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Kenya Schools Decline in English, Ki’Swahili Language Skills

Pupils at the Olympic primary school sit in class on without a teacher on the third day of a teachers' strike organized by the Kenya National Union of Teachers, in Nairobi, Kenya, September 7, 2011.

Results for the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examinations are headline news Thursday in Nairobi, showing top academic performances. Amid the jubilation, however, there are concerns about Kenyan students' declining performances in English and Ki'Swahili, as compared to other African countries. Also noteworthy - the fourth-best student in the country is a refugee from South Sudan.

Minister of Education Sam Ongeri was quoted as saying he thinks the primary school system’s relatively poor performance in Kenya’s two official languages, Ki’Swahili and English, is due to Kenyans’ heavy use of a language called “sheng” - slang terms especially popular among urban youth.

Sara Ruto is regional manager of Uwezo East Africa, a program to improve literacy and numeracy among children in Kenya,Tanzania and Uganda. She thinks students’ poor literacy performance is not due so much to sheng as it is to teachers using Ki’Swahili, English and their mother tongues all at the same time.

“Nobody is paying close attention to teaching whatever skills they [have], be they oral [or] written. So you’ll find a person will start speaking a sentence in English or Ki’Swahili, maybe pick a few words, [and] complete the sentence in another language. It means that we need to invest more in teaching a whole understanding, comprehension, of a language in its totality,” said Ruto.

Tanzania takes top spot

Last year, the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality, or SACMEQ, released a study ranking Kenya fifth out of 15 African countries on students’ reading ability. Top performers were Tanzania, Seychelles and Mauritius, while the bottom scorers were Zambia and Malawi.

Uwezo’s Ruto explains why she thinks Tanzania is tops compared to Kenya.

“Their system has paid attention to Ki’Swahili. I think that if you have grasped the skill in one language, it is easier for you to grasp in another," she said. "In Tanzania, there are so many community newspapers. Ki’Swahili is spoken in most places - at home and then again at school. And so you will see there is a little bit more continuity. And also, the skill of reading: you can find it in many more places.”

But some students still excel. Results of the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examinations were on newspaper front pages Thursday all over Kenya, with pictures of students who earned top marks.

South Sudan refugee student shines

One picture stood out in particular: that of South Sudanese refugee Kuol Tito Yak, who lived in Kakuma Refugee Camp until joining Uthiru Genesis Primary school in Standard Three. He scored fourth overall, and the first in Kiambu County.

Lual Dau is head of the Southern Sudanese Students’ Association in Kenya. He said, although he does not know Kuol personally, South Sudanese take education very seriously.

“We are going to reform the new country [South Sudan] - it will be through education, of what we learned. That is what we can take home because there is nothing in Southern Sudan,” said Lual.

The results highlighted other education trends. The top two students were from the capital Nairobi. Coastal area schools performed poorly. All top 10 positions were taken by students studying at private schools, and there are almost as many girls as boys in the primary school system overall.