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Children of the Desert Build Bridges to Better Understanding  


ABEK carries us in celebration to desert homesteads in Karamoja, East Africa, scorched in turn by sun and inter-ethnic conflict; torn in turn by the absence and the presence of education. ABEK takes us to pastoral elders and officers of the Ministry of Education, trying to reduce conflict by bridging modern and traditional learning. But, even as the elders help to craft a tool which can seamlessly root their children in both tomorrow and yesterday, they worry that in the end it could be the pen, and not the gun, which destroys their way of life from within.   

In Karamoja, that beautiful but poverty-stricken district of Uganda, pastoralists ingenuously maintained their way of life for thousands of years, against unimaginable odds, in unforgiving climates. Then came colonial tax collectors, followed by recruiters looking for soldiers to fight in World War II. They used pen and paper to register their information, including the names of young men to be taken away to battle. Few ever returned. Those who did brought back diseases. The elders put a curse on the pen and symbolically buried it. Besides, they thought education was, at best, irrelevant to their pastoral way of life. And, at worst, a threat to their very survival. It alienated their children from key traditions. And it took place in classrooms at exactly the time when young boys were needed to herd the cattle. Cattle are their wealth, their social security, their source of nourishment, their life. They call them by name. But sometimes they need cash and are forced to sell. 

Having symbolically buried the pen, and with it learning to read, write and count, the pastoralists were soon at the mercy of unscrupulous cattle traders who took full advantage of them. They were also increasingly alienated from fellow Ugandans who feared them for their cattle raiding. And they began to lose grazing areas to land encroachment. It was time to remove the curse on the pen and learn to brandish it instead. But how to deal with the conflict between school times and cattle herding, between education and maintaining the key traditions that allowed them to survive in their unforgiving desert homes?  

Enter the Alternative Basic Education for Karamoja project (or ABEK as it is still fondly called there today). It was designed under the strict eye of sceptical elders, initially with a Norwegian group, later supported by other aid organizations, and predicated on respect for tradition. Rather than send their children away to school, schools come to their homesteads in the form of trained facilitators. Rather than take time away from herding and tradition, classes were held in the evenings during the time usually set aside for storytelling. 

Hence, on a field visit many years ago, I stood in awe as desert children sat in the sand, before a portable blackboard, joyfully screaming their alphabet into the dusty skies, reserving their greatest energy for the letter “Ny is for Nyasuban!” (festivity) and “A is for ABEK!” Like  any other program, ABEK is not perfect. But it has demonstrated how non-formal education, if introduced respectfully, can help to break down barriers, reduce suspicion, and ultimately build bridges. When we visited homesteads, as yet untouched by ABEK, the first question invariably was: “When will ABEK come here?” as wide-eyed and silent children hid behind the folds of their mothers’ clothing. How different were the children in “ABEKed” home-steads! They confidently spilled out around us, laughing and screaming: “A-ABEK” and “Ny - Nyasuban!” ABEK is indeed feted, even as it is feared. Particularly by its co-designers, the Karamjong elders, wise custodians of life-blood traditions, still understandably wary of the pen.  

Evelyn Voigt, researcher, 

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