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February 20, 2019

Thirst for education drives the elderly to school in West Pokot

A teacher at Alale Adult Education Centre during a maths lesson. /MARRYANN CHAI
A teacher at Alale Adult Education Centre during a maths lesson. /MARRYANN CHAI

Somewhere in the heart of West Pokot county, a determination to overcome illiteracy is unfolding. A makeshift classroom under a tree has drawn 50 elders who missed education due to poverty. They have no pen, no paper, and their teacher has no blackboard. Some students are sniffing tobacco. Others are chewing miraa. But they are all paying attention.

“I never knew the aged in the community had a thirst for education,” teacher Jackson Madah tells the Star. “My oldest student is 75 years. He has a problem with his sight but still struggles to ensure he grasps something before the lesson ends.”

Welcome to Alale Education Centre in North Pokot subcounty. It is two weeks old but already, it embodies the silent revolution taking place in a county with 67 per cent illiteracy. Some students arrived long before class started.

The county government launched the programme this year to help reduce illiteracy. All markets have an adult education centre, where elders attend classes from 2-4pm. More than 40,000 senior residents have enrolled so far.

Madah says his students come because they want to know how to operate smartphones, read the Bible and cast votes on their own. He says it is too early for him to set tough rules, so he does not stop the elderly students from bringing miraa and tobacco.

“When they fully understand the importance of education, I’m sure they will stop coming with such things to class for the two hours. I fear if I ask them to stop, they might abandon classes. It will require some time before they stop the habit,” he says.

Seventy students have enrolled, but Madah understands why 20 have not made it today. “Some students miss classes because they are busy looking for food to feed their families,” he says.


Student Isaac Yamering’ole, 55, decided to enroll at the centre after he saw elderly people under the cash transfer programme being conned by their children.

“After the aged sign up for the cash, their children take their portion and give something small to their parents, since they don’t know how to count. I don’t want to undergo the same problem when I attain the age and start receiving the cash,” he says.

Yamering’ole asked the government to supply them with uniform since they want to attend school fully.

Another student, Julius Moareng, 50, says they have decided to go back to class to help develop the region, which has been marginalised for many decades.

“Many developed countries and counties have developed because of education. Nobody makes decisions for them. They make their own decisions based on their priorities,” he says.

Moereng wants to know how to read and write so his children and grandchildren cannot deceive him. He asked the government to supply them with learning materials to enable them acquire academic skills.


Governor John Lonyangapuo said he set up the adult education centres to increase the number of learned people.

“During my period as the governor, I want to leave a legacy. I want to ensure almost all people know how to read and write, despite their age. I want to ensure this county has many professors like me,” he said.

Speaking a week after the programme was rolled out, he said he was happy with the outcome. “A single class has over 50 students,” he said.

He said his plan is to ensure that where there is a nursery school, an adult education centre must be set up. “Since early childhood education centre was devolved, I want to ensure we maximally use the structures, whereby adults will be using the classrooms in the afternoon,” he said.

The governor also asked the national government to chip in and support adult education, since the elderly also have a right to education.

“The government is concentrating on young people only. It should not draw boundaries but allow all Kenyans to access education,” he said. He asked the government to allow counties manage both nursery and adult education to help the aged acquire education.

Lonyangapuo promised to hire mobile teachers for the students during dry spells to prevent the students from missing classes. “During dry spell most adults will migrate with their animals in search of pasture and water. We shall be forced to follow them so they cannot miss classes,” the governor said.

He said the classes will help reduce cases of election malpractices, since the elderly will be able to vote for their favourite candidates.


Elites from the county have also thrown their weight behind county efforts in the fight to reduce illiteracy levels. Led by speaker Catherine Mukenyang, they have started sponsoring children from humble backgrounds to further their studies at various technical institutions.

 “High illiteracy levels have hindered development, and it may bar the government from achieving Vision 2030, if we don’t take measures to reduce the number,” she said.

Mukenyang said they decided to chip in since the county lacks personnel with technical skills. “Currently we are outsourcing persons with technical skills, and yet we have technical institutions that offer skills to our youths,” she said.

The speaker thanked the government for supporting technical institutions to help educate students who miss out on universities.

Mukenyang said she was triggered to support the students since some of them had lost hope in life after attaining low grades, and some had families to cater for with no permanent job. She is also supporting young mothers who had given birth before getting married and lacked anybody to help them.


Back in Alale, Yaran Yarang’ole, 60, arrives at the centre late but armed with a class one maths textbook.

He sits down breathing heavily, since he has walked over 2km to the centre. Asked by the teacher why he is late, he says he was grazing his animals and his grandson arrived late from school to relieve him.

When asked where he got the textbook, he says he borrowed it from his grandchild, who is in class one.

“I was amazed to see my grandson at a younger age reading and writing his name and mine. This encouraged me to attend classes so I can compete with him,” he says.

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