Why Are Classrooms Empty in Uganda?

Education—and its failures for kids—is a hot topic in the States right now. Floods of college grads want to join Teach For America to help inner-city schools, teachers’ unions are up in arms, and the government is searching for the most effective way to improve the education system and get more kids to graduate.

I don’t think anyone would argue that every child has a right to a good education. And if we care so intensely about an educated America, then we also need to care about an educated world. But something is preying on education systems in a number of less developed countries worldwide, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

It’s true that hunger, poverty, the need to find water—all the more obvious reasons—do keep kids out of school. But there’s another predator, one that flies almost under the radar in Africa, simply because it takes its toll on education so ubiquitously that it’s become a “normal” part of life.

That hidden predator is malaria, transmitted through the bite of a mosquito. As Carolyne Siganda, a World Vision relief and development worker for Africa, has seen firsthand during a recent trip to Uganda, malaria is eating away at children’s attendance in school. Younger kids fall sick and stay home; older kids stay home to take care of them. Even teachers fall sick.  

Falling Behind

While in Northern Uganda, Siganda visited a local school and was stunned by the gaping absences in the attendance report she saw written on the board. “I was shocked at how many times kids are missing school a week for malaria,” she says. “It’s depressing what the numbers are showing. It’s just one of those things you don’t think about, but the teachers are saying in a 30-day period, you are guaranteed that up to 75 percent of the kids will miss more than three days of class related to malaria.”

The local teachers told Siganda that more kids miss school because of early childhood diseases—predominantly malaria—than for any other reason, even farm work, famine or having to walk miles daily to get water. “Other things are still factors for why kids miss school, but on a consistent basis, three to four days where you are completely out of school, malaria is the main cause,” Siganda says.

Because of this, malaria has multi-layered effects on education, according to Siganda. Kids in lower primary school, often ages 6-7, miss school frequently during the year due to malaria, which can force them to repeat a class or two. The number of students drops sharply in middle school as the children are unable to keep up with the academic requirements, due to falling behind in lower primary school. Older students start staying home to take care of younger ones—or even sick parents.

Eventually, after an older child has missed enough school and fallen behind, they start to lose interest in school. “Most of the older kids don’t want to sit in a class with 7-year-olds, but when you are so behind the teacher can’t move you to be with your peers, it’s easier to just drop out of school,” Siganda says. “I’ve seen cases where you have kids who are 13, 14, and they still can’t read or write. For their self esteem, it just doesn’t work. They are ostracized; their friends are laughing at them. That’s how they end up dropping out—it’s the peer pressure.”

The teachers often have to manage hundreds of students, and they simply don’t have the time or patience to work with the kids who drop behind. There’s no money for after-school programs. In the end, children just fall through the cracks, never receiving a full education. These kids are the hidden faces of malaria. It’s extremely sad that these children would have been fully capable of academic success if the fever of malaria hadn’t burned its way into their lives, disrupting and damaging.

Lost Chances

That’s not to mention the kids who contract cerebral malaria, suffering brain damage that can cause learning disabilities or more extensive problems. A study of Sri Lanka school-age children by the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene revealed that repeated attacks of malaria have an adverse impact on the school performance of children. “A child who experienced more than five attacks of malaria scored approximately 15 percent less than a child who experienced less than three attacks of malaria,” the report states.

It can get worse. During David Scheiman’s 2006 visit to a World Vision project in Malawi as senior director of Africa programs, he encountered a 12-year-old girl with serious brain damage from malaria. The girl could no longer speak. “I looked in her eyes and something wasn’t quite right,” Scheiman says. Because of this, the girl had lost her chances of going to school.

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“A lot of African countries don’t have a way for any kid with the slightest disability to be in school, so they just drop out of school,” says Siganda, who has lived and worked in more than 20 African countries. “After repeating a few classes, they just give up.”

The impact of malaria on school attendance in Africa has not been widely researched, but the damage continues. People like Siganda and Scheiman have seen it with their own eyes.

Caring about education means caring about malaria. And the techniques for addressing such a complex problem are surprisingly simple: insecticide spraying, mosquito nets and anti-malarial drugs can go a long way. All that’s needed is more: more lobbying, more money, more supplies and distribution to the countries that need it most.

No one should be kept out of school because of a mosquito bite.

To learn find out how you can help bring an end to malaria deaths by 2015, visit ACTStoEndMalaria.org.

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