Ramp up online learning to avoid career stoppage, unemployment, forced marriages

By Eriah Lule
The Uganda Christian University (UCU) Vice Chancellor has asked government and schools to follow the online learning path that his institution has taken in order to reduce effects of covid-related lockdowns on studies. As of late September 2021, Uganda has had two lockdowns occasioned by a spike in the coronavirus positivity rate in the country. Each lockdown has included the shutting of in-person learning in schools.

UCU Vice Chancellor Prof. Aaron Mushengyezi is urging institutions to consider a rigorous shift towards online distance learning and service delivery so that future lockdowns do not affect operations and learning.

“We have invested in infrastructure of electronic learning and have something to share with other institutions,” he said, adding that such a move will not only keep students from lagging behind because of the pandemic but also enable them to continue studying on their own time.

With Uganda’s second 2021 lockdown in June, many institutions of higher learning, as well as elementary schools remain closed. Only a handful, including UCU, have continued with classes, through electronic means.

Last year, the government shut down schools in March and only opened for in-person learning for final-year learners seven months later. It was not until March this year that schools were opened for in-person learning, only to be closed again three months later.

Mushengyezi emphasized UCU’s commitment to “pioneer in innovation and learning with community outreach.”

He spoke during a recent virtual dialogue to discuss the impact of Covid-19 on academic institutions. The virtual event was held at UCU’s Principals Hall on the main campus in Mukono.

The dialogue, which brought together national and international organizations, was organised by the UCU Alumni Association together with the university’s Student Guild and in partnership with external organizations. The European Union (EU), Uganda’s Ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development and ActionAid were among the organisations that participated in the event.

Online dialogues are part of the activities that the UCU alumni association is embarking on as part of its community engagement activities.

One of the panelists in the dialogue, Rose Namayanja, a former Ugandan minister and the current deputy secretary general of the ruling National Resistance Movement party, said many students have dropped out of school as a result of the lockdown. She said the Government was working at developing sustainable digital learning structures for schools in the country.

Rose Namayanja, a former Ugandan minister and the current deputy secretary general of the ruling National Resistance Movement party, speaks during the dialogue session.
Rose Namayanja, a former Ugandan minister and the current deputy secretary general of the ruling National Resistance Movement party, speaks during the dialogue session.

“Many students have resorted to hawking, others have succumbed to forced marriages and teenage pregnancies, due to the lack of digital structures to keep them studying during lockdowns,” Namayanja noted.

The UCU Alumni Association General Secretary, Julius Oboth, urged government to provide soft loans to schools so they can make plans to re-open. He also rooted for tax holidays for all private education institutions, calling on government never to close schools again because such a move “cripples the education sector.”

Ezra Byakutangaza, the president of the student leaders in Uganda, urged government to initiate loan schemes to enable students to purchase learning tools such as laptops, which are needed in online learning. This, Byakutangaza said, would ease the burden on schools that are unable to afford computers for every student.

Elizabeth Ongom, a representative from the European Union in Uganda, said the EU is in the process of drafting projects that will inspire innovative practices for the education sector not only in Uganda, but the whole of Africa.

In order to keep children in school, Naiga Shuburah Kasozi, a representative from Uganda’s Ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development, called for concerted efforts from all stakeholders.

“It’s not only the Government, but everyone’s responsibility to keep children in school,” she  said. “So we should de-campaign actions that push our children out of school as the Government is finds a better plan for them to study.’

UCU Guild President Agaba Kenneth Amponda reminded people participating in the dialogue that a conversation about schools without factoring in the other people who benefit from its operation was an incomplete discussion. He argued that by opening schools, security personnel, chefs in catering departments, cleaners, and other people who provide support services in schools will also be able to find employment.


UCU Chaplain: God helped me defeat Covid-19

With the negative stigma attached to testing positive for Covid-19 in Uganda, it takes courage to confess publicly that one has contracted the virus. Despite the wrongfully imposed shame, some Ugandans are courageous enough to tell their experience, reminding others with Covid to have hope and encourage all to follow Covid safety guidelines.  The Rev. Eng Paul Wasswa Ssembiro, the Chaplain of Uganda Christian University (UCU), is one such courageous person. Ssembiro contracted Covid in November 2020. He narrates to Eriah Lule his ordeal with the virus and how God helped him overcome it.

By Rev. Eng. Paul Wasswa Ssembiro as told to Eriah Lule
I don’t know how Dr. Geoffrey Mulindwa (UCU’s Director of Medical Services) referred to me, but I am sure I was “Covid-19 Patient 001.” I don’t have a clue of where or when I contracted the virus. But I got it. 

I began to be conscious about some sort of infection when I started feeling general body weakness and pain in the joints. The joint pain was unusual because I used to jog every day, to beat off fatigue. The symptoms were akin to those I got whenever I suffered from malaria. On this Saturday, I discovered that I had developed a dry cough. I was uneasy because I had to lead the church service the following day. So, I sought immediate medical attention at the Allan Galpin Health Center, the university clinic.

Eng. Rev. Paul Wasswa preaches during community worship in Nkoyoyo Hall.
Eng. Rev. Paul Wasswa preaches during community worship in Nkoyoyo Hall.

I had a throbbing headache, which seemed to be localized just slightly above my ears. I took painkillers and even took too many at some point and out of despair. But, to no avail. I must confess that I struggled with denial and self- pity, saying to myself “I can’t be infected.” Soon, I reached out to Dr. Mulindwa, who gave me a referral to Mengo Hospital, an Anglican Church-founded hospital in Kampala. Mengo. It is affiliated with UCU.

When I got to the hospital, I met a doctor whose team noticed my agony. They administered a diclofenac (anti-inflammatory drug) injection that relieved my pain a bit. Several medical tests ensued: Lung scanning, heart-echo tests, blood count tests and finally, a test that I dreaded the most – the Covid-19 PCR test.

I was admitted to the hospital and immediately given intravenous injections for pneumonia, and pain killers. When the Covid results returned, the doctor told me I could not go home. They had confirmed I was positive for coronavirus.  

They told me my lungs were in a crucial state. They sent doctors to counsel me, because the hospital did not have the facility for treatment of Covid-19 patients. My spirits sunk. I was distraught. 

I was referred to Mulago National Referral Hospital. Anxiety caused me to unduly feel stigmatized in the process because I seemed like a problem Mengo was trying to rid itself of as soon as possible. But, thankfully, God gave strength to my wife who stood firmly in faith, for me, that all would be well. 

Eng Rev. Paul Wasswa preaches at a seminar
Eng Rev. Paul Wasswa preaches at a seminar

Before admission at Mulago, I was sprayed with chlorine that soaked my clothes. The experience was irritating and traumatizing. It was an uncomfortable and painful wait of nearly two hours, before I was taken to my admission room. Eagerly awaiting a bath, having spent 24 hours without one, I was alarmed there wasn’t any I could have.

But God granted me divine favor. It was a Friday morning. A nurse walked in to check on patients who had been admitted the previous evening. She was a UCU alumna. She knew me. God used her to get me to a better ward, where I got a private room, with certain privileges such as accessing fruits to make juice and immunity-boosting concoctions from lemon and ginger, among other foods.

I also met a young man, also a patient, but in a better state than I was. He had known me as clergy from the church conventions I attended. “Pastor, you are my responsibility now,” he told me, with a smile. He started bringing me salads and hot water, until the day he was discharged. However, before he left, he asked colleagues at the hospital to take care of my meals and make sure I was comfortable. 

The healing hand of the Lord was with me; my body responded well to medication. Six days after admission, when the Director of Mulago Hospital was moving around the ward, he entered my room. When he saw me, he said: “You are not supposed to be here. There are worse cases than you are. We should be discharging you soon.” 

This was good news, to me, from a person who had a bigger picture of the virus. My fellow patients would later tell me I looked better than when I was admitted into the facility. I began doing mild physical exercises. My breath was improving. Finally, on the December 4, 2020, I was discharged.

While I still battle with side effects, such as high blood pressure, occasionally, I bless the Lord for healing me. Of course, my Christian ministry was disrupted; plans got sabotaged. Matter of fact, the whole chaplaincy office was closed to control the spread of the virus, as well as my leadership responsibilities quelled. But, we still bless God for His faithfulness.


UCU student credits God for family’s Covid recovery

By Nickie Karitas

On June 10, 2021, when Jim Patrick Wasswa arrived at the northern Uganda district of Yumbe to start his university internship, he had many ushers. In addition to the officials with the Uganda National Roads Authority who brought him to the work experience, Covid-19 was on hand to welcome him.

Being diagnosed with the virus came as a shock to Wasswa. But he had a shock absorber – his mother, who is medical worker with a hand up on health needs. Wasswa quickly made arrangements to return to his home in Kampala, more than 300 miles away.

When he gathered the courage to inform his parents about the new development in his life, he was in for another shock. They, too, had been diagnosed with Covid-19.

“All my life, I had been the strong one holding other people in tough times, but with Covid-19, I felt defeated,” recounts Wasswa, a fourth-year student studying for his Bachelor of Science in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Uganda Christian University (UCU).

With an internship curtailed, Wasswa found his once joyous home was charged with tension and an awkward silence. For once, he understood the meaning of seeing no light at the end of the tunnel as he saw his life, his family’s and all his dreams crushing.

Wasswa (right) with his mother and siblings
Wasswa (right) with his mother and siblings

Around that time, Uganda had just declared a second lockdown due to an increase in the number of infections and deaths. At the time the government declared the lockdown, the Covid-19 positivity rate in the country was 17%.

As all this was happening, Wasswa sought solace in the Bible, specifically Romans 8:28. “And we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to his purpose.” 

That is where he drew the energy to carry on. He regained strength not because he was feeling any better but because his emotional attention was diverted to his parents’ situation. 

At the time, some of his friends were losing their parents to the pandemic, a rude reminder that erased Wasswa’s audacity to assume that everything would be alright. For his case, some of the stop-gap measures he came up with were to try as much as possible not to sleep at night, for fear of not waking up. Sometimes, he succeeded; other times, he crumbled upon the sleep debt that he had.

The memories of the first night his father was rushed to hospital are still fresh in Wasswa’s mind.  

“That was the darkest night of my life,” Wasswa said. “As the car sped off, my thoughts ran to my four-year-old brother. I could see the life of my father, the pillar of the family, going down. I could hardly believe what was going on.”

Social media was another source of misery for Wasswa. Each time he logged in, he met news of people who had succumbed to the pandemic. He shut himself off social media as he worked to recover.

When his twin sister, Angella Nakato, succeeded in convincing him to join her for a daily jogging routine, it marked the turning point in his life. Wasswa says he started feeling much better and more energetic.

Allan Otim, a friend of Wasswa, helped with the psychological aspects of Covid-19. He offered the emotional support that he felt Wasswa needed by constantly keeping in touch with him. 

Wasswa’s other friend and course mate, Cedric Mutayisa, says although many people were succumbing to coronavirus, more were recovering and he believed it was just a matter of time before Wasswa recovered. 

“I often called him to cheer him up,” Cedric said. “Sometimes, all he needed was courage.”

Wasswa, who was never hospitalized, credits the recovery of himself and his parents to God for taking over the battles he surrendered to Him. Wasswa recovered towards the end of June and for his parents, their recovery was a month later. His father’s bout with the virus was most dire, requiring his hospitalization until recovery, while his mother spent two weeks in hospital.