Anna Chebet should have completed her secondary school education last year and would have been looking forward to joining thousands of her age mates trooping to colleges and universities this year.
But the 18-year-old from Louinek location in Laikipia North, Laikipia County, has never seen the inside of a classroom. Born in a family of seven to pastoralists, the only life she has known is to walk across vast grasslands and ranches of Laikipia, herding cattle with her siblings and her ageing parents.
She doesn’t know how to count but out of sheer grit and ingenuity, she can tell when one goat or cow goes missing or gets left behind in the caravan.
Chebet’s story could mirror that of Tara Westover, an American writer, who in her best-selling memoir, Educated, recounts how she struggled against violence in a survivalist family and an emotional prison in the mountains of Idaho to break into the academic world and get her name on the rolls of Ivy League graduates. But unlike Tara, Chebet, who looks almost twice her age, is contented, torpid, unambitious and unbothered.
Yet she is only one among thousands in Laikipia North Constituency where more than half of the 32,310 inhabitants have never had any formal schooling. According to the 2019 census data, 49.2 per cent of the population in the constituency are illiterate. One in every two people cannot read or write because they have never been to school.
Laikipia North’s neighbours in Tiaty East are much worse with a 75 per cent illiteracy rate, while 77 per cent of residents of East Pokot constituency have never had formal schooling.
The Nation visited Laikipia North Constituency last week to find out how such a vast, fertile and livestock-rich area got so left behind in the scramble for education at a time when basic education is heavily subsidised and at a time when the government is pushing for 100 per cent transition from primary to secondary school in the whole republic, expanding learning facilities and infrastructure in schools and employing thousands of teachers every year.
Interviews with teachers and education stakeholders across Laikipia County, where, 24 per cent of residents have no formal education and 53 per cent have only been educated up to primary level, revealed a sense of nonchalance and detachment.
“What do you expect among the Pokots and Turkanas? Those people are ok in the fields grazing their cattle and hopping from one savanna to another,” said a principal of a school in Laikipia, who did not want to be identified over fears of her security.
County Director of Education Susan Murerwa was equally indifferent, saying curtly that the “provision of education in Laikipia North has been doing well.”
A senior education official at Jogoo House, Nairobi, said pastoral communities have always lagged behind on many scores and not just education, blaming the situation on a culture of ignorance, a penchant for early marriages, poor attitude to education and deadly incessant fights between communities over cattle.
Yet according to Governor Ndiritu Muriithi, these problems are only anecdotal and specious.
“Blaming early marriages, insecurity and pastoralism is to attack the symptom rather than the disease. It is to gloss over a great injustice committed against whole communities,” he said in his Nanyuki town office.
Mr Muriithi accuses the government of “systemic discrimination” against pastoralist communities and concentrating education resources in well-endowed counties and schools.
“If you have a situation where 50 per cent of the population has never been to school, how can that be alright? The government simply does not provide these communities with access to education and that is why the people live in ignorant bliss. If you are not providing schooling, what do you want the people to do?” the governor poses.
The constituency has eight secondary and 28 primary schools. According to the County Quality Assurance and Standards officer, Dr Amadi Mugasia, enrolment to secondary school in Laikipia North was 1,390 students in 2016, but the number has increased to 1,943 students this year.
Mr Muriithi said the schools are thinly spread out and the drop-out rate high.
“We have a whole location in Laikipia North with only one secondary school and which was registered only this month,” he says, referring to Louinek, which was built through funds from the county and the Constituency Development Fund.
The school sits on a desolate patch off the Rumuruti-Maralal Road. It has only two blocks of classes housing 25 Form Ones and 28 Form Twos (17 girls and 36 boys) all taught by four volunteer teachers employed by the Board of Management (BoM).
The whole school community, including the teachers, share one toilet and the institution has no office.
“We built Louinek Secondary after we realised the location didn’t have a single secondary school. Three others that neighbour it are more than 20 kilometres away from the location and spread out across the constituency,” Mr Muriithi says.
He adds that the school was established in 2016, but the government refused to register it since it did not have the mandatory enrolment of at least 50. The government also insisted on a title deed and a public health inspection certificate.
“The government simply made it harder for the school to start operations instead of easing the process. How can you establish a public school on public land earmarked for a learning institution by the government and the same the government asks you to present it with a title deed to prove land ownership? Who provides title deeds? Is it not the government?” he poses.
Mr Muriithi says he had to plead with the Basic Education PS to intervene and have the school registered and that the institution was only issued with a provisional registration certificate mid this month.
Still, the school, which sits on 18 acres, has no single government teacher and is run by volunteers whose attendance is as erratic and unpredictable as their salaries.
“I’m a jobless but qualified teacher trained to handle mathematics and chemistry, but I work under very difficult circumstances. Sometimes the students simply don’t turn up for classes especially because they know they have to spend the whole day hungry since we cannot provide any meals. I can’t teach chemistry practicals because we have no laboratory and sometimes I skip school if I get a casual job around,” says Mr Simon Loote, one of the volunteers.
BoM chairman Julius Seki dismisses claims that herders don’t value learning.
“If they didn’t value education, why would we have 53 students consistently attending such a decrepit school? It’s because they have hope education will give them an opportunity for a bright future,” he says, adding that early marriages were not as rampant as is generally believed.
Area chief Daniel Eshkon says no government official from the Education offices in Nanyuki or from Jogoo House has ever visited the school.
Mr Loote says many parents no longer found early marriages lucrative because “law enforcement has cracked the whip quite hard on it so most parents avoid it.”
It becomes a problem when you do not know how to keep your child engaged meaningfully because the schools are so far from here, says Mr Loote.
Mr Muriithi describes Louinek as the epitome of all that is wrong with government priorities.
“Why can’t the government spend more resources on poor areas to push up literacy levels instead of piling up funds in well-established national and county schools which are also supported by the alumni networks?” he poses.