African Girls Find School Can Bring Happiness–Not Just Passing Grades

A group of young African girls aged 13-16 from poor, rural families in Uganda were very fortunate to find an opportunity to go to a girls’ secondary school where they could excel. Many Ugandan children are age 15 by the time they complete primary school, due to poverty and/or illness or other turmoil within the family. Although from poor families, these girls were very motivated and had goals they wanted to achieve. This school was unusual because, in addition to giving girls a good education, it’s curriculum included an effective program to improve their learning ability and help them reduce stress. Poverty is very stressful.

Before 2007, when Uganda introduced a policy that all students could have access to secondary education, most of those who could not go to school were girls and poorer children. The expansion of secondary education rapidly increased enrollment. Class sizes soared reaching 70 to 150 students! But even after this expansion, less than a quarter of Uganda’s children of secondary school age were enrolled.

At Ideal Girls High School the group of girls could study the subjects needed to prepare them for passing the national exams. The standard O-level exam includes biology, chemistry, physics, physical education, math, English language, geography, and history. This exam, taken after the first four years of high school, was very important—passing it would qualify them to attend the last two years of high school.

Yet, something more than passing an exam would become a treasure to them. A wise Ugandan educator pointed out that the most pressing concern in education was not academics. Public school secondary education was too focused on passing exams at the expense of crucial life and social skills, he said.

Ideal Girls High embraces the ideal that the foremost and ultimate goal of education should be to develop the student’s full potential: to learn, to create, to think, to analyze, and to live a full and happy, healthy life. At Ideal Girls High School, while students are receiving traditional academic knowledge and enjoying sports, music, and the arts, they are also learning a technique that increases their ability to learn and reduces the enormous stress experienced by students preparing for national exams. They learn the Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique.

When you ask what IGHS students what they like best about the school, they typically answer that it’s “the standard of education and the practice of meditation.” After learning TM, the girls began to appreciate their daily meditations. Students say TM helps them be happier, healthier, and study better. “When I have meditated,” said one of them, “I feel free and relaxed, and enjoy participation in all activities. Meditation makes me happy. I can read my books better after meditation and I can understand well. I can make useful decisions on what to do and what not to do. I love my Transcendental Meditation program so much. Thank you with a lot of kindness.”

One of the girls reports, “I used to get angry, but when I meditate, now I don’t. I don’t have headaches any more. That helps me be able to study. When I meditate I feel my body having enough energy, my mind settles. I can do, I can achieve the desire to do important things.”

Other girls’ comments include:
“We feel more clever in class.”
“It has improved my health.”
“It has helped me to pass well in my exams.”
“I was born HIV positive. The stigma of this kept me from having friends. Now that I started practicing TM, I have friends.”
“Since I began I have radiated happiness to my people to be in peace and be happy.”
“I feel I am happy when my temper goes down and I become kind and happy to all people.”
“Since I started the practice of TM I can handle harder subjects easily which I could not do before. I am strong and happy. I have gained confidence and learned how to associate with my friends.”
“Happy, relieved from stress, confident.”

Students travel from Kenya as well to attend IGHS, which is located in Eastern Uganda, the poorest region of the country. Almost half of IGHS students are from families surviving on subsistence agriculture. Many are orphans. The majority of girls are boarders. The rest walk to school, even if it takes them an hour each way. Recently, well-wishers of the school donated a school bus so the girls could safely, comfortably get to and from school.

Sometimes a girl’s commitment to education can be tested. In Uganda, girls usually get married in their mid-teens. There is a custom for a suitor to pay the family a “bride price” to marry the girl. A bride price is a substantial sum to anyone in poorer areas. Girls are, in this arrangement, a financial asset to a family and are expected to marry when their parents find them a husband. Yet, some students, determined to continue their education rather than getting married, manage to stay in school.

At the end of 10th grade, students take the O-level national exam. Since 2009, 92% of the IGHS girls have passed the exams. This is remarkable for a school that has open admissions. By passing this exam, students become eligible for the final two years of secondary education.

Quality education for girls is a powerful way to break the self-perpetuating cycle of poverty. Education can help girls to improve their own health and the health of their families. According to UNESCO, educated girls are three times less likely to contract HIV, which has devastated Uganda. A child born to a literate mother is twice as likely to live past five years. Educated mothers are more than twice as likely to send their own children to school. Even a single year of primary education has been shown to increase a girl’s wages later in life by 20%. The UN reports, “Educating a girl changes her destiny, as well as those of her future children, and ensures that she can contribute to the economic life of her community.”

If you ask the girls at the school what their lives would be like if they were not in Ideal Girls High School, you often hear them say,
“I would be working as a house girl to get school fees.”
“I would be in another school, but I would be missing TM.”
“I would have been in the village not studying but suffering with stress and misery.”
And many of them know they would be married and bearing children.

The Ideal Girls High School in Uganda offers young girls a safe and secure opportunity for quality secondary education. The students say that they like the “good environment, best for girl child education.” It is a non-sectarian school that fully supports students practicing their own religion. Today Catholic, Anglican, Muslim, and Seventh-Day Adventist students enjoy their education together. They treasure the Transcendental Meditation technique as a tool to develop their full potential. Students graduate with inner strength and a beautiful foundation for life, well prepared to contribute to their society.

Want to learn more about the school, support a student, or contribute to the building of a new dormitory? Your tax-deductible contribution will help the school and make it grow.

About the Author

Wendy Cavanaugh is an educator, writing coach, and teacher of the Transcendental Meditation program.