The politics of formal schooling in refugee contexts: education, class, and decision making among Congolese in Uganda.

Author:Clark-Kazak, Christina


Based on ethnographic research with over four hundred Congolese refugees in Kampala and Kyaka II refugee settlement, Uganda, this article interrogates the politics of education--both historically in the Democratic Republic of Congo and currently in migration contexts in Uganda. Formal education was an aspiration for all young people in the study, irrespective of current educational level. Moreover, it is a priority for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and many other organizations working with refugees. Drawing on the experiences and views of Congolese young people, this article analyzes the socio-political importance they accord to formal schooling. It then analyzes the degree to which these political aspects of education are manifested in daily decision-making processes in families, households, communities, and high-level politics. The author concludes with some reflections on how researchers and practitioners working in migration contexts can recognize and take into account the politicized nature of education.


Se basant sur des recherches ethnographiques realisees aupres de plus de quatre cents refugies congolais dans les camps de Kampala et de Kyaka II, en Ouganda, cet article s'interroge sur la politique de l'education, a la fois d'un point de vue historique, dans la Republique populaire du Congo, et d'un point de vue contemporain, dans le contexte de la migration en Ouganda. Tous les jeunes gens interroges dans le cadre de la recherche aspiraient a faire des etudes scolaires, peu importe leur niveau de scolarisation actuel. En outre, l'enseignement est une priorite du Haut Commissariat des Nations Unies pour les refugies (UNHCR) et de nombreuses autres organisations travaillant avec des refugies. S'appuyant sur les experiences et les opinions des jeunes du Congo, cet article analyse l'importance sociopolitique que ces derniers accordent aux etudes scolaires. Il cherche ensuite a definir dans quelle mesure les aspects politiques de l'education se manifestent dans les procedures de prise de decisions quotidiennes des familles, des menages, des communautes et des hautes spheres politiques. L'article se termine par des reflexions sur la facon dont les chercheurs et les praticiens travaillant dans des contextes de migration peuvent reconnaitre et tenir compte de la nature politisee de l'education.


As part of a larger research project focussing on the political narratives and experiences of Congolese young people living as refugees in Uganda, (1) over four hundred research subjects were asked about their aspirations for the future. All respondents, despite varying levels of formal education from none to university level, cited further studies as one of their goals. Similarly, development and refugee agencies prioritize formal schooling, citing it is a solution to many problems, from high birth rates to infant mortality. (2) Education specialists are better placed to evaluate these claims and the technical merits of different types of formal schooling in refugee settings. (3) Instead, in this article, I explore the political reasons for this convergence of opinion about the importance of education. In particular, I interrogate the ways in which formal education is implicitly and explicitly linked to class and power relations--both historically in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as well as in contemporary situations of displacement for Congolese refugees in Kampala and Kyaka II refugee settlement in Uganda. Through an analysis of decision making at household, community, and policy leveis, the article also highlights the ways in which power relations create opportunities and barriers to realizing the anticipated political benefits of formal schooling.

Research findings reveal that formal education impacts power relations within families and households, particularly amongst peers. Similarly, schooling facilitates young people's access to, and visibility in, formal community decision-making structures. In high-level politics, such as access to political office, however, the benefits of formal education for refugees are less clear-cut. While education intersects with class and provides some political visibility, it does not necessarily lead directly to the tangible economic and political benefits for which many young Congolese in refugee contexts hope. This analysis of the politics of education at family, household, community, and policy levels demonstrates the importance of recognizing and taking into account the politicized nature of formal schooling when working with refugees. The article concludes with some implications for research and practice.

Research Context, Methodology, and Conceptual Framework

Research presented in this article was carried out with Congolese refugees in Kampala and Kyaka II refugee settlement from September 2004 to December 2005. Uganda's capital city, Kampala is a large urban centre that has attracted migrants from across the country, as well as neighbouring states in the Great Lakes region. However, according to the settlement policy in Uganda at the time of research, (4) refugees are not officially supposed to live in the city and thus do not receive humanitarian assistance or have access to social services. In contrast, Kyaka II is a designated refugee settlement in an isolated, rural area of western Uganda. Refugees arriving in the settlement are registered, documented, and allocated a plot of land, where they are supposed to engage in subsistence farming under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)/Government of Uganda self-reliance strategy.

I collected data using a variety of qualitative methods, including semi-structured interviews, focus group discussions, writing exercises, and observation. Over four hundred research subjects were identified using snowball and purposive sampling. Snowball sampling can result in bias towards respondents who share certain characteristics and/ or are more visible, thereby undermining representivity. (5) Purposive sampling was thus also used to identify research subjects through multiple entry points. Despite time and logistical constraints, the study sought to include young people of different ethnicity, sex, and age, living in different circumstances. I carried out research, without interpretation, in French, English, and basic Swahili. However, due to my limited Swahili language skills, the research over-represents people who could speak some French or English and hence had completed some formal education. There is a consequent bias towards middle-class research subjects. I have translated all direct quotations in French or Swahili into English.

Data included in the article were collected as part of a larger study exploring the political engagement of young Congolese refugees in Uganda. The research took as its point of departure an approach to young people as political actors and interrogated the ways in which young people engaged in decision making at family, household, community, and policy levels. In this way, the study was not specifically focused on education. Rather, education--particularly higher education--emerged as a theme in discussions with young refugees about their plans and hopes for the future. When probed about the reasons why they aspired to higher education, many cited a belief that formal schooling would bring them status and hence greater access to decision making. This paper explores these political meanings ascribed to formal education and the degree to which they are realized for young people in the study.

My political analysis takes into account both formal high-level political processes and the politics of everyday life. Such an approach "challenges the conventional view of politics as limited to formal processes of governments and market relationships in the public sphere." (6) Both refugees and young people are noticeably absent, and usually legally excluded, from these high-level institutions and the formal economy. In Uganda, for example, refugees are legally prohibited from participating in political activities, while in the DRC, people under the age of eighteen are legally disenfranchised. However, Congolese young people are integral--although not necessarily equal--members of households, families, and communities in Kyaka II and Kampala. Building on the feminist notion that the personal is...

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