‘I sold my goat and travelled 500km to ask the president for an education’

James Kassaga Arinaitwe defied all odds to get an education. Today, he believes the young people of Africa hold the key to ensuring others have easier access to learning.

“As a young boy growing up in rural Uganda in the late 80s, quality education was not a guarantee. Attending school meant a daily 14km walk, only to be met by a lack of books and classes of up to 100 students per teacher.

“To complicate matters further, I had lost my immediate family to HIV/Aids and other preventable diseases by the time I was 10.

“Not everything was bleak, though. My grandmother stood by me and one of my teachers became a mentor. With hard work and their support, I had the top grades in the country in junior school.

“But when the time came for high school, my grandmother and I could not afford tuition. Because we both valued education so much, we hatched a plan. I sold my only beloved goat and used the money to take an unprecedented 500km journey by bus and foot to ask the President of Uganda send me to school.

“After several attempts to enter his well-guarded home, I met with the First Lady, Mrs. Janet Museveni, and she provided the scholarship for a top private school.

“I went on to receive undergraduate and graduate degrees from two U.S. Colleges, and was chosen as one of 40 graduates from a pool of 10,000 to work for former President Jimmy Carter’s The Carter Center. I’ve helped set up scholarships for others in Uganda, and  today I am a fellow of both the Aspen Institute and Acumen, for whom I’ve travelled to India to study the education and skills issues facing youth there.

“Late at night, I often wonder where I would be if I had not taken that 500km journey, or if the First Lady of Uganda had refused my request for help with my education. I realize how rare my kind of luck is and I am determined to help others have the educational opportunities I did.

“I’ve spent the past year working and living in India, where I was impressed by the government’s commitment to innovation in education and skill development. They’ve put a lot of focus on helping young entreprenuers, through programs like the STAR Scheme.

“I’ve also noticed many Indian youth are choosing to help others – giving up their time or careers to help teach and mentor other young people through organizations like Teach for India, Pratham, Dasra and  3.2.1 Education Foundation.

“What makes them different to other developing countries? Most young people who are poor in countries like Uganda have had little mentorship or support. Many are like me and have lost family members or have no role models because no one in their family has graduated high school, let alone college.

“We need to leverage the power and creativity and the energy of our educated youth to reach these communities. And Africa is the perfect place for this to happen.

“Africa is the youngest continent in the world, with 80% of its population under 35 and 50% below 16. Youth are vibrant, and buzzing with ideas and innovations, and are hungry to transform not just their lives but also their countries and their continent.    

“Over the next 15 years, we could take India’s lessons and leapfrog our education systems to meet Global Goal 4.

“In Uganda alone, 40,000 graduate every year but only 8,000 are able to find decent jobs. And yet the country lacks 300,000 teachers.

“Why not train these graduates as transformational teachers, and mentors to help fill the gaping hole of teachers across the country and leverage their creativity, critical thinking skills and energy to come up with solutions to reform our education systems so we can solve the problem of mismatch between our education systems and life after school? That is what I hope to focus on once my Acumen fellowship ends.

“Together, young people with vision and skills can get us closer to solving many of our social challenges, most importantly our education crises. But, like India, we need the government, corporate and civil society support to go the next mile and reach those who truly need our support.

“I dream of a better Africa and world where all children are seen as assets and engines to our economic and social stability, not burdens to the continent. I call upon all fellow young professionals around the world to work together towards achieving Global Goal 4: Ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education that promotes life learning opportunities and a decent life for all.”

James Kassaga Arinaitwe is an Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow and a Global Fellow at Acumen. He worked as a special projects manager at LabourNet, an organization in Bangalore, India, that seeks to improve the lives of workers. He tweets @JamesArinaitwe

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