Alternative Basic Education for Karamoja (ABEK) - Uganda

Margarita Focas Licht

Lokiru is a 12 year old boy living in Karamoja. As the only boy in his family, it is his responsibility to herd the goats. This means that Lokiru was never able to go to school - until ABEK came to his village. In co-operation with the Ministry of State for Karamoja Affairs, the district education authorities and Save the Children Norway, the people of this area began an initiative to develop alternative education for their children. ABEK was born.

Karamoja is an arid, remote region in north-eastern Uganda populated by the Karimojong. The Karimojong depend on livestock for their survival. Growing crops provides an uncertain source of food in this harsh, dry environment. For this reason they are semi-nomadic, and during the dry season some family members move with the animals to find better pastures.

Until now, the Karimojong lifestyle has left little room for literacy. Only an estimated 11.5 % of the population are literate and most have never had the opportunity to go to school.

During World War II, British colonisers came to Karamoja to recruit young men for the war. With a pen, they wrote down the names of the men. Many of them never returned. As a result, the pen was cursed and symbolically buried. Nevertheless, the Karimojong recognise the need for literacy. In a symbolic ceremony in 1995, they lifted the curse their grandfathers had put on the pen.

In a country full of overcrowded classrooms, Karamoja's classrooms are nearly empty. Considering formal schooling largely irrelevant to their lifestyle, most parents have not been motivated to send their children to school. The children's domestic duties are essential to their family's survival, but they conflict with school attendance.

Schools have been geared to formal learning for children aspiring to urban life and departure from traditional society.

The Karimojong see ABEK as their own initiative, and the participating communities are the driving force behind the project. Facilitators have been selected from within the communities and have been trained to teach in pairs. Ten learning areas have been selected, including livestock education, crop production, peace and security, human health and other relevant subjects. Basic reading, writing and arithmetic are integrated in these learning areas in a context familiar to the children.

The facilitators conduct lessons under the trees early in the morning before the workday begins and again in the evening when the workday has ended. Girls bring younger siblings for whom they are responsible, and boys can learn to read and write while watching their herds of goats graze nearby. Parents and elders also come to the lessons to follow the children's progress and learn a few things themselves. Instruction is in their own language and the teaching methods are active and involve traditional songs and dances.

The elders also act as facilitators for specific subject areas such as indigenous history and knowledge on survival within their community

The district education offices play a key role in the success of ABEK. They are in charge of administering both ABEK and the formal education system and so ensure a strong link between the two systems. The district education officers are also working to ensure that children with disabilities have access to ABEK. Some children with disabilities already attend and are actively participating in the lessons.

Children who begin their education through ABEK can transfer to the formal system if they are interested. Since ABEK classes began in mid-1998, more than 100 children have transferred. The district education officials are certain that the teaching methods used in ABEK are effective and that children in ABEK are learning to read and write much faster than children in the formal school. Officials are working on ways of applying the methods used in ABEK's lessons to formal schools.

When asked what they do in their free time, the two teenage sisters Lukia and Lukolo answer 'ABEK!'

They explain that at ABEK they can learn to read and write without having to neglect their duties. Moreover, their newly acquired reading and writing skills help them perform their duties better: they can read instructions on medicine bottles and keep a record of villagers who buy products from them on credit! ABEK is still in its pilot phase, with an enrolment of approximately 7000 children. There is still a lot of hard work ahead to ensure the sustainability and growth of the programme. But its success has exceeded all expectations and can be measured by the children's own enthusiasm.

Margarita Focas Licht is the Regional Co-ordinator - Northeast and Central Africa for Save the Children Norway. She can be contacted at: Hammersborg Torg 3, 0130 Oslo, Norway. Fax: +47 22 99 08 60. Email:


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