Student Well-Being

Life Support

By Bess Keller — August 12, 2005 14 min read
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As the recently appointed headmaster of Nkumari Primary School in Kenya's Meru district, Peter K. Inoti has had to balance a full class load with new responsibilities, including government-mandated accounting for supplies and improving scores on standardized tests.

I don’t know how long Peter Kinoti Inoti had been waiting for me just off the main road in his hometown of Nkubu, Kenya. Dark had taken hold of the mottled sky, so it must have been about 7:30 p.m. there, near the equator, when our van from the national teachers’ union headquarters in Nairobi bucked over the edge of the asphalt and pulled to a stop in the dust.

He and two kinsmen, all three teachers, had been talking in front of a block of concrete shops. The sign for the Ujamaa Medical Clinic offered “curative services,” and a nearby drinking establishment cast a pale light on the shadowy bustle outside. Headlights sliced through the blue-black of early evening now and then, but mostly people on foot threaded their way through the semi-obscurity. A man in a suit hurried along with big, lidded buckets gripped in each hand and a bundle tucked under his arm. And two boys of 11 or 12 were drawn to the van like moths.

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Reporter Bess Keller recounts her trip to Kenya.
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Mzungu, mzungu,” they sang out, using the Kiswahili word for “white person” and hoping for coins as I emerged.

Still wearing his tie from work, Inoti paid no heed to the passers-by, the snatches of reggae music, the confusion of lights. He welcomed us to Nkubu and, in the Kenyan fashion among people meeting each other for the first or 18th time, we shook hands all around. It was a balmy night in late January, and I had come to see what teachers in this relatively stable East African nation were up against.

Inoti was acquainted with our guide, Lucy Barimbui, the coordinator of anti-AIDS activities for the Kenya National Union of Teachers, which had trained Inoti to help his fellow educators fight the disease in their ranks. Barimbui chose to bring me to the Meru district northeast of Mount Kenya, which includes the town of Nkubu, because it was one of two sites where the effort had been launched. Inoti and his wife volunteered to give me a place to stay, even though acquaintances had cautioned the couple that someone from the developed world might look down on how much they could offer.

A commanding presence with a rich deep voice, Inoti possessed genuine good humor. He also carried his many responsibilities without complaint. At 47, he had been a teacher at the primary level—grades 1-8—for more than two decades. That month, the beginning of the school year in Kenya, he had started his first stint as head of a school.His wife, Lucy Kinoti— following custom, she uses her husband’s father’s name as a surname—was also a primary teacher, but at a different school.


With a measure of physical labor most Americans have never known, the two teachers had carved out the Kenyan equivalent of a middle-class life. That included some comforts and a modicum of security but also daily concerns about money, especially now, with three of their four children in school beyond the primary level. On top of that came new pressures in their jobs, some wrought by Kenya’s reform government when it instituted free primary education in 2003. And finally, after battering for two decades against a bulwark of ignorance and fear, the AIDS epidemic had at last emerged into public life and lay heavily on the conscience of those who possessed even a mite of power or resources.

I hadn’t originally thought to live with a family, but my request to spend time with a teacher triggered some unexpected Kenyan hospitality, as well as a window into the lives of my hosts as they went about their daily rounds.

At the couple’s home, a one-story structure of local stone with window frames painted a cheerful turquoise, Lucy greeted me. Demonstrative and nurturing, she immediately showed me how to tie on the all-purpose cloth, called a kanga, that Kenyan women often wear as a skirt or apron. Everything in waking life seemed to delight her—whether it was the family’s scrawny cat (“He keeps away the rats”) leaping after a moth or the sweetness of a perfectly ripe banana.

The house, with its large gathering room where the meals were served and the small television in the corner was almost always on, had three bedrooms. There, the parents and their daughters, 20-year-old Eunice and 14-year-old Betty, slept. Their oldest child, Dickson, was studying biotechnology at a university several hours away.

See Also

An accompanying story, “Free for All,” offers statistics on Kenya’s school system.

Another son, 21-year-old Eric, shared a separate wooden building behind the house with his cousin, 13-year-old Timothy, who moved in with the Inotis to attend Lucy’s school. Near their place was a shed sheltering the family’s two milk cows, which Eric tended, and a one-room building occupied by Inoti’s mother, who cooked over a small fire pit in the attached lean-to that served as her kitchen. Lucy presided over the hearth at the main house, endlessly bending her small, stout frame over pots and dishes that were given their finishing touches on the floor. Two narrow rooms had been designed for bathing and a toilet. But, Inoti explained, waving his hand toward the toilet room, there would be no indoor plumbing until all their children’s school fees had been paid.

That first night, Eunice was sent to the butcher, fetching some beef for stew. I realized later that it was the only meal at which I was served meat. Other dinners were built around cabbage, beans, potatoes, and carrots and often were accompanied by ugali—a white corn mush so stiff, it stands like a cake when liberated from the pot in which it is cooked.

I learned over the next few days that the menu was more predictable than those who came to partake of it. Since Inoti’s father lived, along with additional relatives, in a similar compound next door, kinfolk wandered over frequently. Whoever was present at dinnertime around 9 p.m. got a heaping dish and, afterward, the sweet milky tea that is beloved everywhere in Kenya.

On a typical school day, Inoti would be up at dawn, even before the first trucks could be heard rattling past on the main road. He’d walk a mile or so to where he could catch a matatu, one of the jitneys that transport most East Africans who can afford to be off their feet. If he missed the matatu or didn’t have the fare, he’d walk the four-plus miles to his school, arriving before 7.

He usually went first to his office, as he also did the Saturday morning after I arrived. Piles of dogeared papers filled cupboards, old textbooks packed shelves, and a bulletin board bore the handwritten legend, “Hard work, discipline, and prayer.” Nkumari Primary is a government school now, but like other former Roman Catholic schools, it retains enough of its religious character that its head must be of that faith.

Inoti's wife, Lucy Kinoti, has taught at another local elementary-level-school, Kathanthatu Primary, for the past 17 years.

Banana plants grew in abundance behind the school, which looked much like the other primaries I saw in the area: a string of plain-masonry classrooms built from the yellow-tan stone of the local quarries and arranged in a “U” around a field where children played and assembled. Nkumari had two distinguishing features: an enormous jacaranda tree out front and a row of temporary classrooms built from sheets of corrugated tin on split-log-and-branch foundations. Inoti explained that the school especially needed the rust-spotted temporaries starting in 2003, the year that a newly elected reform government ended decades of fee-based primary education by declaring that it would be free to all comers [see “Free for All”]. Enrollment in grades 1-8 went from about 500 to 600—and class sizes swelled—as parents no longer had to pay for their children’s books and, as they say in Kenya, “stationery.”

Ideally, as the head of the school, Inoti would have taught only half-time. But because the school was short a teacher, he took on a full load of math classes—eight lessons a day. His position also brought accounting duties stemming from the government’s funding for textbooks and supplies, as well as special responsibility for correcting discipline problems and raising scores on government-mandated tests. Almost all of his classes were at the bottom of the district, he acknowledged.

But test scores were only part of Inoti’s worries. He wanted to be sure I understood about the orphans in his school. So he hand-copied a list of all their names—neat columns on three pages and the official stamp of Nkumari Primary School in purple at the end.

Of the approximately 670 students enrolled this year, 68—1 in 10—are orphans, understood by many international organizations to be a child who has lost at least one parent. Given the traditional social arrangements that still prevail in most of sub-Saharan Africa, a mother’s care is replaceable only by females, and the security a father provides only by males. So the loss of either often brings help from extended families, an arrangement stressed to the breaking point by the growing number of orphans. Many of the Nkumari students have lost a parent to AIDS, but it is impossible to say with certainty which ones given that men and women in their prime routinely die of malaria and dysentery in Kenya—especially if they are poor, as most in the vicinity of the school are.

As we set out to visit some of those hit hardest by the epidemic, Inoti explained that we would be seeing the homesteads of “peasants”—subsistence farmers. At our first stop, Beatrice Elias appeared drowsily at the door of a hut fashioned of rough-hewn wood and corrugated tin. She wore a kanga and a dark twill shirt with an embroidered oval reading “Bill.” Her head cradled in her hands, she explained in Kimeru, the language of the Meru people who populate this area, that she had been suffering from cerebral malaria. Of her six children, three young enough for Inoti’s school, two had also had medical problems. Seeing us on our way to the next family, she walked us past her husband’s grave, marked by a bare spot in the vegetation and a cross of sticks.

Inoti would later assemble the school’s orphans at the request of the photographer who had joined me. I am not sure what word he sent to the teachers, but the students were not told why they would be photographed. Still, in front of the flagpole on trampled grass, the children fell into a strange solemnity, as though they realized the magnitude of the point Inoti wanted to make. Some turned shy at the sight of visitors, but with the obedience expected of them, they stood their ground. When the shushing of the camera had stopped, the headmaster dismissed them to their classrooms.

The HIV virus, which causes AIDS, is thought to have originated somewhere on the west side of Lake Victoria, across from Kenya. More than 1.5 million Kenyans have died since the disease was first diagnosed in this nation of about 33 million in the mid-1980s, and an estimated 2.2 million people are currently infected, the vast majority as the result of heterosexual activity. Sexual shame and secrecy, poverty, and fatalism slowed the counterattack. Only recently have community leaders and educators come forward to fight publicly, responding to the voices of stricken Kenyans and to a growing acceptance that AIDS is a disease.

Some 68 Nkumari students—one in 10—are orphans, and many of them lost a parent to AIDS. Inoti has led efforts to educate fellow teachers and the larger community about ways to prevent the disease's spread.

On Sunday, after mass at the Nkubu Catholic Church, Inoti took me to a gathering of a community organization he founded to fight AIDS—the Choose Life Support Group. The idea came to him after the national teachers’ union sent him to Nairobi a year and a half earlier for training run in partnership with the American Federation of Teachers. He’s since helped prepare others to convene “study circles,” in which teachers learn together about HIV, reconsider their own sexual behaviors, and figure out how to make their schools better for those affected by the disease. “We find our own time and our own means of doing it,” he said.

But for Inoti and many other teachers, the study circles are not enough. Choose Life members have begun holding AIDS seminars for the oldest primary students, visiting affected families, and promoting home care for the sick. Yet fighting AIDS while upholding their own moral sentiments poses problems that have not been easy to solve.

That Sunday, about a dozen members—teachers, counselors, and two or three businessmen—watched as members of their “youth wing” acted out a skit they’d performed in area schools. A smooth-faced young man hobbled into the room, hunched over a long walking stick; a second actor went down on bended knee at his feet.

“My son, the monster lives in the forest of love,” the “elder” intoned. “Yet there are three ways you can help yourself live a longer life.”

There, in allegorical terms, was the internationally approved strategy to prevent HIV transmission, known as ABC: A for abstinence—don’t enter the forest, where the trees are hung with the sweet fruits of love. B for be faithful—don’t go to every tree. And C for condom—wear a costume that will protect you. But prophylactics, during the skit, received an ambivalent endorsement.

“Not everybody is sure that thing helps,” the hunched man announced anticlimactically, “and it can’t help you 100 percent.” The kneeling actor scrambled to his feet as the audience applauded.

Even as he tended his school and community, Inoti was ever mindful of his family’s financial needs. The average pay for a primary teacher is about 7,000 Kenyan shillings a month—the equivalent of an annual salary of just $1,400—and when Inoti became head of his school, the added responsibilities didn’t translate into significantly higher pay.

On Saturday afternoon, we visited the family shamba, a small plot of land that the Inotis, like many in East Africa, own and use to supplement their diet. Her hair tied up and a kanga wrapped around her waist, Lucy had been cutting sorghum. Green stalks were heaped on the dark soil of the garden so we would have a place to sit. That morning, she had already washed clothes in a basin, cleaned house, and prepared a lunch of rice with carrot shavings, which she packed along with plates and utensils, water, and bananas to carry on foot and by matatu to the shamba.

After we ate, Lucy continued working while her husband urged me back to the school, where parents and other supporters of a new day school for the primary’s graduates were holding a meeting. Many parents cannot afford the boarding schools that have traditionally provided most secondary education; with local day schools costing roughly a third as much, many Kenyans are now looking to such schools to provide opportunity.

With teacher salaries averaging $1,400, the couple must find other ways to provide for their children, including Betty, left, and Eric, right.

When we arrived at the classroom, cool after the hot afternoon sun that had darkened a line of perspiration on the back of Inoti’s yellow shirt, a local councilman in a blue blazer was exhorting about 35 people to support the new school. When Inoti’s turn to speak arrived, he rose and addressed the topic with gusto. People sat straight on the wooden benches and listened attentively. “So there’s no way out—a school must start,” he boomed authoritatively, thrusting out his hands.

The subject hit close to home for Inoti. His daughter, Betty, was about to start her secondary education at a boarding school, and Eunice was a graduate of one. With her quick mind, Eunice aspired to be a secondary science teacher and would soon be off to a teacher-training college. “He cannot depend on his salary to pay our school fees,” she told me privately. “You have to either save up before you have children, or you operate with loans.”

And, indeed, at just about the time the school costs will have been paid, the couple will hit the mandatory retirement age. This combination of challenges is why, as Eunice told me, teachers have to have “other investments”—a private school on the side, a shop with a computer in it such as the one where Eunice worked, or, in the case of Inoti and his extended family, a plan for building and renting out housing near Nkubu’s market.

As elected chairman of his clan, Inoti guides the project, which is furthered every Sunday by a meeting in the family’s yard. There, bunches of bananas, handfuls of sweet potatoes, bundles of sugar cane—whatever has been grown or made by people related through the paternal line—are auctioned off, with the highest bidder designating the money for a kinsman or a common account. In this way, money is redistributed among family members, some bereaved by AIDS, and a pot is created for loans and enterprise.

Said Inoti, “We don’t want to see anyone from the clan poor.”

The night before I departed, I presented gifts: a canvas book bag embroidered with the logo of Education Week (Teacher Magazine’s sister publication, where I work), an AFT T-shirt, a 5-kilo bag of rice, and a paperweight showing the U.S. Capitol. Inoti took a bit of paper and, carefully penning “Bessy, 1-2-05,” affixed it to the bottom of the object, which he placed on the cupboard in the room where we gathered. “We will always remember you when we look at it,” he said with gravity.

Despite my protests, it was Lucy who lugged my suitcase to the van. And it was Inoti who reminded me, just as we were set to leave, that I’d be receiving an invitation to the school-fees fund-raiser the couple was planning for late August.

The cards arrived the other day—one for me, one for my husband. Inside a fancy red border, the black print matter-of-factly states that Mr. and Mrs. Peter K. Inoti are holding a fund-raising party “in aid of their children’s school fees.” On the back are 24 spaces for listing contributors.

With less than a month to go before the party, I’m learning about international money transfers and asking most everybody I know to sign up.

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