You are clocking nearly a year as Minister for Education. How has it been?
The Ministry of Education is a big ministry. It has a lot of work and it is challenging but it’s also interesting because it is something I’m passionate about – working and serving my country. I hope and pray every day that we are making it better because Uganda needs to see quality education. That’s our mission.
What are some of the challenges you have encountered?
I used to see a big budget for the Ministry of Education before I came to the ministry and I always wondered why that budget couldn’t answer all the needs of education in the country and so I was anxious to find out why we, for instance, don’t get to fulfil the policy to provide a UPE primary school per parish and a USE school per sub-county in the country. So when I came to the ministry, I had to unpack that budget and try to find out what it is that we do with the money we receive because it does look big. And when we unpacked it, I learnt that a lot of it goes to different places even without coming to the ministry. A lot of money for universities goes directly to universities without coming to the ministry; the percentage that comes to the ministry is much smaller compared to the whole budget and then that has to also be divided into the many directorates. What remains at the headquarters is a very small percentage.
There are concerns that government is not allocating enough money to the Ministry of Education, which is a core sector especially if we are talking about moving to a middle income country by 2020. Are you confident about the money you receive as a ministry?
I know that what we get is not a bad percentage of our total budget but certainly our population is increasing [so] the needs of the education sector increase all the time. So yes, we would do better if we had more funding. I appreciate where the money is going so we have to allow ourselves to work within our means as a country and as a sector.
There was a report in June last year (Government self-assessment report conducted by the Office of the Prime Minister) that indicated that 34 per cent of government teachers don’t know English and 40 per cent are incompetent in Primary Maths and that half of our children in UPE schools cannot comprehend basic questions for Primary 3 pupils. Do these statistics concern you as a minister?
Yes of course I am concerned and we are concerned as a sector and we want to do something; we must do something about that because we are the ones now talking about the quality of education. We are trying to re-retrain our teachers because the weaknesses mainly are the teachers. When you have very weak teachers who are not competent, then certainly the learners will not benefit much. We are trying to ensure the training of teachers will bring out a better quality so that we can then hope to get a better quality of learners.
That also points to the teaching conditions [and] the salary teachers [earn]. Many of them are moonlighting to make ends meet. The [poor pay] also affects how they teach.
I don’t think that is the case because the salary teachers get in government schools is much better than the salaries in private schools, yet private schools teach better than government schools.
So, the problem of teachers [leaving] government schools to earn more money is certainly because they would want to earn more but it’s not because they are getting less than what they would get if they were teaching only in private schools. We think that what we are not doing right is inspection of these schools because for private schools, they are inspected by head teachers and owners of schools. No teacher working in a private school will go elsewhere to teach while the teachers in government schools will go elsewhere to teach.
The issue of Capitation Grant, which was introduced by government as a Fund to help UPE pupils and save them from paying school fees and yet there are still controversies and concerns about how this comes into schools… Sometimes it comes at the end of the term, which cannot help the pupils [and] essentially cripples the functioning of these schools. What’s your comment as the line minister?
I have heard about that complaint. When I hear about that complaint, I go back to the ministry of Finance because you understand that Capitation Grant doesn’t go to the Ministry of Finance to Ministry of Education and then to schools. It goes directly from the Ministry of Finance to the Local Government and then to the schools. So I go back to the Ministry of Finance [to find out] why the Grant for schools is not getting there [at] the right time and they try to give me many excuses that I cannot confirm at [once] but they give me reasons nonetheless.
What are those reasons they give you?
Sometimes they tell me that they get wrong information from District Education Officers. That’s why I am saying that what we are not doing right is inspection of schools. However, I have also learnt that sometimes District Education Officers and technical people from the ministry collude and they delay the Capitation Grants because they are investing the money elsewhere. They will then send the money at a later date and things like that which I cannot prove just yet but we are working on it.
You sound optimistic and yet some people would say that these are the same statements that have been [made] before by your predecessors.
Well, I think that is a premature judgment because I am only under a year (in the ministry); give me time because time will tell whether what we are saying is what has been [said] before or whether perhaps it will bring some results.
You recently made a statement about feeding in schools where you encouraged parents to buy food flasks, which has been interpreted to mean that you did not directly connect with the poor families who may not afford these food flasks and that you did not understand the plight of the ordinary Ugandans.
I think that’s very unkind of whoever is saying that because I came to that after we talked about food and feeding children at lunch hour and after we suggested that families pack lunch for their children. Some people were demanding that children should have warm lunch so I said now how will they get warm lunch because where we are coming from, they are not having any lunch at all and children are dropping out of school. So they were saying well, some people can pay financially and others can bring dry ration that will be cooked at school so children can have a warm lunch.
On duty. Pupils with special needs greet the First Lady Janet Museveni during her visit to Masaka recently. PHOTO BY MARTINS E. SSEKWEYAMA
On duty. Pupils with special needs greet the First Lady Janet Museveni during her visit to Masaka recently. PHOTO BY MARTINS E. SSEKWEYAMA
When we talk about cooking at school, it assumes there’s a cook and firewood… but when you bring whatever food you bring, dry or fresh you must also talk about having somebody to prepare that food, and you must buy firewood, and you must have a kitchen so there are details we don’t tend to talk about. When we have to fulfil all that, it will mean that people will be made to pay some money and many parents have no money to pay so I said the easiest thing to do, which is what government had demanded in the first place, was for each family to pack lunch for their child. If they demanded that their children must have warm lunch, then I said you can have a food flask. Now if that is sacrilege, then I apologise but really that is what I was trying to say.
The other quote attributed to you is the issue of pads, a promise made by President Museveni during campaigns. You appeared before a parliamentary committee and said there was no money for pads yet. Your critics say this is going against a promise that your husband made.
I want to tell you that some of those MPs were actually saying that first of all, providing sanitary pads to children is something that cripples the community; that why don’t families provide for their own children but they said it in a private place but that didn’t have to make me say what I said. Only the other day, I was explaining to you (in a press conference) that the sanitary towels have not been paid for by our budget because we got a budget cut and that’s how governments work; when you can’t fulfill a desire of government, it waits for a following year and I told you that the President had not forgotten what he pledged but the budget could not spread that far so it had to remain an unfunded priority. That is not to say that it will not be fulfilled at some stage.
You’ve been a champion for girls’ rights. Aren’t you concerned as a mother whether or not a child should stay out of school because they are going through menstruation?
I am but I am also wondering how else we can do it because I lead a ministry that can only work through its budget and when we don’t have the funding, our hands are tied; so we have to wait.
They’ve been suggestions made about partnerships. You have clout as First Lady and minister that you could use to get into partnerships with NGOs or any organisation that could be championing girls’ rights to raise money for these pads to ensure girls stay in school. Have you considered that?
When you talk about sanitary pads that government must provide, we have to provide [them] across the country. You can’t say we will provide them in these schools or in this district and not others. [So] you need a reasonable amount of money and when you start, you can’t stop. It has to be an ongoing programme. So, I can’t think of a partnership that would fulfill [and sustain] that programme. So, I don’t like to sound as if this is something I can do just to be popular. If I say we will do this, it’s because I know we can fulfill that, if we can’t, I will not go there.
Some of your critics (like Dr Stella Nyanzi in her various social media posts) say that you sound out of touch with the people you lead. By not advising your husband to fulfill his pledge to provide sanitary pads, your comments about the food flasks, that you sound out of touch with Ugandans…
How can I be out of touch? I was a Member of Parliament for Ruhama. Ruhama is as an ordinary part of Uganda. There are poor people, there are those who are trying to be better but I was always with them. I have just been a Minister for Karamoja. I walked and worked with the Karamajong. How can I be out of touch really? But I know that a parent, if they want to provide something for their child, they can sacrifice something and get what they want for their child. And I think it is also right for this generation to begin to say those things to our communities so that they know that they can’t always live and want to be sympathised with and to be understood to be poor. Nobody becomes better by just lying there and waiting. If we want to be better, we must work for it. I don’t mind being misjudged by saying the truth to our people because it is my duty. If I am a leader of a people I must tell them what I think they can do for themselves. If I don’t, even God alone will hold me responsible. I can’t tell parents that it’s okay for their children to stay at school without food and that someone else will provide it. Surely, that is not right. And those who say I am out of touch; they should know where I have been. There’s no place of Uganda where people live in poverty that I have not been. And I have tried to work with them, to lift them up! I am proud to say I have helped a number of people to become better but I must tell them the truth so they know and their children are there primary responsibility. If they can’t take care of their children, it’s not right to think that government must provide everything for their children. So, yes I don’t mind being judged but there’s an ultimate Judge who is the one I care about.
There have been concerns that UPE has been heavily politicised. What’s your take on the general performance of UPE and USE since its inception?
I know that it could be better but the teachers have not been good teachers and so I know that we have weaknesses in both UPE and USE but if we can work on training our teachers, I think we can improve… But this is because the schools were started in a very short time between UPE and USE. The training of teachers, the building of classrooms, the buying of school materials and all that took a lot of funding and in a short time so it must take time to become perfect and I can understand that people are not patient and neither am I. I would like to see our education much better than it is and I know that it isn’t. We have to work to change it; it takes work, it takes patience and it takes dedication.
Would you consider ever going back into elective politics, especially for the highest office in the land?
Why don’t you save that until we get back into that period? We are so far away from there. Let’s wait.
Well, we prepare before we get there…
I’m not prepared yet (chuckles).
So, you would give it a thought?
I would rather we discuss that at a later date.
By not commenting about it, you’re actually considering it.
I want to tell you something about being obedient to God. It also trains you to speak at the right time when you hear from God and when you know what God really requires of you at a particular time. You don’t assume that you can do anything you want or you can’t do what you want but you wait on the Lord and do what He tells you, and I have trained myself to listen to God. So, I try as much as possible to wait on the Lord; what he tells me is what I do. Last time people were surprised that I wasn’t standing again because people don’t do that a lot but I heard from God and I got out of Parliament and I am here also because I am in service to God – whether Ugandans believe it or not.
The first time God talked to you, you joined politics so perhaps He may talk to you again and you go back into politics…
(Chuckles..) Please don’t try to talk for God and don’t try to read His mind. We will later get back into a highly politically charged period where President Museveni will clock the required age limit in the Constitution beyond which he can’t contest again.
As a First Lady, how would you advise him to go around that?
That’s a very difficult question. There are some things that have to remain private no matter how public you are.
There’s been a lot of talk around your son Maj. Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, about the so-called ‘Muhoozi Project’ where it is alleged that he’s being groomed by President Museveni to succeed him. Have you heard about that?
I have heard about that but you know Muhoozi is also an adult and I wish you could talk to him directly.
But I’m talking to you as the mother.
But a mother speaks for a son until he is probably 15 years old. After that, that is a man and a mother doesn’t speak for a man.
Would you advise him to join elective politics?
I don’t think I want to go there… (chuckles) I think you have to agree that really our family has been misunderstood for many things. Our family is a family just like yours and I believe that we have served this country with sincerity, we’ve made lots of sacrifices and we are people who don’t just think about ourselves first and it’s painful when you see what some decide to say but we do our best and we pray God does the rest.
Overtime you and your husband President Yoweri Museveni have gained a lot of supporters and a lot of critics especially to him about his over stay in power. What would you say to those critics?
….Because honestly what do you want me to say. First of all, I want to tell you that I never used to think I would find myself in politics. I even used to say God is wise he couldn’t possibly send me into politics because I believed I was not really cut out for politics and so the fact that I am here makes my explanation very difficult and if I had my way I would not be believe me, but I am.
Do you regret joining politics?
I don’t because I know I’m there in service to God. Have you read the Bible? Do you know some stories of people who God sent and they prayed and asked him to look for other people and He wouldn’t and He still sent them and they suffer so much but they go because they love God and they obey Him? That’s how I find myself here. And I can’t disobey God no matter what it costs me with the people because I fear God and my life depends on Him.
What has been the most difficult part of your life?
[When] I had to leave with my children without my husband. I was a young mother and I had a very young family and I had to leave my homeland unwillingly… I left not knowing where in the world I was going.
What’s that one thing you want to be remembered for?
The mother I was to my children and to those who trusted me as a mother.