top of page

A Year of School in Uganda

In America (like many other countries), August is back-to-school month! Parents walk the aisles of the local Walmart, Target, etc. looking for all the items on their kids' school supply lists. New backpacks, new school clothes, new lunch boxes, paper, pencils, bluetooth headsets, wireless mouses, pencil top erasers, dry erase markers, regular markers, colored pencils, crayons (only Crayola, of course!), and on and on and on... It's expensive, a bit overwhelming, but always exciting!

But in Uganda, back-to-school time is somewhat different. For one thing, it's in January! The school year in Uganda begins in January and is broken into 3 terms, with a long break between each term. So around the beginning of April, students go on holiday for a couple of weeks. At the end of April/beginning of May, students head back for the next term. August brings another holiday. By September, students are back in school for the final term, ending the school year at the beginning of December. And at the next January, students go back to school for a new year. Honestly, it's a school schedule that has always made good sense to me.

But there are more back-to-school differences than just the time of year that it happens. There are no school supply lists, no new backpacks or lunch boxes, certainly no electronic devices. The one thing that almost all students in Uganda get at the beginning of a new school year: A HAIRCUT!

Looking at pictures like this, people have asked me, "Why do some girls have pretty hair-styles and some girls have boy haircuts?" The answer is simple: the girls with the "boy haircuts" go to school! The haircuts aren't because of lice or hygiene problems (although that certainly is helped by the haircuts). The haircuts are so that students will spend their time studying and NOT doing their hair! Many of the private, international schools allow children to keep their hair long and style it as they like. But government schools all require the children to start the new year (and often each new term) with a haircut.

Aside from the new haircut, there isn't much else that Ugandan students get at the start of the new school year. And yet, they are so happy to get to go to school--not every child in Uganda gets this privilege.

So imagine: March 2020, you are getting close to finishing your first term of school for the year. But COVID takes over the world and your entire country goes on lockdown. Schools close. Everything closes. A year goes by and many things in your country start opening up again. Even hair salons start opening again. You long for the day that you can go get your back-to-school haircut and return to finish the school year that got cut short. But the schools don't open.

After waiting for nearly TWO WHOLE YEARS, in January 2022 the schools FINALLY reopen! Some families managed to homeschool their children during the lockdown years, and those children are able to return to school at the appropriate grade level for their age. Most children just sat at home for 2 years, not reading, not writing, not studying anything. And even though 2 years have passed, they return to school in the same grade level they were at 2 years ago. 7 year olds in kindergarten. 20 year olds trying to finish high school. And yet, they are excited to return to school; they have missed it so much! Bright shining smiles on faces big and small as they line up at the salons for their back-to-school haircuts...

The end of the school year brings intense stress to many Ugandan children in the form of end-of-year exams. At the end of Primary School, children (who are about 12-13 years old) take exams to be allowed to advance to Secondary School. At the end of Secondary School, children (who are about 16-17 years old) take their exams to be allowed a high school diploma. After regular Secondary School, children can choose to be finished or they can continue for 2 more years in Secondary School to obtain their A-Levels. And of course, at the end of A-Levels, children take the biggest end-of-year exams of all--exams that allow them to enter university!

These exams start in late October and will finish in the beginning of December. That sounds completely overwhelming to an American who does just 2 weeks of end of year exams! But the exams don't go all day, nor do they go continuously during those 2 months. Children go to school and take 1 exam that lasts for 2-3 hours, and then they go home. They do that for a week, and then they have 1 week to stay home and study for the next set of exams.

And that is what children in Uganda are currently doing. The first set of end-of-year exams since 2019! But guess what?! In the Western Region of Uganda, the communities have been put back on lockdown! The government is reporting an Ebola outbreak in that area (although government reporting is usually questionable), and everyone is on lockdown again. Families have been outraged and speaking out about lockdown happening right as exams are starting. Two years of schooling was missed. Students have been attending school during the holidays and even on the weekends this year to get caught up. They are prepared and excited to finally be taking their exams--many of whom should have taken exams and graduated 2 years ago. And now they are on lockdown again!

The struggle is indeed real for students in Uganda. And yet, it is a struggle that they willingly take on, because they want so much to go to school and receive a good education. Children in Uganda know what it is like to NOT be in school. And they will take every opportunity to be IN school! So come January, Ugandan hair salons better be prepared for a LONG line of children desperately anxious for back-to-school haircuts!

25 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page