Long before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in Kenya, leading to abrupt shutdown of schools in mid-March, Duncan Onyang’ and his three siblings were already disadvantaged.
Stepping out of the classroom each evening meant the end of learning for the day for the pupils at Ochok Kadongo Primary School, located about 25 kilometres west of Kenya’s third-largest city of Kisumu.
With the tiny family house in Kawango village not connected to the power grid, studying or writing class assignments after school remains difficult for the siblings who typically get back home at about 6pm — not long before sunset.
The family depends on a dim and smoky kerosene lamp for lighting, which is not ideal for studies.
“When we return home from school in the evening, we help with a few errands and house chores then have supper and sleep. We can’t study in the dark,” the 15-year-old Onyang’ tells me at his parents’ home.
And with the schools now shut-down until next year due to Covid-19, the hope of progressing in education has greatly been dented for these children just like millions of others in poverty-struck parts of rural Kenya without access to basic services such as electricity, running water and Internet connectivity.
“I got help from the teachers but they went away when schools were shut. I try reading on my own during day but it is difficult because I don’t understand some of the things in the textbooks and the teachers are not here to help. There are also domestic chores I have to help my family with,” Onyang’ further says.
More than 18 million students in Kenya have been affected by the closure of schools to curb the spread of coronavirus.
Education Secretary George Magoha on July 7, 2020, announced that this year’s national examinations had been cancelled and that the schools would remain closed for the rest of the year.
The prolonged closure of schools due to the pandemic has, however, exposed deep inequality, with children in poverty-stricken rural areas being the most vulnerable.
While children in urban areas like Nairobi have largely continued with learning through radio, TV or the Internet, most of their counterparts in the rural areas remain locked out.
Official estimates by the state-run Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development show that more than 53 per cent of students in Kenya lack access to remote lessons, either because they do not have the necessary equipment such TVs, radios or computers or they are outside of broadcast range and Internet coverage. Smartphones are also beyond the reach of most rural communities.
This scenario is worsened by the fact that only 26 per cent of Kenya’s rural population is connected to electricity compared to 88.4 per cent in the urban areas. At least 6.6 per cent of the population is, however, still dependent on kerosene tin lamps for lighting while another 2.8 per cent rely on firewood for lighting.
Western Kenya is among the disadvantaged parts of the country, long marginalised by successive governments since independence. The region’s population has also been ravaged for decades by high cases of HIV/Aids, which left in its wake deep poverty and orphaned children.
When I visited western Kenya about a week ago, the inequality between school children there and their counterparts in urban areas like Nairobi was glaring.
Except for a handful of privileged children trying to read textbooks or follow lessons on TV and radio, learning has stopped completely for the majority of them in the region who now pass time helping with household chores.
Coincidentally, it was crop harvest season when I visited and I couldn’t but notice that most family farms were filled by children helping out.
Agriculture as the economic mainstay in the region and most families spend much of their time in the farms.
“With schools closed indefinitely, I spend much of my time helping with household duties instead of just sitting idle. I have to keep busy and save my family the pain of hiring farmhands” says 17-year-old Joseph Osir as he helps his grandmother Jael Aduwo to harvest a crop of millet in Holo village in Kisumu County.
I similarly found Silas Adiyo, 16, and Christine Akinyi, 15, helping their mother, Caroline Achieng to harvest a crop of maize on the family farm in Holo area on the outskirts of Kisumu.
“Sadly, the children were forced out of classrooms by the coronavirus but I am also appreciative of the helping hand they are providing here at the farm. I would have been forced to hire labour but they have assisted me and that is cost avoided. The savings can buy us food instead” says Achieng.
It costs an average Sh250 to hire a farm labourer in the area per day and the overall costs can be high, especially if the farm is of large acreage, requiring many hands.
When I arrived at Onyang’s family home, I found him helping to crush some stones aided by his younger brother, Fidel Castro. The family draws some money from the sale of the stones, which are used for construction.
“This is not for our pockets, we are doing it for the family” 15-year-old Castro says as they pound on the stones using tiny hammers, before retreating to a tree shade where they join their sisters, Bevan Atieno and Michell Atieno, in reading from school textbooks.
About 30 kilometres away in Dunga area on the southern outskirts of Kisumu city, I also found groups of children herding cattle or fishing on the shores of the adjacent Lake Victoria, the world’s second-largest freshwater lake.
“Without any teaching or learning going on, I do this for fun and to pass time. On lucky days I get something to put on the family table” says John Otieno, as he cast a fishnet.
Contrastingly, in Nairobi, privileged students, especially those enrolled in privately owned schools continue with online classes. Some have even sat for their mid-term exams online.
“The children in urban areas have an unfair advantage over ours in rural areas but we do the best we can to support our children.
“Right now I encourage my daughter to study hard using her textbooks. She may not have access to online lessons but the textbooks can help stay in step.
“I have even invested in cheap solar lighting to help her study even at night,” says Ruth Atieno, mother of 17-year-old Goretty Adhiambo, a Form Two student at Orando Secondary School in West Kisumu.
Despite this kind of inequality, children in both urban and rural Kenya are enrolled to sit the same national examinations.
Close to two million candidates had been registered to sit for secondary and primary education national examinations this year.
The exams by the Kenya National Examinations Council have since been pushed to next year on uncertainty about the coronavirus pandemic. Final year exams, usually taken in October and November.
This work was supported by the National Geographic Society’s Covid-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists.
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