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Famine takes toll on learning in Kenya
By David Aduda, journalists of the Nation Newspaper in Kenya
 

  Several districts in Kenya are struggling against famine and every day pupils drop out due to hunger.

 
  It was 3 o'clock in the afternoon, but Syombuka Mwema and her sister Veronica had not eaten since morning. They were in school for the morning session but walked out in the afternoon, unable to concentrate as hunger pangs started biting. And they weren't even sure of getting something to eat for dinner.
 
  At Thome Primary School in Kitui District, Maria Mutiso nearly missed sitting a national examination, the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE), were it not for the teachers, who contributed money to provide her with meals to sustain her during the exam period.
 
  KCPE is taken at the end of the primary school cycle. It determines who will go on to secondary level and ultimately higher education. Kenya's education system is structured into eight years of primary schooling, four of secondary schooling and four at university level. Some tertiary colleges such as teacher training institutions operate on a three-year basis.
 
  The cases above abound in Kitui District in Kenya's Eastern Province and threaten to slow down enrolment in schools, thus diminishing all hopes of achieving the education for all goal. Kitui is only one of the twenty-one districts in Kenya faced with famine and every day pupils drop out due to hunger. Other affected districts include Turkana, Mwingi, Mbeere, Maralal, Garissa, Wajir, Kwale, Marsabit, Isiolo, West Pokot, among others. In many of these, head teachers expressed alarm not only over high dropouts but also declining academic standards.
 
Premature close of schools
 
  Because of poor harvests due to a lack of rain, many families who depend on farming are faced with starvation, and asking children to attend school regularly is expecting too much.
 
  In Mwingi District, where some 500 pupils had dropped out of school before the end of the third term, the district education officer, Mr Silvester Shiundu, warned last October that many of his schools were threatened by premature closure.
 
  Although the total number of pupils who have dropped out of school due to famine cannot as yet be ascertained, reports on the spot are chilling. Food is scarce and when available, expensive, with the result that many families can provide only one meal a day.
 
  According to some headteachers in Kitui district, other pupils were forced to drop out to take care of their siblings when the parents went in search of food or to look for jobs to supplement the family income. The headteacher of Thome Primary school, Mr Maurice Makau, said this was the case for many of the twenty-one pupils who dropped out from his school to look for employment as herd boys. Children may also have to miss school to assist in domestic chores such as fetching water which is scarce and often to be found only at long distances from their homes.
 
  Although the short rains fell in November, it had been months without real showers. The farms, the livelihood of most people in this area, were bereft of anything. Animals were dying for lack of grass and water. Most water points had dried and people had to squeeze the water from small holes in the sandy river bed.
 
  At Kwa Vonza Primary School, the number of pupils has dropped by about 20 per cent, from 320 in January to 265 by the end of 1999. "If the famine continues as severe as it has been this year," said Mr Daniel Nzilu, the headteacher, "we may not have any pupils next year."
 
Lack of concentration
 
  "Some children come to school on an empty stomach and stay the whole day without eating", said Mr Makau. "It is simply pathetic. Certainly, they cannot concentrate in class, which means they are not likely to do well in the exams."
 
  Expanding enrolment is therefore difficult to impossible. At Thibo Primary School, there were only 7 candidates sitting the exam and the number will probably not increase next year. The headteacher, Mr George Musyoka, said the school had 150 pupils from standard one to eight, with 8 in standard seven.
 
  "With only a few children completing the pre-unit, we will have very few pupils enrolling for standard one next year," said Mr Pereira.
 
  But that is only half of the problem. The other headache for the heads is raising funds to provide basic teaching and learning equipment. Since most parents cannot afford the tuition fees, there is no point in sending the children home to get the money.
 
  The headteacher of Tiva Primary School, Mr Japheth Mwilu, said his committee had suspended fees because they were burdensome to parents. "It is meaningless even to ask, because the parents are unable to pay even if they want to," he argued.
 
  Indeed, this brings to question the wisdom of having cost-sharing in Kenyan education, which requires that parents and communities contribute towards the provision of learning and teaching facilities in schools. The argument is that the cost-sharing policy has a negative impact on poor communities, which cannot afford to provide their schools with the required facilities.
 
No food to buy
 
  The boarding secondary schools are even worse off, being faced with the spectre of early closure as there is no food to sustain students through the three-month long academic term.
 
  The headmistress of Mulutu Girls Secondary School, Mrs Veronica Juma, was curt: "We either get food now or close the schools before the official date". Mrs Juma, whose observation is typical in the district, talked of the parents' inability to pay fees as well as the lack of food. Both problems stem from the raging famine.
 
  "We can't get the maize to purchase even if we have the money," she quipped. "More often than not, however, there is no money and there is no food to buy. She said she had exhausted the goodwill of suppliers from whom she had been getting provisions on credit. "Actually," said Mr Erastus Mulwa, the headteacher of Tiva Mixed Secondary School, with a smile, "We (headtachers) are now being shunned by suppliers because when they see us, they know we are out for credit."
 
  Nearly half of his students have dropped out of school in the past seven months and the situation is likely to worsen in January. It is almost impossible to balance the account books with the large number of fee defaulters, but the problem is, sending the students away to get the fees amounts to expelling them from school.
 
  For headteachers in these districts, sustaining enrolment and preparing candidates to perform well in the national examination is a Herculean task. As for the parents, the dilemma is whether to let the children go to school on empty stomachs or keep them at home to help in domestic chores or work as domestic hands in towns to earn some income to keep the family going.
 
  Whatever the case, famine coupled with other problems like overloaded curriculum, shortage of teachers, inadequate teaching and learning facilities, compromise Kenya's resolve to provide quality education to all children. Simply put, Kenya is still far from achieving the education-for-all goal due to natural and self-made conditions.
 
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