African Conflict Zones


African Conflict Zones

Harvard University Professor Sarah Dryden-Peterson and CNN Hero Twesigye Jackson Kaguri 


Kelly (moderator): Sarah, can you explain your life work with education and children in conflict zones?

Sarah: As an Assistant Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where The Brick Project was formulated by Karim, I have spent significant time researching and working with children in conflict zones, as well as those considered displaced persons and refugees.

While writing my book, Educating Children in Conflict Zones, I was privileged to meet children and families from African countries such as your home Jackson, Uganda.


My work focuses on the experiences of children and families in conflict settings through the lens of education

In my teaching and my research, I spend a lot of time in classrooms with the children and with their families. I try to understand what children experience in school and like to consider the role that local, regional, and national government and policy plays in affecting children in classrooms.

Much of my work has been in Uganda, your home country, Jackson.

Jackson: I’m happy to hear you’ve visited Uganda in your work.

My penchant for learning and interest in education spans back to my days going to school in Nyakagyezi, the village I grew up in. I made a commitment at very young age, as I outline in my book A School For My Village, to doing my very best in school; I knew it was the way to break the cycle of poverty and deprivation for me and my family.


However, growing up under Idi Amin, in a conflict zone, I was never sure whether I’d make it to school or not. There was a real undercurrent of fear in my country. I pressed on every day, however, as attaining my education and its link to my escape from our village was so clear.

Sarah: That reminds me of what really shaped my personal interest in education and conflict zones. When I embarked on my first real research project, it was to examine the teaching of history in South Africa in 1998, a mere four years after the end of apartheid.

As I taught and spent time in classrooms, I found myself trying to understand how young people felt about learning history in a time of transition, when the historical events in their lifetime had been conceived of in such a one-sided way and had been so damaging, in particular to black African and so-called Colored students. After spending many weeks in his school, a boy named Themba approached me outside his classroom and asked the question that he and probably many of his classmates had wanted to ask for a long time,

“Miss, why should I want to learn about history when it just makes me want to fight?”

Themba and I spent the next six months (and really many years!) thinking about and discussing his question – what was role of history? Why was it important to learn about the past? How does the past inform the future?  This interaction and ongoing conversation with him sparked my interest of education in conflict situations. The concept of children trying to imagine a future, especially coming out of a situation of conflict where the future was so uncertain, seemed essential to me.

Sparking of new ideas keeps teachers engaged.

Jackson: I had a similar experience while attending Makerere University. My professor was discussing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in particular Article 26 that discusses the right to an education. I had spent years watching my childhood friends remain poor in my village because their parents couldn’t pay their school fees and therefore they did not receive an education.

Like Themba, I raised my hand and said:

“Either the people in my village are not human beings or the notion of human rights is a myth.”

That day changed the trajectory of my life forever. The professor challenged me to write about my village. That paper, many revisions later led me Columbia University as a visiting scholar.

While enjoying life in America, working and learning, first my brother died of HIV/AIDS and one year later, my sister died. They left children behind and I couldn’t ignore the injustices that had been eating away at me for years, for they were now compounded by nieces and nephews whose care I was now responsible.

In 2001, I started Nyaka Primary School for children like my nieces and nephews who were orphaned by HIV/AIDS, but didn’t have Uncle Jackson to care for them!

Today we are educating nearly 500 students in two primary schools, paying for over 150 students to attend secondary school, and run a nutrition program, farm, have implemented clean water systems and a medical clinic. We also serve nearly 7,000 grannies across two districts that are raising 35,000 orphaned grandchildren.

This year we are breaking ground on our very own vocational training and secondary school.

Our holistic model is producing young scholars and can be duplicated anywhere in world including conflict zones – like Northern Uganda.

Sarah: Can you talk a little bit about role of teachers? Something I think a lot about in terms of what quality education looks like is the role of teacher. With your holistic approach to education, how do you work with teachers?

Jackson: To this day in Uganda, teaching is a profession that is respected by both the students and community. We attribute our success directly to our teachers. Our teachers play many more roles than they would in a traditional setting where they would just teach.  With orphaned students they are a social worker, mentor, and stand-in parent.  They are helping children on sometimes grief-stricken roller coaster because of losing their parents.

At The Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project, we work diligently to let our teachers know how valuable they are to our students’ success. We offer a lot of support, both moral and financial. We partner regularly with the International School that provides our teachers training through WIDE World (Wide-scale Interactive Development for Educators), an innovative professional development program based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. We’re always looking for new training opportunities for our staff.

Sarah: I agree with you about the role teachers’ play in communities. In conflict sites the teaching force often decreases substantially, as they are forced to flee, displaced across borders, and then their certification isn’t recognized in the country they end up in.

It is one of my interests, to study how traditional teacher training works or does not work in conflict areas and what new models might work for rebuilding after conflict as well as during an ongoing struggle.

It is so great you can maintain and provide access to opportunities for your teachers at Nyaka. The sparking of new ideas keeps teachers engaged and excited to offer their many different kinds of support  – teacher, cheerleader, care giver, and social worker.

Jackson: As I mentioned in my interview with Paola Gianturco, author of Grandmother Power, a few weeks ago, our work would not be as successful without the integration of our Grandmother Program too.

The adage it takes a village to raise a child is so applicable where we work. In Kampala, a student’s teacher sends students home with homework, and their parents read and speak English. Far out where we work, there is no electricity and many of the grannies do not read or write. Therefore they depend on one another to augment their skill set with their grandchildren. We teach them about reproductive health, we provide clean water so they don’t keep their grandchildren home to fetch the water many miles away, and we send our case managers to their home to see if we can assist them in some way.

We’ve basically created teams of teachers and grannies!

Sarah: Similarly, I’ve found that there are multiple configurations of families in many conflict situations: two parents, no parents, unrelated adults raising children, etc.

Students need to be surrounded by strong relationships that help them succeed.

To your point Jackson, one attribute I have found consistently throughout my work is the critical nature of a relationship with an adult for children in conflict settings. It can be a parent, older sibling, grandparent, teacher. Children are able to face each day when they feel safe, surrounded by a network of care.

To this end, sometimes the experience of being in school serves as the informal platform for community building.

At Dadaab Refugee Camp in Northern Kenya there are 400,000 Somali refugees.

Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya

Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya

Many have been there for an entire generation. We are looking at developing a higher education program where individuals can study for and attain a Bachelor’s Degree through a hybrid online and face to face program.

However, in order to be successful in learning, students need to be surrounded by strong relationships that help them to succeed. We are currently working on a mentoring project that will link up students/refugees with members of Somali diaspora who have experienced studying at university to accompany them on their journey of higher education.

Children are able to face each day when they feel safe surrounded by a network of care.

Further, there is some inquiry being done about what a portable education might look like. For displaced persons in particular, we want to know what skills are central to education that can be taken from one place to another. To avoid issues with certification and licensing across nations, how can we best serve, through a transnational education, a population of refugees who are Somali in Kenya, but who may end up in Canada? What role can technology play in this? The conversation is in infancy stages, but there is growing interest in filling this gap.

We’re also seeing that when a community has access to smart phones, there is an opportunity to share the material. So another question is what kind of reading material can be shared on a community device, what doors might that open for displaced individuals? Hopefully opportunities for online mobile learning will increase with development of low cost technology.

Jackson: Sarah that is just amazing. One thing that I find remarkable is how innovative our children are despite their remote location. I’ll find students using a pencil to hit stones on the cement despite never seeing a pool table or cutting notebooks to make a cell phone.

When anything goes wrong with my phone, I hand it to my son. He is happy to fix it and figures it out quickly.

cell phone

My ten year-old son Nicolas was born and lives in the United States.

When anything goes wrong with my phone, I immediately hand it to him. He is happy to fix it and he figures it out quickly. One of the reasons we train our teachers, engage our grandmothers, and take our holistic approach to education is because our students will sit at university with students like my son who has been exposed to technology since day one.

Despite the technology gap, they must be otherwise prepared to compete side-by-side with those students. We are always looking for partners to bring technology to our students.

Sarah: In addition to technology and learning, I think it is true the world over for your 10 year-old son, for my 6 year-old daughter, and for the many millions of children worldwide, that they have a voracious appetite for books and reading material. A small number of books can go a long way.  There is a real shortage of libraries and books in refugee camps. The new United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Education Secretary has placed an emphasis on getting books for reading into hands of children, but it is a difficult endeavor. Books are expensive and get worn and torn with use. Interestingly, in some refugee camps the communities will create their own local books!

Jackson: We’re very fortunate, as the Blue Lupin Foundation out of Canada has built community libraries at both of our schools. They are stocked primarily with books by Uganda authors, so the children get to read stories that they can identify with, stories they can share with their grandmothers, to serve as an inspiration to someday tell their own story!

Sarah: I’m constantly struck by how much hope children place on their own education.

Whether studying under trees, with teachers who have very little training, whether their family is facing prohibitive school fees… They inspire me to do better.


Whether studying under trees, with teachers who have very little training, whether their family is facing prohibitive school fees, I find that children maintain hope in the future that their education will bring. They inspire me to do better. Like you did as a child Jackson, I find that children are seeking to build their own future through an education

Jackson: I couldn’t agree more. I find hope every time I look into eyes of children and their grandmothers. Every parent, biological or not, wants their children to be successful. We want to see our children grow, graduate, and become responsible citizens. Our work at Nyaka provides the foundation for children to carry their hope and light throughout the world.