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Kenya's New President Finds Hard to Fulfill Campaign Promise - 2003-01-07

Kenya's new government has begun offering free primary education for all children, fulfilling one of its main campaign pledges.

Principals at primary schools throughout Kenya say they are still struggling to meet the influx of children.

The government's free education policy went into effect Monday, leading to massive crowds that many schools were not prepared to handle. Angry parents at some schools threatened to set fire to the buildings after they were told there was no room for their children.

Nairobi resident Abiud Micah Ogori said he has been unable to enroll his nine-year-old son in a primary school for the past two days.

"The first answer they gave me was to go back home because they do not have any vacancies. But after insisting, that was when I was told to make a formal application," he added.

During his campaign, newly elected President Mwai Kibaki promised free primary education for all Kenyan children. He won a landslide victory in December 27 elections, which swept aside the ruling KANU party after nearly four decades in power.

While the new government has tried to fulfill its promise, critics say it did not make adequate preparations.

The principal at Nairobi Primary School, Joseph Karuga, said the government should have first conducted a survey to see if the country had enough teachers, schools and books to meet demand.

"I can understand the excitement of the Kenyans," he said. "However, we have to welcome the policy cautiously and look at the implementation because certainly several variables are at stake and they need to be addressed before we can talk about free education without diluting the quality of the education."

The new minister for education, George Saitoti, said his ministry is planning to hold a meeting in coming days with parents and teachers to try to solve the various problems. Mr. Saitoti said despite the early setbacks, the government remains committed to the free education policy.

Until Monday, primary education in Kenya cost parents anywhere from $10 to $200 a year per child. But about one-third of Kenya's estimated nine million primary school aged children could not afford even the minimum fees.