News and opinion

Elizabeth Thorold

Blog: Kenya – how different can it be?

16 February 2017

Elizabeth Thorold, communications manager at Education Development Trust, travelled to Kenya to see our work delivering Wasichana Wote Wasome, part of the UK-government-funded Girls' Education Challenge, in action.

As communications manager, quite a lot of my time is spent in head office in Reading writing about the different work we do. We do a LOT of different things and we work in very different countries and contexts. Much of my source material is given to me by colleagues on the ground; a mix of Skype discussion and email and pouring over statistics, then I write the text, source images and it goes back and forth until everyone is happy.

Up until now, everything that I had written or edited about our work in Kenya delivering Wasichana Wote Wasome as part of the UK government-funded Girls' Education Challenge, was done in this way. At the end of January, events transpired that we had to visit our Nairobi office and so I had the opportunity to see the programme and the work we do for myself.

An ambitious itinerary

Other than a long weekend in Marrakesh, Africa was wholly new territory for me. In the four days we were there, we spent time in our Nairobi office, travelled 400km north to Samburu and visited Nairobi's Mathare slums. It was a lot to take in in such a short space of time – logistically and otherwise.

In the countryside, the landscapes are vast: as we changed altitude, we went from lush fertile lands to open plains and dried-up river beds. We crossed the equator and circumnavigated the snow-capped Mount Kenya. We bought mangoes from one of a dozen identikit roadside stalls all piled high with ripe fruit and jostling for our business. We saw road signs warning of elephants crossing and we braked for 6-ft-high ostriches playing chicken in the road.

The cities and towns, by contrast, are dense. There are so many people all the time and everywhere; walking en masse and interwoven with quadruple lanes of traffic; forming unexpectedly orderly queues for disorderly local buses – wonderfully personalised minibuses with wide-open doors. The roads are chaotic with working-but-redundant traffic lights, no obvious right of way and the most severe rumble strips I have ever seen – or felt.

Crocodiles, young mothers and grazing rights

Visiting the schools themselves threw into even greater relief the context in which we work. Up country, young Samburu girls explained hesitantly how they might get married at around 9 years old and be circumcised on their wedding day; one of the headteachers – Madame Priscilla, a remarkable woman and the only female head for miles around – explained how there wasn't always food for the children. We learned how, prior to the construction of the bore hole, children had been killed by crocodiles as they fetched water from the river and how elephants had destroyed another local school. We spoke to three girls, aged around 17 (they weren't sure exactly as it is not customary to know or mark birthdays) who were enrolled into the young mothers' programme; they quietly shared their aspirations with us to become doctors, nurses and teachers. In his school, Mr Ambrose told us of the school's strategy for when fighting broke out between tribes over grazing land as often happens in times of drought: their only option is to ensure everyone runs for safety. He, however, was fortunate enough at least to be able to provide food in his school thanks to a 'friend' in America – it seems all benefactors, donors and philanthropists are referred to in this way.

The challenges faced in the slum school we visited were similar in broad terms – enrolment, security, resources, sanitation, facilities, teacher and pupil retention – but felt wholly different in the context of the oppressive, stifling and unsettling slums.

Crossing continents

Our culture of hard and fast statistics doesn't always translate so well in a land where most people can only approximate their age and where enrolment figures can change dramatically overnight reflecting the pastoral and insecure communities the schools serve. English is our common language but it is not always easy to understand or be understood.

In spite of such a challenging landscape however, I saw that our work is having a very real and widespread effect: girls – and boys – are in school who wouldn't ordinarily be in school; teaching quality is improving thanks to the teacher training that we deliver as part of the programme; the community is being educated thanks to the programme's health clubs – from the simplicity of teaching handwashing to the complexity of questioning female circumcision; children are using textbooks supplied by us and our back-to-school kits ensure the poorest have essential stationery and materials for learning. There is obviously much to be done, but we are making significant headway with Wasichana Wote Wasome; thanks to the programme's holistic approach, it seems these changes have every chance of being both wholly positive and lasting.