Early Childhood Education in Uganda then and now!

Katherine Joy Akello
Katherine Joy Akello, Lecturer in Early Childhood at Kyambogo University in Kampala


Society has come a long way in evolving elaborate systems and methods of gathering and processing information we need to shape our world and master our destiny. We have devised ways of passing on our hard earned experience, skills, knowledge and wisdom to the next generation and to generations yet unborn, so that society can continue and can progress. We take education of our youngsters fairly seriously.

Today in Uganda early childhood education or more precisely the kindergarten is big business and it is booming. This may sound surprising in a country that spent less than 4% of its GDP on education in 2011. But then kindergartens are largely a matter of private enterprise here, and like in many parts of Africa, they are a relatively new development. Four decades ago except for towns and cities they did not exist. But early childhood education still took place. It occurred informally, within large family settings or the extended family. Even today the majority of kindergarten age kids still obtain their early childhood education that way.

In the early days in Uganda few women were in paid employment outside the home. Today in the country women are in every profession and in every line of business. In the northern town of Gulu, women pilot motorcycle taxis known locally as the boda boda. In earlier days (and even today) women not unexpectedly played a leading role in the education of the very young. But as a rule all the adult members of the household participated. In the extended family, aunties, uncles and grandparents had a special role to play as role models and reservoirs of information.


Songs, stories, folklore, dance and plays were mobilized as means of engaging, entertaining and instructing the very young; mentally and physically. In the traditions of Northern Uganda many children’s stories were in the language of today, multimedia in form. At various stages in the telling, the story teller breaks into song, dance or play as occasion demands. The story was always a performance. And so entertaining they were that even tales meant for children were always enjoyed by adults alike.

The massive urbanization and the growth in slums and slum conditions of the last three decades had not yet occurred. Most people lived close to nature in villages. Animal stories played a huge role in entertainment and the education of young people. The bellowing of cows from nearby fields could provoke a story or a song about cattle. Like the story of the Rabbit and the Elephant who went together on a far journey to buy bulls, only to fall out on their way back.

The sudden appearance of a flock of colorful birds on nearby trees would similarly provoke a story. Like the story of the Woodpecker and the Hare. There was always a story waiting to be told. The occasion determined the story. And the story, even the same story, varied according to the circumstances and the teller.

As kids grew older the stories and songs and dance and plays by which they grew and lived, and are entertained and instructed, become more complex, approximating the complexity of the reality of life and society. The story of the lazy but clever Kalulu the Hare is as good an example as any.

Kalulu the Hare featured in most stories. Often but not always he was the clever one who outwitted everyone in the end. Kids loved Kalulu. Most kids were familiar with the hare. Most had seen this popular animal at least once in their young life..

Once upon a time, one story went, Kalulu lived in a certain village. He was a lazy man who depended on his wife and his wits alone. The cropping season was nearing. Kalulu’s wife urged Kalulu to prepare the land in good time for planting. Groundnuts were the staple food in the village. Don’t you worry, Kalulu told her. “I have discovered a secret that will soon make us the envy of the village”. He had found out, he said, that roasted groundnuts grew better when planted and gave more yields than raw nuts.

The rains arrived on time. In the village planting began in earnest. Kalulu’s wife prepared salted nuts for her husband to plant. The nuts tasted great! One morning on the way to the farm, that he really never had, Kalulu devoured the entire package and thanked God for his wits and for his gullible wife.

As day follows night harvest season came round. The wife demanded Kalulu bring home the harvest. Kalulu harvested from his neighbor’s field. Yields were good that year. The wife who knew no better was full of praise for Kalulu.  She boasted openly about her clever husband. Till one day the neighbor caught Kalulu stealing his crops in the field and dragged him to the market square in full daylight. Kalulu's wife was weeping. The entire village laughed at him. They laughed at her. And they sang songs about them. Jo apuro apura yin ikwalo akwala! Jo apuro apura yin ikwalo akwala! Children sang and danced in the market place.

In the old days as kids grew older and attain the age of about five years, they separated into groups. Boys went with boys and girls with girls. Male adult members of the big family took care of the education of the boys while women members instructed the girls. In a male dominated society where roles were gender roles the system worked well.

Today Uganda is still a male dominated society but new ways of delivering early childhood education are taking hold, not only in the towns but in many places in the countryside as well. But amidst all this growth in kindergarten education there is a problem.

Detailed guidelines from the Ministry of education for kindergarten education, which includes specifications for location, for facilities and curricula do exist. But many providers of kindergarten education ignore the rules of the game. In Kampala city it is fairly common to find kindergarten schools located in car garages or one bedroom apartment totally lacking in facilities and without qualified personnel. Good and standard kindergartens do exist, providing quality education.

But there are other and even more intractable problems. The preparation and production of local and relevant materials such as toys and other playthings needed for childhood training, and the publishing of local children’s books have not caught up with the transition from the old ways of early childhood education to the new and emerging system of formal kindergarten education.

Many of the stories and practices from the rich old traditions of Uganda have been lost. In a country of many tribes and diverse cultures there has been very little cross cultural borrowing in the classroom. The new content and practices now in used in many kindergarten schools, much of it taken wholesale from abroad, lack local veracity.  If there were no crisis of identity evident in the country today, there is one looming on the horizon. In a country where sheep don’t produce wool kids in many kindergartens in Kampala continue to sing the old English rhyme of Baa Baa Black Sheep have you any wool