29 October, 2001 -- Many things are on my mind as we look back on our first month. The appalling toll of 1.4 million orphans because of the ravages of AIDS, is beyond comprehension. Many of these children live alone on the streets of the cities. Another time I'll tell you about Sister Augustina who has rescued over twenty abandoned babies. I read today that over 6,000 teachers a year are victims of the same disease. This is many more than in the yearly training college output and there are already thousands of children unable to attend school. I keep reminding myself of the by-word of the organisation for which we work: We can't do everything, but we can do something.

As I've mentioned before, primary school (which lasts eight years) is supposedly free. But there are so many extra fees for uniforms, books, supplies, examinations and extra curricular activities that many parents cannot afford to send their children. The newspaper showed a picture a while ago of kids in a primary classroom in rows on the floor, using each others' backs to write. No text books, no chairs, no desks. There is a movement afoot to recognize "informal schools" that run in the streets with no uniforms etc. Here in Kakamega district there is a literacy project for children not in primary school which is partially funded by CIDA. (Canadian International Development Agency) The aim is to at least teach the kids to decode, write a bit and have basic numeracy.

Reforms are in the air, but who knows if the political will is there to implement properly. The Ministry of Education has just outlawed caning and forbidden teachers to charge fees for students to take mock exams. The fees go directly to the teachers or school heads. Both these measure have elicited an outcry from a vocal opposition.

After primary, all high schools are fee-paying and entrance depends on the examination results in Standard 8 (last year of primary). There is a complex system of National, Provincial and District schools that have a pecking order for taking kids. Many schools are boarding and charge appropriately. Small wonders that many children stay home. For girls who do not go to high school, the prospects are early marriage, hard physical labour and many children. Polygamy is common. One district reported that only 20% of children taking the primary finals were girls, because most female students were already married. This is an area where female circumcision is still practised and girls are married off soon after. I should add that there is no set age for beginning or finishing school and students tend to be much older for their grade levels than we would expect.

Students are writing high school leaving exams right now, but will not receive their results until February 2002. For girls from poor rural families, the long wait between high school and post secondary institutions is a major problem. Our sister organisation, WOW (World of Women) has begun to give small business loans to help during the waiting period.

A young woman came to see us the other day. The local medical college, where they train lab technicians and maybe nurses, has held a place for her for three years while she looks for funds. The classes were to start this past Monday. She hasn't been able to pull the money together (about C$600) and the place will go to someone else. Our mandate is to give scholarships to girls entering High School so we couldn't help her, and she left in tears.

On a better note, Evelyn was one of our students but finished high school (about 8 subjects) with a B- average. Not good enough to get a place at university. She obtained a small business loan from WOW and with the C$10 equivalent began to make and sell small packages of snack foods. The snacks are made of flour and spices and sell for 10 Kenian shillings (KES) a bag (about 20 Canadian) To give you an idea of comparisons, for the same price you could get a bag of 5-6 carrots, or half a dozen onions, or a bunch of small bananas. So the snacks aren't cheap, but they sell well. She sat with us for an hour or so the other day and told us about a seminar she went to. It was for women running small businesses like hers, and she explained all she'd learned about marketing and packaging and venturing out with new products. She's so excited about her success and intrigued by the ins and outs of entrepreneurship, that she's talking of giving up her idea of studying to be an electrician. So we suggested she might want to run her own electrical contracting business one day.

Fortunately every so often we come across a success story like Evelyn and others who come to the door and say: "I was a CHES student and I'm working . . ." These examples, and the letters girls write to their sponsors in Canada, make it worth while.

I'm sorry if this message is not very entertaining. Next time I'll tell you about the shops and some of the people we meet.

2002 Patricia Crossley


8 November