Nairobi — What next for Mt Elgon pupils? Even as the land tensions in Mt Elgon diminish, one must wonder: will children in the region return to school?
Displaced women and their school-age children camp at Kopsiro in Mt Elgon District at the height of the clashes.
The academic future of pupils in 104 primary schools and 25 secondary schools in the recently land-clashes-hit Mt Elgon District hangs in the balance, even as the second term of the year begins.
Even more worrying is how well this year's Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) and Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examination candidates will be prepared to sit for their exams later in the year.
Before November last year, Lydia Chemai, aged 18, had high hopes of completing secondary education at Toroso High School. The youth said she had hoped to become a doctor someday.
"I do not know whether I will clear my education," she mourned. "Yes, I have registered for KCSE, but all my plans are ruined. I do not know whether my school will re-open."
Like her, a classmate Ashe Juma believes his future is ruined. Juma and Chemai's other classmates, numbering more than 20, have already crossed to Uganda to evade the clashes, where they are currently living as refugees.
Children are set to sit for national exams
Elsewhere, Zeddy Chemai of Kapsokwany Primary School is nursing nasty bullet wounds and may never walk or play again, thanks to an attack carried out by raiders at her home.
Chemai remembers being shot by the raiders, who also killed three of her brothers alongside their teacher, Juma Naibei. The girl's siblings were pupils of Chepkitik Academy.
At the summit of Mt Elgon, Jane Chemator's heart sinks every time she thinks about the future of her children and grandchildren.
"My two sons are at home," she said. "They registered for KCSE, but I hate to think how they will perform. They are living in the wild like animals, instead of preparing for their examinations."
Chemator's feelings of frustration are shared by other parents, whose children are set to sit for national exams, but whose hopes of excelling are dim.
Most parents and students argue that, even in boarding secondary schools, students cannot concentrate on class work, both during the day and at night, because they fear that raiders may strike unannounced.
Clashes threaten to tear apart basic education
Listen to a local resident, Leonard Ndiema: "The case of Kapsokwany, where raiders threatened to take some students into the bush to be part of the Sabaot Land Defence Force (SLDF), is just one example of what makes the students' fears very real."
Education stakeholders agree that there is a major problem affecting not only the learning process of children in Mt Elgon, but also their future lives, as the clashes threaten to tear apart basic education.
Clashes over the Chebyuk Settlement Scheme have over the last six months left more than 150 people dead and more than 40,000 others displaced.
And it is not just education that is affected; many other economic activities are paralysed.
Although the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), among other humanitarian groups, is set to assist schools and children in the district, the prevailing situation may derail the efforts.
Unicef Country Representative Heimo Laakkonen, while on his tour of the district recently, pledged Sh28 million to assist school children and women.
Attendance has plummeted to unacceptable levels
Heimo's visit to Mt Elgon followed an earlier one by a combined team from the Ministry of Education Emergency Education Committee and Unicef's mission, whose task was to assess the effects of the clashes on local education. Heimo used the occasion to announce that the Unicef education team would dispatch some 110 education kits to assist 5,000 school children with learning materials.
He also said that 100 desks would be supplied to the over-crowded schools.
Children who had dropped out of school following displacement of their families accompany their parents to collect relief supplies from Red Cross personnel at Sasur centre, Cheptais Division, in Mt Elgon District. Pictures by Peter Ochieng'
"We are concerned with the disruption of activities in the district, which denies children their right to education as enshrined in the Children's Act," he says.
He adds that attendance in primary schools "has plummeted to unacceptable levels, and we have reports that, in Kopsiro Division, only 27 schools had been closed by March."
He adds: "Children are traumatised by these atrocities. They cannot learn properly at school, and the damage can last for very long, unless they receive special care and support."
The Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut), Mt Elgon Branch Executive Secretary, Willy Songi Masai, says none of the 104 primary schools and 25 secondary schools in the district closed procedurally.
Local students likely to register poor results
"The problem of schools closing due to the clashes started (in September last year) in Emia zone of Kopsiro Division but, by January this year, it spread to other parts of the district." By the end of first term, he laments, no school was in session.
After Emia zone, schools in other neighbouring zones (Chebyuk, Kapketenyi and Tongoiywo) followed suit.
Masai says teachers, who number 1,500 in the district, cannot teach under the prevailing conditions; they fear that continuing to teach might be endangering their lives.
"We have told our teachers to keep off until the situation improves," he says. "We have told them to look for (livelihood) elsewhere, because the situation in Mt Elgon had gone from bad to worse."
Masai worries that the thousands of local students who were scheduled to sit this year's national examinations are very likely to register poor results.
"We do not expect good results when teachers, pupils and students have fled from their schools, and when no learning is taking place," he adds.
The early closure of schools also meant that no first-term examinations were done. In effect, there was no appraisal of the pupils' academic performance for the first term of this year.
Four schools have not registered candidates
"The free primary education (FPE) programme offered by the government is no longer of assistance to these poor children in this part of the country," says Masai.
"These are suffering innocently for reasons they do not understand."
The area District Education Officer (DEO), Ephantus Kauki, said that, although they had registered KCPE candidates in all the schools, some of them have moved away.
"We now have the challenge of trying to locate where these candidates are when the time comes for them to sit for their KCPE examinations," said Kauki.
He, however, added that there wasn't much concern over the registration of the KCSE candidates in secondary schools, and that only four schools had not registered candidates.
Kapsokwany High School in the district headquarters was among those that were closed a few days before the official first term closure due.
"Both the Kapsokwany High School and Kapsokwany Primary School were closed a few days earlier than the official first-term closing dates after raiders attacked the town," adds the DEO.
Assistance needed to reconstruct lives
Some of the schools that have remained closed include Banantega, Kubra, Kebee, Chepkurukur, Kabukwo, Kapchebuk, Kapkesem, Kaboriot, Chepkaria and Kapkenyo primaries.
Barely a few weeks ago, most schools (especially primary schools), stood desolate after they were abandoned. Over-grown grass covered entire compounds.
"We have no food for our children who are out of school and who suffer from diseases such as diarrhoea, because of untreated water, and the poor environment we live in," said Mzee Jackson Chongin of Sasur village, Cheptais Division.
At the time when Chongin talked to us, the Unicef team was distributing food rations. Children who used to attend the local Kaptoboi Primary School comprised about 50 per cent of the crowd that had gathered for the donations.
Chongin said that, apart from peace, they require a lot of assistance to reconstruct their lives and enable their children to resume learning.
"Peace can be restored, yes, but our children cannot be waking up every morning to go to school on empty stomachs," he observes.
"Crops were abandoned in the farms to rot. Some homesteads were razed down and some families have no basic items like blankets and cooking utensils."
Effects of clashes likely to affect children for years
Patrick Kipnanang, a 50-year-old resident of Sasur village, who had five children at the local Chemondi Primary School, says children are traumatised and cannot concentrate in school.
"Even when they go to school, gunshots disrupt them during the day, with some panicking, thinking it is either their mother, father or sister that will be killed next," Kipnanang lamented.
He agrees with Unicef boss that the effects of the clashes in the area are likely to affect children for many years to come.
Kipnanang expresses dismay at the situation, which may deny innocent children the right to education.
Reverend Maritim Arap Rirei, the Head of Development Awareness Programme (DAP) in Eldoret and Kitale dioceses of the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK), says the future of school-going children should be urgently addressed.
"The future of the suffering children is the future of this country," he suggests. "We cannot move ahead unless we educate our children. It is very unfortunate to see thousands of children being out of school."
Some living in Uganda as refugees
Rirei says reports that some children had crossed over to neighbouring Uganda, where they were living as refugees instead of being in school, were disturbing.
"The ACK and other humanitarian organisations can only offer relief supplies; there is nothing else that can be done without the government pacifying the fighting groups," he adds.
The National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) national chairman, Bishop Eliud Wabukala, says the council will soon come up with some form of assistance to the children and other vulnerable members of society in the district.
"We are still weighing the kind of assistance we can offer to the suffering children and people of Mt Elgon," he says. "We will soon make our plans public."
The Rift Valley Knut Provincial Council Secretary, Sammy Bor, says it is upon both the government and other well-wishers to help initiate a recovery programme in Mt Elgon once peace is restored.
Title deeds have been nullified
"Part of the reason why schools in that part of the country have been performing poorly in national examination has to do with both insecurity and being ill-equipped," adds Bor.
He says that, with most schools in the region having wasted the first term, efforts should be made to ensure that the second term does not also go to waste.
Presently, the government is trying to keep further clashes from erupting, but it remains unknown when, or if, stability will endure.
Title deeds of about 1,700 beneficiaries of the Chebyuk Scheme, which was the cause of the violence that threatened to spread to neighbouring districts, have also now been officially nullified.
Western PC Abdul Mwaserah, while announcing the nullification of the title deeds, indicated that the move was aimed at restoring calm and ending the clashes.
The Mt Elgon chaos is reminiscent of the clashes in other parts of the North-Rift region, such as the Kerio Valley and West-Pokot, where banditry had for years affected the learning process. However, peace has for the first time over the past four years been restored along the expansive Kerio Valley, where studies are now going on uninterrupted.