"Folks in Uganda love your story," Elizabeth Wood, my publisher, wrote to me recently. She was referring to my children's book The Blue Marble, which has just been imported back into the country in a novel way. She forwarded an email from Daria, one of her colleagues, who is currently on a trip to Uganda for the Worldreader project:
I'm so excited! When the teachers at Humble [a school in Uganda] saw that there were African books on their e-readers they actually seemed astounded. A quick look into Humble's library and you know why: everything was American. This might be going too far but they looked like they were in a state of disbelief, almost as if they themselves had never really connected the idea of books and African authors. Actually, when Esther said The Blue Marble was by a Ugandan writer a few of them commented in disbelief. Seeing the Ugandan names actually made a few of them giggle with surprise and delight. Jackee Batanda is going to be the first Ugandan author most of them read.
Worldreader is a non-profit organization committed to delivering digital books to children and families in the developing world using e-reader technology. Already launched in Kenya and Ghana, the project seeks to promote reading through e-readers and works with underprivileged schools. Worldreader launched in Uganda last week, and, judging by the emails, Ugandan teachers are excited.
Generally speaking, teachers in Uganda have little to be excited about. Last week, I read with trepidation that the government has, for the time being, ruled out pay rises for all civil servants (except those in the security sector). This country's fixation on high defense spending over quality of education and health care bodes ill for the nation's future. Around the world, the debate on the failing education standards is growing. What are the nations with the best education standards doing right? And what are those with low education standards doing wrong?
Uganda boasts high student enrollment due to a policy of free universal primary and secondary education. The numbers look good when it comes to World Bank statistics on enrollment, but they tend to ignore the quality of education. In an op-ed he published in Uganda's The Independent newspaper last year, Bob Kasango argues for the need to overhaul the whole education system and motivate teachers. He quotes reports indicating that children who have passed through the Ugandan school system cannot tell time or do simple mathematical calculations. He argues that the need to improve education standards is of the essence.
To compete, we either must raise our educational standards or we shall be left out and left behind. But how do we do this? The answer is simple. Get more and great teachers, pay them well and treat them with the same professional respect we accord to lawyers, engineers, doctors, accountants etc. But developing great teachers requires an extremely rigorous and competitive process. They must be subjected to entry exams to a teaching job and continuously assessed and given regular periodical training to widen and upgrade their knowledge base. The teacher-student ratio must not defy the principal laws of meaningful learning....
Last year teachers participated twice in national strikes, calling on the government to increase their salaries by 100 percent. The average income of a primary school teacher is 260,000 shillings ($93 USD) per month, according to local press reports. They threatened another strike this year. Instead the government promised to raise their salary by 15 percent in the next financial budget cycle. The decision to increase teacher's pay by only 15 percent underscores the failure to grasp that more money needs to be channeled into education if we are to develop as a nation.
Civil society organizations like Worldreader are stepping in to fill the gap. The e-reader project is an example of a pilot project that promotes reading through new technologies. This is just the sort of thing the government appears incapable of doing on its own.
While money needs to be spent on the security sector, a larger amount needs to be invested in education. Investing in the education sector will ensure the growth and development of the country.
STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images