English for Adults: A Stepping Stone to Self-Reliance Among Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Nakivale Refugee settlement.

The refugee problem remains a global challenge with over 25.9 & 3.5 million refugees and asylum seekers respectively (António Vitorino, 2020).  Out of which, over 52% are under 18 years of age. This has strained economies of various host countries in the world. Refugees flee from their countries of origin due to conflicts, persecution and disaster to seek refuge in countries they consider to be secure.

Uganda is currently host to 1,411,098 refugees and asylum seekers from different countries in the Great Lakes region (UNHCR, 2020). The majority come from South Sudan (873,741), Democratic Republic of Congo (409,882), Burundi (48,119), Somalia (4,018) and Rwanda (17,383). Other nationalities account for 21,792 refugees and asylum seekers. Many more continue coming with about 199 received daily. They are received by Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) in Uganda and supported by UNHCR in aspects of livelihood, education and protections among others. Despite the support given, that given in the name of livelihoods has been and continues to be insufficient to the perceived needs of asylum seekers and refugees. Therefore, empowering forced migrants to become self-reliant is paramount to supplement on the assistance provided by OPM, UNHCR and other state and non-state actors.

Self-reliance means, persons, households and communities being able to depend on their own possessions, decisions and competences with little/ no dependence on peripheral help to meet basic needs.  Frank 2013 in (The self-reliance strategy and livelihood) noted that refugees can provide for themselves, their household and community in terms of food and other basic needs through their involvement in various socio-economic activities in the host country. In search for the sustainable means of survival for refugees, OPM and UNHCR mutually came up with the Self Reliance Strategy (SRS) in 1999.  

The SRS model is based on the thinking that refugees possess skills, capabilities and assets that can be used to support them and benefit the host countries.  Its ultimate goal was to integrate services for refugees in areas of health, education, food production, income generation, environmental protection, water and sanitation and infrastructure.  The strategy provides for refugees to grow their own food and involve in other income generating activities than fully depending on humanitarian support.

Deeply reviewing the SRS, a lot of alternative strategies were generally provided including provision of quality education. However, Adult literacy was not clearly established and clarified as a self-reliance strategy. Remember, one of the drivers of development and self-reliance is communication based on a common language. In Uganda, English is the official language. Therefore, Refugees and forced migrants need to be trained in the English language skills to get empowered towards self-reliance in Uganda.

What about English Language in this context?

Uganda is Anglophone, and English being the official language has to be placed at a forefront of the self-reliance process of refugees in Uganda. This is based on the fact that majority of refugees and Asylum seekers are from French and Arabic speaking countries like Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Rwanda and Sudan among others. This has posed diverse communication handicaps for refugees to effectively coexist with the host community especially where English is the most used language. The handicaps include; failure to compete effectively in paid employment though with academic qualifications; failure to continue with education; and failure to effectively advocate for their rights as well as get involved in income generating or livelihoods activities. Therefore, self-reliance is key and can only be effectively achieved only when there is a lingua franca spoken between the forced migrants (Refugees) and the host community.

English for Adults (EFA): Different Non-Governmental Organizations including Refugee Law Project (RLP) offer English classes to adult refugees in Uganda.  For f 13 years now, RLP has been and continues to offer English skills training to forced migrants in different refugee host districts in Uganda. These are Kikube, Isingiro, Kiryandongo, Adjuman, Yumbe, Kampala and Lamwo among others. The major aim is to enable forced migrants ably understand, speak, read, listen and write English to advocate for their rights as one way of challenging injustices faced by them which stems from the language barrier.

This is implemented and guided by the internally tailor made “Speak Your Rights” Curriculum.  Since its inception, a considerable number of refugees and Asylum seeker have gained skills and knowledge in English language. Client intake data at Nakivale learning center shows that over 1800 beneficiaries (learners) have benefited at different levels. In December 2019, the center held the first graduation ceremony where 62 (48M, 14F) were awarded certificates after successfully completing the 18 months EFA course. In this line, different beneficiaries have attested to how EFA has transformed various aspects of their lives and contributed to their  becoming self-reliant and independent in one way or the other.

EFA has transformed lives of many beneficiaries towards self-reliance and independence in different aspects of life including but not limited to;

Gaining Employment opportunities: Various EFA graduates and continuing learners have been able to acquire jobs with different operating and implementing partners in and outside the refugee settlement. This has been attributed to the basic knowledge in English acquired during the EFA training provided by RLP. In 2019, A total of 13 (9M, 4F) have been able to gain jobs through formal employment in different organizations. Many have also acquired casual/temporary employment within and outside the Settlement. They have noted that the English skills learnt have been paramount for them to gain the employment opportunities. In an interview with some EFA graduates, one noted that;

“I applied for the job in Opportunity Bank and I was shortlisted.  I was called for interviews and succeeded.  All of which were done in English. Although I’m a lawyer from DRC, I didn’t have a good command of English to get a job in Uganda. Therefore, “I’m really grateful to Refugee Law Project (RLP) through EFA course. I’m now working as a community mobiliser in financial literacy with Opportunity Bank Uganda. If it was not the English, I learnt in EFA I could not be able to get this job. Though the payment is little compared to what I used to get in DRC and am out of my professional line, I can now provide for my family in addition to support I get from UNHCR. I’m indeed grateful with you people,” Kibwila Kimukedi 

Continuation of disrupted education: As per the Migration report 2020, it is noted that over 52% of all refugees in the world are less than 18 years of age. This implies that their education must have been interrupted in one way or the other. Many were still in primary and majority between 15-18 years were still at secondary level.  During the 2019 EFA operational year, 5 (4M, 1F) EFA beneficiaries in Nakivale from different levels who had gained some level of English skills, were able to go back to the formal education system in Uganda.  Since English is the Language of instruction in the Ugandan education system, refugees have to first get trained in the English language skills to effectively and progressively attend school in Uganda.  Talking to some of them who went back to school, this is what they said;

 “I would like to inform you that I’m currently doing a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work and Social Administration at St. Lawrence University Kampala and in my first year. I once tried to go back to school sometime back but I failed because of the English deficiency. So I had to drop out.   However, now I believe I have gained enough knowledge in English from RLP and I’m indeed grateful to you. I think after my studies I will be able to get a good job with these organizations around Nakivale. I will live to remember EFA and RLP……” Byamungu Vano

 Also Ucuki Abigeal Murogo moved on from EFA in Level Four (but still comes for consultations) and joined Nyarugungu Primary School. In 2018, She did Primary Leaving Examination and scored 23 Aggregates (Second Grade). Currently, she is at Nakivale Secondary school.  She is so committed to her studies with the hope of becoming a doctor. She had this to share when she came for consultations;

“Today we had a debate at school and I was rated among the best presenters. So I will be registered in the school debating club and I am so happy for this achievement! ………. Allow me say that you (Barongo, Gabriel, and Paluku) are such good facilitators because you trained me. Thank you”

Involving in other Economic activities:
Many learners have been able to participate in other economic activities like business to gain income and improve their livelihood. In discussions with them, they credit and attribute this achievement to having been able to acquire some English knowledge and skills which has helped to empower them to effectively initiate, manage/operate, sustain and grow their own business. One of them, a nurse, had this to say;

“…….. I own a small drug shop near basecamp and I used to get challenges when I go to stock drugs/medical supply from Mbarara because those people don’t know French or Kiswahili. But now I can at least communicate with them very well to get the kind of drugs I want for my clients in the camp. I can now also work on other non-francophone clients who do not know French and Kiswahili. This is because of the English I have learnt from EFA. This has increased my clientele base compared to the previous time. Though I’m in level four now, I can learn more English words while working and interacting with my clients and I believe that by the end of Level 5, I will be perfect in English and able to apply for another formal job as a medical worker in Uganda.  Thanks to the EFA Team for the great work done”

 Creation of Social Capital: English for Adults has been able to increase the refugees’ and asylum seekers’ social capital base. This has enabled them to share information about issues concerning different aspects of life. Learners have been able to share ideas which lead them to making informed decisions in different aspects of life but also learning from each other. Others have joined support groups through which they share their challenges and find collective solutions; they also attest that they have acquired friends upon whom they rely and trust with their secrets, and others have through EFA got marriage partners. Generally, many agree that their psychosocial wellbeing has greatly improved and this has also helped them improve on their state of living, thus managing and coping up with many depriving and disempowering issues.

“……… we are now leaving a free and independent life in Uganda among us as refugees but also with the host communities………. I wish EFA can be extended to all refugee settlements and accessed by all refugees, more will be achieved and Uganda will become our safe home away from home for many years to come…….”

 Although this submission concentrates on self-reliance with a focus on economic aspects, teaching English to adult refugees has proved to have potential to rejuvenate the existing skills and competencies in refugee in different aspects of life such gender relations in the community and at household level among others.  Therefore, there is need for effective consolidation of the English for Adult programs for forced migrants and, if possible, an increase in uptake in all areas where forced migrants are hosted in Uganda. As we continue to work towards integrating forced migrants, it is imperative for the government to use quality education as a contribution to the Self-Reliance Strategy for forced migrants, but not forgetting adult literacy as a very fundamental component which needs comprehensive planning and resource investment by the government.


Griven Barongo, Community English for Adult Facilitator, Refugee Law Project, School of Law, Makerere University, Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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