When President Yoweri Museveni announced a lockdown on March 18, 2020 to curb the first wave of Covid-19, Stephen Wasega’s boss at Gangu Junior School in Kampala paid his teachers Shs 100,000 each and advised them to return to their respective villages.
They also had to vacate the schoolhouses some of them, like Wasega, occupied.
“Go to the village and do what!? Instead, two of my colleagues and I pooled that money and rented two rooms and moved in with our wives and children, as we thought of what to do next,” the 25-year-old, whom we found in Gangu looking well groomed and every inch a teacher (complete with pen in shirt pocket), said.
Wasega’s plan B came in the form of manual labour.
“Now I dig pit latrines. I had dug pit latrines before in my village in Butaleja, but toilets in the village are usually five to 10ft deep. Here, someone tells you, ‘I want 100ft’; eh! But when you have a need, you improvise,” Wasega, who taught math and English to P2, P3 and nursery pupils until Covid-19 happened, said.
When The Observer was trying to trace him, people referred to him as ‘master’, and not by his name. In addition to pit latrines, Wasega has boreholes and water pumps on his catalogue of jobs he does.
Although his newfound vocation does not have a job for him every day or even every week, it has been good to him; so much so that he does not plan to go back to teaching when schools reopen.
Uganda is currently the only country in the East African Community, where schools remain closed due to Covid-19. The president announced that schools will only reopen in January 2022, sending teachers and parents into fresh panic.
While public school teachers still receive a salary, private school teachers have been reduced to beggars in some cases, in a country where stimulus packages bizarrely went to a few renowned entrepreneurs.
During the first lockdown, President Museveni released Shs 20bn for private teachers’ savings and credit schemes, but to date the intended beneficiaries have not received a coin. It does not help matters that many private school teachers like Wasega teach without formal employment contracts.
No wonder Wasega has lost his love for teaching.
“You know how private schools can be; they promise you Shs 300,000 but give you Shs 100,000 when the month ends! With latrines, I charge Shs 10,000 per foot, then hire one or two people to assist me. At the end of the job, I still have reasonable savings,” he said.
The borehole and water pump jobs are harder to come by, but are more lucrative and can fetch up to Shs 6m, because it is a dangerous job; he has to dig until he reaches the water table. Some may be tempted to feel sorry for Wasega; well, meeting him would change that.
“Covid-19 has been a blessing in disguise, because I have discovered an alternative way of earning a living. Initially I wanted to go to the United Arab Emirates, but failed,” he said. “I can no longer stand teaching, unless I go for further studies and get to teach secondary school students and university.”
Married to Dorah Nakigudde with whom he has two children under three years, Wasega also looks after his father, Enock Wasega in Butaleja and pays school fees for three of his 14 siblings. His mother passed away. Yet, despite having no immediate plans of returning to teaching, Wasega takes the responsibility and honour attached to his title ‘master’ very seriously.
“I am very careful how I carry myself, because many of my pupils are in this village. Even their parents call me, ‘master, master!’”
“I feel no shame doing what I do. Sometimes my pupils come to me and say they are hungry, or have no food at home. I ask them to help me with light jobs at my sites and afterwards pay them Shs 20,000,” he said.
He has since moved out of the shared quarters and now rents a single room at Shs 100,000, knowing he can finally pay.
“When there are no pit latrines or boreholes to dig, I will do any menial job – including mopping houses – as long as I put food on the table. I don’t look down on any job,” Wasega, who came to Kampala in 2016 after completing S6 at Butaleja SS, said.
THE PROUD HAWKER
Wasega is not the only teacher thinking outside the box, lest he starves. Immaculate Nakyanzi, 32, has been a teacher since 2011, but currently is a hawker, selling craft shoes. A Kampala International University graduate of Development Studies, Nakyanzi first worked with World Vision up to 2010, when her love for teaching drew her into the classroom.
“I just loved teaching. I even went for a certificate course in Education at Kyadondo Technical Institute,” the married mother-of-five said.
Nakyanzi, who teaches P1 to P3 pupils at St Francis Xavier Gangu, pays tribute to her former boss, Francis Bbosa, who kept paying his teachers even six months into the first lockdown, until things got worse with the on-going lockdown on schools.
“I had linked up with a parent who did baking and catering and learnt how to make samosas and fried cassava. Using the money our boss paid me, I bought supplies and started making my own samosas and muwogo. But when our boss could no longer support us, that business collapsed,” Nakyanzi said.
When the second lockdown was announced, she started buying a few pairs of locally made craft shoes (tangiira) and hawking them. She also found favour with the gentleman she bought them from in Kibiri trading centre, who started to teach her his craft, and on a good day, Nakyanzi can make 20 pairs of shoes with lugabire (rubber from car tyres) soles, which she then hawks for between Shs 5,000 and Shs 7,000. She is also learning from her mentor how to make beaded Maasai sandals, which she sells at Shs 10,000 and Shs 15,000.
“This has become a passion; I love it and the income is good. I don’t think I can go back to teaching!” she said, bursting into laughter.
As a teacher, her day at school started at 7 am and she could only leave at 7 pm, too tired to do any other business, let alone take care of her children and builder husband.
“Now I have time for my family and for myself. I feel like I am in heaven!” she said.
Hawking is associated with the uneducated, but the witty Nakyanzi cares less what anyone else thinks.
“I feel no shame; it is not the profession that will give me money, it is hard work,” she said. “In the course of my work I sometimes bump into my former colleagues who disparage me for turning into a hawker and encourage me to look for pupils to coach, instead. Some people are obsessed with teaching; so, I don’t think private schools will lack human resources when they eventually reopen.”
An O-level teacher of ICT, who requested anonymity, has resorted to selling clothes as she waits out the lockdown.
“Imagine we were promised government relief as private teachers but we received nothing. We just keep hearing that there could be money, yet this would be the best time for this money to help us through this pandemic. Being private schools’ teachers, we no longer earn salaries. We are only lucky that our school let us stay in the staff quarters throughout this time,” she said.
From her ICT class, this teacher now rents space on a shop door on one of Kampala’s busy streets, paying Shs 500,000 per month. She is counting on the festive season ahead to gauge the business, but for now she is struggling with the rent.
“When schools reopen in January I will surely resume teaching, because with teaching I have job security and I am sure of a month’s pay unlike this uncertain business.”
From classroom to market
Father-of-five Bruhan Matovu (not real name), teaches Economics (HSC) and Geography (O-level). After the private school he teaches at closed on the president’s directives, Matovu resorted to selling farm produce, sharing a stall with his wife, who was already in the business.
“I hope to go back into teaching. I clearly can’t rely on this business, because my net income in teaching is around Shs 1.8m. Here, people do not buy from us given the economy of the country; so, the business is not moving very well,” he told The Observer.
“The school I teach at tried to give us help in the first wave, but this second wave even the school itself is affected. But we have been given the opportunity to stay in the staff quarters though we have to pay rent and take care of utility bills.”
Matovu at least prides himself in being one of the beneficiaries of premier Robinah Nabbanja’s Covid relief money (Shs 100,000). As for 38-year-old mathematics/physics teacher Jude Orena in Kayunga, Wakiso district, he contemplated sending his five children to the village when push came to shove.
“A friend advised me against that saying people in the village are worse off. [Instead], I joined my wife in the market (Kayunga town) selling tomatoes and vegetables. I also own a groundnuts milling machine, only that now it got technical problems.”
He now mans the tomato stall as his wife cooks with a friend in the next stall. The Observer found Orena’s wife preparing food, which she then supplies in the market.
“I can’t let my title of a teacher shield me from earning a living. At times when I’m at the stall, my students pass by and look at me in wonder, but this does not stop me from working hard and any job can be lucrative.”
Orena, who also has a diploma in electrical engineering from Uganda Technical College, Bushenyi, has revisited that vocation too, repairing electrical appliances including radios, television sets, and wiring houses as his Plan B.
Henry Mubanda, a father of two and teacher of fine art at St Mary’s New Hope Nabweru, now paints at home and sells his art pieces for between Shs 30,000 and Shs 50,000. He markets his work on Facebook and then makes deliveries.
Schools drowning in loans
While school directors such as Bbosa tried to stand with their teachers during the first lockdown, others are already neck-high in turbulent waters of their own to do anything about their employees. Herbert Kamukama is the director of Wakiso Town primary school, which is struggling under a york of bank loans that keep him awake at night.
“We are suffocating with bank loans. We got a loan from Finance Trust bank and had paid some of it but stopped because of the pandemic. Now they are threatening to come and write on our school walls; they are busy calculating interest when we aren’t working. We have pleaded with them to stop accumulating the interest, all in vain,” Kamukama, in his mid-60s, said.
“I hardly sleep in the night because of the bank calls. We borrowed Shs 240m in 2016 and had paid Shs 190m – paying Shs 29m per term – when we were closed. The loan has accumulated to Shs 250m in the last two years! We wrote to the bank complaining about the interest, but they didn’t help us,” he said.
On top of that, Kamukama worries about his pupils, saying he has received reports that some are pregnant and others have gone into child labour; “I can’t imagine what the nursery children look like now!”
Wakiso Town PS started in 1999 and has about 350 pupils. The school land that the bank threatens to auction, also holds Kamukama’s residence and he lives in fear of being left homeless.