In the pastoralist culture of the Masai, there is no greater honor for a child than to become a shepherd.
"We look around the family, decide who are the brightest children with the most potential ... and send them off with the goats," says Morintat Lowara, tugging on his elongated, decorated earlobes with one hand and proudly patting his shepherd son Boscow on the head with the other. "You need to be intelligent to be a shepherd because of cattle rustlers and wild animals, and because it's never simple to find water holes and grazing pastures," he says. "School is for those who can't succeed in looking after the animals."
Six of the Lowaras' children go to school, while two tend the goats and a cow.
But for the young Masai herders in the scorching Rift Valley, times are changing: A night school for shepherds is making it possible to learn the three Rs without abandoning familial duties.
The idea was conceived four years ago by a group of young, educated, Masai who formed a non-governmental organization (NGO) that they called Osiligi, which means "hope" in the Masai language.
"My brother was a shepherd," says Simon Ole Kaparo, Osiligi's program manager, "and I was envious of him. I got sent to school, and I felt like I had no prospects."
Now, says Mr. Kaparo, he thinks differently. "We realized our community has a lot of problems, foremost among them that our brothers and sisters cannot read or write. And we knew that if we, as the educated youth, did not do something for the community, we would all be left behind."
The program has "graduated" (up until fourth grade) 400 shepherds and has become a model for a similar project created by the Samburu tribe for their shepherds in Kenya's Baragoi district. The Atlanta-based NGO Care, which funds the Osiligi shepherds' night and summer schools, has recently helped create similar projects in Mali and Ethiopia. And the Kenyan ministry of education has included members of Osiligi in several forums on informal education, where the possibility of adapting aspects of the program for other communities - such as street children in the cities - was discussed.
The shepherd school program works on a shift concept, with the "regular" school children relieving their shepherd siblings in the late afternoons, and allowing them to go take their places on the classroom benches. Thus, after a morning of herding, the shepherds pass along their clubs and knives, sling their handmade school bags around their shoulders, strap on their rubber-tire-strips sandals, and trek off for an evening of ABCs under the weak beam of kerosene lamps.
During the breaks, when the regular school children are home for weeks on end, the shepherds, who range in age from 7 to 16, go in for intensive summer-school training.
The dozen teachers at shepherds night school are themselves shepherds, busy - as are their charges - with the animals during the days, and roving, with the classrooms and the students, in coordination with the migrations of the shepherds and in tune with the seasons.
"It's a bit tricky, we have to sometimes walk around quite a lot to find those students whose families have traveled far away to look for better water holes," says John Lekuye, a shepherd and teacher. "But we know the general migration patterns. We have experience in these matters."
The curriculum is created in conjunction with the shepherds and their families, and features classes on livestock diseases and wild herbs along with English, Swahili, and math classes. Masai elders are invited in as guest speakers to discuss tribal traditions.
Studies take place in any structure available - or under the acacia trees and the stars. Sometimes classes are cut short when wild elephants threaten to stampede.
The biggest problem, say organizers, has been convincing parents to allow the children to take part. Many of the older Masai - most illiterate themselves - are wary of sending their shepherd sons and daughters away with pens and paper, afraid that education and the options it brings will erode their traditional way of life.
"We called meetings through the local chiefs and explained to the parents that we were not taking the children away forever," says James Legei, Osiligi's program officer. "We spoke to them in our own Masai language. We showed them the teachers were Masai. We said we are one and the same - we do not want to forget our culture either, ...but this is why we must educate ourselves. We need to learn the tools for surviving in the modern world so as to preserve our culture."
"Pastoralism does not have a clear future," says Kaparo. "Droughts one after another have killed off 80 percent of herds. Our land is not enough for the growing population, and we have no alternative land. We want to make sure these shepherds have options, that they see there are other ways to create income for themselves. We do not want them to be ignorant. They will speak English and Swahili, and the world will be open to them.... But that does not mean we are encouraging them to move away from our culture.
"We have the right to be who we are," he stresses. "When we have money, we will use it to buy more goats and cows and drugs to keep our livestock well, and go out and tend to the goats. It's a question of identity."
It's 5 o'clock, and young Boscow is getting ready to walk the 2 kilometers to classes, which, this month, are being held in a mud hut church. He gets down from a tree, where he has been cutting off leaves for his goats - his family's flock now decimated by the drought from 60 to four - and clutches his worn green notebook with two hands. He nods a shy farewell to his brothers and father.
"When I am with the animals, I sometimes read in my notebook and practice my math, so I can be clever like my brothers," he says, covering his mouth and speaking almost in a whisper.
"But when I am in school, I miss my goats. I worry about them," he confides. "I like both lives. And I am happy I can be everything all at once."