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Spotlight: Christine Okorut

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Christine OkorutChristine Okorut
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Christine Okorut (ISP 94-95) has an MEd in Primary Education from the University of Leeds and is currently Regional Programme Officer for Education at Aga Khan Foundation (Uganda).

I was the middle child in a family of five children in a village in eastern Uganda. My father worked as a driver and owned a small piece of farm land. Although our tribe was known for keeping cattle, my father had none and as a child growing up, I did not drink milk or eat eggs.

My father was a polygamist who married my mother as his third wife because his first wives could not have children.  According to African tradition, a man had to “keep the family tree growing” and marry as often as he had to until he had children. I grew up very close to my father and, despite the cultural norms, took up his name even though I was a girl (which was never heard of). I assured him that I was the one who would uphold his name even long after he would be gone.  I was a very inquisitive child and asked a lot of questions and often cried to get a ride in one of the vehicles he drove.

My childhood was full of play, not with toys but with real objects like bottles, stones, sticks and bottle tops. I climbed mango, guava and tamarind trees and competed with the boys.  I used to fight with my older brother over almost everything. We tried out so many games from “hide and seek”, to more complex mathematical games (even without knowing they helped us add and subtract) with figures drawn on the ground and everyone had to hop through them on one leg while the others counted. During my childhood, it was the community that raised a child.  Neighborhood parents could provide food for other children as they played. Despite my good childhood, the cultural social fiber that held our society together was broken by decades of conflict, the scourge of HIV/AIDS, poverty and bad governance.

As I was growing up, I was influenced profoundly by two educators. My grade one teacher was the first. He used to care very much for us, trimming our nails, combing our hair, helping us to brush our teeth if we came to school before doing so at home. One day he asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up, and I remember saying I wanted to become a teacher like him. I did not know much then but after my secondary education, I applied to teach in a primary school near home while waiting for my examination results. Despite having done well enough to be admitted to higher secondary education, my father could not afford the school fees. And being a girl, the priority was that I get married over getting an education.

Knowing that if I stayed at home, I would be married off, I went to the local Education Office and asked to be posted in a primary school. I loved working with the children and seeing them progress. It felt so natural, as if it was God’s plan for me to become a teacher. Eventually, I went to the nearest teacher training college, which accepted me because of the exposure I had already in teaching, and I was trained as a primary classroom teacher for ages six to twelve.

This is where I met my second mentor, one of my university professors. I first met him when I was a primary student. He used to work hard and did all the same chores as the girls. Then when I entered university, I found him again and thought it was amazing that someone from my tribe and from a poor background had become a university professor and well respected in the Education field. Since then, I have not looked back nor regretted my decision to be involved in Education.

I moved from working in the classroom to training other teachers in the Primary Teachers’ College and working with development organizations towards better access to quality education. This is how I eventually ended up working with AKF as the Regional Programme Officer in Education. My passion for education is lifelong. I have strived to better myself in my career and use approaches that benefit children – the same ones I loved so dearly when I started in education. I have tried to model myself after my mentors.

My AKF-sponsored course in Masters of Education at the University of Leeds was specialized in Primary Education. This course was just right for my needs. I found the themes selected not only met my expectations in preparing teacher trainers, but also helped me as an individual to reflect on my own practices, beliefs about primary education and to look at our education system and practices from a new perspective.

This, coupled with the cosmopolitan life experiences in Leeds humbled me. I went back bubbling with new energy and ready to contribute to Uganda education reforms within my institution and also in the government through the Ministry of Education. Armed with new knowledge, skills and enthusiasm, the Institution of Teacher Education (now Kyambogo University) readily accepted to review the Diploma in Primary Education programme that had been introduced earlier without proper planning. I became an active member of the review team.  The Institute also challenged me to introduce some specifically tailored courses to meet the needs of teachers from marginalized communities. I led the development and coordination of a course for training Sudanese teacher trainers in 1998.

When returning from my Master’s programme in 1996, I was promoted to Lecturer in Primary Education in the Department of Teacher Education at the Institute of Education (now Kyambogo University). There, I prepared teacher trainers for Primary Teacher Colleges at Bachelor and Diploma in Education levels, and many of these graduates are now education leaders in schools, teachers’ colleges and governments offices.

The beginning of my work with development partners was inspired by Save the Children Norway’s work with the most marginalized communities in Uganda. I joined them as their Program Coordinator for Basic Education for Uganda in 1999 and was responsible for coordinating the strategic planning, management and implementation of a non-formal basic education for pastoral/nomadic communities and of education quality projects for formal schools. Following that, I worked as the Country Education Programme Coordinator with OXFAM from 2003 to 2005, coordinating their education programs in Tanzania. From 2005 to 2007, I worked with Save the Children UK in Indonesia as the Deputy Education Sector Head, where I supported the Tsunami affected communities to reconstruct and rehabilitate their education system.

Since August 2007, I have joined Aga Khan Foundation, East Africa, working as the Regional Programme Officer for Education.  I am responsible for the education sector portfolio, ensuring quality technical oversight of projects and programs and achievement of agreed outcomes in the region (Kenya Uganda and Tanzania). I am expected to lead in the development and designing of plans to meet programming needs, identifying new program opportunities within the sector in line with AKF global strategies, planning and coordinating regular evaluations, identifying training needs and organizing relevant trainings.

I chose to work with AKF as a way of showing my appreciation for what the Foundation did for me. It would have not been easy for me, as a woman, to progress in my career if I had not received exposure to Education beyond my own country context. Securing admission to the Western universities was easy but securing a scholarship was another obstacle. Aga Khan Foundation’s generous scholarship was the turning point. Since completing the course, I wanted to work with the Foundation just to give back. I feel privileged to be part of the AKDN family.

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