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Whatever happened to the teens who endured the world's longest COVID school closure?

Kusemererwa Jonathan Henry, 16, runs a fruit-and-vegetable stand that is helping pay school fees. He wants to be an electrical engineer.
Esther Ruth Mbabazi for NPR
Kusemererwa Jonathan Henry, 16, runs a fruit-and-vegetable stand that is helping pay school fees. He wants to be an electrical engineer.

In January 2022, Uganda ended the longest pandemic school lockdown in the world. As the country's roughly 15 million school-going children were summoned back to class, we spoke with six youths from poor families in one of the largest slums in Kampala, the capital city. The teens shared their feelings about returning to school after almost two years and their dreams for their future. For some, family hardships meant they couldn't afford the school fees that would enable them to return. Now, eight months since the reopening, we returned to their community of Kamwokya and were able to reach five of the six teens we profiled to learn how they are faring.

There are definitely happy stories among the teens we'd interviewed early this year.

Kusemerwa Jonathan Henry, age 16, is a busy kid – enrolled in school but still running the small business he started during the pandemic. With some financial help from his dad, he opened a fruit and vegetable stand that is going strong. By a Kamwokya roadside, Henry sorts fresh mud-covered Irish potatoes. "I continue to balance my school term and work. So, it's been easy to do both," he says. The next term in Uganda starts on September 5, and once class is in session, he'll work at the stall after school. "Even though there was a lot to cover, I've picked up real fast. I've been studying hard."

Babilinda George, Henry's father, can't hide his pride for his son's efforts. The teen has already saved enough to pay for the next term's full tuition, he says. George only has to contribute a little bit for supplies and extras. "He makes my life easy."

But the matter of school fees has been an obstacle. At Kololo Senior Secondary School , which several of the teens attend, tuition, supplies and uniforms cost roughly $135 for each of the three school year terms.

And global events have contributed to a bumpy back-to-school for several of our Kamwokya teens. Once the Ukraine war began, Uganda's fuel prices shot up and in turn affected prices of food and everyday essentials. So school fees were out of reach for some of the teens' families. In some cases the students we interviewed have not been able to start school – or risk being sent home if their families made an initial payment but haven't been able to cover all the costs.

Mary Goretti Nakabugo, the executive director of Uwezo Uganda, a nonprofit organization working to promote equitable quality education, says that many parents are struggling to make ends meet. "For some of them, it might be a choice between survival and sending back children to school."

Kisakye Melissa, 15, at home in Kamwokya, Kampala. She has been unable to return to school earlier this year because her family could not afford school fees but her school has agreed to an installment plan that should let her start classes this month.
/ Esther Ruth Mbabazi for NPR
/
Esther Ruth Mbabazi for NPR
Kisakye Melissa, 15, at home in Kamwokya, Kampala. She has been unable to return to school earlier this year because her family could not afford school fees but her school has agreed to an installment plan that should let her start classes this month.

Kisakye Melissa, now age 15, is one of the teenagers who has yet to return to a classroom since the reopening of school. Her mother earns money by handwashing clothes for locals. During the shutdown, Melissa helped. But they didn't earn enough money for the tuition due when schools reopened. And as 2022 wore on, fewer people dropped off laundry, so Melissa had nothing to do. Her mother sent to a nearby village to help her grandmother with daily tasks.

After reading about Melissa's family in the February article that NPR published, African Girls Can, a nonprofit organization training women entrepreneurs in Uganda and elsewhere, hoped to sponsor Melissa. But the organization only supports secondary school students, and Melissa has yet to complete primary education. At age 15, she's only in the equivalent of roughly grade five. She must complete grade seven before entering high school.

"I feel bad and it scares me that if I ever get the chance to return to school, I will be too old. Children will laugh at me," Melissa says. However, she now has reason to hope that scenario won't come true. Her mother went to Sharp Primary School in Kamwokya and asked whether the school would accept tuition payments "in small bits," she says. It was this possibility of returning to school that brought Melissa back from her grandmother's village to Kamwokya. The school agreed to the arrangement, and so finally, she will go back to class at the start of the September term.

Nakabugo hopes other schools prove as flexible: "We are not saying that schools should not charge but they should accept installments. Because parents also need to know that schools cannot run without money."

Naigaga Rebecca Mercy, says she couldn't take all her exams after the term because her family was in arrears for school fees. The fees are again an issue for the September term but she's hopeful that she can complete her high school education and pursue her dream of becoming a doctor or lawyer.
/ Esther Ruth Mbabazi for NPR
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Esther Ruth Mbabazi for NPR
Naigaga Rebecca Mercy, says she couldn't take all her exams after the term because her family was in arrears for school fees. The fees are again an issue for the September term but she's hopeful that she can complete her high school education and pursue her dream of becoming a doctor or lawyer.

Naigaga Rebecca Mercy's parents came up with some tuition money but ended up short of what was needed for her full tuition and supplies. "Even if the balance is just 1 cent, they will send you home," says the 14-year-old. In August, "I was sent back home just a few days before the final term examinations," she explains.

Mercy was ultimately able to sit for some exams but not others. Schools sometimes make this kind of allowance to encourage families to pay off their remaining balance. Mercy's father earns a monthly salary as a factory worker, but it isn't enough for rent, tuition and other basics. This month, Mercy says her father must prioritize rent, which means that her school will not receive the expected deposit at the start of the September term. "When school reopens, we are given one month before we are sent home," she says. She is determined to do "whatever it takes" to become a doctor or lawyer. "I like school. I have to achieve my dream."

Tusiime Agnes's parents could afford some of the school fees but not enough to cover school lunch. She's worried about the fall term: The school requires black leather dress shoes, "which I don't have," she says. "If you wear anything else, you are stopped right at the gate."
/ Esther Ruth Mbabazi for NPR
/
Esther Ruth Mbabazi for NPR
Tusiime Agnes's parents could afford some of the school fees but not enough to cover school lunch. She's worried about the fall term: The school requires black leather dress shoes, "which I don't have," she says. "If you wear anything else, you are stopped right at the gate."

Tusiime Agnes's parents also were not able to pay fees in full. They paid only half tuition, which was enough for the now 15-year-old Agnes to return but not enough for the school to provide lunch. It's footwear that is most worrisome for this upcoming term, though. The school requires black leather dress shoes, "which I don't have," she says. "If you wear anything else, you are stopped right at the gate."

Joel Joseph, was 15 when schools closed for the pandemic in 2020. He's now back in class but worried about fees — his mother's small grocery shop just lost its location. He hopes for a future as an engineer and says he won the "Mr. Creative" title in this year's science fair.
/ Esther Ruth Mbabazi for NPR
/
Esther Ruth Mbabazi for NPR
Joel Joseph, was 15 when schools closed for the pandemic in 2020. He's now back in class but worried about fees — his mother's small grocery shop just lost its location. He hopes for a future as an engineer and says he won the "Mr. Creative" title in this year's science fair.

Joel Joseph is also worried about staying in school for the next semester. His single mother's small grocery shop was just shut down. "The owner of the place she was renting sold it out and she had to leave. So, money is going to be a problem."

During the lockdown, Joseph rented a small partition within a shop in order to sell clothes, but he says he had to close the business down because he doesn't have time for it when school is in session.

However, at least for the moment, the 17-year-old feels that he is on track to pursue a career as a mechanical engineer specializing in robotics. At his school's science fair, he submitted two entries — a toy missile launcher vehicle and a bag that can charge a mobile phone on the go. "When the judges made their choice," he says proudly, "I won the title 'Mr. Creative.' "

Halima Athumani is a digital and broadcast journalist based in Kampala, Uganda. She's been covered politics, health, human rights and social affairs since 2010, has anchored a newscast on 93.3 KFM in Kampala and has contributed to Voice of America, The Washington Post, Al-Jazeera and the BBC.

Esther Ruth Mbabazi is a photographer based in Kampala, Uganda. Her work explores changing conditions on the African continent. She is a National Geographic Explorer, past VII Photo Agency Mentee and Magnum Foundation Photography & Social Justice Fellow and has been published in The New York Times, Time Magazine, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Halima Athumani
Photos by Esther Ruth Mbabazi