Reaching every child with education
By Patrick Slavin
– Across this vast and semi-arid north-western corner of Kenya, threatened by alarmingly high malnutrition rates, live the Turkana, a traditional ethnic group who work the dry plains as shepherds. In a valley of microclimates, when water and green brush run dry and brown the communities move on foot to new areas, roaming for life’s essentials.
Again, the region is heavily affected by drought and this year as well as by escalating food crisis, a deadly combination that has caused the worst food crisis in the world in major parts of the Horn of Africa including Turkana. In order to help people adapt to recurrent drought and ensure that every child’s right to an education is honoured, the Kenyan Government and UNICEF have brought an innovative programme to this corner of the Rift Valley – mobile schools which move with the Turkana, even when it means the classroom must be held under a tree.
The impact of this year’s drought is severe. “School enrolment is down, people are on the move with their children looking for water and grass for their livestock,” said head teacher Samuel Loscuwat, who runs a fixed, stationary elementary school, St. Boniface, where enrolment has dropped from 200 in 2010 to 156 last month. One result of the drought, which has worsened already fragile food security, has been that families are left with no choice but to withdraw their children from school. Mitigation against that is another element of UNICEF’s work in education.
About five kilometres from St. Boniface is a simple structure, thatch walls covered by slabs of corrugated roofing plastic – but it clearly stands out on a plain dotted with low-lying shrub trees. It is Christine Tukei’s mobile school.
Since 2008, Christine has worked as a school teacher for the Ministry of Education in the Rift Valley, and as the Turkana move to another area, she moves with them – accompanied by her two daughters, Rael, 13, and Lydia, 12. Currently her children attend St. Boniface, but they live in a typical and simple mud house among the Turkana people. She is assisted at the school by two volunteer teachers.
“I teach kindergarten and first grade for children, but also to anyone whose interested in learning,” said Christine, 35, after taking a break where she danced with her young students as they sing songs to help them memorize numbers and basic English words, like parts of the body, animals, and plants. Her classroom walls have neatly hanging, and carefully preserved, educational posters, including a map of Kenya.
Mobile schooling is a key strategy in the UNICEF-supported Nomadic Education Policy, enabling children to access education even in nomadic lifestyles. To improve the quality of learning, UNICEF supports mobile schools with basic learning materials, such as books. UNICEF also undertakes high-level advocacy for long-term government support to mobile schools, including employment of teachers and provision of Free Primary Education funds. Mobile schools have a particular advantage for girls’ education as they enable them to stay close to families while learning at the same time.
Christine explained the community she serves has been stationary long enough that Government built the temporary building, and another one about 15 kilometres away, in areas where families often move to in search of water and vegetation. She has worked and lived at the other location, as well.
One of her many challenges as a teacher is that her student body changes randomly, with families coming and going. Both Christine and Samuel have requested the Government to build dormitories at their schools, as this would encourage parents and guardians to leave their children in the care of the school while they find new areas for their livestock to survive.
Christine is a dedicated, charismatic, and inspiring woman, and one living an extraordinary chapter of service. She even has a battery-powered DVD player to share educational videos with her students. It is a quite a draw to help keep her students coming back and inspire others to make the long journey to St. Boniface.
When I said goodbye and thank you, she waved, “See you again. You are welcome.” She fully expects me to keep coming back, just like the Turkana.
Slavin is supporting UNICEF’s emergency response in Kenya as a communications officer.