Why you should care
Science and critical thinking are top of the curriculum.
Under an acacia tree, a group of schoolchildren listens to a teacher. They have been brought here, away from the classroom, and with the stunning Rwenzori Mountains in the background, in hopes that an open learning environment will be conducive to open-mindedness.
This is just one aspect of learning offered at the Kasese Humanist School. Kids are taught science and critical thinking and are introduced to concepts and ideas that aren’t part of the usual curriculum. And this game-changing school, with three campuses for nursery, primary and secondary students, happens to be in Uganda.
Situated in Kasese (population about 130,000), about 10 hours away from the capital Kampala in Uganda’s western district of Kasese, the school is relatively unknown in the rest of the country. But its founder and director is hopeful that its science-smart students will help shape the nation in years to come. “It’s possible we could be educating the next Greta Thunberg,” explains Robert Bwambale, because “our children take [a] deeper concern about the environment,” as well as learn to identify challenges and analyze the causes, symptoms and solutions.
‘My religion is doing good,’ says one of many signs posted in classrooms, where the children have most of their lessons.
A humanist school is a big deal in deeply conservative Uganda, where 86 percent of the population identifies as Christian and 13 percent as Muslim. But Kasese likes to keep it simple. “My religion is doing good,” says one of many signs posted in classrooms, where the children have most of their lessons.
“Religion hinders development,” says 39-year-old Bwambale. Born into a strong Christian family, he lived with Anglican, Christian and Muslim families after he was orphaned.
In 1999, Uganda became the first country in Africa to register a humanist organization. Today there are 32 groups comprising thousands of members. However, the real figures are likely to be higher, points out Kato Mukasa, chair of the Uganda Humanist Association (UHASSO). Humanist schools began appearing by the 2000s, and today, there are 16 across the country, according to Mukasa.
Bwambale joined a humanist organization in 2007 after reading about the movement online. Believing that “we as humans have the answers to the problems that affect us,” he created the Kasese Humanist School in 2011. Funding comes from school fees, international child sponsors, donations and local and international charities. Bwambale says that his school is unique because “it exposes the secular and religious and brings the two in the limelight for questioning.”
In addition to the Ugandan curriculum, the school teaches humanism, promoting the “Ten Commitments” developed by the American Humanist Association Center for Education, which includes environmentalism. Students also learn about all religions and can go to church if they wish. (Bwambale says the singing aspect of church has benefits when it comes to mental health.) However, the school strongly opposes witchcraft, which has helped fuel the horrible practice of child sacrifice in Uganda in recent years.
And while kids are taught gardening and how to raise free-range chickens, they also learn something else that you won’t find in regular Ugandan schools: sex education — including homosexuality, punishable in Uganda with a life sentence in prison. Teacher Solomon Masereka is also happy to engage his students in local politics, where he insists he remains “neutral.”
It will come as no surprise that a school teaching humanist values in a deeply religious country has been met with controversy. Bwambale says he’s been spied on by the police and suspects that the verbal attacks he suffers will “never end.” Another teacher, Shamimi Komuhendo, has been disowned by her family as a result of abandoning Islam for humanism. Yet she’s adamant: “I’ll just live the way I live.”
Surprisingly, there has been no vandalism at the school’s three campuses. Bwambale credits this to “scores of people” who support what they are promoting in the area. “We are enlightening the people about the need for respect of what someone believes in.”
And enrollment has risen steadily since the school opened in 2011. There are now 669 students.
One is 10-year-old Patience. “I want to be a scientist because I want to know more about the world,” she says. The next Greta Thunberg? Watch this space.