. At 5.30am the old wheel is again whacked to indicate that the children should by now be up and dressed and preparing for first lessons, or be outside sweeping the dusty floors of the school grounds.

The old steel wheel hanging from a tree is the school bell
The day starts with morning chores – washing the floor of the assembly forum
The girls clean their own clothes
Washing drying is part of the landscape

Depending on age, lessons can start as early as 6am and finish at 9.30pm. Class sizes vary but most are between 70-90 children, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, wall-to-wall.

The impact of a small charity

Food, which is wholly funded by the charity, is served at 8am, 1pm and 6pm and is primarily maize or rice based, a banana funded by a UK donor, is a rare treat for breakfast. In the evenings the school nurse, also funded by the charity, sprinkles the food with ground moringa leaves. Moringa, also known as the miracle tree, is rich in anti oxidants, vitamins, and nutrients, and has become a vital ingredient in an otherwise limited diet. The charity helped to establish and fund the moringa trees, which are grown by a local farmer, who is guaranteed a regular income for harvesting the leaves and supplying the school throughout the year.

Day pupils lining up for morning porridge which is funded by the charity
A banana for breakfast is a real treat

When the girls are not in class or eating, they can be seen playing sports or heard singing. Whilst the conditions here fall short of the creature comforts we might be used to, happiness seems to be way higher. In both schools it is clear that the students love to learn. In free time groups can be seen learning new skills, such as making simple jewellery or sewing on old Singer sewing machines, brought out by the charity a number of years ago – no point in buying electric machines when the electricity supply cannot be relied on.

Reading aloud from the chalk board
Play time
Learning to sew
Making a beaded necklace from roll-up paper
Teaching science outside

The teachers – who work incredibly long hours – have a zealous passion for teaching and are rightly proud of the knowledge and confidence that they pass on to their students.

Make no mistake, this is a place devoid of all frills, but it is a happy and vibrant place, full of energy, hope and determination. I was lucky enough to meet people who were here as orphans 20 years ago are now working as mid-wives, nurses and pharmacy assistants. What FSMU has achieved here is to enable a once struggling school to be the best it can possibly be within the environmental, political and geographical constraints that it operates; it has been and continues to be, the wind beneath the wings of the schools it supports.