By Francis Silvester, director of a school in rural Kenya
I run a private school called Tower of Light in a rural place commonly known as Yala Swamp 17km away from Siaya town in Kenya. It is a registered school with the Ministry of Education. On March 16th the President closed down all the learning institutions in the country because of the Coronavirus. My concern is that this might waste all the education efforts the children of this village have made. I worry it could send them back to their old life where girls get married and boys have to go back to the lake to fish.
I started this school because after my diploma in education in 2007 and completing my college education, I wanted to be a teacher, but the Kenyan government was not hiring at that time. I wanted to help the children of Yala Swamp to read and write, because most of them were not going to school. Many girls were getting married at just 12 years old.
I ran a door-to-door campaign about the importance of children going to school. With the small fee of 100 Kenyan Shillings ($1) parents brought as a small payment, I was able to rent a room and I started Tower of Light with five children. The more I raised awareness in this village, the more they brought their children to school. I worked hard and bought a small piece of land. Using old iron sheets, I built some classrooms. Some children are still in rented rooms because we have not enough funds to build more classes. Today there are 160 children, 70% girls and 30% boys, with 13 teachers teaching from ECDE to Grade 8. Nine of the teachers are female and four are male.
The shut-down of schools has added more complications for the children we were teaching. Those in Grade 8 are to sit for their national exams at the end of the year. The school is not connected to any electricity and there is no internet connectivity and therefore the Grade 8 students in this village are really disadvantaged compared to those who are in town and able to learn online.
Due to the virus most of the school-girls in this village are also at risk. Most of their parents are not working and therefore men take advantage of them in return for money or food to take to their families.
Life for the teachers has also not been easy as most of them depended entirely on what the parents were paying. Most of the parents are peasant farmers and a few of them work in a sugarcane farm nearby. They cannot pay if the schools are closed.
Because most of these teachers have families, they have had to look for odd jobs like fishing in the nearby lakes. Most of them are going hungry with their children. As well as the school closures, there is also a curfew from 7pm to 5am every day for 30 days. This has made life unbearable for teachers as they cannot even look for jobs far away from where they stay.
The school at Yala Swamp faces a lot of challenges even in normal time, like the lack of good classrooms, a programme to feed children that are going hungry every day, enough desks and tables, adequate latrines, and enough funds to pay teachers regularly.
The challenges are so many but at least we are somewhere in terms of giving quality education to children who would not have gone to school otherwise. It is the best school in the region and it was named the top school in the national exams in a division of 100 schools.
I have seen how these students can be lifted up through education to realise their potential and acquire skills that are needed for real life. They would also help this village and the whole community. I just have to hope this virus does not threaten their dreams for too long.