Something is gravely amiss. It is as if we have spare lives tucked away in our village burial grounds.
It is as if we can afford to waste lives because Ugandans are abundant in supply - especially young Ugandans. Once again - young children burned to death in their deathtraps of boarding school dormitories.
Once again, we turn to cupping our chins in our forlorn hands and mouthing repeatedly, ‘kitalo nnyo’. (A Luganda phrase through which one identifies with another mourning the death of their beloved.) The dependable ‘kitalo nnyo’ bails us out, saves us from having hard conversations about why children continue to die in boarding schools.
We should be flagellating our backs, beating our chests over such preventable deaths. Undeterred by the suffering of others, we continue ‘normally’ shuffling along blindly. Fortunately, the news headlines bring no respite. News headlines race to break the news to us as to how this latest episode of preventable deaths unfolded.
The scene: A boys’ dormitory at Kasana Junior School, a boarding school in Masaka district. The affected: 12 young children and their matron. On the night of October 30, a fire broke out in the dormitory housing 15 children from Top and Primary One classes. 15 children under the age of seven.
Media reports indicate the fire destroyed everything in the dormitory; so far, seven children are reported dead. Five remain in hospital. As a parent of young children, news of children meeting gruesome deaths while at school is absolutely gnarling. Parents in their attempt to do right by their children send them to school.
Instead, some parents receive coffins with the charred remains of what was once their lively and very alive children. Why is this nightmare a recurring reality in our land? What is within our means to protect children at school?
The more details we get of these stories, the more our collective ‘kitalo nnyo’ sounds like a betrayal. A betrayal of basic standards. Daily Monitor reports that staff and neighbours to the school tried to put out the fire using water. The water spits out the lack of fire-fighting equipment on the school premises.
Additionally, the fire brigade arrived too late - the fire destroyed everything. As we now look at the news pictures of the charred dormitory - the betrayal grows. Breathless media updates inform us the dormitory had the outlawed triple-decker bed and burglar-proofed windows.
Perhaps the dormitory builders never envisioned a scenario where young children might need to escape a ravenous fire. Even worse, as the script goes for such cases, the school has neither surveillance cameras nor a perimeter wall. We receive this revelation with pregnant silence.
Speaking to Daily Monitor, a parent from the school community voiced the questions underneath the pregnant silence. Peninah Mukasa queried why many boarding schools continue to operate without the prerequisite safety requirements.
Mukasa opined, “We need the ministry to intervene and force schools to follow all safety and security guidelines to reduce such incidents.”
Yes, the ministry. The ministry of Education and Sports at whose door the fire dissipates after decimating schools and children. On November 1, the minister of Education and Sports, First Lady Janet Museveni donated Shs 50 million to Kasana Junior School.
The funds will help the school meet the ministry’s standards on safety and security. Additionally, the families of the deceased children each received Shs 5 million for burial expenses while the families of the survivors received Shs 1 million each.
The permanent secretary pledged that the ministry would return to inspect the school to ensure that the minimum standards that should have existed before the fire, before the death of seven young children, are now in place. How many more children will die before the ministry pledges more millions to help another school implement the basic standards of safety and security?
The permanent secretary in a seemingly foolhardy attempt to calm down frazzled parents, appealed to the parents not to abandon the school, noting that accidents happen and they could happen in any other school.
That right there is why we have Ugandan lives in abundance including spare lives in our family burial grounds. That mentality that accidents happen.
What if we went beyond the kitalo nnyos, the money to patch up burnt-down buildings and buy coffins? What if we used that money before ‘accidents happen’ instead of after? Yes, I hear you; accidents indeed happen. However, if schools are operating without the basic safety and security requirements, do we still call them ‘accidents waiting to happen’ or ‘deathtraps masquerading as schools’?
The permanent secretary is not wrong. Yes, parents can do more than remove their children from these deathtraps. Parents can demand that accidents are not sitting around waiting to happen to their children. Parents can hold both the school and the ministry accountable.
The Observer dated October 31 reported the school remained closed to the public including parents who rushed there to collect their children. “Kitalo nnyo!”
What a bizarre predicament we find ourselves in cupping our chins in our hands as we mouth ‘kitalo nnyo’ because accidents happen. We, the farcical adults in the room, must do better. The irretrievable lives of defenseless children are counting on us.
The writer is a tayaad muzzukulu