If Kizito Lonipe’s plan works out the way he expects, his niece Suzan Natyang, 17, will be a star.
Against the odds, Natyang is one of four girls among 23 boys in a seventh-grade classroom at Kamion Primary School in rural northeast Uganda. Her widowed mother, unlike some mothers in the community, has not required Natyang to stay home to help with household tasks and earn a living.
Her mother also has decided against giving Natyang in marriage to collect a dowry, a practice sometimes done to relieve poverty’s stranglehold on families who are part of the Ik ethnic group. Natyang says her mother wants her and her younger sister to get an education first, then marry.
“Let her marry the school, so that she becomes a star,” says Lonipe, brother to Natyang’s mother and former secretary of the school management committee.
Although her schooling has been interrupted by a two-year school closure because of COVID-19, he believes she can finish her education and then come back and help her mother, become a useful resource in the community and perhaps be a spokesperson for the Ik.
The Ik ethnic group of about 10,000 people living in the Kaabong District is commonly marginalized and stereotyped by other Ugandans. The government reports an 80% illiteracy rate among the group. Known traditionally as hunters and beekeepers, circumstances have forced them to become subsistence farmers, relying primarily on the grains they can grow.
Their attempts to raise cattle have been foiled by warring cattle rustlers who have crossed Ik land for decades to raid each other’s herds. As they passed, they would take any cattle the Ik owned and kill anyone who got in the way.
Honey was a valuable commodity, but recently cattle rustlers took up residence where many of the Ik hives are located, so it’s no longer safe to collect honey there.
Even growing grain has become less reliable because rains are coming later and more inconsistently due to climate change.
The way Lonipe sees it, the only way beyond these challenges is through education. Since 2006, MCC has worked first with Kotido Peace Initiative and later with Kaabong Peace and Development Agency (KAPDA) to strengthen the education of Ik students. In the past, that has included funding for some students for secondary or post-secondary education.
Today, KAPDA focuses on increasing the enrollment of girls in two primary schools, which offer learning through grade 7, and reducing the primary school dropout rate of 65% for girls and 35% for boys.
KAPDA works with school principals, parent-teacher associations and school management committees, whose participants visit parents and encourage them to make sure their children, especially girls, go to school every day. KAPDA organizes community meetings where parents of school-age children are encouraged to register their daughters for school as well as their sons.
“It’s not good only to rely on a man,” Kenneth Sabila, lead teacher at Kamion Primary School, tells the parents. When women work, they have money to buy what they and their children need. “If they are employed, they will be able to help themselves.”
It’s not good only to rely on a man ... If [women] are employed, they will be able to help themselves.”
Sabila says that sometimes parents want to send their children to school, but they don’t have any money. Although primary school is free, parents still need to pay for items like school supplies. In response, MCC provides pens, pencils, books and notebooks and other supplies, including sanitary pads that help girls miss fewer classes.
The focus on increasing girls’ continued attendance at school is accompanied by an increased emphasis on quality of education. “I think there is a lot of value for the community in strengthening the primary schools to the point where the large majority of students can at least complete primary school and pass national primary exams with a functional level of literacy and numeracy,” says Lynn Longenecker, MCC’s education coordinator. “Even if this doesn’t translate directly into employment, it would add a significant level of empowerment for a community that has been marginalized and illiterate, making them less vulnerable in the future.”
As students who have gained secondary or even postsecondary training through the years of the MCC-supported work return to the community, they are inspiring others to study.
Monica Nachapio, who started her own hair plaiting salon and now works as a project manager for a nonprofit, is one of those role models. Recently she applied to begin taking classes toward a social work certificate.
Nachapio, who is married and has three children, says she did not begin school willingly. As a child, she wanted to stay home and have her mother take care of her, but her father, Zachary Lomongin, insisted that his firstborn would go to school.
“Every morning, he would even wake me up,” Nachapio says. “Sometimes I would even give an excuse that my uniform is dirty.” And he would respond by offering to wash it for her.
Lomongin saw education as a way for the family to get out of poverty.
“If you have a person in your family who is not educated, poverty will be dancing with you,” says Lomongin, whose own education was cut short when his father died.
MCC began supporting Nachapio in a boarding school when she was in fifth grade. Being away from home was difficult, she says, but her father visited faithfully every two weeks. He would encourage her by promising that when she finished, she would be in charge of the money she would make, not him or her mother.
Nachapio understood how hard it was to make money in the village, so she continued to study.
In the process, her world expanded. She made friends with girls from different ethnic groups, including the Karamojong, even though some clans of the Karamojong had been responsible for raids that caused Nachapio much fear when she went home.
She struggled with girls who bullied her because she was Ik, making her want to leave school, but she stayed. Learning to understand lessons taught in Karamojong and English was challenging, but she learned languages that now help her in her work.
Changing the mindset of Ik parents is one of the biggest challenges of getting more girls to go to and remain in school, she believes.
“People think education is not meant for the Ik, it’s for other tribes,” she says. But she hopes the example they see in her and other graduates will help people change their minds.
Nachapio says she wants her younger brothers to go to secondary school, so she chastises the one who refuses to go and pays tuition for the youngest.
Lonipe continues to push learning for his niece, Natyang. Already she has defied odds by continuing through seventh grade. She’ll need to pass a national exam to enter secondary school and then find the money for tuition and expenses, ideally continuing on to earn her teacher’s certificate.
Her math teacher, Ambrose Lochokio, who is finishing his student teaching at her school, sets an example for her of an Ik student who returned to teach in his community. But he tells students the path is not easy.
“You must endure,” he says. “School takes a long time. Some think it’s a waste of time. But if you become a learned person in the community, you will be respected. Your life will become stable. You will not fail to provide yourself with what you want.”
Gifts of comfort and joy — Christmas giving through MCC
This Christmas, choose gifts for family and friends that change lives across the globe. Explore the MCC Christmas giving guide at mcc.org/christmas or contact your nearest MCC office.