Accepted paper:

Ugandan children's high-stake PLE exam essays: conflicting narratives and counter-narratives of leaving and returning home, aspirations, and dysfunction for Uganda's schoolchildren


Bonnie L Prince (Prince Consultants LLC)
Conrad Snyder

Paper short abstract:

Essays written for Uganda's Primary Leaving Exam capture cultural narratives of anguished schoolchildren's conflicted futures. Children who pass exams leave home for secondary school to pursue a modern life. Those who fail must return home to a bleak dysfunctional traditional village life.

Paper long abstract:

Two opposing cultural narratives shape the significance of home-leaving and home-returning for Ugandan schoolchildren in essays written for Uganda's watershed high-stakes Primary Leaving Examination. These essays are examined through the lens of a nation-wide rite that affects all Ugandan schoolchildren. Alternative narrative and counter-narrative frames are adopted by individual children who personally locate themselves within the wider exam experience as learners, victims and citizens. In 1996, children wrote exam essays on the assigned topic of whether the PLE should be "abolished," and described two significantly dissimilar exam prospects for their own future. Because of this forced choice, this collection of 374 exam essays offers starkly opposing narrative and counter-narrative perspectives regarding the PLE's impact. Children who visualized a promising future framed their stories in confident progressions: passing exams, leaving home for secondary school, attaining a prosperous modern life. Children who dreaded failure told of exam oppression that obstructed personal aspirations, created physical trauma and family dysfunction, corrupted government officials, and forced failing children to return to traditional village life. Many children blamed their failure on "exam fever," a metaphoric and sometimes literal disease that shaped many of the counter-narratives. This study explores how children incorporated scenarios, story fragments, rumors, anecdotes, and rhetorical devices (metaphor, irony, hyperbole) into two contrasting exam frames that included their own identity. Essays are explored both as individual cultural artifacts, and as a composite of voices that comprise the wider cultural milieu of what it means to be a Ugandan child.

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Narratives/counter-narratives of homecoming