A Ugandan shopper carries mattresses in preparation for back-to-school time in Uganda. Millions of children in the East African nation attended classes in boarding schools.

(Thomas Froese)

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(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, January 29, 2022)

MUKONO, UGANDA – You’re riding on the back of a boda boda, not the safest place on the planet.

Paul manoeuvres the motorcycle through some wild traffic while you talk about the school lockdown that’s finally over in this East African nation.

“Are you happy?” you ask. “So much,” says Paul, and laughs. It’s a moment. Paul has five children returning to class.

Yesterday, you asked the same to another Ugandan friend, 19-year-old Gloria. She’s redoing her final high school year. You’re helping her. Same response. “I’m so happy, Mr. Thom. I’ve been given an opportunity.” Later, over your screen, Gloria says hello and thanks to your family back in Canada. It’s another moment.

You happen to know a Ugandan whose name is Happy. Happy Grace. But who in this nation of 46 million wouldn’t be happy? Ugandans have endured what the UN reports as the world’s longest school disruption, a full or partial shutdown that lasted 83 weeks. Your. Children. At. Home. For. Almost. Two. Years.

But visit now and see supplies like mattresses moving, often on someone’s head, through the streets of Uganda. It’s a back-to-school tradition, a reminder of the millions of Ugandan children in boarding schools.

Your home, by the way, for this working visit is the university where you and your family had lived for 12 years. Someone recently called it “the coolest university south of the Sahara.” Maybe it is. It’s a respected learning centre that sits on 90 acres of rolling, green hills near Uganda’s capital, Kampala. “Come,” you were told. “You can help.” So you’re here.

When the pandemic struck in 2020, this university of 12,000 was shuttered. Campus closed for 16 months. But students have now rolled in again. Rain or shine, as Uganda’s president put it, the country will be open in 2022. This school is but one sign.

At its front gate you hear your name. “Thom! I didn’t know you were here!” Soon after, with a couple of journalists, you’re talking about stabilizing the campus newspaper. The only university paper in Uganda — there are over 50 universities nationwide — it published for 13 years before the pandemic killed its print edition.

The pandemic hit this region hardest in its second wave, last June. One educator tells you, “It seemed like just about everyone knew someone who’d died.” And while online learning was possible for some, it wasn’t for millions of others without the technological ways or means.

Some public schools had weeds growing in them. Now consider that almost half of all Ugandans are younger than 16. Education is no small deal here. And while the government has allowed all elementary and high school students to move ahead a year, it’s unknown how many, unprepared, will falter. The pandemic has also led to a spike in teen pregnancies.

People here mask indoors. Outdoors, it’s a mixed bag. The national curfew limiting night activities, especially bars, is also lifting. But boda drivers like Paul? For now, their taxi motorcycles remain banned between 7 p.m. and 5 a.m.

And the vaccine? At schools like this, a private Christian university, full vaccination is mandatory for staff and students. But national supplies can be low. Also, the infodemic’s wonky thinking has hit this side of the ocean. Vaccination rates of Africa’s 54 nations are among the world’s lowest, below 20 per cent.

Now consider this. Uganda reports about 3,400 pandemic deaths. Canada, with eight million fewer people, reports almost 10 times that, about 32,000. Is this just due to under-reporting, common in developing nations? Is it the warm weather? The long school lockdown? The young populace? Do Africans have better natural immunity?

Whatever the case, it’s an interesting sketch. A picture.

Now you’re in the newsroom of that university paper, mentoring young writers. “Back home, some thought I was crazy to come here. They warned me, ‘People aren’t vaccinated there.’” You look around at those gathered. There’s laughter. It’s another moment.