RA Appeals: Mustard Seed
Members of the Rationalist Association have raised over £30,000 for a secular school in Uganda. In February 2009, Caspar Melville visited Busota to assess the impact of the donations
As he drives me on the four-hour journey from Kampala to the Mustard Seed Secular School in Busota, eastern Uganda, Moses Kamya, headteacher of the school, tells me the remarkable story of how he and two college friends brought non-religious secular schooling to Uganda.
Moses – who is 35 – grew up in the area we are travelling to and had a life similar to that of the children we can see walking to school, with colourful uniforms and bare feet, along the dusty red roads. He walked four kilometres to school each morning and, just like these kids, he usually had no breakfast. Nonetheless he did well at school and graduated to a Catholic seminary, where he became a Bible scholar and, on occasions, a street preacher. (His manner still bears the unmistakeable trace of the fluent charisma of the street-corner evangelist.) Education lifted him out of the poverty around him and, though he was steeped in theology, his intellect had been awakened. He was on a path which would take him beyond the confines of religious doctrine.
After high school he took a place at Makerere University in Kampala to train as a teacher. It was here that he was first exposed to free thought – references to Classical and Enlightenment thinkers, Marx and Freud, drop easily into his conversation – and met others who were thinking their way beyond dogma. By the time he graduated he would count himself an atheist. Yet given the dominance of religion in Ugandan education he was forced to look for work as a history teacher within religious establishments. Over the ensuing years he was twice dismissed from his post – the last time because he found a child reading the Bible when he should have been concentrating on his African history class and in his frustration tossed the book out of the window.
Since college Moses had been involved with nascent Ugandan humanism as a founder member of the Ugandan Humanist Association (UHASSO). While Moses was in employment limbo in 2004, UHASSO invited the International Humanist and Ethical Union, the umbrella body for global humanism, to participate in an international conference in Kampala dedicated to “Humanist Visions for Africa”. Top of the agenda: education. In 2000 Uganda had phased in universal primary education, but secondary education was still very much in the hands of religious organisations. How were they to combat the religious indoctrination rife in these schools?
The conference spurred Moses into action. Soon afterwards he established Mustard Seed Secular School, close to his home town, with a handful of students attending classes in a rented hut. Two of his classmates from Makerere founded humanist schools of their own – Peter Kisirinya began the Isaac Newton High School in Masaka and, in 2008, Deo Ssikitooleko, the driving force behind UHASSO, received a grant from IHEU to buy the land on which to build the Humanist Academy in Mpigi. He hopes it will become not only a thriving school but headquarters of the growing East African humanist movement.
In the early years Moses struggled to establish Mustard Seed with the meagre income afforded by student fees, and in the face of the suspicion and sometimes open hostility of the local residents, for whom a non-religious education was an alien concept. Soon after the school started Moses was visited by the local priest, who was keen to discuss when would be a good time to start Bible classes at the school. Wary of offending someone with local standing, Moses let him down gently. Some months later, returning from a few days’ work on the other side of the country – something he is forced to do regularly to supplement his, and the school’s, income – Moses found the same priest shamelessly teaching a Bible class to his Year Four. It turned out his deputy head had not fully grasped the concept of the school. Moses called an immediate halt to the class and sent the priest, and the deputy, packing.
Once the local religious schools got wind of what Moses was doing it didn’t take long for subtle hostilities to ramp up. A Muslim primary school was opened on the plot next door, not twenty yards away. The Catholic school which owned the water pump on which the whole neighbourhood depends decided that Mustard Seed was only allowed to draw water late at night after everyone else had been served. The access road to Mustard Seed, which runs across Catholic land, was mysteriously closed off.
Despite this the school flourished. There was no shortage of children eager to learn, and since Moses, like all the humanist head teachers, was willing to waive fees for those who could not afford it, the initial hostility of the community abated. His enrolment last year was 185, and will grow this year.
The school has yet to gain formal accreditation by the state. But, having successfuly passed two inspections, they are well on the way. Moses says that the ministry has been supportive, on the principle that any new schools are to be welcomed.
In terms of curriculum Mustard Seed meets the necessary requirements. It does teach the required Christian religious education (CRE), though Moses emphasises the comparative perspective, and flatly refuses to teach the Bible as historical fact. The school’s humanist activities largely take place outside the formal curriculum through the Student Secular Society, which organises weekly debates, and trips to the other humanist schools. Membership is voluntary, but about 75 per cent of students have joined.
So what was it like? I found it powerful and unsettling. On the one hand I was delighted that we have played a part in establishing such an evidently effective school – something so vital in a commuinity as empoverished as Busota. On the other hand one can’t help but measure the huge distance between those things we take for granted in our school system – electric lights, limitless paper, text books, experienced teachers – and the meagre resources available at Mustard Seed. What they did not lack was dedication. Moses and his team of young teachers were an evident inspiration for the pupils (of those I spoke to, nearly all of them wanted to be teachers).
Knowing the vital role education plays in deciding who gets options in their life and who gets sucked into the subsistence poverty which predominates in rural Uganda, it was hard not to feel moved, especially talking to some of the students on bursaries, many of them orphans, who had a chance to overcome what might otherwise be catastrophic circumstances.
At a ceremony attended by the students and some parents we were treated to some intoxicating music and dance, and a simple, moving speech from Moses, who stressed how vital the contributions from New Humanist readers have been to growing Mustard Seed. When I was asked to say a few words my customary confidence deserted me. Looking out at the students I flushed and stuttered. I found myself saying that I wanted them to know that there were people out there in the world – thousands of miles away – who cared about them and their education. That we were their friends.
I really meant it.
Since 2006 we have been raising money for the Mustard Seed Secular School in Uganda. There are now 3 secular schools in Uganda, and its a growing force. We have a new route for donations to them - a trust has been set up to channel funds from the UK. So please direct your donations to UHST(UK).
More on Mustard Seed
Bertrand Russell in Busota (2006)
Moses Kamya, Raise the Roof (2007)