Shall Lena attend an African village school?

Mid of 1984 we had been in Kenya for more than half a year, working as volunteers. Our 5 year old daughter Lena spent almost the whole day on the neighbouring small farm, played together with the children there and had developed some confidence in their parents. This day now she accompanied the mother Eunice Wambui to the marketplace Kagundu-ini, about three kilometers away. The mother wanted to sell vegetables at the market. Lena regarded it as a privilege to go with her. She also got something to carry (when going with us she often wanted to be carried herself). In Kikuyu-manner she dragged it in a basket on her back, having the girth around her forehead. The Kikuyus are the biggest tribe in Kenya. They live in the fertile but hilly highlands of the Central Province.

It was around noon, the sun beat down, the road was dusty. When they eventually arrived at the market, it was thronged with pupils from the near by primary schools. They had conducted a cultural festival during the morning not far away from the market. Now on their way home they roamed the market. They had trodden down almost all flowers and small bushes on the area, where they had their festival. Now the market women tried to prevent them from jumping criss-cross over their friuts and vegetables, which were spread on the ground just on some sacks like usual.

On seeing Lena they were immediately dashing towards her while yelling "Muthungu" (European). Lena got closer to Eunice Wambui, who had problems to restrain the children from pulling Lena's hairs, touching or pinching her. At one market stand, where the mother wanted to buy something herself, it became still worse. Eagerly to get close to Lena the children trod on the diposed produce and now the seller, an elderly man, lost his temper. Enraged he boxed their ears. The children dispersed in no time and Lena drew a deep breathe. In the evening she came home swetting but happy and told us the whole story.

Slightly more than half a year later, in January 1985, we were confronted with the question, as to whether we should send Lena to the local primary school. You can surely imagine our mixed feelings, and having only the above narrated experiences probably everybody would have said: "Anything but that." But there was a long list of other things, which made us considering a school attendance of Lena. Lena had adapted herself to the local conditions admirably. She got contact immediately to the neighbour's children and there is a close friendship with the eldest girl - Flora - (eight years). Within three to four months she spoke English fluently, after three still more months Kikuyu.

She became "adopted" by the neighbours, who run a probably slighly above avarage "shamba" covering five acres (1.5 hektar), out of which ca. three acres have coffee trees. The picked cherries are delivered regularly to a coffee factory three km away. There is the first step of the processing done and farmers get their payments - usually with alot of delay. Round about 10,000 Kenyan Shilling (2000 DM) anually can be expected. (Meanwhile prices have slumped drastically!) The odd thing to us: people drink tea almost exclusively, which is produced in the higher areas. Another acre is reserved for maize and beans. Both dryed up during the last season, because the long rains failed. The remaining acre is used as pasture for the three cows and there are some mango trees plus the house, a mud structure with corrugated iron sheets, the grannary, latrines and the cow shed.


There is a public water supply ("Kandara Waterscheme", built with German money), which is supposed to bring water from the Aberdare mountains, but in our area this happens only two times in a year for one day each. Rain gutters are not common, they can hardly be seen, although there is about 1200 mm of rainfall annually. So water has to be fetched from the tiny river deep down in the valley, which has water even in dry seasons. We instead catch rain water and this is quite sufficient for our household.

Fetching water, working in the field, looking after the cows and cooking is done by the mother and the children, whereby Lena is very eager to help. At the other side of the fence this happens only in very few cases. Especially she loves herding the cattle and she dreams of milking a cow, this has not yet come true. The father takes over the coffee pruning and spraying and after coffee money payment he can be seen for some days supporting the local economy (i.e. the bars), which is quite common here. On coming back he may beat up his wife occasionally, which made Lena to view the father from a different angle. Although on the other handside it is a preferred game of the children to watch drunk people and to imitate them. Our (female) household employee commented like this: the men think, when they marry, they buy a donkey (there is still the bride price system).


Division of land and migration to the urban centres

The neighbour had been married three times and has altogether seven sons. Among these the shamba will be divided after his death. But just an acre of land will hardly sustain the living of a family. Here a huge social time bomb is ticking. The Government tries to ease the situation by the introduction of vocational training in school and thus to conteract the tendency of parents and pupils to look for a "white-collar-job" in the towns.

[ The neighbour died in November 1999. The Shamba was not divided, he had officially given the title deed to his wife.]

People realize the problem, but try to find solutions just indivually. We feel that many traditional links are cut off. Nevertheless there have been initiatives set free in the population, but on the other handside even the poorest of the poorest are still fleeced and alcohol addicts are deprived of their land just for rediculus amounts. A nearby living small farmer commented: "Own fault, why are they that stupid."

Lena often has lunch at the neighbours. Usually they cook maize and beans or ugali (maize meal cooked in water) with some vegetables. Even when the long rains failed there wasn't outright hunger. Yellow maize from USA, nobody likes it only white maize is regarded as delicious, was sold via the coffee factories, whereby the money was deducted from the coffee payments. Also the three cows survived. However Kenya lost half of it's livestock!

Another reason causing us to consider Lenas school attendance, was the positive experience with the kindergarten or pre-school. This institution is just next door - also a mud building. In October 1984 she started. Here as well all children were besieging Lena in the beginning, and she remained at the side of the teacher. But after some few days they all played with one another in a normal way.

Also the neighbour's boy Patrick was to start school in January 1985, Lenas friend Flora attends already standard three, another girl from the neighbours standard two, and we thought this the most fitting time for Lena to start school also. One year later she would have appeared all the more as giant among dwarfs. She is quite tall also regarding European conditions. Lena herself was very eager to attend school, especially because she wanted a school uniform and to emulate Flora. So in the end we gave in.

Photo Lena and class

Lena among her class mates


The first day in school

In the beginning of January 1985 I was going together with her to see the headmaster of the Gaichanjiru Primary School. First of all we met a teacher, whom Lena knows very well. She promised to have an eye on our daughter. Then we entered the spartanic office. Lena hid behind me and refused to shake hands with the headmaster - embarrassing. The headmaster didn't mind. He asked for 300 Kenyan Shillings (60 DM) and sent for Lena's class teacher. Actually school fees have been abandoned in Kenya. The 300 Shillings are harambee-funds for the introduction of vocational training in Standard eight. Harambee ("let's pull together") means, that the regional communities generate funds for certain projects.

A normal farm hand in this area earns almost 500 Kenyan Shillings monthly (100 DM). Which means for somesone who has no land - which is however quite rare - it is difficult to pay that money. About 10% of the school age children do not go to school. Simple school note books and school milk is given out free of charge. Books are quite rare.

Then the teacher came, took Lena by the hand and off they went to class. Lena moved along bravely. I had some uneasy hours in my project and collected her at lunch time. Surrounded by a huge crowd of children she came together with Flora and Faithy. She almost started crying. Into the car, some small boys managed to slip in as well and off we went. Lena had her finger ripped at the nail. During break she had preferred to stay with the teacher in the class room. A group of children wanted to push the door open from outside, but Lena and Siko, who knew each other from the the kindergarten, shoved back, kept the door closed and thereby she got hurt. But otherwise she was proud being a school girl.

The class rooms are very basic: the black board is painted on the wall, rough benches and there are no window panes nor frames in the window holes. The ca. 30 to 40 children in the class are divided into three groups and are taught differently by the teacher according to their initial level. Patrick from the neighbouring farm, who started a bit later as some time was needed to pay the money, was put into that group of pupils who could not write yet. He had not been sent to the kindergarten, which could be better described as pre-school. According to Lenas reports he had big difficulties to write letters and figures and occasionally he got something with a stick on the fingers, when he didn't show enough efforts in the view of his teacher. Fortunately Lena was among the best in class. So far the children learned: simple Kisuaheli-words (Kisuaheli is a National language in Kenya), the Kikuyu vowals, English letters and simple additions. As well they sing, work with clay and two times a week there is Sports on the time table.

Still there was the problem with the other children. But Lena quickly made friends with her class mates and already next day they played outside during break time, as the teacher from the neighbourhood told us. However a group of children followed her at each and every step (even to to the loo). But they kept distance, because they had been warned by their teachers. But a few days later there were no problems any more. Also on collecting her after school we realized soon, that it was us, me or my wife, attracting the huge crowds of children. Then we justed tested to let Lena walk home the three kilometers alone, i.e. with the neighbour's children, and it was ok. She wasn't pestered any more, Lena had been accepted.

As then after some few days she got her school uniform, which is here obligatory for all pupils, she was perfectly happy. Only going bare foot, like most children here do, we do not allow.

In 2011 we re-visited neighbours and friends and spent a three weeks holiday in Kenya. We also visited the Youthth Polytechnic in Kagundu-ini. A report of our(very positive) experience can be read or downloaded here (pdf, 700 kB) >>

Last updated 14 December 2011

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