Anne Ng'ang'a has gone back to her ancestral home in central Kenya for a couple of days to regain her strength. The headmistress of the Olympic Primary School here was feeling overwhelmed by an inundation of new young learners since the new year began.
"These are - how shall I put it - chaotic times," whispers Ms. Ng'ang'a's hoarse deputy, Ruth Namulumou.
When classes resumed at the beginning of the month, teachers, parents, and students were all coming to grips with a hastily implemented campaign promise by new President Mwai Kibaki: the elimination of fees at the country's 17,000 public schools.
As word of the policy spread throughout Kenya's towns, villages, and slums, kids seemed to come out of the woodwork. Some had never been in a classroom before; others had been whiling away their time in cheap, unlicensed alternatives to the government schools.
This is Kenya's latest attempt at free primary education and by its own admission is doing so without a road map. In the past, the plans have failed because of lack of funds. But the government says that if it can clean up the corruption that plagued the country during 27 years under former President Daniel arap Moi, it should have enough money to make it work this time around.
Some 3,400 new students showed up at Olympic for the first day of classes - this in addition to the 1,720 that were already there. Countrywide, there were over a half-million new students seeking enrollment, according to the Ministry of Education.
But accommodating all these new students is proving no easy task. At Olympic, for example, irate parents who were turned away by the headmistress "called her names, tried to beat her up, and threatened to burn down her office," recalls Ms. Namulunou with a shudder.
"My daughter deserves the best," says George Odhiambo, an unemployed father who was ready to light the fire. "I always knew this. Only before I could not afford to do anything about it."
In Africa, almost half the primary-school-aged children, or some 42 million (most of them girls), do not attend school. And only half of those who are enrolled are expected to complete the full primary cycle of studies, according to a report released last month by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Kenya, where more than 70 percent of children attend some form of primary school, is better off than most. In some two dozen African countries, says UNESCO, less than 20 percent of the school-age population goes to class.
Mr. Kibaki is not the first Kenyan president to try providing free education. Jomo Kenyatta and Mr. Moi, Kenya's previous two presidents, both abolished fees for a period. But on each occasion, the fees were soon reintroduced when the full cost of the experiment became apparent.
Initial estimates last week by a special treasury and education ministry committee show that at least $162 million will be required to carry out the policy change, including the hiring of 50,000 more teachers. Even before the new policy was proposed, Kenya had a shortage of 20,000 teachers in primary schools alone.
But Education Minister George Saitoti insists that the old government was so corrupt and inefficient that by simply running Kenya honestly, the new government could find the money needed to pay for the change.
"We cannot let the children down," Mr. Saitoti says. "Yes there are some problems with the plan, but our job is to address those problems."
So why the quick implementation?
"We had to make good on promises - we did not have time to plan," says Jimi Wanjigi, adviser to the education minister, defensively. "So we decided to dive into the deep end and just learn how to swim." Mr. Wanjigi adds that a special task force has been set up to study how similar transitions to free primary education were made in other countries and to put together "homegrown" solutions to the various kinks arising here.
"But really," he says, "there are fewer problems than it seems. Just a lack of classrooms and teachers and desks. But there is a lot of goodwill to make it work, which is what counts."
The task force might be hard pressed to find an example of a well-organized transition to free schooling in Africa. In neighboring Uganda, which introduced a similar plan three years ago, the move was equally chaotic. "There are still schools so overflowing that kids study outside with no roofs," says a UN official in Kampala, Uganda, who asked not to be named. The official charges that in Uganda, as in Kenya, the policy was instituted as a way to find quick favor with the population and was ill thought out.
Kenya's educational problems go beyond just access to the classroom. In 23 African countries for which statistics were available, 15 percent of pupils had to repeat a year, and the percentage of teachers in secondary education without qualifications is as high as 55 percent. In Kenya, many primary-school graduates cannot read or write.
Olympic is the top public school in Nairobi, with its pupils routinely scoring highest marks in the national exams. Olympic boasts a computer, a copy machine, and a perimeter wall around its backyard, which separates it from the slum beyond. In the past, parents of students here would pay a one-time entrance fee of 10,000 shillings (about $126) and an additional 300 shillings (about $4) per semester for ongoing costs such as buying chalk and providing fresh drinking water. But for most parents, in a country where over half the population survives on less than $1 a day, this kind of school was a luxury they couldn't afford.
Twelve-year-old Helen Mutheu has attended Olympic "her whole life," she says. Her mother hawks tomatoes on the side of the road. Her father works as a cleaner in an office building downtown. Together, saving shilling by shilling, they have managed to put all their six children through state primary school.
Helen's school uniform sweater is fraying at the collar. She had nothing today for lunch, and she shares a notebook and pencil with her best friend, Rosemary Makungu. She is a little worried about the influx of new students.
"Where will they sit?" she wonders. "Mr. Kibaki said free education, but I don't think he planned it too well," says the young critic. "I want to make sure I can still learn something over here."