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Kenya's Schools Try to Accommodate Free Education - 2003-02-03

In Kenya, teachers are trying to find ways to deal with a massive influx of schoolchildren, since the introduction of free primary education last month.

Kihumbuini Primary School is one of the largest in Nairobi. It is located in the city's Kangemi slum, and though there are many children in the slum, until now many of them could not go to school because their parents could not afford to pay the fees, about $130 a term.

Instead, many of these children sold nuts or begged at the side of highways to earn money to help their families. Others stayed home, helping their parents with chores. But starting last month, school doors were opened to all young people in Kenya.

The promise of free schooling was a key factor in the National Rainbow Coalition's victory in the December elections. Days after being sworn into office, the newly elected president, Mwai Kibaki, moved to fulfill his campaign promise, despite having no budget to pay for it.

When free primary education was introduced last month, the number of students at Kihumbuini Primary School went up from 600 to on 1,000.

Some children are complete beginners. Others are able to pick up where they left off before poverty forced them out of school.

Seventeen-year-old George Kamau managed to complete six of the eight primary school grades. But he had to drop out two years ago when his parents died.

Now that Kenya's new government has abolished school fees, he is back in school and happy to be there.

"I think it is very nice because I was not in class because of the money," he said. "I [did not have the money after] my parents passed away. I did not come because I was looking for someone to pay for me school fees."

Though the $130 a term fee would not be considered high in some countries, it is a lot of money in Kenya, where the majority of people earn less than a dollar a day.

Teacher Mary Njoroge says the only expense that parents now have to pay is the cost of buying a uniform, about $25. Now that education is free, she says, young people can go to school and parents have more money to spend on food and other necessities.

"It is better, because right now the money that was used for school fees is being used for food. By the end of the day we have seen it has helped also the children. They are coming in knowing that [they] only need a uniform. So it has changed. [It is] a great situation," she said.

The effect of the new policy is most noticeable in the first year, where the numbers of students has tripled.

To cope with all the new students, the Kihumbuini school has started operating in shifts, with half the students coming in the morning and the other half in the afternoon.

This, says Ms. Njoroge, has led to some confusion. There are so many new faces it is hard for teachers to make sure that each child attends only one session.

"Before we used to know the names of the children," she said. "Right now it is very hard. You will find the same child comes in the morning and the afternoon."

Another problem is that, even with morning and afternoon sessions, the classrooms still are not large enough to accommodate all the new students. To make more room, teachers decided to throw out the desks and chairs and seat the children on mats provided by the United Nations Children's Fund.

The headmistress of Kihumbuini, Rose Muya, says this solution is working well.

"We had a problem with the seating. They have provided us with mats where children are sitting and giving us that idea that we can use the mats. So they given us all the ideas to make the education very simply," she explained.

The school also did not have enough money to buy exercise books for children to write in. Lucy Kongo, another official at the school, says the teachers improvised by making a small blackboard on the wall for each student.

"In case the child does not have an exercise book that is not an excuse of not learning," Ms. Kongo said. "The children are writing on the wall boards. From this a teacher can have a glance at once and will know which child has a problem and therefore can be assisted. The ones who are fast can be given more work. So it is very easy for the teacher to even control many children."

But these makeshift measures have raised concern that the quality of primary education will fall unless substantial funds are pumped in.

The new education minister, George Saitoti, recently visited the school and reassured students and teachers that more money will be found.

"We are going to sustain this project because we believe it is important," Mr. Saitoti stated. "Not only because it is the right of every child, but because we know in educating the children we are investing in the future of this country."

Mr. Saitoti says he plans to ask parliament to approve a supplementary education budget when it re-opens later this month.