24 - Hour- Helpline

+442045292693 - [email protected]

A call to self-help action among Iteso

­By Michael Okwalinga-Emokol

Down Memory Lane

I recall growing up in Serere in the early 1960s. My father’s grandfather, a chief in Serere, would set aside time for children each day, and collect all the young boys and girls in the evenings. He would entertain us with stories, puzzles and questions about our culture.

When he passed away, my father and grandfather took on this role. They would tell us about our history, culture and core cultural values:

  • Abeitonut…………………………………honesty
  • Abonot / Aiyapepeoro……..……..humility
  • Akukuranut……………………………..hard work
  • Arimarit……………………………………obedience
  • Atitingu…………………………………….moral courage
  • Ayongit Lokasuban / Akuj………respect and fear of God.

As we grew older, the need to co-operate and work with one another, and with our clan members and neighbours, was developed through both stories and practical assignments and chores such as garden work, domestic work and looking after domestic animals.

We were also told about Asapan, which was basically training in which boys were prepared for responsible adulthood and citizenship through the teaching of Iteso laws, culture and history, and military training to enable able bodied adults look after their families and clans and defend Ateker. Asapan was abolished by the colonial government and its agents.

Girls, too, underwent training for responsible adulthood.

We saw the practical use and benefits of working together with other people in the form of Aleya and Eitai, which were forms of communal work designed to ensure that members of society cooperated with one another in order to ensure that there was food security for all.

Early in the colonial period, formal education was introduced, largely to train lower and middle-ranking officials to serve the colonial government but, as independence approached, this was widened to meet the needs of the new nation.

In the early 1950s, the people of Aloet, Soroti, dismayed at the lack of good schools for their children, started an initiative to build a community school for Teso. This received the support of Teso District Council, led by the Late Leo Okol and the Late Cuthbert Obwangor, and clan leaders.

Land was generously donated by the Late Epaku, and Teso College, Aloet, was built in Aloet, Soroti. Iteso from as far afield as Kaberamaido, Pallisa, Tororo, Busia and Teso Kenya contributed resources to build and turn their school, Teso College, Aloet, into one of the largest, finest and best equipped schools in East Africa.

Teso College, and other schools in Teso were able to meet the educational needs of the children of Teso and Uganda, and to contribute to the education of professionals in Teso, Uganda and beyond.

Today and tomorrow

We have seen that in the past, the needs of our society were met by education standards set at family, clan, district and national level, and these were adapted to suit the needs of the time.

As a clan leader, I am concerned by the increasing number of young men and women spending time in trading centres drinking, gambling or carrying out other unproductive activities. This suggests that the education system in the country no longer meets the needs of our society.

This point is further brought home by the number of unemployed university graduates, and graduates working as market salesmen and in other jobs they are clearly overqualified for.

Is our education system fit for purpose?

In addition to training future doctors, nurses, teachers, civil servants and other professionals, there is a case for vocational education to support our economy, food security etc both at village and national level. The reality is that not all children are either suited to, or capable of, pursuing academic courses.

We need to give greater attention to courses, including short ones, to train carpenters, welders, builders, farmers etc so that school leavers are given an opportunity to become economically active and to contribute to the economy and to the development of their villages, districts and country.

Teso Education Fund (TEF)

TEF started life as a project aimed at providing scholarships to improve the educational opportunities of disadvantaged but gifted Iteso children and youth. It is targeted mainly at orphans, the disabled, girls, and those who need assistance to complete courses which will benefit their families and area.

The team that started TEF is driven by a desire to give back to Mother Teso, by helping to improve learning opportunities for her children.

TEF was started by Iteso who are prepared to make sacrifices to make a contribution and to invest in the future of Teso. The team saw a clear need for action, and decided to launch the project by:

  • setting up an organisation to run the Fund,
  • making regular contributions to finance the work of TEF,
  • making contributions and pledges towards the scholarship fund.

The team decided to get the ball rolling rather than wait for resources to build up because there was, and is, a need to get to work immediately. We could not afford to wait for help; we must not wait.

Supplementary work of TEF

The Trustees and Management of TEF recognise the importance of our culture and language. Consequently, we also run Ateso Language and Culture lessons on most Sundays, taught by unpaid volunteers, and attended by children, youth and adults from Kenya, Uganda and the Diaspora.

The language and cultural lessons are designed to inculcate the core Ateker values of honesty, humility, hard work, obedience, moral courage and respect, and fear of God, into our youth. We all need to teach our children our culture and language; they are the super glue which binds us.

The problem

As stated before, trading centres and villages are full of young people who are either idle or engage in non-productive or potentially harmful and anti-social activities.

Many of these youth would be receptive to opportunities to learn new skills in order to provide for their families; such opportunities would also benefit their clans and the country at large. By focussing help on our youth, we lay a foundation for a prosperous future for our people.

Previous generations focussed their efforts on training the youth in order to ensure stability, unity and prosperity. This was done through family, clan and community networks in pre-colonial society through activities such as aleya, eitai and asapan.

In the 1940s and 1950s, visionaries such as the Late Epaku, Okol and Obwangor, saw the importance of good schools to the development and progress of our children and society.

They did not simply talk about it; they put their hands in their pockets, kraals and land, made sacrifices and contributed to build a future for future generations, including all of us gathered today. They did not only kindle the flame of education in the hearts of Iteso; they built it up.

Are we a less visionary generation? Are we a generation which simply waits and expects solutions to the problems of Teso to come from outside, and waits for others to educate our children? Are we the generation that will watch as the flame they lit dies out on its watch?

If we are to solve the serious problems affecting Teso, we need to talk much less, but to act much more. The achievements made so far by TEF have been a direct result of the sacrifices made by a few individuals in Uganda and the Diaspora.

Further progress, meaningful progress, will be made but only if each, and everyone, of us rises to the challenge and contributes. We may not have the herds of cattle, goats and sheep which our ancestors had, but we can contribute in other ways. For example, you can:

  • make a financial contribution;
  • offer office space to TEF;
  • volunteer to carry out TEF work on the ground in Teso.

It would be greatly unfair of any of us to expect the few to continue shouldering the burden, without making a sacrifice.

To paraphrase an African proverb that says: “It takes a whole village to raise a child”, I challenge all of us that “It will take a whole Ateker to educate a child!


I would like to close with the following points:

  • We need to reach deep into our cultural values and roots, and to use them as a basis for unity and development, and to always remember that like a tree, our society cannot grow without its roots;
  • I appeal to our age-old African values of Etunganane / Ubuntu / Humanity to motivate us to help the weakest and most disadvantaged of our people;
  • In order to succeed, a society must take care of the individual, and in return the individual must take care of the needs of that society;
  • I am throwing down a challenge to all our leaders: politicians, civil servants, clergy, cultural leaders, clan leaders, the men and women in the villages and towns of Teso to work with TEF so that we can, together, build a brighter future for all our children;
  • This conference will mean nothing, and will have been a complete waste of your time and mine, if we do not make sacrifices;
  • talking will simply not do; we need to act and put hands in our wallets and purses; my wife and I pledge shs1m towards next year’s scholarship fund;
  • Working together, we can accomplish a lot; working individually, we shall not!
  • Together, we are an unstoppable rock; separately, we are but sand, easily blown about and away.
  • Let’s stick together, and become a rock for the benefit of future generations!

Thank you.

Emuria koliai,

Ateker kobusi!

Michael Okwalinga-Emokol is a trustee of TEF and clan leader of Imorio sub-clan of Ateker Irarak clan 

Leave A Comment