COVID-19 Lockdown has frustrated Literacy Programmes in Uganda: Observation from the English for Adults Program of The Refugee Law Project

Every 8th September, the world commemorates International Literacy day. This year’s commemorations will be amidst frustrations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Uganda, the Government-instigated urgent total lockdown from late March onwards called off all activities that gather people - including closure of all educational institutions and centers across the country. In compliance with the directives from the Government and the Ministry of Health, the Refugee Law Project, School of Law, Makerere University immediately suspended all our thirteen English for Adults (EFA) Learning Centers in the rural and urban refugee communities.

Uganda currently hosts over 1.4 million refugees and asylum seekers who come from non-English speaking countries including but not limited to; Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea. While English is commonly spoken and is the official language of Uganda, over 75% of the refugees and asylum seekers in Uganda arrive unable to understand, speak, read or write in English. This complicates the life of refugees in Uganda because it disempowers them from being able to demand and defend their rights as well as locally integrate within the host communities.

Refugee Law Project through the English for Adults course under the Access to Justice Programme, has been reaching over 2500 new participants or learners per quarter/term empowering them with English Language. This is aimed at equipping them with English language skills so that they can demand and defend their rights, locally integrate through transacting business, access different social services like health and education, as well as amplify their voices to speak for themselves at all levels without being manipulated.

For this year’s (2020) International Literacy Day commemorations, the programme had prepared to celebrate achievements especially the growth in numbers compared to all other adult literacy and learning providers in the refugee and host communities, the quality of language skills (reading, writing, listening, speaking and numeracy) acquired by the learners through different activities like debates, on spot writing competitions and review dialogues among others. We were also preparing to conduct an in-depth study on the impact and contributions of the EFA programme to the psychosocial wellbeing of the learners, to develop the EFA learners Manual and also to conduct a capacity building program for the facilitators to be able to deliver on our intended objectives with technical knowledge and skills. Most of our plans have though been blocked by the lockdown impacts that have left us with very few options.

When it comes to Methodology and Adaptation to the new normal; our tailor made “Speak your rights” curriculum, an intensive 18 months learning program (from level one to level five) designed and intended to be 80% face to face delivery and only 20% distance, individual or self-study, has been turned upside down. With the lockdown, the methodology is now 10% face to face, with distance learning, individual and self-study taking 90%. This has had implications for;

  1. The costs of switching face-to-face learning methods and materials to distance and self-study learning for both the learners and the instructors and organization.
  2. How to effectively and efficiently evaluate or measure the learning objectives and the learning outcomes.
  3. Accessibility to learning materials by the learners, but also accessibility of the facilitators in case a learner needed a one-on-one with learners for consultations and guidance. Social distancing and total lockdown of organizational offices for four months affected these processes.
  4. Ability of all the learners to adapt to the new learning methods, particularly where they involve use of digital tools that not everybody can access, utilize or operate and sustain in terms of internet and hiring whenever needed.
  5. Delays in achieving targets for both the institution and the learners. For example, many learners had planned to acquire English language skills to immediately be able to go and upgrade their studies, especially at tertiary institutions in Uganda. Others were also intending to apply for scholarship programs beyond Uganda for courses that are delivered in English this year, aspirations which may not now be realized.
  6. The institutional capacity where the workload for the current facilitators increased (preparing and reviewing materials, delivering them door-to-door at the learners premises in the rural refugee settlements, retrieving home assignments and evaluating them as well as giving feedback, maintaining active online interactions and learning like on What’s-app to attend to different learners’ needs). This needed more human resource and other related support resources to meet all the programme needs during this lockdown period.
  7. The technical capacity of the facilitators to deliver through the new adopted methodology: Many of the learning facilitators had no technical capacity to adapt to the new methods due to inadequacy in relevant digital learning skills but also the necessary logistics like laptops or smart-phones.
  8. Time constraints in the delivery process: During face-to-face sessions, you use limited time to attend to a very big number of learners at the same time in one forum. With the new distance learning methods that were adopted and keeping in mind social distancing as one of the standard operating procedures, facilitators started to work beyond official normal working hours thus compromising their time to meet other needs, including self-care needs.
  9. A key observation is that there has been a Knowledge, Attitudes, Skills and Consciousness (KASC) Based on the notion that “practice makes perfection” this has mainly happened to learners in Levels 1-3 who had just joined the programme as they cannot easily adapt to self-study methods and cannot practice the basic skills acquired without help and guidance from the facilitator. Therefore, a lot that was learnt before the lockdown and during the lockdown using the distance learning materials has to be repeated with close guidance from the facilitator in addition to what was missed. This is threatening the normal progression of learning and also putting additional pressure on the resources of the organization.
  10. English for Adults provides more than a technical skill set. Under normal circumstances, as written about elsewhere, it is also a highly cost-effective psychosocial support intervention, creating new friendships and social support systems for otherwise often isolated learners. This support function has been largely undermined by the necessary ban on bringing learners together into shared spaces.

I believe that, just as the Refugee Law Project has been and is still struggling with the frustrations caused by the COVID-19 Lockdown, many other organizations offering literacy programmes to adults - especially in forced migration contexts - are facing the same. A lot has been learnt and this calls us back to re-visit our literacy programs, plans and strategies from the local, national, regional and international levels so that we meet the needs of the new normal as well as mitigating impacts of future similar threats.

In conclusion, as we celebrate International Literacy Day 2020 during this pandemic, it is important to note that, hand-in-hand with its good intention of saving lives, lockdown has also brought a lot of harms, scars and frustrations that we need to partner together to overcome.


Mulondo Apollo,
EFA Facilitator at Refugee Law Project, School of Law, Makerere University
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Twitter: @apollomulondo

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