Ali Omar, a class four pupil at Mangai Primary School in Boni Forest, Lamu County, is worried that he might never achieve his dream of becoming a teacher.
At 16, he is in Standard Four, a class he has been in since 2014, the year all schools in Boni were forced to close due to al-Shabaab terror attacks. Teachers fled after receiving threats from the militants. Milimani, Basuba, Mangai, Mararani and Kiangwe primary schools are all inside the forest, a notorious hideout for the terrorists.
When the schools reopened in January after six years, Ali was among the first pupils in his village to report back, eager to learn.
His joy was, however, short-lived, as all learning institutions in the country were closed three months later due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
"I have been in Class Four from 2014 and it's breaking my heart. I am not getting any younger. I have dreams just like all other learners in this country, but the situation is not just working in my favour. This place has no teachers and I really wanted to become one so I can teach my community," says Ali.
However, he notes that his dream will never be shattered no matter how long it takes.
"I will wait for as long as it takes because I know one day everything will be okay and I will get to sit my KCPE exam. I know I will become someone my community will be proud of. I am pushing on because of the Boni people," says Ali.
At the age of 15, terrorism and the dreadful coronavirus pandemic have conspired to keep Salma Tete out of school.
For a girl trying to beat the odds in a community that is deeply mired in poverty, child marriages and female genital mutilation, Salma says it has become a worthy burden for her to keep convincing her family, her community and the never-ending line of suitors that her focus is solely on education and empowering herself first, before she can think of becoming a wife and a mother.
Salma dreams of becoming a nurse. She too would like to work in her community one day.
"When our schools were closed back in 2014, many men and elders told my father to marry me off, but he didn't, and told them that I had to go to school first. We thought the closure would last for several months or a year, at most, but it went for more than six years. I am worried that my dad might be convinced to marry me off because the pandemic means that I may be out of school for more years. My dream is still burning hot within me and nothing will put it out," she says.
Godana Abatika was in Standard Five when a Rapid Border Patrol Unit vehicle he and others were travelling in ran over a landmine at Ota on the Mararani-Kiunga road in Lamu East in June 2017.
Four police officers and four pupils died in the attack suspected to have been orchestrated by al-Shabaab militants.
Change of heart
Right after the incident, he was bitter and angry. He resolved not to go to school if it meant dying while at it. However, he says he had a change of heart after he realised there was no better way to honour his dead classmates than pursuing his studies to the highest level.
"We were best friends. We would walk for more than 80 kilometres from my village in Mararani to Kiunga Primary They died for something and I must live up to that reason," says Godana, who is, however, disappointed at the closure of schools due to the pandemic. If not for Covid-19, he would be sitting the KCPE exam this year at Mokowe Arid Zone Primary in Lamu West. His dream is to join the military and keep Kenya safe.
Ms Fatma Shizo, a community leader in Kiangwe village says the Bonis will not let terrorism and Covid-19 hold the dreams of their children hostage.
Her appeal is for the government to improve infrastructure in schools to enable the children access quality education.
"The six-year wait for schools to reopen was a long one. Many children gave up. Some girls got married. Some of our sons married too. Others are feared to have joined the Al-Shabaab," says Ms Shizo. The closure of schools due to Covid-19, she says, piled more misery on the already bad situation. "It's heart-breaking."