Out of Africa

James Paterson and Nick Harrington at the Erinah Manjeri Primary School

James Paterson and Nick Harrington at the Erinah Manjeri Primary School, photo self-supplied

In summary: 
  • Law and international studies student Nick Harrington is the co-founder of the Manjeri School Project
  • The charity’s mission is to provide a high quality education to the poor and rural children of the Buikwe district in Central Uganda
  • It was founded after Harrington volunteered at the Erinah Manjeri Primary School in Buikwe during his gap year

Twelve months filled with late nights and long, lazy days; it’s the kind of gap year most school leavers dream of. Not Nick Harrington. When he finished high school in 2007, Harrington set out to make a difference.

After first travelling through Europe, the future UTS law and international studies student decided to spend three months in Uganda, East Africa. He spent the time volunteering at the Erinah Manjeri Primary School in the Buikwe district of Central Uganda.

“Within the first two days we realised the school was bankrupt,” says Harrington. “We didn’t really know what we were going to do.”

Together with close friend James Paterson, he spent eight weeks building a chicken farm to provide a sustainable source of revenue for the school. The pair financed the project with their own money and support from family and friends in Australia.

Four years later, 22-year-old Harrington is returning to Uganda for the third time. What started out as a rewarding experience has turned into his passion.

With his best friend from high school, University of Sydney economics/law student Andy Thomas, Harrington established the Manjeri School Project. Today a team of five students from UTS, the University of Sydney and University of New South Wales, manage and support the charity’s mission to provide a high quality education to the poor and rural children of the Buikwe region.

In recognition of his work, Harrington was awarded the Elizabeth Hastings Memorial Award for Student Community Contribution at the 2012 UTS Human Rights Awards.

Harrington says, “Uganda has a pretty shocking record when it comes to education and they really do rely heavily on non-government organisations to provide a substantial amount of education. We’re contributing to the primary education shortfalls in Uganda.”

To put it into perspective, the cost of running the school each year is $15 000. That sum includes salaries for 10 teaching staff, equipment, textbooks and exercise books. “On top of that,” says Harrington, “every child gets a meal at school. They receive a basic maize or rice meal and for about 55 to 60 per cent of them that is their main meal for the day.”

While Harrington admits $15 000 is still expensive for running a school in rural Uganda, it’s not much compared to Sydney, where the same amount could fund one year’s tuition for one Year 5 private school student. For the same amount, the Manjeri School Project is providing 120 children with a primary education. Harrington says, “It goes to show the reality of the situation.”

Recently Harrington uncovered more realities of African life after he spent three months volunteering as an intern to Botswana’s first female High Court Judge Unity Dow at Dow and Associates. Harrington says he “jumped at the idea” to work under Dow as it gave him the opportunity to see the practical application of law in human rights cases. Having worked on transgender and intersex human rights cases, Harrington said the experience was “eye-opening”.

For now though, the Manjeri School Project team are focusing their efforts on maximising teacher retention rates in the hopes of increasing the number of children at the school and working towards the independence and sustainability of the school.

With a 10 per cent orphan rate, the charity relies on assistance from the Australian public to continue providing the children with primary education. For most, it’s all they will receive in their lifetime.

“Education is the most empowering thing for these people,” says Harrington. “I love the kids. I find them to be the happiest, most beautiful children.”

To find out more about the Manjeri School Project, visit manjerischoolproject.org.