When world leaders met last week in New York to review the progress of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) action plan, Kalobeyei Settlement Primary School may not have featured anywhere.
But located deep in the heart of Turkana County, this school is an inspirational tale of not just resilience and hope but also of incredible transformation and integration of locals and refugees in the area.
The school is making massive strides in promoting the key pillars of SDGs in gender equity, food security and provision of quality education for all — against the backdrop of multiple challenges.
The school has its genesis in 2016 when Kalobeyei Settlement was established to host people fleeing war in their homeland and to decongest the vast Kakuma Refugee Camp, which is only 20 kilometres away.
When it started, Kalobeyei Primary targeted only 2,500 learners. At the time, there were no other schools in the area.
Within a year, the number of pupils had swelled to an unsustainable 10,603 pupils, causing a serious strain on resources.
Inarguably the country’s most populous primary school, Kalobeyei was the first learning institution that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) built in the area.
The school is run jointly by UNHCR and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF).
Learners here are of Ethiopian, Congolese, Burundian, Ugandan and Somali descent.
South Sudanese constitute more than 70 percent while Kenyans make up only one percent of the population.
Until two years ago, Kalobeyei was a dreadfully hot wilderness with minimal human activity.
Pupils and teachers alike had to make do with tin classrooms and offices, contending with the sweltering heat of the desert-like weather conditions in the area.
Sandstorms would occasionally blow the roof away, putting the lives of learners and teachers in danger.
Two years down the line, five other primary schools, including Morning Star and Friends, have come up to serve the 38,000 refugees in the settlement.
Yet Kalobeyei remains the school of choice for most learners.
Things though have remarkably transformed since 2016. New safer stone block classrooms and offices have been put up.
These facilities are cooler and more spacious, with desks and chalkboards provided for smooth learning.
This way, the school is somewhat offering quality education, and satisfying the requirements of SDG 4 on quality education.
The average school population in the area is 4,000 pupils. But unlike Kalobeyei which has considerably good infrastructure, other surrounding schools lack enough facilities to aid learning. Others do not have all the classes to Standard Eight.
The teacher to pupil ratio at Kalobeyei is however frighteningly small due to acute understaffing.
The school population currently stands at 5,121 learners, attended to by a paltry 32 teachers. Mathematically, each teacher has roughly 160 learners in their class at any given time.
Of these, eight are attached to the ECDE section of the school, which has 1,143 pupils, according to the head teacher Lilian Cherotich.
Ms Elga Nakiru, for instance, teaches one of the three streams in Standard One. Her class has a total 216 learners. Her pupils sit on the floor for lack of desks.
“Sitting on the floor allows more learners in the room. Desks tend to occupy so much space,” Ms Nakiru explained.
To maintain order during a lesson, a class as big as this has to engage more than three teachers, two to control the pupils as one teaches.
In line with SDG 5 that seeks to ensure gender equality, Kalobeyei Primary hopes to achieve parity by enrolling as many girls as boys.
“One of our objectives in our improvement plan is to retain more girls in school and to ensure that they transition to the next level of their education like their male counterparts,” said Ms Cherotich.
To do this, the school has collaborated with the government and donors to provide sanitary towels – which most girls cannot afford.
In 2018, 580 girls compared to 546 boys were enrolled at the pre-school level.
In the primary section, however, the ratio of learners is in favour of boys. There are 13 boys for every seven girls in the school.
Quite uniquely, school uniform is not compulsory at the school.
Only a handful of pupils here have uniform, but which is hackneyed from overuse – this was given to them by UNHCR when the school started.
To relieve strain on resources in the school, UNHCR and LWF started a voluntary decongestion programme in 2017.
So far, more than 5,000 learners have transferred from Kalobeyei Primary to the neighbouring schools in the settlement.
“We made the exercise voluntary so that leaners who chose to remain could go on with their studies here. The strain on our resources has significantly reduced since the exercise began,” Ms Cherotich noted.
Enforcing discipline in a school as massive as Kalobeyei is not a piece of cake. That the pupils are from diverse nationalities only worsens the situation, according to the head teacher.
“Some of our learners still suffer from trauma, having run from war. Some lost their parents and siblings and even entire families. There are those who witnessed their families being hacked to death,” Ms Cherotich said.
Besides counselling, the school puts emphasis on the study of Kiswahili. The majority of learners here speak either Arabic, French or their native languages.
“Coming from different nationalities, our learners are not conversant with Kiswahili and English. We rely on teachers from their communities and who can speak their native language,” Ms Cherotich told Saturday Nation.
One such teacher is Mr Lotino Lino, the Class Eight teacher. Mr Lino, a South Sudanese, is only 17 years.
He heads a class where half the learners are older than him, with some almost twice as old as him.
Kalobeyei has only four Teachers Service Commission (TSC) teachers, but all who are employed by LWF.
When Education Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed toured the school in July this year, she promised that the government would post more teachers to the school to plug the massive deficit.
Furthermore, plans are underway to convert the private learning institution into a public primary school.
In spite of its numerous shortcomings, the school has seen fast-paced development only two years since its inception.
Through the “Tusome” programme, for instance, the Ministry of Education and Unicef donated Mathematics, English and Kiswahili books to learners in Standards One, Two and Three this year to enhance numeracy and literacy skills.
The learner to book ratio is now one pupil per book.
Being a mostly refugee community school, Kalobeyei does not discriminate against learners on the basis of age.
The oldest pupil, Nicksone Manase, is 52 years old. A husband and father, Manase is in the same class (Standard Seven) with his son.
Kalobeyei follows the Kenyan education curriculum. So far, only one batch of pupils has sat the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education exams.
In 2017, the school posted an impressive mean score of 207.67 marks. But Ms Cherotich believes that this year’s 459 candidates will perform better.