30 November 2010

Kenya: Where Guns Guard Empty School Dorms

Nairobi — If, as you walked into the compound of a school, your attention was drawn to a group of about 30 students chasing after a polythene soccer ball, you are likely to conclude that the school's football team is on a practice session, or that Form II is preparing for the next tie with Form III.

In some schools, however, the 30 or so students you see make up the entire student population in the school.

All the tired 30 of them.

This is how: About 350 kilometres north west of Kenya's capital, Nairobi, stands a rather unique edifice that goes by the name Kapedo Mixed Secondary School, one of the latest learning centres born of the Turkana South Constituency Development Fund.

Standing alone in a 10-acre piece of land that forms part of the sun-baked Turkana East District, Kapendo Mixed is hard to miss for the dart-eyed traveller.

By local standards, the Sh13.1-million-structure is a monument, an educational shrine that belongs on the covers of post cards and year books. It boasts two dormitories; one for girls and the other for boys and, although it started off without any government-salaried teacher, the Teachers' Service Commission recently blessed Kapedo Mixed with five teachers, bringing the total number of instructors at the institution to a modest eight.

Kapedo's nearest secondary school neighbour is over 100 kilometres away, so it is understandable why she has become the darling of the region, even to the scores in the region who, because of the small matter of distance, decided to end the studies after primary school. Among her student population are the area's parents, entrepreneurs and community leaders.

Faraway schools

Benson Kenyamann, 22, is a student, a businessman, a husband and a father. When he is not in class, you will find him at Hotel Gasna, a popular grass-thatched restaurant -- built in the form of a string of gazebos -- that he set up after sitting his Kenya Certificate of Primary Education exam in 2006. His wife, whom he married "because I could not afford attending faraway schools", helps him run the small establishment.

"I have always yearned for education... because I know it has the potential of turning lives around," he says when asked why he decided to go back to school despite the fact that he had already established a life for himself and his young family.

Every morning, Kenyamann wakes up early and heads of Kapedo Mixed, while his wife heads in the direction of Hotel Gasna, where she runs the affairs until her husband joins her in the afternoon.

After that, the wife heads home while the husband takes over in the restaurant. DN2 could not verify her age or education level because she turned down our interview request.

At the other end of the village is Suzanne Namaya, who, like Kenyamann, is a parent -- a mother of three, to be precise. She sat her KCPE in 1996 and earned 358 marks out of the then possible 700, but stayed home for two years because she could not afford the required secondary school fees.

Forlorn and dejected, she decided to get married in 1998 and moved to Gilgil. Ten years -- and three children -- later, her sister convinced her to go back to school, and that is how she found herself next to Kenyamann in Kapedo.

"Life was hard," she explains. "I was only 19 when I got married, and I had to work in a flower farm to cater for my daily needs." Namaya decided to quit the job because the chemicals they used on the farms affected her respiratory system, "and the pay was meagre anyway".

Her husband was opposed to the idea of her going back to school, but she somehow prevailed upon him and went back to Turkana East, where her sister took her in.

"I believe the little education I'm getting here will help me give my children a better life while assisting my parents," she says. Business Studies and Chemistry are her favourite subjects, and she plans to become an accountant "because there is none here".

This trend at Kapedo Mixed, many hope, will be the turning point for the dusty hamlet buried in the middle of nowhere, and whose residents have been in knee-deep poverty since the beginning of time.

But, before it gets there, the school will have to climb a mountain of challenges. Because it opened its doors to the public only last year, Kapedo Mixed is now at Form II level. Ordinarily, it is supposed to be a mixed boarding institution, but rampant insecurity has forced the administration to send girls home everyday.

Headteacher Richard Ekal told DN2 that boarding for girls is not possible because he has only five female students against a bed capacity of 88.

"That tiny number is just not viable. Besides, their dormitory has been the target of bandits before," he said.

And one does not need to go far to see the effects of insecurity on the school. Wall after wall bears fresh bullets marks, and Ekal says those are the signature marks of the region's bandits, hustlers and rustlers.

The area, one of the many tiny centres that dot the sparsely populated Turkana frontier, is guarded by a General Service Unit (GSU) platoon and an administration police post, and is home to several Kenya Police Reservists (KPR). But that good security presence has not prevented bandits from targeting the school.

"Last August, a male student was shot by unknown people while collecting firewood outside the school," says Mark Nakome, a Biology teacher at the school. "Although attacks have significantly reduced since the police set up camp here, our students still live in fear."

And, while some schools in the country stay open even beyond 8:00 pm, classes here end at 1:00 pm. "No one can concentrate beyond 1:00 because this place becomes unbearably hot in the afternoon. That's why we allow our students to leave," adds Mr Ekal.

The school also has one of the most lax rules in the country "because that is the only way to entice students to attend classes", says the headteacher.

"Some of these students run families and would be uncomfortable if we barred them from going home whenever they want," he says. As such, there are times when you may not find any student in the dorms at night.

Science facilities are also a headache for the school because, since inception, students have never done any practical lessons in Biology, Chemistry or Physics, despite learning the same in theory. And, since the institution is reliant on government funding, administrators say the earliest students may see, leave alone touch, a pipette or a Bunsen burner is next year.

Ferreted allocation

The Turkana South constituency was recently awarded Sh70 million under the CDF kitty for the year 2010/2011. But, because more than 90 per cent of its over 200,000 population lives on less than Sh80 per day, it is clear that many of the school's development projects will have to rely on a hugely ferreted CDF allocation.

The entire school population is made up of poor children, most of whom are from single parents or orphans and, therefore, find it difficult to pay fees. The total fee per year, according to the school's fee structure, is Sh17,900.

"And very few of them can afford to raise even half of that amount," says Mr Ekal.

Like many other parts of Turkana, the school's remoteness makes it only dependent on relief food, which feeds both teachers and students. Moreover, the school's population is merely drawn from one village of about 2,000 people.

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