Last Wednesday I received a call from a parent in my village appealing for a donation towards her son’s fees at a local day secondary school.
I politely turned down her request at first, explaining to her that education in schools such as the one her son attends has since been declared free by the government.
She said she had heard about that from other people before but wondered what they were on about.
After all she had consistently paid school fees for the past three years for her son now in Form Four despite her struggles raising the money.
The latest fees demand was particularly critical because it would determine whether her son ends up being registered as a candidate for the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examination later in the year.
I was tempted to tell her that even the exam should be free, but declined, having sensed growing despair in the illiterate mother’s voice.
I sent something just enough to have the boy readmitted, but advised that she insist on a receipt and a fee structure.
When I got home later that evening, I called the boy over to get some clarity about his fees situation.
Turns out the over Sh8,000 arrears that had got him and others sent back home the previous day is actually for the school feeding programme.
Students who pay the cash promptly are issued with meal cards and are served with a cup of uji (porridge) during the 10am break and a plate of madondo (beans) with rice or ugali mboga (vegetables with maize meal) for lunch.
However, the payment is never receipted.
Those who don’t pay promptly or fall into arrears are initially excluded from the meals but aren’t allowed to go back home or to food kiosks outside the school for lunch.
When at some point they are deemed to have taken too long to pay or to be showing no signs of paying at all, the money is demanded with menaces, including being sent away from school.
The case of our local school most probably mirrors the situation in many others across the country where there is a huge gulf between public declarations about the government’s subsidised secondary education and the implementation in schools.
Only last week, President Uhuru Kenyatta, keen to emphasise his administration’s commitment to development, told a crowd in Kajiado gathered to view his motorcade to Arusha, Tanzania, that education in day secondary schools was free.
He couldn’t have been further from the truth. In most schools "clever" head teachers, in collusion with boards of management, have simply baptised fees as feeding programmes or other services and kept the gravy train chugging.
No wonder the Ministry of Education found that about 300,000 students didn’t take up their Form One slots at the expiry of the first reporting deadline on January 11 this year.