Children at play in Uganda’s Sembabule district. After decades in conflict, Uganda suffers from a lack of education infrastructure. (Photo: Catie Corbin)

One of the most educated cities on the planet is hosting a conference Saturday looking at what happens when there is no education.

The topic is far from speculative. When the eighth annual Voices for Africa Conference looks at “Youth and Emergencies,” the panelists, organizers and more than 100 attendees will be considering nations such as Uganda, which has seen ongoing armed conflict for more than two decades.

“A lot of students have missed their education. For 20 years they’ve just been out of school. Either they’ve been kidnapped from school or they’ve been recruited into child-soldier armies and just not been able to attend,” said Emily Longenecker, president of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Voices for Africa group. “So this is focused on what kinds of education would work in a conflict. If the schools aren’t operating, if the schools are in dangerous settings even for students to attend, if that’s where they’re being abducted, what can we offer to these students? And what can we offer to students who were child soldiers who did miss out on education to make sure they can still contribute to society and contribute to their country?”

Societies where generations of students have been unable to attend schools will struggle to keep up in a globalized economy, she said, and people in those countries will likely suffer more random violence.

While these are tenets of the organizations seeking ways to return education to war-torn African nations, the conference also allows room for contrarians. While many worry about an uptick in violence among African youth born in conflict and without schooling, speaker Dr. Tatiana Carrayanis argues that fear is unfounded. Carrayanis, of the Social Science Research Council sees the youth bulge as an opportunity for transformation instead of as a threat.

The conference also features speakers who have emerged from conflict. Among them are Godfrey O. Orach Otobi and Richard B. Opio, young Ugandans who are now at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of law and diplomacy. While both will serve as panelists or facilitators for lunchtime roundtable discussions, Otobi will also show a clip from “The Other Side of the Country,” a documentary film he helped produce in which Ugandans discuss the consequences of conflict there.

Opio came over a year ago thanks to scholarships from the school and the Ford Foundation’s International Fellowships program, after 30 years of living in a culture where, “If you want quality, then quality is for the rich.” He said Friday that he feels the backs the goals of the conference passionately.

“Education is of primary importance in transforming society,” he said, expressing hope in reaching people in Uganda and elsewhere to “change their attititudes so they know society is their responsibility.”

Also of key interest will the situation in Liberia. Although it recently returned to democratic elections, it is another nation where education has been disrupted for more than two decades. As Longenecker said:

“Their schools have been destroyed, so there aren’t even places for students now to really attend school, there aren’t teachers who are educated to be able to teach the students. So even though the county has peace, there isn’t an educated populace there to govern the country and also to educate its student for future generations. It’s just self-perpetuating at this point. It’s just going to continue.”

The conference takes place at Harvard’s Askwith Hall and Gutman Conference Center. To register, send an e-mail with your name, e-mail address and affiliation, if any, to vfaconference@gmail.com. The conference is open to the public and free of charge. To learn more, click here.