Dressed in his school uniform, Mathias Okwako jumps into the mud to search for gold. Just across the street, the school he should be attending sits empty. Weeds even grow in some of the classrooms.
Seventeen-year-old Okwako lives in Busia, Uganda. Uganda’s schools have been fully or partially shut for more than 77 weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic—longer than the schools of any other nation.
As school closures stretch on, Okwako and his peers are becoming a lost generation of learners who work in a swamp as gold miners instead of acquiring knowledge and skills that will help them into adulthood.
For many kids around the world, school was interrupted during the pandemic. Most couldn’t go to school in person. Many parents had to scramble to find child care, or learn to homeschool on the fly while working at the same time. In many parts of the globe, lessons moved online. Not so in Uganda. Uganda had major schooling problems even before the pandemic. Schools lacked qualified teachers and many students dropped out before they graduated. When the pandemic hit, the country couldn’t provide virtual schooling.
Uganda first shut down its schools in March 2020. Eventually some classes resumed, just to be halted again as the coronavirus spread and the nation returned to lockdown. Uganda is now the only country in Africa where schools remain closed.
Situated in east-central Africa, Uganda is about the size of Great Britain. Uganda’s rich and productive landscape has earned it the nickname “the jewel of Africa.” The nation produces coffee popular with connoisseurs, and its wildlife (hippos, gorillas, tree-climbing lions, elephants, and more) draws tourists from around the globe. Still, almost half of Ugandans live in poverty. Diseases such as malaria make many Ugandans—about half of whom have no access to medical care—unable to work. Many Ugandans also need to be taught how to perform jobs that will earn good pay.
For now, teachers work alongside their former students in the swamp. A typical day of gold mining can bring in just over $2, enough for a child to buy a pair of used shoes. Okwako purchased two pigs with his earnings, and other children use the money to buy salt or soap for their families.
Why is Okwako wearing his school uniform if there’s no school? He says he has nothing else to put on.
Why? “No school” might sound fun, but it’s important to recognize reliable education as a blessing God allows to prepare people for the work He has for them to do.