RLP’s English for Adults: A lifeline for urban refugees in Kampala

By Charles Waddimba (Published 4th November 2016)

Uganda is home to 695,386 refugees and asylum seekers (Office of the Prime Minister, September 2016) mostly originating from neighboring countries within the Great Lakes Region of Africa such as South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Gambia, Benin, Ethiopia, and Eritrea among others. This number is likely to rise still further given the political upheaval in Burundi and South Sudan.

Given the global trend of urbanization around the world, it is also realized that increasing numbers of refugees in Uganda are choosing to settle in urban centers rather than refugee settlements, even when this leaves them without access to UNHCR support. In urban centers, in a country where English is the official language, the very many refugees who can hardly speak a word of English when they come to Uganda are largely left to sink or swim!

As a way of sealing this loophole, RLP (Refugee Law Project) took up the responsibility of providing free English lessons to refugees and asylum seekers living in and around Kampala through the English for Adults programme (EFA). This programme is based on the “Speak Your Rights” Curriculum which entails English writing, speaking and listening skills in a way that enables forced migrants to easily advocate for their rights, make friends through improved communication with the various people that they encounter while in Uganda i.e. police officers, prison officers, psychosocial workers, health workers and host communities. 


The EFA programme further increases refugees’ own capacity to claim their rights and to engage in economic self-reliance such as retail businesses and casual labor to mention but a few. It also enables them to participate fully in the refugee status determination process and also addresses their challenge of language barrier and poor/lack of interpretation services at various institutions. These EFA learners portray a high level of enthusiasm in the course of learning; they actively participate during classes and debate sessions, undertake and hand in their classroom exercises on time. 

As a result, many of the EFA leaners have managed to secure jobs as interpreters in different agencies; some have defended themselves in the courts of law; some have been able to go for further studies in formal institutions both in Uganda and in the countries of resettlement. One learner was recently elected as a youth Member of Parliament in the Republic of Sudan. 

“You people helped us a lot through RLP. God bless you all. Convey my greeting to Charles, Robert and Ignaciana and the rest and tell them that your previous adult learner is about to enter parliament hahaha. This is one of my TV interview in Khartoum channel talking in English about the national dialogue and independence and other current affairs affecting Sudan’s future”



I am called Jordy (with hat), I was resettled to Austria, I would like to express  thanks to the EFA programme, without it, I wouldn’t go for further studies at North Lake Senior campus studying computer commercial and also able to communicate to  fellow learners at school.





However despite the free English services availed to these refugees and their desire to attend the EFA classes, they continue to face challenges that impede effective learning. One of these is having to juggle multiple responsibilities and obligations in their homes and communities in a quest to survive and fend for their families. For instance, those able to find work are subjected to longer working hours; female refugees experience conflicts between their roles as mothers and homemakers and being students, and in some cases their husbands accuse them of neglecting their families and duties hence confining them at home. These factors act as barriers to attending classes for many learners. 

According to the 2014 qualitative survey conducted at RLP entitled “Challenges affecting Refugees pursuing English course in Uganda. A case study of RLP,” it was estimated that 40% of the EFA learners drop out in the first term before completing the first module because they spend a lot of time pursuing their resettlement cases and other support documents. Some of them end up relocating to the refugee settlements where they cannot access the EFA programme. Currently with the help of Democratic Governance Facility (DGF), RLP has established sub-offices in Nakivale and Kyangwali refugee settlements in Mbarara and Hoima districts respectively, thus bringing services closer to the beneficiaries and to address such challenges.

Furthermore, the long distances that learners have to walk to attend the EFA classes at RLP have a great impact on them in regards to arrival time and concentration while in class. According to RLP EFA records (2015), more than 50% of learners live over 10kms away from RLP premises, and the majority walk on foot to attend the classes. As such, the fatigue and exhaustion often takes a toll on a number of them and forces them to drop out.

While in class, the learners’ concentration is also affected by the numerous and complex effects of the psychological & physical trauma that they have been exposed to. Their minds simply slip away during the lessons due to the overwhelming emotional stress that they have to deal with. 

Regular attendance is also affected by the fact that some of the learners have insecurity concerns and fear for their lives. This makes it difficult for them to consistently attend the EFA classes. 

Therefore, it is of paramount importance to analyze and address the above challenges to enable refugees to pursue and complete their English modules and to enable the facilitators to design effective learning schedules. I therefore implore the following stakeholders to heed my humble recommendations as suggested below;

The Office of Prime Minister should work hand in hand with law enforcement agencies spearheaded by Police to ensure that rights of refugees are given a priority for instance by critically handling cases of insecurity, torture, sexual violence, trafficking to mention but a few. This would create an enabling and comfortable environment suitable for refugees to successfully accomplish their EFA classes from respective learning centers like RLP. Because a safe environment that celebrates diversity is a prerequisite for the learner’s success and wellbeing. 

Resettlement agencies like UNHCR should effectively communicate refugees’ resettlement qualifications in a timely manner to enable them systematically organize themselves in time which would prevent them from missing crucial opportunities like acquiring English language skills which are essential in their future endeavors especially while communicating with other people either in the host countries or countries of resettlement.

In a nutshell, refugees as conveyed above try to learn English some find decent employment and contribute to the development of Ugandan society. They bring about positive economic growth and enrich our culture. Our goal as a host country should therefore be to prioritize interventions that eliminate the barriers that make it difficult for refugees to lead productive and dignified lives.

The writer works at RLP as an EFA Facilitator under the Access to Justice Programme

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