Feb 2004

Primary schools in Kenya

It has been a while since I sent a newsletter because we have been so busy since Christmas, plus I had a few computer problems that had to be sorted out.

Just before Christmas I was taken to visit some primary schools close to Kakamega in my role as Diocesan Education Secretary. At about the same time, we found and purchased an Isuzu Big Horn (four wheel drive) vehicle, and after the holiday I began to visit more schools.

I should maybe explain what a Diocesan Education Secretary does. Before Independence, all schools were largely supported by missionary societies. When the British left, the teacher salaries were assumed by the government, on a ‘cost sharing’ basis with parents. This meant that parents had to pay uniforms, books, upkeep, furniture, ancillary staff and explains why most families in this area were unable to afford to send children to school. The churches maintained a role in pastoral care for their schools and can appoint a Diocesan Education Secretary to assist the teachers.

Last year the new government made primary education ‘free’ and over a million children swarmed into the schools.

The Anglican Church sponsors about 60 primary schools in this diocese and I have visited 29 of them. Someone accompanied me and I covered over one thousand kilometers (about 600 miles) during the three weeks of January. Most schools are situated outside villages, often up steep grades, along trails that are impassable in the wet season. Many tracks resemble stream beds, steep, rocky and riddled with gullies. I had to use my four wheel drive three times, but even in two wheel at no time did I shift out of second gear. It’s very hard on the vehicle and on the driver. When I arrived (usually in the company of one of the local clergy) there was always great excitement. A vehicle is a rare site. Plus a priest! Plus a white woman driving!! Almost too much to take in!

A school is typically built on a large plot, which explains why they are rarely situated in a village. The buildings can be concrete, but are often made of mud. In only one that I visited were children spreading fresh cow dung on the floors of two classrooms. The other floors are cement even if the walls are mud and the roof of thatch. One school had lost its roof during a wind storm and had to suspend classes, because there was no protection for the children from the afternoon sun.

The children do most of the maintenance around the compound, collecting leaves (brushing with dry twigs and branches) fetching water, sweeping the classrooms. With the new government program of ‘free’ education, some money for text books and supplies has been allocated. But there is as yet little or no money for capital expenses and maintenance, and parents are no longer expected to pay. In addition, the government has been mired in the long-winded Kenyan bureaucracy for hiring teachers, many of whom were trained over the last few years, but never found jobs. So schools are seriously understaffed often with only eight or nine teachers for 4-500 students.

So what do the schools do with the million children I mentioned?

They cram them into the same classrooms as before and assign the same teachers. Most grade one classes run from 60 -75 children. One I visited had 150, with six or so little bodies fitted into each desk made for two. In honesty, there were two teachers assigned to the class, but they were still figuring out how to divide up the children. With such huge numbers, few books and a blackboard as a visual aid, teaching is largely by rote, recital in chorus and repetition.

School starts early, around seven a.m and there are usually two morning breaks. Lunch begins between twelve thirty and one and lasts until two pm because the children have so far to walk home. Unfortunately, the majority will have only drunk some tea in the morning and maybe will have to chew a piece of sugarcane for lunch. A few schools have a ‘feeding program’ where one class will have a meal of beans and ugali (thick maize porridge) at midday. The head teachers seem to opt to feed the leaving class (grade eight) if any, because their performance in the primary leaving exams is so important. The ‘lower primary’ will not return to school in the afternoon unless requested by the teacher. The others will continue in class until 5 p.m.

What a warm welcome we received in every school. Because of the time involved to reach each one, we only were able to go to two schools a day. In every case, we had to tear ourselves away: Please talk to the teachers and take tea with us. Please come and talk to my grade eight class. Please address the whole student body. Please come back again.

I did have time to talk to two grade eight classes, one of about 60 students and one of about thirty. I talked to them about Canada and answered their curious and insightful questions about weather, crops, political system and so one. Some took copious notes as I spoke. The thirst for knowledge is impressive.

I am working now on various suggestions that were made during my visits and later in February I shall start offering workshops to teachers and will understand even better their problems and successes.

During January our elder son arrived from Canada for a visit and at the end of the month we took a week’s safari to the Maasai Mara. More about that in my next letter.