A number of school-going children around Port Victoria in Budalang’i have resorted to fishing to sustain their livelihoods, at the expense of their education.
Fishing is the main economic here, and from the way they have embraced it, school comes second, and things might not change soon.
Measures put in place by various stakeholders to discourage school-going children from getting entangled in the fishing nets, literally, are yet to catch on, and that means in the long run, what is meant to uplift the livelihoods of Busia County residents, will impact negatively on development.
Authorities accuse parents of introducing their children into fishing and related activities, but some of the parents this writer found working at Bukoma beach with their children, deny the accusation.
“We depend on fishing for our livelihoods. There is no harm when children come to assist me,” said Marceline Auma, a mother of six. “I come with my children only during weekends and school holidays.”
Marceline’s husband owns two fishing boats, and on that day, she was accompanied by three of her children.
But teachers in schools around the lake differ. They say once parents introduce children to fishing and start receiving money, they always let them go back to the beaches where they get work.
Caroline Achode, a teacher at St Cecilia Girls Primary says fishing is affecting the performance of the learners.
“We have been forced to keep our lower school pupils who are day scholars in school up to 4pm to reduce their chances of going to beaches,” she said.
Even then, she regrets, they still engage in fishing-related activities on weekends.
“We give them assignments on Friday but some of them go fishing with their parents and only realise they had not finished their assignments on Monday when they get back to school.”
Samuel Gaunya, the chair of Bukoma Beach Management Unit says children are only allowed along the beaches over the weekends, and they still have to be accompanied by their parents.
“We arrest any children found loitering along the beach on weekdays and take them back to their parents or to the police,” Mr Gaunya said.
Even as he says that children have to be accompanied by their parents, there are many who know the loopholes in the “security system” and make it to the beaches on their own both on weekends and weekdays.
Allan Owiti is an orphan living with his grandmother. He gets paid in kind for performing odd jobs like pulling nets and washing boats. He takes his earnings to his grandmother. “I take home the fish l get. If I get a lot of fish, I sell some and use the money to buy clothes,” he said.
The teenager dropped out of St Nicholas Port Victoria Primary four years earlier, in Standard Two, because of lack of fees.
“I go to the beach during weekends only,” he said. “Weekdays are hell for any child but l go farther in to the lake and fish using a hook.” Sylvester Oungo, the head teacher at St Nicholas Port Victoria Mixed Primary School says enrollment numbers have dwindled because of fishing and related activities.
“Some pupils have dropped out and settled with their parents on the islands in the middle of the lake where they can fish without any worries,” he said.
He also blames the fisher folk who “employ” children for the poor state of affairs. “They prefer children because they are cheap labour compared to adults who ask for more money,” Mr Oungo said. The Bunyala District Education Officer Onyango Francis Ochieng says the situation is challenging because some of the children working along the beaches claim to be Ugandans and demand to be left alone.
Bunyala District Children Officer, Ben Muluda said they have had meetings with Beach Management Units aimed at stopping children from engaging in fishing-related activities, but the problem still persists.
“We even had regular patrols, arrested them and talked to their parents, but they still manage to find their way back, and say they are out to raise money to pay school levies.”
Mr Muluda said it is difficult to know the exact number of children working on the beaches because they are on and off. “We have started an initiative through which we advise parents not to allow their children to engage in fishing-related activities while they are still in school.”
Nicholas Buluma, a resident working in the office of the Bunyala West location chief says the administration is working “with parents to ensure that the children stay in school.”
But at the same time, he says the problem is brought about by “polygamous husbands who fail to care for their children forcing them into the lake to fend for their mothers.”