News and opinion

Alexia di Marco

BLOG - My time in Turkana and Nairobi

07 November 2016

Alexia di Marco reflects on her time in Turkana and Nairobi while working on the research report, Disadvantaged girls in Kenyan schools


It's currently the dry season in Turkana and I've flown up from Nairobi for our research: having visited several times in preparation I know that the rainy season would have made road travel extremely challenging; as luggers and river bed crossings make many roads impassable.

We set off at around 5am from the women's lodge where I’m staying in Lodwar town: it's best to get most of the journey underway while it’s still relatively cool. I travel with six litres of water with me (most of which is warm by 11am). I tend to drink about three litres during the day, but we also need some in case of a breakdown and to share out with the driver and our translator. It's hard when you see an elderly man or a lady with a newborn baby begging for water at the side of the road – especially if it's just the start of your four-hour round trip with unknown circumstances and possible breakdowns: on the return leg of the journey, when we can see the faint outline of Lodwar town, we pass a few spare bottles out of the window for those asking.

The vehicle skids through deep sand and rattles along stretches of patchy road: we frequently come to a complete halt to navigate the broken tarmac. We have no maps, but I trust the driver's knowledge and helpful locals often guide us.

The welcome at each school varies: in several we are received by enthusiastic boys or staff sent to greet us – in others we make our own way under watchful eyes to the head's office to introduce ourselves. Once in the cool dark of the office we explain our work and presence. We frequently encounter absent heads and indifferent heads, though some are welcoming. Most of the heads haven't heard of DfID's Girls' Education Challenge programme: many have just been transferred to the school and it was the previous head that oversaw the school's sign-up to the programme.

Our girls' focus groups are uplifting and the highlight of the research: presumably intrigued to have the opportunity to talk with a female muzungu [white person] and our relatively young, inspiring, female Turkana translator several of the girls open up boldly and encourage the others.

Observing the lessons I’m usually cramped up next to several of the pupils at the back of the class: a much harder task as the day wears on and the heat builds up on the creaking corrugated iron roof. Lesson observation is always interesting, but teaching style does usually tend to be uniform and repetitive. A welcome surprise comes in the form of teacher Amos: a humble middle-aged man wearing a loudly patterned shirt. His teaching is energetic, thoughtful and flows like a conversation with the children. His lessons last the full time allocation and afterwards he tells me in an unassuming, but firm way of his belief and aspirations for the girls he teaches.

On our way back home to Lodwar town there is the occasional puncture: one at dusk makes the driver and translator nervous for their smart phones. Three small children come to talk and laugh at us – they are a welcome distraction and although they can’t understand much of what I ask them we enjoy a game of peekaboo. They don’t seem to have a care in the world and march off arm in arm into the bush: presumably in the direction of home.

Back at the women's lodge I turn in early. Comfortably under my mosquito net and lulled by the noise of babies and family life outside the lodge – as well as some murmured discussions between other guests - I think about our return to the school the next day and what we want to understand more. It's a huge privilege to get to know each of our eight schools well, their staff and a handful of the girls inside them: but I also feel a keen sense of responsibility to present our analysis and interpretations fairly. While I feel tremendous sympathy for those teachers and heads working in such devastatingly harsh, and dry conditions; unique individuals – like teacher Amos - remind me that higher standards and expectations are possible to achieve here, and that the GEC programme has huge potential.


It's always the journey that gives me time to feel apprehensive and nervous: once we’re at the school the research takes on its own motion; distracting me from other concerns or thoughts.

In Nairobi, my apprehension begins as we journey into the outskirts of slums. The smart tarmac roads edged by breezeblock buildings soon disappear as we drive deeper into the slums. On one road we see a large crowd gathering outside a health clinic – my first thought is they must be handing out something  – but as we get closer I can see from our vehicle that a man is being lashed by several others in the group: I avert my eyes. Our passage is made harder by the narrowing mud roads, busy groups of people, piles of potatoes, burning jiko stoves and even open fires of burning rubbish left on the roads. A 4x4 certainly isn't practical here, but I do often feel better for being in one. When the vehicle can go no further I set of on foot accompanied by one of our local GEC coaches, someone who knows the area and school well. I feel reassured by their presence although we are hardly noticed and most people look disinterestedly past us as they make their morning commute to work through the slum.  

In a couple of schools my arrival prompts some concern from the heads, who insist that I can only stay with a security escort. In one school a gentleman called Churchill is called: he is apparently one of the local gang leaders and his presence will ensure the school and my belongings (consisting of a camera and dictaphone) are safe. He is well dressed and softly spoken; sitting moodlessly outside each classroom and space I visit throughout the day.  I'd like to know more from him, but he's not the talkative type.

The classrooms are sometimes scattered around an area of the slum. With open drains I'm careful where I step and grateful I've been warned to wear old shoes: I find dead dogs and sewage to navigate.

The heads are generally welcoming and curious; most of them aware of the GEC programme and keen to help make a success of it. It's nice being able to talk directly with them, without the presence of a translator: I find our rapport and conversation builds comfortably and we get into important discussions easily. One head in particular stands out.  He tells me that he was a security guard until an epiphany led him to set up his school. He is charismatic – tall, lean, bright and energetic – he moves from classroom to classroom joining and supporting his teachers: with the younger children he starts up a song with dancing and clapping. His energy is tireless, though never trying: he makes the rounds of the school across the slum, talking with pupils who are late for lessons as he goes and collecting chapatti for children he tells me that won't have eaten. His school has the highest examination results in our entire cohort of schools and I'm not surprised.

Though much of the research is uplifting in Nairobi - as standards are somewhat better – it is disturbing to hear some of the stories the children, and girls, have to go through. Exposure and involvement in underage sexual activity, as well as rape, seem distressingly quite common: I'm told of four boys in upper primary at one school who attempted to rape two younger girls behind a classroom after school just yesterday. Fortunately the girls managed to run away and alert a teacher who was still on the school premises.

But despite this and some of the other alarming issues I'm told about, I have to conclude that I would sooner be a girl in a Nairobi school than in Turkana. Overall the expectations and effort of the teachers seems to be somewhat greater in Nairobi.  I also feel that whilst there are many challenges of working in the slums; the teachers here are not surviving in a physically harsh environment. They have choices, options, cool water to drink, friends to visit and electricity.

Yet still, after each day of research it's a relief to return to the comfort of my flat. As we journey back through the slums toward the leafy neighbourhoods I reflect on how juxtaposed life is in Nairobi and quite what the gulf is between those in the slums and those in the large houses behind their gates. If our girls are to have a chance; to break away from their poverty and disadvantage we need to shine a light on the exceptional practice, like that of our charismatic head; and equally on the shameful practice in some schools where the girls are still just as desperate to succeed.