The descent into Lodwar, the gateway to Turkana, is ‘carpeted’ by milk-white clouds, resembling rows of giant candy floss, the kind they serve you at the Village Market in Nairobi on a lazy Sunday afternoon. This image of refreshing coolness is, however, the very antithesis of conditions on the ground: scorching temperatures that keep rising as the day progresses; oppressive heat unmitigated by the slightest breeze.
To many Kenyans the name Turkana conjures up images of ramrod-straight shuka-clad warrior-herdsmen, driving before them herds of cattle in search of pasture. This may have been the exclusive image once upon a time. But times change and although the old way of life still predominates, the young Turkana male is more likely to be jean-clad and gunning his motorbike down the road, in the manner of any young man from other Kenyan communities.
Lodwar is a dusty trading centre that shows little signs of the prosperity that visited Lokichar — 90km south of Lodwar — where oil was discovered in 2012. With a population of just under 50,000, the infrastructure in Lodwar is hardly adequate to support any robust commerce. The locals however admit that there has been significant improvement over the last few years and readily ascribe this to the devolved system of governance. The bridge on the Turkwell River is inexplicably one-way and vehicles queue up on either side waiting their turn to cross. It is a good thing that traffic is sparse in this county. Little in the way of food grows here. A few straggling sorghum plants battle bravely for survival. Grains and vegetables are brought in from Kitale, a driving distance of 298km.
We are here to visit the pupils and staff of Loreng’elup Primary School, which is located about an hour’s drive to the east of Lodwar. This public day mixed primary school is in Loreng’elup constituency, Kerio division, Turkana county. The road to our destination is a sun-baked, wide, sandy track and makes for fairly fast and comfortable motoring.
Loreng’elup Primary School has had a chequered history. Started in 1980, pupils have been learning in the open air and under trees and have been at the mercy of the unrelenting sun, dust, spiders, puff adders and the occasional scorpion. For close to 30 years, successive classes have braved the elements (and vermin) in their quest for an education. Toilet facilities were non-existent and the children had to go in the bush. The year 2014, however, saw a dramatic change in the fortunes of the then fledgling institution and the community around. The Safaricom Foundation stepped into the breach and funded the construction and equipping of six classrooms and 24 pit latrines at a cost of Sh8.65 million.
According to a 2013 report by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, Turkana has an 82 per cent illiteracy rate, the highest in the country. The survival of Loreng’elup Primary School has also been under threat from the nomadic nature of the community, frequent skirmishes and extreme weather conditions that prompt migration in search of food and pasture. Despite its existence since 1980, it was not until 2011 that the school registered its first candidates for the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education exams. Simon Etyang, a teacher at the school, recounts the early days when learning was under trees and in semi-permanent buildings and is fulsome in praise of the changes wrought by the Safaricom Foundation.
Jennifer Amungoi is the principal of Loreng’elup Primary School. Meeting initial resistance from a fiercely patriarchal community as a woman heading an institution, she is now the respected head of what is widely acknowledged to be a progressive primary school. She joined the institution in 2015 when enrollment stood at 90. The full complement is currently 280 strong, 130 of whom are girls. Jennifer laments that currently the standard one class is unoccupied. The World Food Programme is no longer providing Early Childhood Development meals and this has been a major incentive for parents to take their children to school.
Martin Karimi, communications officer at WFP Nairobi, confirms that this is indeed the case but clarifies that the responsibility of providing the ECD mid-morning meal was duly handed over to the county government at the beginning of this term. The handing over of the responsibility of providing meals for the ECD centres was transferred to the county governments — not just in Turkana — but in more than 1,700 centres in the arid lands and in Nairobi County.
Efforts to have the Turkana county government comment on this situation have proved fruitless. Jennifer hopes the situation will change soon. The principal informs us that the teachers’ strike of 2015 took a heavy toll in the pupils’ performance. Leading the pack was Shadrack Ekenu who scored 296 marks out of a possible 500. Eight out of 13 candidates joined high school. The school was top of the table in Kerio division. Learning commences at 6am and ends at 9am. The current class eight has 15 boys and five girls. There are eight teachers in total, five paid by the Teachers Service Commission and three directly employed by Board of Management.
Although Loreng’elup Primary School is a day school, boys are allowed to sleep in the classrooms while the girls put up with well-wishers in the neighbouring community. Francis Ngasike Nabenyo is a former pupil in this school and, taking a cue from The Safaricom Foundation in extending a helping hand, has volunteered to take in five girl students as boarders in his house. The father of three and his wife take care of the five girls as they do their own. Nabenyo’s prayer is that the government will step in and help put up dorms and a fence. Other households in the community are housing between three and five girls. It is obviously a strain on their meagre resources and everyone echoes Nabenyo’s entreaties to the authorities.
Janice Mwendameru from the Safaricom Foundation explains that Loreng’elup Primary School is a classic example of the type of school that the foundation supports. It is in a traditionally marginalised area where the children, especially girls, are more often than not condemned to a life of toil and early marriages. Breaking this cycle gels perfectly with the stated mission of the foundation which is ‘to build communities and transform lives’.
There is a sense of pride in the community in having a model school in the area. Hopes are high that this school will be the genesis of a better quality of life for the pupils and, by extension, for the communities from which they come.