The Kasiisi Project works to support education in and around Kibale National Park, Uganda. The project was founded initially as a link between the Kibale Chimpanzee Project and the local community, but now works with several research groups in and around the park. With initiatives that support early childhood education; provide school lunches; fund scholarships for secondary school and college students; promote literacy, conservation and health education; train teachers and address the special needs of girls, the Kasiisi Project provides crucial support for thousands of people, not least the 10,000 primary school children in its 14 target schools. The Handshake recently spoke to its founder, Elizabeth Ross, about the beginnings of the project, what is has achieved, and her hopes for its future.
The Kasiisi Project began in 1997, the same year that Uganda introduced universal primary education, to respond to increased pressure on schools that were already struggling. Overnight, student populations doubled, and many schools already had problems with a lack of infrastructure, staff and resources. The project’s first action, therefore, was to build a classroom in a school where previously, children had to be evacuated on days when the wind was strong, because the existing buildings, which were condemned, might collapse on them.
Elizabeth’s Ugandan colleagues at the time believed that lack of decent education stood in the way of children being able to make a living that did not involve raiding the forest, either for timber and fuel wood, or for meat. The research in Kibale National Park, including that conducted by the Kibale Chimpanzee Project, brought money to an area which at that time lacked much in the way of tourism. It therefore seemed a good idea to find and facilitate ways for local communities to benefit from living close to the park, especially with increased protection for species such as elephants and chimpanzees resulting in major damage to crops and loss of livelihood.
Implementing such ambitious plans was not without its challenges; lack of experience, lack of money, and difficulties with communication when nobody had access to email, and few people had phones, were the main problems at first. In retrospect, however, Elizabeth thinks this was probably for the best; it meant the project started very small and very slowly, with staff learning as they went along how to manage cultural differences and accounting issues, and how to run good programmes that everyone felt distributed resources fairly.
The Kasiisi Project, now in its 15th year, is extremely well established and runs many diverse initiatives, with programmes covering:
Conservation Education: encompassing Wildlife Clubs, field trips, reforestation projects, and many other initiatives aimed at instilling a sense of environmental stewardship in Uganda’s next generation and promoting sustainable livelihoods.
Scholarships: supporting students beyond primary school and into secondary education and university.
Literacy: including library construction, literacy training for teachers, and women’s groups which focus on supporting women to improve literacy for the children in their homes.
Construction: supporting school infrastructure, with dormitories, latrines and other school buildings.
Porridge and Farm Project: The Porridge Project provides a daily mug of porridge to more than 1,500 children in two primary schools, who would otherwise go without lunch. The Project also now has 20 acres of land on which to farm crops, chickens and pigs, the sale of which will support the Porridge Project.
Girls Support: this encompasses several initiaitives that support girls in completing their education, including construction of girls only latrines; supply of sanitary pads, and health education.
Nursery School: Opened in 2011, Kasiisi Weston Stars Nursery School is the first nursery school in rural Kabarole District with teachers who are professionally trained in early childhood education, and classrooms are decorated with environmental themes.
Health Project: The Kasiisi Project Health Education Programme delivers health education to 5000 children across five schools, with a community nurse making regular visits to show videos, give classes, and monitor children’s health.
OLPC Computers: In partnership with One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), the Kasiisi Project was able to provide Kasiisi Primary School with 100 OLPC laptops in 2009. The number has now increased to almost 200, and the laptops are used on a daily basis by hundreds of children.
Teacher Support: The Kasiisi Project provides good working conditions, free housing, salaries, bonuses, training and enrichment for its teachers, as teaching quality is crucial in the success of education.
Renewable Energy: With increasing pressure on Kibale National Park’s resources, including fuel wood, the Kasiisi Project, in collaboration with the Kibale Fuel Wood Project, supports projects finding sustainable energy solutions. It also incorporates sustainable and renewable energy into its projects, leading by example.
Income Generation: The Kasiisi Project Entrepreneurial Development Project helps schools and their communities design and grow income-generating projects, including animal husbandry and tree plantations.
Though many of these initiatives seem deceptively simple, their power should not be underestimated. Taking the example of the Girl Support programme: providing girls with sanitary towels, underwear and reproductive health education, along with training peer educators for each school, has led to an improvement in attendance and academic performance, with girls in some schools now out-performing boys. In fact, girls from Kasiisi Project Schools score a statistically significant 27% better in national exams than their peers in similar forest schools.
It is clear the effect that the Kasiisi Project has on the communities surrounding Kibale National Park, but what of its effect on Elizabeth? “It has been more enriching than I can possibly describe. I have learned a huge amount about Uganda, its educational system, its culture and the challenges for the people living around KNP, but it is building relationships; loving, stimulating, rewarding and often very difficult, that have been the best part of this project. Bridging the cultural gap is not easy for either side and the different outlook often leads to misunderstandings and sometimes heated arguments, even after 25 years, but our common goal and affection for each other has helped us over the rocky places and kept us on track.”
There are still issues to be overcome, however. Uganda has a population of 33 million, over 50% of whom are under the age of 15. 85% of people are rural farmers, and across the country, a lack of education still limits opportunities to earn a living. The answers to beginning to tackle the impact of these issues on the environment, says Elizabeth, include strong law enforcement; alternative fuel sources; prevention of crop-raiding; projects to generate income; better schools and healthcare, and good conservation education. The latter will result in a population that cares about its environment and will be active in preventing governments allowing the use of protected areas for development, a fight that resonates with those in the UK who oppose the government’s plans to privatise areas of our National Forests.
Elizabeth hopes that the Kasiisi Project will continue to improve education, health and care for the environment in schools around Kibale National Park far into the future. The people that currently run it are passionate about its mission, and she hopes that those who succeed them will feel the same, helping the Kasiisi Project to grow and change with the changing needs of its schools, until a time when the Ugandan economy has grown and its educational system has the resources that mean that the Kasiisi Project is no longer necessary.
In the meantime, the Kasiisi Project needs your support. You can donate money to the project to support the growing number of programmes in and around Kibale National Park – as Elizabeth puts it, they always have more programmes than they have funding for. If you want to donate time and skills, there are opportunities for volunteers in Kasiisi’s schools in Uganda, or if you work in a UK or US school, you could consider a partnership or joint environmental project between your establishment and one of the Kasiisi schools, or donate educational materials, which are always in demand.
The Handshake will be visiting the Kasiisi Project again this summer, and we are greatly looking forward to seeing how the programmes have grown since our last visit in 2010, as well as learning about new initiatives like the farm project for the first time. See below for previous videos featuring the Kasiisi Project’s fantastic achievements, and follow the links to find out how you can do your bit to support them, now and in the future.