15 January, 2002 -- January is a new beginning for families as the schools reopen and a new school year begins. For Christmas, many people smooth fresh cow dung over the floor to provide a new, hard surface. Our askari (watchman) explained to us how his wife was doing this to their house for Christmas, making it ready for the holidays. She was also making a new facing on the outside walls with red mud. Some families paint the new wall surface with green bananas, making intricate patterns that show white against the red colour of the earth. A Friday afternoon task for many children in schools in this area is to repair the floor with cow dung, leaving it to dry over the weekend. So the floors were made new, and children flocked back to school, hopefully with fees in hand. Many classes are thinly populated for the first two weeks as children are "chased" home to find at least a part of the fees for the first term.

In November, the children in the last year of primary school (roughly grade 8) wrote National examinations. At least, those who could find the school fees and the registration fee did the exams in five subjects. There is a complex reporting scheme where marks, grades, points (so many for every mark on the grade scale) and class position all play a part. The results are posted at the elementary schools and children are "called" first to a National Secondary school, the most prestigious and expensive. These schools take the top candidates and the newspaper reports on the highest scoring students in each part of the country. Then the Provincial schools get their pick, followed by the District schools. It is estimated that less than half of those sitting the exams will be called to a school (not enough places) and of those, many will not be able to afford the fees.

On December 31, girls began arriving at out gate with their exam marks. We set up a reception and interviewing process for those with the highest marks and position. We interviewed 176 anxious girls, from which we have selected 60. It wasn’t easy listening to the stories of the death of parents, the grandmothers who do hard digging to pay school fees, the fathers who have lost jobs or been injured in accidents, the siblings who have dropped out school for lack of fees after a few years and are jobless, without hope. Two of the girls we picked have had to work as maids, or house girls, to pay their primary school fees. Some girls wept at the prospect of not going to school and being married off. A few girls are orphans and have no family whatsoever and came to us entirely on their own. Some fathers just want to find a husband for their girl so they can buy cattle with the bride price, and an anxious mother brought the daughters. Other families have sold their land or their last cow so the daughter can finish primary school and now have nothing left. Women work long hours in the fields and sell vegetables to survive and feed their children, although several girls spoke of teachers providing them with their one meal a day at school. Remember that four tomatoes cost 20¢ (Canadian) and calculate how much is needed to pay C$400 for a year’s school fees and uniform. We talked to grandmothers who have no English, to primary teachers who have paid fees for their star pupils and cannot continue into secondary. We listened to brothers for whom the clever sister is the only hope for the family to continue, since the rest of the family is illiterate.

After two weeks of interviewing and making notes at the rate of 20-23 applicants a day, we had to call a halt. We have the uncomfortable feeling of playing God with people’s lives, but we do the best we can as fairly and as objectively as possible. We have made our choices, hopefully taking the brightest and the most needy (a very relative term) and are now trying to contact students and schools. Those going to the first year of secondary school have to report at the end of the first week of February. No one has a phone and those in the schools often don’t work. One very good, well-kept school has had no phone connection for six months. To contact them we send our askari in a matatu. A letter can take three weeks to one of the surrounding villages. So we are aware that some of our chosen candidates may never receive the news. In the best of cases, we may process the majority of fees and uniforms by the end of the month.

My colleague and I are both educators and feel the needs here very deeply. Most of the girls we talked to were a delight, with a lovely sense of humour and the optimistic faith of the young and devout. They value education, want to serve first their families and then their country. Most spoke of helping others and "doing something to help children like me." Our sadness and guilt over the bright girls to whom we have had to say no, at least for this year, are somewhat compensated by the joy of those who do get scholarships. We had a dozen or so places for girls already in secondary school and have had the pleasure of giving the good news to most of them, since they began school earlier this month. Today, three girls came by to see if we had selected for Form1 and were told the good news. Their eyes grow wide and round as we prepare their fee sheets, give them the chit for uniform and let them borrow textbooks. Kenya needs strong, determined young women like these.

©2002 Patricia Crossley

30 January