Interview: A Kenyan Education

By Craig Stone — August 12, 2005 7 min read
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In February 2005 Education Week Assistant Editor Bess Keller travelled to the Meru area of Kenya, Africa, to visit schools and report on the impact of the AIDS virus on the education system. As one member of a delegation from the American Federation of Teachers, Ms. Keller stayed with Peter Kinoti Inoti, a local headmaster, and his family. Here Ms. Keller recounts the experiences of being an American reporter abroad in a land as foreign as it was enchanting.

Q: Can you tell us how the trip developed? How did an Education Week reporter come to travel to Kenya to write a story on education and AIDS in that country?

Education Week Assistant Editor Bess Keller.

A: The idea came from my editor, who knew that the American Federation of Teachers was working with several African teachers’ unions on the biggest crisis facing Africa—the pandemic of AIDS. This was a natural story for us because it connected American teachers who had donated to the AFT-Africa AIDS project and teachers in sub-saharan Africa.

Q: Can you talk about the impression the schools and the students left on you. Were you surprised at all by the classrooms or the students themselves?

A: The most striking thing about education in Kenya—and this was also true in other areas of Kenyan life—was how few things people had, and therefore, how important what they carried around in their heads was. You’d see a classroom in Kenya made out of local stone, very bare with a concrete floor, probably glass in the windows, scarred old benches for the kids to sit on, not very many books, maybe two dog eared books per child.

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The kids were required to wear uniforms, but not every child could afford a uniform, so there’d be some variation in what they were wearing. Some would have shoes, some wouldn’t. Some would have cheap backpacks, some would bring their two books to school in a plastic bag. The teacher’s materials were a blackboard, some chalk, a stick picked up from the floor to use as a pointer, and with that, just the kids’ enthusiasm and the teacher’s knowledge, school would just go forward.

Q: The parents of the host family you stayed with in Kenya were both teachers. What was there daily schedule like? What did the job demand of them, what were their working conditions and salaries like?

A: They both taught at the primary level. The husband had just been appointed headmaster of the school where he had previously taught. The wife had taught for more than fifteen years in another primary school-primary school in Kenya covers grades 1 thru 8.

This couple worked so hard. Inoti, the husband, would be up at 5 o clock in the morning, he had more than a 4 mile walk to school. He would be at school by 7, do administrative duties until around 9.30 and then he would teach math classes to the upper grades in the school. Ideally he would only have taught half time, but the school was shorthanded so he taught a full set of classes, finishing around 5, and then he’d make his return trip, which he would sometimes do on foot.

Lucy, the mother, would get back from school and would start preparing dinner almost right away as it was a several hour process. She had to start a fire, boil water, and chop lots of vegetables. The family would eat around 9, and she might be washing clothes in a basin at 11 that night.

The average salary a primary school teacher takes home is $1,400 a year. They make about half what a teacher in a secondary school makes. I was told that it was a dream for a primary school teacher to have a vehicle, but, they just can’t afford it.

Q: Talk more about education finance in Kenya and the financial situation for parents in Kenya who want to send their children to school.

A: The family I stayed with has four children, and three of these children were in schools that required parents to pay fees. The fourth stayed home and tended to the livestock. In Kenya, primary school, grades 1through 8, is free, and has been since 2003, but secondary school has a tradition of parents having to pay fees and that amount can be quite a lot. For secondary school—many of which are boarding school—and university the fees can range from $250 to a $1,000 a year. So for a family that’s getting along on $2,500 a year paying the fees is very difficult and it preys on the parents’ minds.

Audio: Listen to an extended audio version of this interview.
(Windows Media file: 15.42)

One way they pay for it is to rely on their relatives and friends. A group of paternal relatives would meet once a week and each person would bring something of value to sell. Selling went on between the members of the family, with money designated for one who needed something, or for a joint account. The family would then aim to build some housing which they would then rent out and they would share the money.

You could take loans out from the clan (the family)—and this is what my family might have done to pay their school fees. Right about now they are holding a fundraiser to try to raise those school fees. They invite their friends and family--and they’ve invited me-and they are expected to collect small funds from all the people they know and bring those to the fundraiser. I wrote the family and told them I would participate from afar, but wasn’t really sure how it all worked. I got back an interesting letter from Lucy, the mother, and she wrote:

    Bessy, we were very surprised to hear you don’t know how fundraising works. Probably you don’t have them in the U.S., thank God, because you in the U.S. are able to educate your children, meet hospital bills, bury your loved ones etc. without any constraints.

She goes on to say that this fundraising was in the harambee tradition of Kenya, as introduced by the country’s founding President Jomo Kenyatta, who encouraged people to work together to meet their goals.

Q: How has the introduction in 2003 of free primary education for all affected the country’s education system?

A: The goal of free primary education has been around at least since independence in 1963, but it’s been a hard promise to fulfill because of the lack of resources in the country.

In 2003, with new President Mwai Kibaki in office, school fees were eliminated and class sizes swelled and administrators, like my host Inoti, were not particularly prepared for the new duties they were expected to fulfill. The Government gave each school a certain sum to be spent on books and stationery. These administrators than had to take care of the accounting for these sums. When I was visiting, Inoti told me he had just finished the accounting for 2003 for those books and materials.

I visited some of the other families of children who went to Inoti’s school. They were mostly subsistence farmers and had very few resources. When I asked them what difference free primary education had made to them they said it was a relief they no longer had to pay for books. They did still have to pay for uniforms, which was a burden on these people that had so little. They also said that, almost without exception, their goal for their children was to attend secondary school. But looking at how little they had it seemed like, perhaps, not a realistic goal.

Q: Being an American reporter writing about Kenyan schools, how were you greeted by the teachers and students at the sites you visited? And how does this compare with your experience visiting and reporting on schools in the United States?

A: I visited about a half dozen schools, mostly primary schools, and my presence would cause much excitement. The kids would know from the color of my skin that I was from elsewhere and when I would go into a classroom the kids might stand up, out of respect, and they would say “Good day, madam.” The teachers were proud of what they could do. In one class a teacher erased a lesson in their native language from the chalkboard and replaced it with a lesson in English so that pupils could come up and say, “I am in class 2; I am 8 years old; I am in the Nkumari Primary School.”

Just a visit from outsiders would be an occasion for everybody in the school. Signing the guest book would be very important and each of us in the little delegation, which would often include the Africa expert from the American Federation of Teachers, the national AIDS coordinator for the Kenyan National Union of Teachers, and me, were expected to give something of a formal presentation as well as shake hands with everybody in the room. Greeting in Kenya is not casual, it’s taken very seriously and it can be very time consuming.

When I visit a school in the U.S. my goal is to melt into the woodwork as soon as possible and usually after a little bit of stir on the part of the youngest pupils that’s possible. In Kenya it wasn’t. A visit is too important, and visits from people outside the area are too rare, so my hope of being anonymous was never ever fulfilled in Kenya.

Q: And do you consider this a good or a bad thing?

A: When I’m working as a reporter in the U.S., people aren’t interested in me, I’m there to absorb what they know and to listen to them tell their stories. But in Kenya my role as a visitor was more important and people did want to ask me questions. “Why aren’t Americans coming to visit Kenya the way you did?” “Tell them it’s safe here.” “What’s it like in your place, what’s the weather, how does school go where you are?” So I was really in an unaccustomed role of representing my nation, and to some degree, because people didn’t make the distinction between the visitors from the American Federation of Teachers and the Kenyan National Union of Teachers, I was representing teachers too.


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