The driver skims through a booklet of names. Each page details the names of children and the location of their homes. It is about 4:30am and by 5:00am, he will start picking children, stopping every so often at different homes until all the children on the list are on the bus.
"It is basically a pick-drop job," says Basil Karumuna, a 45-year-old driver with a school in Kyebando. "If I start with the farthest home, the easier for me."
Karumuna sometimes has to hoot for too long at people's gates because the child is still asleep. "My boss expects me back by 8:00am. To avoid traffic jam, the earlier the better," says Karumuna.
The culture of the school buses is under scrutiny as children as young as three have to leave home by 5:00am to catch the school ride. While most working parents find the school bus the best choice of means to school, critics say it has turned into a nightmare.
The long school rides:
For a while, Noah Bukenya's children had to be picked at 5:30am, long before he has even woken up to prepare for work. One day, he decided enough was enough. He could not continue seeing his four-year-old twins leave home before him. He decided to save money and buy a car.
"I set off with my children at 7:30am and drive to school. Some mornings we pick up a friend or two in the neighbourhood. Sometimes we sit in traffic, but we get to the school at the same time or even earlier than the school shuttle," Bukenya says.
Most children whom Sunday Vision talked to also confessed to getting tired and dosing on the bus. Most children are on the bus for about 65 to 70 minutes each morning, well in excess of the recommendations that international child rights activists agitate for. This does not include the time they wait at the school to get out.
Candy, a five-year-old kindergarten pupil in the city centre gets up at 5:30am and boards a school bus at about 6:30am. The bus arrives at her school about an hour or so later. "The teacher says we wait for all other children," she says. "I get really tired and sleep."
Several international studies state that little children should not be on a bus more than 30 minutes one way. Transportation for middle school students should take no longer than 45 minutes one way and high school students should arrive at school no more than an hour after boarding the bus, according to the 1998 study titled Long Rides, Long Hides by Colorado reserachers in Elemenatry School education, US.
Marlon Agaba, a programme officer with ANPPCAN Uganda chapter, a child rights activist agrees that the travelling hours for more than an hour daily, is too much for the children.
"A child will be completely knocked out by the end of the week. It is psychological torture," Agaba says.
Some children complain of being bullied by their elder counterparts. Diana Ninsiima, a volunteer with Kigezi Health Care Foundation, tells of John, the bully, who always sat at the back bencher, while she was at Jane and Jill Nursery School on Entebbe Road in the 1990's.
The bully routinely hurled insults at the younger children. He was the eldest; his language was foul, but never loud enough to be detected by the driver, who did not care about his little passengers.
"Sometimes after reaching home, I would find a book missing from my backpack or chewing gum in my hair," Ninsiima says.
But her worst memories are the crude comments about private body parts from boys who had reached adolescence.
"I decided I would never have my child using the school bus," Ninsiima, now a mother of two, says "I can protect my kids from an hour of bullying at the bus. I know at school he will be bullied, but there is a benefit of reporting," she adds.
Ninsiima often finds it stressing since she has to pick children by 4:00pm, but she still feels it is a worthwhile sacrifice. "My boss is aware that I have to pick my children," she says.
Another parent says: "My daughters tell me that children fight on the bus and stick metal objects in the seats. There is one kid who used a razor to cut the seats. A lot of things happen on the bus that the bus driver does not realise."
These little children are also packed like grasshoppers as a seat meant for two is shared by three to four children. The children sit on top of each other.
They also complain of falling off the bus seats as the drivers drive recklessly to manoeuver potholes and corners in order to get to school on time. And when the van breaks down, the children are stranded on the roadside.
In fact, many drivers of the school shuttles do not seem to care much when they are ferrying these defenceless little passengers. On April 12, 2010, two school children died on the spot and several others were injured in a car accident on Jinja-Kampala Road.
The accident occurred at Mailo-Mbiri, about five kilometres from Jinja town, at about 7:00am. It involved a school bus of Bubulo Girls' School in Manafwa district, carrying students to Kampala for a tour and a taxi with pupils from different schools heading to Jinja town. The dead were identified as Jacqueline Nabuduwa, 10, a P5 pupil of Victoria Primary School and Zahara Namwase of Little Angles Nursery School in Jinja town.
The regional traffic officer, Hellen Apolot, said the school bus driver, Zaidi Wakolwa was drunk. She said at the time of the accident, the taxi driver, Christopher Kiyaga, had parked at the roadside to pick other children across the road. Over 20 victims were admitted to Jinja Hospital. Most of the injured pupils had fractured limbs and deep cuts. When he was arrested, Wakolwa said he was dosing due to fatigue. He said he had been woken up at 4:00am and had taken about four beers the previous night.
On July 13, 2012, over 20 school children of St Lawrence SS in Sonde were seriously injured in an accident in Mabira on the Kampala-Jinja highway.
The accident happened when the driver of their school bus tried to overtake stationary vehicles that had been stopped as the Police removed a trailer that had an accident earlier on the same spot. At the accident scene, the road was narrow and slippery as a result of motor oil that spilled all over when the trailer that was carrying it overturned.
The victims said as the driver tried to overtake, he saw an oncoming vehicle and he veered off the road to avoid a head-on collision. Instead, he ended up overturning. The officer in charge of traffic for Lugazi Police Station, Alex Mulamuzi, says the driver fled after the accident. "We do not know why he could not stop, yet we had stopped all vehicles. He refused to join the line," Mulamuzi says.
Implications of long school rides:
Daniel Kyanda, the first black headmaster of Kings College Budo, says it is already bad enough that children are studying long hours, coupled with the long school rides. "That is too much stress on children. There are no curricular activities, and family time also suffers," he says.
"In our days, we had time for ourselves, we had time to play and time for storytelling from our parents. Today, when the children arrive home from school, they are too tired to wait for parents, who equally return late from work."
Most working parents however, maintain they have no choice. In an era where everyone is concerned about their children's safety, leaving the school transportation in the hands of the schools is the safest bet.
"You are supposed to be at work by 8:00am, and you leave late, there is traffic jam, so it is easier when the school is doing it for you," says Goretti Nakawesi, who has a child at Care Kindergarten near Ntinda-Kamwokya.
Nakawesi feels that in the event that anything happens to her child, she would have somewhere to start. "You sue the school administration rather than have anyone pick him only to disappear with my child," she says.
What the schools are doing:
At Care Kindergarten, the official picking time is 7:00am. The school strictly lets parents know which routes the school van has to take, before giving them vacancies. "If you are very far from the school, we advise you to pick your child. In that case, you give us three names, their contacts and photos, so that if you do not pick up the child yourself, we know we are entrusting them in good hands," says the proprietor, Justine Busulwa.
At Omega Day Care and Nursery School, Nsangi, a senior teacher, Christine Atim, says: "If anyone is complaining, then they did not read the admission letter in detail." Atim explains that usually, the children who have to use the school shuttle pay a little more for transport/fuel. "If classes have to begin at about 8:00am, then the bus has to pick children early," she says.
For the safety of children on the bus, they ensure that two staff members sit on the bus with the children. "We are aware that children can be naughty and beat up each other on the bus. We also ensure that they wear seat belts, so that they do not fall off. We also want to avoid a situation where the driver just drops off a child at the home gate, and speeds off before his caretakers open the gate," she says.
Education ministry speaks out:
The ministry does not have a policy on school buses. It only has a policy on what time classes should begin and end 8:00am to 5:00pm.b Dr. Crysostom Muyingo, the education state minister, says while the idea of waking up early is to prepare the children for the life after school, it is way too much on the kindergarten babies.
As a parent, Muyingo says one should consider a school nearby their home or places of work."Children are more important than your job. You need to plan for that child. There are nurseries all over the suburbs. But you find a parent who lives in Mukono taking their children to Kampala Parents because of status," Muyingo says.
He worries that this could be the reason behind the drop-out rate in schools. "To me this is torture. Children will hate school."
Munyigo feels that the problem comes with many mushrooming private schools. He says their inspectors have been dispatched to investigate several anomalies, which will help come up with guidelines.