KENYA's educational system failed John Onyango Alloo. Although he is one of the few students able to complete high school in Kenya, he was unable to find a job after three years of searching. Now in his 20s, Mr. Aloo studies auto mechanics at the Kakamega Youth Polytechnic. He thinks his high school education did not give him the skills needed to get a good job and wishes he had gone straight to a polytechnic after primary school.
``I would have gained experience early,'' Aloo says. ``In school, it is just theory most of the time.''
Throughout Africa, there are millions of young people like Aloo. Many of them walk more than an hour in bare feet to reach school each day. They struggle to learn without books or laboratories, studying by the dim light of fires or kerosene lamps because their homes have no electricity. Their parents go into debt, sell precious cattle, or buy less food so they can pay school fees.
Kenya is one of Africa's most prosperous and stable countries, but unemployment is estimated to be between 30 and 50 percent. Johnstone Makau, a member of Parliament, said last month that Kenya is sitting on a ``time bomb.'' He added that each year the 800,000 students who finish school must compete for fewer than 120,000 jobs.
Half of Kenya's population of about 23 million people is under age 15. Last fall, President Daniel arap Moi warned that Kenya's 4.1 percent annual population growth rate, the highest in the world, will increase its population to 35 million in the next 10 years.
As the size of family farms shrinks, more young Kenyans are looking for paid employment. By the year 2000, Kenya's labor force is expected to double to 14 million.
To fight the increasing joblessness, the government in 1985 introduced a new 8-4-4 curriculum - eight years of primary education, four of secondary, and four of university. The program lengthens the primary level by a year and adds agriculture, business, home science, and crafts to the academic subjects inherited from the British colonial period.
In addition, in 1988 President Moi created the Ministry for Technical Training and Technology to help hundreds of technical training institutes, youth polytechnics, and technical training colleges. Tools, equipment, and teachers are provided to these formerly independent vocational schools, now classified as public schools. The government hopes enhanced training will encourage job seekers to stay in rural areas and either farm or find self-employment.
The tremendous growth of Kenya's educational system forced the move toward vocational training. Since 1963, primary school enrollment has increased from 891,000 to more than 5 million pupils. Secondary school enrollment rose from 30,000 to 522,260 students in the same period.
Most of the students flooding the school system cannot go on to a university. This year only 4 or 5 percent of those who finish secondary school will be able to find places in Kenya's four universities.
At Lwanda Secondary School in rural western Kenya, students are confident that the new curriculum will prepare them for jobs.
According to one of them, Janet Naliaka, ``jobs are very easy when you have gone through 8-4-4. If you learn and pass the exam, you will get a job without a problem.''
But the system may not be able to help Janet. Typical of many poor schools, Lwanda is struggling to handle the new vocational subjects. With only two crumbling classrooms, a shortage of chalk, no laboratory, and few books, it cannot afford carpentry, sewing, or agricultural equipment.
The government - with 36 percent of its budget already allocated for education - is unable to supply new tools to poor schools such as Lwanda. There is also a shortage of teachers trained to teach vocational subjects such as business and crafts.
Some teachers worry that the 8-4-4 system will widen inequalities. Rich schools will buy more equipment, while poor schools such as Lwanda lag behind.
Because the new practical subjects have been grafted onto the old curriculum, some students worry that their abilities are being stretched too thin. Along with vocational skills, secondary school students each year must study English, Swahili, mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry, history, geography, and religion. Each term they are tested in 12 subjects.
Yet students still feel encouraged by the changes. They believe that if the government can find more resources to strengthen technical education, their future will be much brighter. ``The 8-4-4 system is much better than the previous system,'' says Simon Lijina, a student at Lwanda. `It is now possible to employ anybody on any job.''
But even with 8-4-4, many graduates of regular schools are unable to attend a university, find a job, or subsist on overcrowded family farms.
Some fight for the approximately 20,000 places in technical and vocational schools and institutes.
One of the largest and best-equipped, the Kenya Polytechnic in Nairobi, trains 4,500 students in civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering, graphic arts, institutional management, business studies, and surveying and mapping.
The government is increasing its support of these technical schools. For example, the Western College of Arts and Sciences, outside the town of Kakamega, received government assistance for the first time in 1987.
The college offers its 176 students courses in business, mechanical engineering, and water technology. With the help of foreign aid, it has modern classrooms and workshops equipped with power saws, lathes, drills, rolling machines, and kilns. Students spend 16 hours each week in the workshop and a term each year apprenticing with local businesses.
Most of the students expect their technical training to give them jobs. Geoffrey Soita, the youngest of eight children, taught briefly at a secondary school, but saw no opportunity for advancement. He came to college to learn accounting and hopes one day to manage his own CPA firm. ``I am confident I can get a job if I succeed [here],'' he says. ``The country's economic status is improving.''
Not all students, however, are sure they can find work. ``If I pass, then I can have a hope [of finding a job],'' says Samson Whaeme. ``I cannot be sure.''
Mr. Whaeme is the youngest of seven children. His father died the year he was born. His mother pays Western College's annual fees of 4,200 shillings ($230) from their small sugar cane crop.
But the crop is only harvested every two years, and Whaeme does not know how he will pay to finish his mechanical engineering studies next year. He predicts that in 20 years ``the population will have doubled. For somebody without skills, there will be problems.''
Although Western's graduates are usually able to find jobs, securing employment may grow harder as Kenya becomes full of skilled craftsmen. ``We are soon going to run into employment difficulties,'' says Vitalis Kweyu, an engineering teacher. He worries that graduates of the 8-4-4 system, polytechnics, and training colleges ``are all going to look for jobs'' in the same places.
Most vocational schools are not as well equipped as Western or the Kenya Polytechnic. For example, the Kakamega Youth Polytechnic, which teaches tailoring and auto mechanics, has only two bare classrooms, one sewing machine, two abandoned cars, a few spare parts, and two teachers.
Seventy students are enrolled, but sometimes half of them are absent because they lack school fees. Although students apprentice with local firms during their 15- to 20-month training, 20 to 50 percent cannot find jobs after graduation.
The poorer polytechnics, however, are beginning to receive government assistance. According to Raymond Muteshi, acting principal of Kakamega Youth Polytechnic, the government provides some tools, books, and teachers.
More help may be on the way. A 1988 government report recommended that the government absorb polytechnics into the regular school system, give them better equipment, and offer their teachers more training.
Despite this progress toward vocational education, large obstacles remain. Armed with technical skills, graduates may not be able to find jobs unless more industry is created.
Kenya is counting on thousands of independent jua kali (``hot sun'' in Swahili) artisans, who make shoes, tools, stoves, toys, and utensils from rags and scrap metal, to create more employment. The government now provides loans, marketing help, training, and workspace to these one-person industries.
The government is also considering giving polytechnic graduates money and tools to start their own jua kali businesses. But these informal industries will not be able to absorb a majority of job seekers.
The shift toward vocational education also seems to be leaving women behind. Sewing is often the only vocational skill they are taught. Only five women attend the Kakamega Polytechnic, and less than 10 percent of Western College's students are female. Their teachers believe they will have a tougher time than males in finding jobs.
By changing its curriculum toward more vocational subjects, Kenya is improving the working skills of its students. The government recognizes that a problem exists and is trying to fix it.
But the Kenyan government has few funds left to expand vocational education or develop industry. Declining prices for Kenya's main exports of coffee and tea, rising prices for oil and other imports, and a $4.2 billion external debt are squeezing Kenya's economy.
Without a rapid increase in jobs or a drastic decrease in the birthrate, many Kenyan students will be unable to find jobs even as their education improves. Kenya's minister for planning and national development, Dr. Zachary Onyonka, said recently that 2 million more jobs are needed for Kenya to combat its unemployment problems.
For the majority of African countries, with less political stability and greater poverty than Kenya, changes will be even more difficult. Until there is solid economic and political development throughout the continent, educational reforms can make only a marginal difference.