Kenya mandates that all children of school age must attend school. That’s the good part. It also mandates that all children attending school must wear a school uniform. That’s the bad part. Since parents themselves must buy the uniforms for their growing children, those parents who can barely feed their children to say nothing of buying extras such as school uniforms get left out. Here is a typical account of what it looks like in rural Kenya, the area with which I am most familiar.
Dawn arrives and filters light into the doorway of a one-room mud hut awakening a grandmother who suddenly found herself raising the children of her daughter who died of AIDS. She is old and stiff with arthritis, but she gets up and awakens three children, two of whom are school age. After a meager breakfast, she tells the two older children to get dressed and follow the other children from the scattered huts in the compound to the school several miles away.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In this culture, the elderly expect to be cared for by their children. But AIDS changed all that when it wiped out almost an entire generation of young adults, many of them parents of small children. When these urban youngsters arrived suddenly on Grandmother’s doorstep, she had little choice but to accept them and do the best she could.
Still stunned from the loss of their parents, and their sudden move from the city to this place that they could never have imagined, the two children followed behind other children who knew where the school was. Faith stayed close to her older brother Tom. They felt tense and afraid. What if they got lost? There was nothing here but trees, bushes, and sometimes a narrow path to follow. Finally, after almost two hours of walking, the school came in sight. They were late, and children were already seated in the tiny school.
Tom and Faith had attended school in Nairobi, and both had been good students until this previous year when their lives were disrupted, first by the loss of their father, and then by the long illness and death of their mother. None of their aunts or uncles would take them in because of the stigma of AIDS in their family, so they had been sent to the country.
Most of the children in school wore the standard uniform of that school. Just before school ended for the day, the teacher announced that all children must wear their uniform to school. If they didn’t have one, they could not come back! It was the law. The uniforms that Tom and Faith were wearing were from their previous school and were not acceptable here.
When Tom and Faith returned to the compound where Grandmother’s hut was located, they found their little sister wandering around unsupervised. Their grandmother was nowhere to be found. They waited. Eventually
Grandmother appeared carrying a bucket of water from the creek a mile away. Earlier she had gathered potatoes and ground nuts for their evening meal. She had no money and no means to buy the needed school uniforms. If Tom and Faith went back to the school, they would be humiliated in front of the other children and told to leave. In some schools the teachers will allow children without uniforms to stay, but these kids may be ridiculed by other students, and even if not, the children will feel as if they are less important than those who can afford the uniforms.
What is the fate of the hundreds of thousands of children in Kenya who cannot become educated due to lack of a uniform? They feel devalued, angry, and hostile toward those who are getting what they, too, have the right to be given. The boys grow up relegated to the lowest forms of employment if they can even find employment. The girls’ fate is even worse. If the grandparents die, the girls are on their own with no one to guide or protect them. They may marry at age twelve or thirteen, but more likely will be raped and forced into prostitution just to survive. Many are simply exploited and murdered.
How do I know this? Because I was there. Because I saw it happening. I was part of the Advisory Board that helped to begin the Ember Kenya Grandparents Empowerment Project in 2006. I went with a group to see the project in action in 2007, and we traveled deep into the countryside near the tiny town of Funyula in western Kenya to visit the grandparents and their children.
Kenya has many problems, but here is one that can fixed with changing the legislation so that school uniforms are not necessary, or change the funding so that the schools themselves are enabled to provide the uniforms for their students. Extreme poverty is growing in Kenya, and this one simple change will help in the long-run.
Kenya, wake up! Help ALL your people to become educated!