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Transforming the lives of former child soldiers: the screen and the soccer ball in northern Tanzania and Uganda

| August 22, 2018 | 0 Comments


I flew into Kilimanjaro airport in northern Tanzania as a naïve Australian master’s student in my early 20s.

Disembarking with a plane full of tourists all heading to the Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Manyara, I was proud of myself for the voluntary teaching work I was about to undertake. Fast-forward 14 years and I still enjoy each and every time I get off that plane on the way to the schools I help operate in northern Tanzania and northern Uganda. Never would I have imagined that my life would revolve around education or this stunning part of the world. I often joke that my mother being a secondary school principal in Sydney, and the fact that I grew up with teachers all around me, meant that I would never go into education. However, here I am, a slightly less naïve Australian who hasn’t left Africa and whose daily life revolves around education.

Realising a desperate need in a war-torn zone

When I started the World Youth Education Trust (WYET), I had never anticipated that it would grow to anything larger than a small sponsorship programme for the 10 orphaned students I met on that first trip. But now we are registered across four countries and have a vision of supporting access to quality education programmes for all of our students. I remember our first WYET school principal saying to me: “Education is the only thing that, once given to someone, cannot be taken away.” Education was just one of the many things that my privileged upbringing had afforded me. But, for many, it is a priceless investment that parents spend their lives struggling to provide. When I travelled further to northern Uganda, it was under very different circumstances to what a traveller would experience today. Conflict was still raging between the Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF) and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA),1 and WYET was receiving young children on a daily basis who had been used as child soldiers. I remember, one day, my cofounder and I sat and listened to 500 young boys and girls who came to tell us their stories. Five at a time they came, after we had put out a radio call to announce that any student with an amnesty certificate issued in terms of the Geneva Convention and looking for support, should come and see us at our newly registered counselling centre. We wanted to resurrect schools and schooling, as well as opportunities to get counselling, bursaries and scholarships. So many were they in number, we soon realised that we simply couldn’t cope with the demand that these children presented. If our organisation’s struggles to meet the financial needs of these children was seemingly insurmountable, they were about to get a lot worse with the introduction of the Ugandan antihomosexuality bill in 2014,2 which subsequently led to numerous corporate and aid organisations pulling out of the country. Still to this day, funders treat Uganda with trepidation, which only serves to perpetuate the challenges faced by those living in the country.3 Thousands of vulnerable children needing and wanting to return to school have been sidelined by a collective global, allegedly moral, agenda. Funding has become more difficult to access, social awareness opportunities have waned and people have become much more adept in ignoring or denying the problems in post-conflict societies. And, no more emphatically can this denial be seen than with female child soldiers.

Child soldiers crying out for transformation and redemption

Child soldiers are not brutal children drugged and indoctrinated or lacking the need for redemption. The biggest misnomer regarding child soldiers is that life gets easier for them once they return from the rebel groups – that a child who has spent one, three or even 10 years being forced to kill other children, women and men could return to a life as if nothing has ever happened. Instead, they feel that they have been forgotten by their community and the world.4 The role of girls as child soldiers always seems to be played down. Perhaps it is the schism between the image of a young girl playing happily with her toys and the idea that an eightyear-old could be made to carry heavy ammunition, forced to kill grown men, or used as sex objects. But the reality is that almost half of those children taken as child soldiers are girls or young women. The life of a girl in the jungle can be, in many ways, far worse than that of the boys. Girls must tend to the senior rebels and get married off to commanders. They endure the constant sexual abuse of the men. We have heard of nine-year-old girls becoming pregnant as a result of being raped by grown men whilst in the bush. And whilst pregnant, they are still required to uphold their duties as trained killers, cooks and wives. The story for girls who have returned from jungle conflicts does not get better. While huge leaps forward have been made with movements such as #MeToo,5 conversations around sexual abuse and rape are still not openly discussed in Uganda. The stigma and blame directed at those women who have been raped only cements their inability to discuss what has happened to them. The possibility for women to openly and vocally pursue their own career or education goals is severely limited. But while changing male attitudes towards women globally has proven to be difficulty; changing the perceptions of a group of returned female former child soldiers is even more inflexible.

Kicking it up a notch: educational goals and girls’ football

So we decided to start the WYET Women’s Football League in northern Uganda. It’s a female football league that supports girls playing football and studying. The league plays from January to July every year, promoting the role of women in sport but, most importantly, promoting girls’ rights to education. We have had fewer teenage marriages, fewer school dropouts and far more positive attitudes from the community towards these girls since the league started. Last year at the finals of the WYET Women’s Football League, over 7 000 spectators turned out to support the players. The girls were lifted onto shoulders and paraded around the town. I asked one of the players what it had been like to play football, and she said: “We used to be spat on all the time; people were not our friends, you know. Now they think we are heroes.” No one talks of their past as child soldiers anymore. No one would dare insult a WYET football player. It might not be faultless psychiatric therapy and this gamble could have gone the other way, but we have teams of very determined young women and the knowledge that across Africa, football wins hearts and minds.

Why digital education access for girls matters

While football has proven a useful tool for getting families and communities to keep their girls in school, there is still a gap between the educational resources afforded to boys and girls across the African continent. For the last decade, the girls that we provided scholarships to were consistently topping the region in their national results. We wanted to replicate this success and I knew that the recipe for success lay in the combination of effective teaching and high-quality resources that we offered. So I began to think about the most effective way to scale the delivery of quality education. The flood of low-cost hardware, particularly tablet devices, in the African market, provided an opportunity. I realised that we could push this technology to new limits; we could use it to create interactive materials that utilised our successful teaching methodologies and to provide students with visually rich, engaging learning resources. Digital education means different things to different people. It is this ambiguity that leads to a variety of digital solutions (good and bad) being grouped together, even though their approach, philosophy and pedagogy are wildly different.

Learning must push the use of technology 

My organisation, IDEA, believes that digital education is only valuable when learning pushes the implementation of technology, not the other way around. We believe that digital education should harness technology to deliver the global best practices of selfpaced and personalised learning. Personalised learning is an approach that focuses on the individual needs of students. Technology enables us to create a scaffolded learning environment that meets these needs and allows each student to engage with the curriculum in their own time and at their own pace. The education market is saturated with e-publications, e-texts and e-PDFs that, in my view, do not change the traditional blackboard/textbook teaching model – a model that does not lead to the highest learning outcomes for all students. The technology we use in education should not just be a vehicle for distributing content but should allow us, as a global community, to look at ways to transform content delivery to meet students’ and schools’ needs. IDEA’s digital materials are founded on current research and cognitive neuroscience and are written by an international team of experienced teachers. Each product is aligned with the African context and mapped to the curricula of the countries in which we operate. Designed for primary and high school students, teachers, parents and principals, our teaching and learning materials carefully integrate animations, videos, audio and formative assessment with conventional text. This provides an interactive, personalised educational resource that is a far cry from the traditional learning materials I taught with on my first trip to Tanzania.

Africa can lead the way 

In many ways, the African continent as a whole provides the best context for the blend of technology and education. The saturation of low-cost devices provides an overwhelming potential for quality digital solutions to have a positive educational impact. I recognise that limited or unreliable internet connectivity currently poses a threat to digital education, but I also believe this limitation will soon be a concern of the past. Not only is it imperative that Africa provides its youth with world-class education, but the continent’s renowned ability to leapfrog technology6 offers an opportunity for Africa to lead the unstoppable global movement to digitise education.

For more information on the programme in East Africa, please go to For more information about the digital content, please go to:

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Category: Winter 2018

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