Rita Serukenya Nkemba

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 2008
This description of Rita Serukenya Nkemba's work was prepared when Rita Serukenya Nkemba was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.


Rita Nkemba has created an “interim education” initiative to enable street children to develop the math, literacy, and social skills needed for them to return to and succeed in the mainstream educational system. She is working towards approval from the Ministry of Education to introduce her program in public schools throughout in Uganda.

The New Idea

Concerned with the plight of street children for more than a decade, Rita discovered that among the myriad of challenges they face, education was one of their greatest needs. She also learned that her initial interventions, modeled after other social and public sector institutions, were not enough to properly prepare them for formal education. In response, Rita has developed an interim education program to prepare each street child for a successful academic and social reintegration in to public schools. Rita’s program uses a rescue program to draw children from the streets and attracts them to Dwelling Places, a transitional home for former street children in Kampala.

At Dwelling Places children participate in rehabilitation programs, including counseling support and the interim education initiative. The program then focuses on reconciliation; helping former street children reconnect with parents or relatives, and, when this is not possible, foster parents. The last phase of the program is resettlement. Former street children return to living with relatives, parents, or foster parents. Though resettled at home, children are still sponsored by Dwelling Places, and it continues to facilitate their access to education and health services. Rita is advocating the Ministry of Education to have her interim education curriculum formally recognized and introduced in all public schools. She has also started a Heralds Initiative Project, a campaign to encourage responsible adults to advocate for and take street children to public schools that offer her program.

The Problem

A two-decades-long war in northern Uganda and a persistent draught in northeastern Uganda have been key factors pushing children to the streets in Uganda’s urban areas. While there has been no official census, it is estimated that more than 100,000 people, mostly women and children, have fled these regions and seek refuge in urban centers. According to Rita, approximately 80 percent of street women and children seek refuge in nearby slums and live in inhumane conditions, with the other 20 percent wholly dependent on the streets for survival. Brutal living conditions often force children and teenagers to turn to using drugs and display violent behavior, putting themselves and those around them at-risk.

Street children face tremendous stigma from the public. It is generally perceived as disgraceful to associate with or to talk with street children. In an effort to get street children off the street, the government, through the police force, has employed crude tactics that involve rounding children up in different parts of the city and transporting them back to where they are assumed to be from. This negativity towards street children from the public and police has made it impossible for them to access public services such as health care and education. According to Rita, there are families that have lived on the street for three generations without ever visiting a health care facility or school. (Of course, they are not immune to diseases like malaria and HIV/AIDS which kills millions every year, or that they do not need to go to school.) Street women and children often speak one local language and though there is government funded universal primary education, most have never received a basic elementary education.

Rita acknowledges the contributions of various citizen organizations and some government programs to integrate street children back into society. A lot has been done in rehabilitation, vocational training, and resettlement of street women and children. Since Rita has worked with street children, however, she has found that the greatest need for most is access to education. Like other children, street children dream of having a profession. Rita knows the rehabilitation, vocational training, and resettlement efforts carried out by her organization, the government, and other groups, without her interim education program, were not enough to address the street children’s need for formal education.

The Strategy

Rita founded Dwelling Places in 1997. Starting with only 60 street children, she now directly provides services to 150 families and 505 children. Indirectly, her program touches the lives of thousands.

Rita begins by developing the core pillars of her work or, as she refers to them, the “Four Rs:” Rescue, Rehabilitation, Reconciliation, and Resettlement. The rescue phase involves outreach activities to draw in street children to Dwelling Places. In the beginning, Rita spent every Friday for a year dressed as a clown and performing in a public park to bring together street children and built a rapport with them. She gave them bread and milk during performances that attracted close to 200 street children at a time. From this outreach, children were eventually comfortable with Rita and allowed her into their lives and later, to accept a place at Dwelling Places.

When children join Dwelling Places, they are told that they can stay at the home for up to two years. Here, they will undergo an intensive program to improve their circumstances and reunite them with relatives, or place them with foster parents. For those at a legal age, independence is the goal after their two years at Dwelling Places. When at the home, rehabilitation programs continue to help the children integrate back into society and to help them regain their sense of self-worth, self-esteem, and confidence. A deliberate effort is made to trace the parents or relatives of the street children. Rita has found that 80 percent of the street children have an existing relative willing to take them. Rita attempts to bridge the gap between street children and their relatives or parents during the reconciliation program. After two years, street children are resettled at their parents’ or relatives’ homes. Dwelling Places continues to extend support in the form of counseling and access to healthcare even after resettlement. For children without relatives the possibility of adoption or placement with foster parents is considered; with the notion that every child must grow up within a family.

One of the greatest desires of children, was to return to school. This need was not being directly addressed by her organization’s Four Rs or by other citizen organizations. So, Rita decided to take the children in her home to a public school. Unable to fit in or socialize freely with other children, they were expelled after only a week. Reports from the head teacher indicated that the children from Dwelling Places had been involved in fights and some had sold off their bags, shoes, and socks; they had been bullied by other children and their uniforms had been destroyed. Rita realized that street children needed to be trained and prepared for integration into mainstream education.

This led Rita to develop her interim education program, now part of the rehabilitation program. The interim education program runs for a total of fourteen months as part of Dwelling Places’ improved rehabilitation programs. The first two months is an orientation class for all students, which focuses on attitude, etiquette, and general knowledge. This is followed by courses covering the national curricula, between one and four, depending on where the child is placed, and focus on math and literacy skills. These “catch-up” courses each run for three month term. Each child has an opportunity to meet with every member of staff to learn about their work. The curriculum for every class is related to the corresponding curriculum for the same class in a mainstream public school. The instructors—qualified primary school teachers—are attentive to the special needs of the children and have adopted child-centered instruction techniques. Termly assessments of the children are done before they are promoted from one class to the next. Some children learn faster than others and may be promoted several classes. Upon graduation from the interim education program, the children are introduced to a mainstream public school at a level determined by the assessment and recommendation of the interim school teachers.

Dwelling Places now has three buildings housing 61 children and the interim education program operates at Dwelling Places. (A large group of students recently completed the program and have successfully resettled at home and returned to school.) Rita is seeking approval from the Ministry of Education for her interim education initiative and its introduction to the public school system. She also seeks to have every public school dedicate a block of classrooms and three staff to the interim education program for street children. Once the curriculum is approved by the Ministry, Rita will dedicate most of her time to implementing the Heralds Initiative Project, her campaign to create advocates for street children out of responsible and compassionate adult citizens. These “heralds” will be key players in establishing interim education programs in public schools around the country and, then, will be empowered to take the hands of street children and lead them through the schools’ open doors.

Rita’s interim education initiative has been replicated in Tanzania by Amani Children’s Home and has successfully received the government’s approval to introduce the interim education program in Tanzanian public schools.

The Person

Born in a middle-class family, Rita had everything she needed while growing up and felt, from an early age, a strong urge to share what she had with other people. She often gave part or most of her lunch to less fortunate children at school and attributes this trait to her father who always opened their home to extended family and strangers in need. She cannot ever remember having her room to herself, since it was always shared with a visitor or relative.

From when she was young, with a strong Christian background, Rita participated in church activities. She led the choir in her local church and transformed it by introducing uniforms, training the women about how to perform on stage, and writing and directing the church’s first Christmas musical performance, a performance still preformed each Christmas. Rita also perused university studies, and obtained a first degree in social sciences and a post graduate diploma in public administration and management.

Rita remembers an encounter with a street child outside her church that changed her life forever. She sat down with the child on the side of the street and talked with her over thirty minutes. The child shared her juice from a plastic bag with Rita and introduced her to her mother and seven siblings who were also on the street. The child’s mother held a baby in her arms with a terrible fever, but said she couldn’t take the baby to a hospital because the money they had begged was not enough to cover the baby’s medical bill. Rita took the baby and rushed it to a nearby clinic where she knew the doctors from her time at university. Rita sees herself as a bridge and, first through a children’s home and then through her interim education program, works tirelessly to create ways for street children to return to their communities and their schools.

A series of encounters with street children in difficult circumstances led Rita to adopt seven children, whom she raises with her two biological children.