Many of Kenya's children find there's no room in the school

SECONDARY school opened Sept. 8 for the Christmas term. Sept. 18 the school closed again. There was no water. It was possible for the boys to walk to the lugga (a dry riverbed) and dig deep into the sand for water to wash with, headmaster Michael Lomiko said, even though it meant cutting a class or two each day. But the school did not have the money to keep sending a truck the 100-mile round trip over dirt roads to the nearest source of drinking water. And there was no water last term, either.

Even so, the school is fortunate. Saidia (pronounced say-dee-a), a Nairobi-based charity, replaced the broken wind pump with a secondhand one that works.

What is more, Mr. Lomiko can keep track of when it is coming. Last April, several phones were installed in Baragoi.

The high school vies for its pupils with the traditions of the local Samburu tribe, which dictate that teen-age boys should forgo education to be spear-carrying warriors. Their female age-mates are expected to settle down to marriage and childbearing.

But competition for places in what is the equivalent of a freshman year at high school is fierce. In this remote and arid northern part of Kenya, there are only four secondary schools. Because the people are pastoral nomads, all four take boarders. Only one admits girls.

With the per capita gross domestic product static, the population burgeoning, and social infrastructure stretched to the limit, education remains elusive for many Kenyan children. This year the national education budget was pruned back by 6 percent.

Baragoi's problems, to some degree, are common to rural and urban areas alike as the gap between expectation and reality widens.

Last year, for instance, fewer than 15 percent of the primary school leavers from this area found places in government secondary schools. In Nairobi, which has the greatest concentration of schools, only 1 of every 4 children found a place.

The alternative is a self-help school built by the community. The harambee schools - Swahili for ``Let's pull together'' - are typified by crude wooden benches and mud floors. Teachers consider themselves fortunate if they have a textbook to refer to. Never are there enough copies to go around the class.

Lomiko's ambitious solution to the shortage of high school places is to double his intake, a plan he launched this year. He has yet to build new dormitories, which already house twice as many boys as they were built for, but hopes to raise money at a fund-raiser to be held sometime before Christmas.

Boys in the harambee stream pay the equivalent of $255 a year, compared with $155 for the rest of the school.

Most parents cannot afford the higher fees. Some boys are sponsored by individuals from the United States and elsewhere through Saidia.

Prospects for Kenya's 4.5 million primary school children are bleak, too. The nation has prided itself on providing universal and free primary education. Now all this is changing drastically. Competition to place youngsters in Kenya's 10,000 primary schools is fierce.

This year parents in Nairobi have to pay a $1.90 levy for each term a child attends. Coupled with bills for books, uniforms, and the ever-present building fund, this puts education well beyond the reach of the urban poor.

Last year, 11,000 Nairobi children were left out of the educational system simply because there was nowhere to put them. The number of Nairobi children unable to start school will climb to 44,000 by 1990.

With no performance criterion to go by, government policy is to admit children on a first-come, first-served basis. Anxious parents camp overnight outside school gates just to acquire application forms.

Much of the problem is rooted in Kenya's population trends. At just under 4 percent, the population growth rate is probably the world's highest. The traditional birthright of land tenure for every adult male is faltering, resulting in an urban drift. Nairobi's population is growing by 11 percent a year.

Neither does the competition ease at the peak of the education pinnacle. The University of Nairobi accepts only 2,000 undergraduates a year. Two fledgling universities soak up another 3,000 school leavers.

Finding qualified teachers is another problem. Most schoolteachers have not gone to university. Canada has built a teacher training college, which handles 500 students at a time. A Canadian-funded expansion program will enable the college to double the numbers next year.

More than 300,000 school leavers enter the job market annually, many of them 13-year-old primary school graduates. A labor pool of 7 million is expected to double by the turn of the century. But only 1 million people draw wages.

Two years ago, the government restructured the educational system. Known as the 8-4-4 system, to delineate the number of years spent in primary, secondary, and university education, it introduces an additional year of primary schooling. The intention is to expose students to practical subjects such as carpentry and agriculture so they can pursue careers as artisans and farmers.

Meanwhile, job demands are accelerating. And half of Kenya's 20 million citizens are under age 15.

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