What happened to Sydney Mulama sounds like something out of an episode of television reality show 1,000 Ways To Die.
Mulama was a Form Two student at Chesamisi High School in Bungoma County, a lad with valid dreams; dreams that an education would have certainly opened doors for.
However, on the evening of August 5 2013, everything changed. What should have been a routine visit to the toilet turned into a tragedy when the pit latrine he was using collapsed, burying him inside. He was reported missing at bed time when he failed to show up for roll call.
The authorities found his body hours later and had to dig him up using machines. And just like that, his dreams were snuffed out like a candle in the wind.
Following the unfortunate incident, an assessment of the facilities at the school was carried out. District Education Officer for Kimilili, Elisha Omala, says that as per the public health officers’ recommendations, newer, sturdier latrines were put up, as well as a block of water closets.
However, Kimilili District, and indeed the rest of Kenya, is not new to sinking toilets. Heavy rains, coupled with loose soils, make some areas tricky bases for foundations.
For instance, the same year Mulama died, three primary schools in Kimilili; Kibunde FYM Primary School, Kibingei RC Primary School and Namawanga Primary School, reported collapsed latrines. The only reason they did not make it to the news is that this time, there were no casualties involved.
Poor infrastructure in primary schools is a problem that the whole country is grappling with, although, admittedly, some counties suffer more than others. In January this year, students of Kimobo Primary School in Mount Elgon District were sent home after the school was closed down indefinitely due to health and safety concerns.
Public Health officials from the district labeled the school a hazard after discovering that it had only four latrines to serve the over 600 pupils. As a result, some pupils were forced to use the facilities in a nearby secondary school in a bid to avoid the impossible queues found at the latrines every break time.
When the Mwai Kibaki government rolled out the Free Primary Education programme in 2003, public schools faced an unprecedented surge in enrolment numbers. Children who had been previously locked out of school due to inability to pay fees now only had to walk to the nearest public primary school and start learning their ABCs. Besides, the government had made it a criminal offence for any parent to keep their child away from school.
In its zeal to provide education to the masses, the government glossed over one of the most obvious challenges that increased admission into schools would bring: infrastructure. Before the FPE, public primary schools barely had enough classrooms or toilets. After FPE, barely enough became grossly overstretched and congested.
In 2005, the government launched a five-year programme, the Kenya Education Sector Support Programme to outline and implement strategies that would guide infrastructure development in public primary schools, taking into account the bloated numbers and contextualizing the solutions to fit each school.
KESSP found that the biggest infrastructure challenges facing schools were inadequate classrooms, poor state of existing facilities such as toilets, limited number of primary schools and a discrepancy in needs per school. Data gleaned from the 2003 census revealed that there was a shortfall of 43,000 classrooms countrywide, and of the ones that were there, 32 per cent were found to be below standard. These figures, however, were thought to be on the conservative side.
To tackle these challenges, the government proposed a programme that would see 4,000 of the more needy schools in Kenya receive between Sh100,000 and Sh200,000 per year, depending on the enrolment numbers of the school. The funds would be geared towards infrastructure development. A further 970 schools would receive additional grants to construct 3,880 classrooms, 9,700 toilets and upgrade water supplies.
Also included in the larger KESSP plan was the proposal to construct 165 new primary schools based on priority needs in the country. (Efforts to reach ministry officials to shed light on how far the country has come since KESSP was launched were unsuccessful).
More than eight years after the launch of KESSP, the reality on the ground, however, indicates that infrastructure remains a headache for learning institutions. And the Kenya Primary School Head Teachers Association chairman, Joseph Karuga, is worried:
“Forget inadequate desks, some schools are completely wall-less,” he says. These are schools with no classrooms at all, so learning takes place under trees. Physiological needs affect learning as well, and may be part of the reason behind poor performance in public schools as compared to private ones, says Karuga.
This crippling need is what has informed the decision by companies, such as Safaricom, and charity organisations such as Red Cross and ActionAid, to take Corporate Social Responsibility to educational institutions in a bid to provide relief for some of the worst affected schools.
On March 4 this year, for instance, the Safaricom Foundation constructed an ablution block at Imara Primary School, Kayole at a cost of Sh6 million. The school now boasts 16 new boys’ toilets and 21 new girls’ units.
“The Sh1,020 that the government provides for each child is barely enough to buy books, leave alone take care of a school’s infrastructure needs,” laments Karuga. “This is why, despite the fact that primary education is theoretically free, some schools are forced to charge a levy per child per term to build and maintain classrooms and toilets.”
Such is the reality at Lavington Primary School in Nairobi, where parents pay Sh1,500 per child per term for maintenance of infrastructure. However, Musau Ndunda, chairman of the Kenya National Association of Parents, is of the opinion that infrastructure development is solely a government responsibility, and that parents should not pay even a cent to ensure their children get quality education.
“The Education Act 2013 very clearly outlines everyone’s responsibilities,” he says. “The government must build and equip schools while the parent is tasked only with ensuring that the child goes to school.”
Even with the country’s seemingly bad performance in equipping the education sector, a report published in 2012 by United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) notes that Kenya’s commitment towards funding education has not waned.
The report states in part: “The economic downturn does not seem to have adversely affected education spending: 6.7 per cent of Kenya’s GNP was spent on education in 2010, increasing from the 5.4 per cent spent in 1999. This strong spending helped increase the primary net enrolment ratio from 62 per cent in 1999 to 83 per cent in 2009.”
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), however, Kenya is a long way from meeting the prescribed sanitation standards. The recommended government ratio for physical facilities in schools is 25 girls and 30 boys per latrine. It is estimated that in some places, 100 pupils share one latrine, which exposes them to infections associated with lack of proper sanitation.
Parents enroll their charges in schools trusting that it is a safe environment where they can grow up and get an education. In reality, the school has become just one more place for a child to contract a deadly disease, or worse, die in a freak accident. Like one Sydney Mulama.