Off a dusty road, about 100 metres from Mathareini shopping centre in Kigumo, Murang'a County, a narrow road leads to a clearing. Farther ahead is a gate, standing with an unmistakable air of abandonment and eeriness.
The unguarded gate is fastened with a large padlock attached to a bulky rusty chain. Its defaced walls are in urgent need of repair, a state that appears to forewarn one of what lies yonder.
Beyond the gate, a road winds lazily into the compound. Evidently, this one has been unused for months.
Surrounded by a thick tree and bush cover, the entire vicinity is as lifeless as it is creepy. Save for the occasional bush baby call from high up in a nearby grevillea tree, the quietness here resembles that of a haunted home.
It is only after moving further inside the compound that we realise we are in a school.
Started in the 1980s, Mathareini Secondary School has been a vibrant institution for more than three decades.
Journalists, teachers and politicians have walked through its gates. But that is all that is left of this school: a rich history.
Today, the school has stopped all its operations. Whether or not the school will reopen its doors to learners in future is as clear as mud. Reason? There are no students here anymore.
Before it collapsed, Mathareini had been on its deathbed for several years, which the principal, Mr Patrick Kamau, admitted earlier this year.
"Low enrolment has been a challenge in our school, but we have put in place mechanisms to attract more learners this year," Mr Kamau said.
Yet when other schools were admitting learners in January, not even a single student joined the school.
The last batch of 40 learners, the Nation established, did not return at the turn of this year - some joined other schools and others dropped out.
"The numbers dwindled so much that teachers demanded to be transferred to other schools by the Teachers Service Commission," a local teacher told the Nation.
When all the teachers left, the principal asked to be transferred too, to escape the embarrassment of a collapsing institution.
The TSC denied his request and now Mr Kamau roams the school alone, hoping that his employer will sympathise with his situation and post him elsewhere.
Until that happens, he will remain the lone resident of the school.
Across the ridge, tucked in the lushness of vast tea plantations, Gakoeini Primary School sits on a hilltop.
When the Nation team visited the school last week, the compound curiously lacked the usual animation that characterises public primary schools during break time.
Other than a handful of pupils that ran after each other, activity here was muted.
The head teacher, a Mr Munyu, said the school's population currently stands at 185 pupils - a tiny figure by the standards of many primary schools in Kenya.
CLINGING TO HOPE
Yet, this is far from what scares Mr Munyu; rather, it is the steadily plummeting number of children enrolling in pre-primary education (PP1 and PP2) at the school's Early Childhood Education (ECDE) section.
Notably, the number of learners decreases down the grades, Mr Munyu says, a situation that has "the future of our school hanging in the balance".
"We introduced porridge and lunch at our ECDE classes a few years ago to entice learners to our school. This method did not work," he laments, although he is unforthcoming about the school's performance.
Started in the early 1990s, the school's catchment area was the population in the surrounding tea growing zones.
In its heyday, the school boasted of double or triple streams per class. Majority of the classes now have an average of 20 pupils.
Many other classrooms here have fallen into disuse. Now the old giant on the ridge is hurtling downhill to its imminent closure unless a miracle happens.
Such a miracle, though is improbable, according to Mr Muthee Kagwa, Kigumo Sub-County Director of Education.
"Enrolment in all our schools in the sub-county has consistently declined over the last few years," Mr Kagwa says.
In this sub-county alone, more than 10 schools have less than 250 pupils. At the bottom of the pile is Kiangai Primary School with 155 pupils.
So dire is the situation in Kigumo that striking the 250-pupils mark is a major triumph for any primary school head.
Mr Kagwa cites contraception, lack of economic activities and failure by young people in the area to start families as the main triggers of the tragic story behind waning school enrolment in Kigumo, and by extension Murang'a County.
On average, a woman is likely to give birth to (at most) three children in Murang'a County, findings of a 2018 research by Performance Monitoring and Accountability (PMA 2020) show.
"As a ministry, we rely on the community to bring its children to us to teach. When birth control is so high, we are the first stakeholder in education to suffer," adds Mr Kagwa, noting that ultimately, the buck stops with parents.
The current situation might not change any time soon, if statistics are anything to go by.
With 62 public schools, Kigumo has an uninspiring 3,808 pupils enrolled in ECDE in 2019.
So desperate are some schools that they are willing to operate at losses just to keep their learners from leaving.
School managements have designed pro-learner programmes, a strategy that has blown hot and cold - working in some cases and backfiring in others.
Before its pie crumbled, Mathare-ini Secondary School had started offering free meals to lure students. The head teacher even waived school fees.
But neither enticement kept the school from folding. When she was posted to Mathare-ini Primary School last year, Ms Juliet Wangai had to make a raft of reforms to attract learners.
First, she converted the day school into a boarding school, hoping to retain the current population and to attract more pupils from other areas.
Secondly, she had the school renamed St Augustine's Primary School. Perhaps a 'fancy' name might wave a magic wand over the situation. Then she partnered with the local Catholic priest for the moral support of her learners.
The tricks seem to have worked. "We now have 352 learners up from the 295 I found in the school. We have 35 KCPE candidates this year. Our population has been growing slowly but steadily," Ms Wangai says excitedly.
But the head teacher has a catch-22. Resources to make some of these progressive reforms are unavailable. Parents are also unwilling to cooperate.
Ms Wangai has slowly, and grudgingly, accepted her fate. If she had a choice, she would have remained in her home county of Kiambu.
She was posted here in 2018 as the TSC adopted a nationwide policy to delocalise teachers.
For years, Mathareini and Gakoeini villages have coexisted like infamous sisters, united by their long history of disrepute and moral depravity.
At the two shopping centres, runaway alcoholism, prostitution and other crimes thrive.
Residents here, mostly young men in their late 20s and mid to late 30s, drink the day away as pubs open doors as early as 9am, only closing at dawn.
Wiping out the alcoholism has been difficult due to the alleged collusion between authorities and pub owners, said a local teacher.
The situation is not helped by broken families either. "A significant number of my pupils hail from either single-mother families or families where one or both parents are alcoholics," says Ms Wangai, noting that learners from such backgrounds are often unruly and difficult to keep in school.
She said female pupils sneak out of school to engage in illicit sexual behaviour with older men. "If a society is rotten, its children can't be any different. You may correct them while in school, but they return to the same society when schools close," she says.
Back in the 1970s, Wahundura Primary was one of the largest schools in then-Mathioya Division of Murang'a District, with hundreds of learners. That abundance has long phased out.
In the last 10 years though, this school has struggled to fill its classrooms, as the population of learners grows thinner by the day.
It was for this reason that an entire block was hived off the school this year to create room for the upcoming Wahundura Mixed Day Secondary School.
The two schools will now share some facilities such as water and playing fields.
The primary school may have donated some of its facilities to the secondary school, but more than eight classrooms will remain idle; and how to utilise them remains a constant headache for the school's board of management.