The virus has kept schools in Uganda closed since March. While salaries for teachers employed in government schools have kept coming, an estimated 150,000 teachers in private schools have not been paid for months.
Now, some like Brenda Kemigisha are doing small businesses to survive. She has started a shop selling children’s clothes and shoes.
Until March, she had made her living as a secondary school teacher.
But all that changed when the coronavirus pandemic hit Uganda.
“After March the directors said they couldn’t manage to do other payments so we should look for means of survival,” Kemugisha says.
Luckily, she had already launched the shop just a few months before the school shut down. So she invested her savings and expanded the business to make it her main source of income.
It makes her around $20 a week – much less than her $100 teacher’s wages, but critical money at this difficult time.
Around her shop, text books are a reminder of her previous profession. Kemugisha intends to return to teaching when her school reopens, But she has reevaluated how much time she will spend on the job.
“I love children, I have passion for children so I will go back and teach,” she explains.
“But I know I will not give it more time the way I used to because even my business needs me. So, I will give some time to the school and some time to the business.”
With the shop as a safety net, Kemugisha is one of the lucky ones.
No help from government
Official records from 2017 report more than 14,000 private schools in Uganda – more are thought to have opened since those figures were calculated.
They employ an estimated 150,000 teachers.
The Uganda Private Teachers’ Union has raised concerns over how its members are coping financially.
With no help from the government, most teachers have tried to open business, sell street food, get cleaning jobs or offer their services as home tutors.
But the union also reports cases where its members have turned to prostitution or have committed suicide due to their desperate situation.
“The government of Uganda sanctioned a food relief when COVID hit and people were in lockdown but very distinctly his Excellency the president of Uganda shared that people who are salaried will not be part of the people to benefit from that food relief. And by assumption he categorically even mentioned teachers,” says Juma Mwamula, general secretary of Uganda Private Teachers’ Union.
“I think he had been hoodwinked to imagine that even the teachers in private schools continue to receive salaries as their counterparts in the government schools.”
At Hana International School, there are no pupils in class – but the rooms aren’t totally empty. The teachers have spotted a business opportunity in the midst of the pandemic. Thirty-six of them have come together to make face masks.
The classroom has become a small factory for their idea. It’s one of a number of money-making ventures they have tried.
“When this COVID came in we used the money from our SACCO, from the savings, to start a number of projects. The first project that we started was making paving stones. So, as well as bricks. So, when we started that project we realised that we needed something else to add on it. Because not every day that people buy the pavers (paving stones) and we needed to survive,” explains Fredrick Oduor, a geography and Kiswahili teacher.
“Some that’s when we came up with this other project of making masks, face masks. Because we released that there was need for face masks.”
It took the teachers a week to master the skills of tailoring and making the masks.
It has been an important lesson for them. They have realised they need more than academic knowledge to get by.
“We have learnt that we don’t have to depend on salaries alone. So we need to have multiple baskets where we can get money to feed our families. Two, we have also learnt that we need multiple skills because these skills are what we are using today to feed our families,” says Oduor.
When the school reopens, they will consider teaching their pupils some of these newly-acquired skills.
In the mean time, the classroom chalk board is the perfect place to make some calculations about their budding mask business.