This blog is partly about giving a voice to children in Uganda and Africa and partly giving some exposure to our project, which is developing social entrepreneurs in Uganda, the Butterfly Project. Beating of children is a very frequent topic of conversation amongst children, so I though it would be useful to summarise some of the conversations I have had over the last two years, which some may find illuminating.
“Spare the rod, spoil the child” is a common philosophy amongst people you meet round the world and the context of this is Proverbs 13 and 23. Actually the original verse states “He who spareth the rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him correcteth him betimes”, which could perhaps be viewed more figuratively, than it is commonly interpreted
However, recently reading “The Hole in Our Gospel”, one can see very clearly that the Bible is less about castigation and fear, more about caring for the oppressed and loving thy neighbour.
Many believe that caning works in schools in Africa as, I am told, “African children are different to European children. From the conversations below, you can perhaps make a judgement as to how different or, in fact, whether they are any different to children anywhere in the world.
These comments are only from disadvantaged children, who live either in slum districts or in rural village areas.
- Peter, who is 12 and a member of the Butterfly Project, said to me recently, when I asked him about caning said “I guess I don’t mind it, if I have done something, but I really dislike it, if I have done nothing wrong.” Peter is highlighting unfairness here and how caning will reinforce power of evil against good. This boy is caring, ethical and considerate and there would be no instance, where he would need violent disciplining and I imagine that most of us know children for whom this type of discipline would be crushing. It is no different in Africa. Caning supports unfairness.
- Samuel, who was 14 at the time, said to me one day “Ben, I was caned today, because I attended the Butterfly session, instead of going to extra Saturday school. I tried to tell the teacher, but he would not stop and listen to what I was telling him.” This is reinforcing that big people do not need to listen to small people. A begrudging apology from the Head Teacher, who had been informed of our session, came far too late. Caning discourages children from speaking up.
- Samuel also said how being caned affected him. “I can’t concentrate for the rest of the day after being caned” he said. “I don’t think they understand the effect that caning has on children.” Many teachers cane as a “learned” behaviour. Once learned, it becomes automatic, whenever they are stressed. Samuel admits that for some children it makes no difference, but for him caning hurts more than physically, but is this not teaching children that individuality is unimportant? Caning has thus become a panacea for all discipline issues, regardless of the child and thus teaches that violence is the solution to everything.
- Winnie, who is now 16, is a spirited young girl with a lot of talents. She laughed to me one day. “I cannot believe one of our teachers” she says. “He is mad. He canes in almost every class he takes. He enjoys doing it and the pupils dread going to his Year 2 class. When I spoke to the Headmaster about it, as I was representing the school year, he said that it is important to have some teachers that represent discipline in a school.” Caning obliges psychosis and causes violence, by stoking it in some people.
- Brian is 11 and for whatever reason refused to be caned. Whenever it was threatened, he ran away and this caused him for some part of his life to become more of a street kid, sleeping out and collecting scrap etc. Nowadays, he is a wonderful young computer trainer who has started to perform to his capability in his school, who we chose as a school that did not rely on caning for discipline. Caning causes fear and fear can lead to failure in children. The number of children who run away in Africa is very high.
- Ronald is also 11 and one day he came to me saying that he can been caned, because his mother could not afford two toilet rolls, which he was told had to be brought into school. Ronald’s father died a while back and his mother relies on making Acholi beads for her income. His older brothers are unemployed. Ronald is industrious and collects scrap and sells paraffin to pay for his food and is very entrepreneurial. Needless to say I gave him two toilet rolls for next day. There is something warped which says that children should be punished for their poverty. Caning is teaching children that it is right to punish those who are less fortunate.
- Philip is 15 and has written a play about what he calls “overbeating in schools”. He goes to Migadde High School, one of the most prestigious schools in Uganda and he often speaks of how the school seem to be obsessed over results. “If I don’t reach a target of 65% at school in a particular subject, I will be caned and also risk having to repeat the year, which my mother will be even more unhappy about.” Philip is also perceptive about the impact of the embarrassment that caning causes, when he discusses the fear of ignorance in his blog “The Giraffe and the Sour Grapes.” Caning is causing children to fear being viewed as ignorant, which leads to them being less able to accept modernisation and international issues.
- Nyeko is 14 and a member of Butterfly North. He is now attending a local school, while living at the Chrysalis Centre and told me that they would be caned, if they did not bring money for some new textbooks today. Nyeko is a clever and self-confident boy, with a desire to create a better Uganda and to fight corruption and eliminate AIDS. However, when I suggested that he tell the teachers that this was illegal in Uganda, he could not. He felt disempowered, saying “They will expel me from the school, if I say that.” Perhaps this is true, but it is very clear that caning is being utilised specifically to disempower, not empower students in school.
- Alfred is also 16 and is a good leader of his peers, as captain of the Running Club. He’s also very bright and told me that “I’ve never missed a year at school – it’s really very easy”. He even appeared in one of Gilbert’s films “We Need Your Attention”, a film about children largely ignored by their parents. However, Alfred lives in a life, where violence is commonplace. While he has both parents contributing to the family, he seems to live in a chaos brought about by the threat of violence. Earlier this year, I discovered that the local head teacher has been beating him with a barbed wire fence post for failing to pay for computer lessons. Clearly, punishment needs to fit a crime and this form of violent caning is teaching the opposite.
- Lastly, a story about Brian again, who is an orphan from Northern Uganda that we have supported these past two years. A friend of mine who heard about his history, wanted to send him a present for his birthday. It was a pencil sharpener, which was a London red bus. The impact on Brian a receiving this present was enormous and maybe for the first time, he had felt to be a special person. He wanted to show it to his friends at school, despite my warnings that it would be broken or stolen and, in fact, it was stolen and we discovered the thief. When I took the issue to the school, the teacher told me that “nothing could be done, as it was up to the child to bring back the stolen item.” That same day, the whole class had been caned for talking during class. So, children are taught that stealing is less important than insubordination.
These stories are not exceptional in any way. These things are happening in almost every school in Uganda every day and, one might presume many countries in Africa. One can understand the challenges of schools – huge class sizes, lack of fees being paid, more feral children and these are all mitigating factors that are important to consider. However, none of these take away from the facts that caning is causing an enormous negative impact to society in Uganda and elsewhere.
Fear plays a major part in children’s lives and I have noticed this leads to children developing a culture of lying. I can think of many situations where children will know that you are aware that they have done something wrong, but, rather than admit to the truth and in their minds submit to caning, they will stay silent or tell a lie. Instead of rewarding children for telling the truth, then the culture is for them to be punished and this I believe is institutionalising this corruption culture, where lies trip off the tongue so easily.
The law in Uganda states categorically that caning is not legal, yet there are never any prosecutions and one can only presume that it exists either to placate overseas funders or is some residue from colonial rule that was never implemented.
A conspiracy theorist might suggest that a government is perpetuating this strategy in schools as a means to subjugate their population and discourage speaking out against injustice and this is probably not true. Whether it is true or not, caning is a barrier to the inspiration of change, instead inspiring a violent society and it suppresses the power of education to create changemakers.
So, why do we not speak up about it, when it is such a crucial and fundamental children’s rights issue?