Ugandan Humanism in Action: A visit to Pearl Vocational College
Two years ago I travelled to Uganda, for my first experience of carrying out research on humanism and other non-religious movements here. Since I first came to Uganda in 2013, I have been intrigued by the role of religion in the daily lives of Ugandans, and continued to pursue this interest through my degree in anthropology. However, something that is often left unconsidered — so much so that there has been almost no academic research into it — are the voices of those Ugandans who take a critical view on religion, and indeed are resisting its influence on the very ways that they conceptualise themselves and live their lives.
Through online research (indeed where better to look than the Internet?!), I came across the Ugandan Humanist Association, which then led me to the Humanist Association for Leadership, Equity and Accountability (HALEA), directed by Kato Mukasa. HALEA was founded in March 2008 by 24 professionals, including lawyers, journalists, teachers and social workers. Their mission is ‘to advance humanist values and principles to positively contribute to among other objectives; the empowerment of marginalised, victimised and forgotten members of society and solving human problems through the application of reason and science’. Key components of this aim are to create individuals who think critically and express themselves freely. HALEA is a vibrant organisation with a strong presence in the local community. They hold debates on controversial human rights issues in local secondary schools, support vulnerable groups such as young mothers, hold community action days, and produce magazines and blogs. So in the summer of 2015 I decided to spend a month in Kampala, working in HALEA’s office and generally trying to make myself useful. As always in Uganda I experienced immense hospitality, and the HALEA team even invited me to take part in the East African Humanist conference which took place in Kigali, Rwanda in August 2015.
At the time I visited HALEA, Kato often talked excitedly about the vocational college he was constructing in his home village near Masaka, about 3 hours from the capital Kampala. Pearl Vocational Training College would form the next stage towards their vision of generating better lives for Ugandans — through education and employment — focusing particularly on enabling young mothers to be able to support themselves and their families. One such young mother is Grace Kakyo. I first met Grace when she stopped by the HALEA office in Kampala, selling bananas on the streets of Kampala. Kato explained they had been supporting Grace for several years, helping her out of a situation of great vulnerability. Please do read Grace’s full story here in the HALEA magazine as it is impossible to convey all that she has been through here. When I met Grace she was struggling to support her son David — living in one of Kamapala’s slum areas — and also managing her HIV diagnosis. So it was with great anticipation that I arrived at Pearl Vocational College this year, to find a much healthier and happier Grace, who was training in hairdressing. Her son David had also transformed from the quiet baby I met two years ago into a lively and contented four year old. There are still daily struggles for Grace and those who support her, in managing her and her son’s health, not to mention dealing with psychological trauma, and trying to move toward enabling Grace to be independent. Pearl Vocational College has been instrumental in transforming their lives and breaking this vicious cycle of poverty.
Of course Grace is far from alone. Uganda has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in sub-Saharan Africa, and in 2011, 24% of teenagers in Uganda were found to have begun childbearing. Below is a photograph of another Pearl student, who at 17 is single mother to a 7 month old baby girl. Hence Pearl Vocational College focuses on providing vocational education, training and employment opportunities for women, and in particular young mothers. Staff at Pearl welcome and indeed encourage mothers to bring their children to the college, so that they can manage the demands of education and caring for their children. In addition to their technical training — in courses ranging from hair-dressing to catering to computing — students are also taught critical thinking skills, accountancy and entrepreneurship. The first year of graduates have also been supported in securing further employment and training opportunities, to apply their skills beyond the college. This holistic approach forms the pillars upon which Pearl stands.
However it should not be forgotten that sustaining all of this has required huge generosity and kindness. Many of the students at Pearl simply do not have the money to spare for education, and so they are supported by bursaries and some even provided with accommodation and food at the site. In particular, funding is needed to kick-start a reusable sanitary pad project, whereby students would learn how to manufacture these reusable sanitary pads. Not only would this provide the women with at least the basic essentials required to stay in college but it could be developed into an income-generating project through selling the pads to local women and especially schools. Per term a girl pupil may miss up to 8 days of study, which translates into 11% of the time a girl pupil will miss learning due to menstrual periods. The academic and activist Dr Stella Nyanzi has been recently making headlines for her distribution of free sanitary pads to girls and use of apparently ‘vulgar’ language in talking about the issue. Her actions follow the failure of the Ugandan government to deliver on its 2015 promise to provide sanitary pads to girls so they are not forced to drop out of school. This issue has been highly politicised, with Dr Nyanzi being interrogated and currently under arrest in Uganda, highlighting the simultaneously personal and political nature of this struggle women here are facing every day. As a result, women and girls such as those at Pearl are finding solutions for themselves, such as producing these reusable pads, which are both economically and environmentally sustainable.
It was my pleasure to be able to visit Pearl. The college fosters a progressive and practical outlook, which is also a characteristic I find displayed in Ugandan humanists across the country. Kato and his colleagues at HALEA and Pearl truly use humanism as not only a moral philosophy but a practical one, as they strive to become change-makers in their communities, tackling urgent needs as well as providing support to young people to develop the independence and self-esteem that can propel them into their futures.
For more information about HALEA and Pearl Vocational Training College — including how to donate to projects such as the reusable sanitary towel initiative — please see their websites: