High School in Kenya: The Challenges

Although free Primary education has been a big step forward, the truth is that the country still faces extraordinary challenges and the majority of students cannot finish the line the government now allows them to start.

primary school > high school > university education > employment

During my first days in-country I begin to hear these stories from students, teachers and their parents. We hear stories of families who save for years to afford the first year of high school fees only to be unable to pay the second. Although there is no official count, high school drop-out rates in Kenya are astronomical. Students study each semester unsure if they will have the money to return for the next.

Illness, unemployment and drought combine to create a daunting trinity of obstacles. There are three dominant narratives:

(1) There are stories of parents passing away. It is often the oldest and most responsible of their children that are enrolled in school and this first narrative ends with that student dropping out, for any work they can find, in order to feed their younger siblings.

(2) There are stories of parents unable to pay school fees after losing jobs

(3) and farmers whose annual income is sunk when the rains don’t come.

Rarely do we hear stories of students who fade away from apathy. Schools in Kenya become great gathering places for children whose homes are scattered in the mountains, it is a guaranteed meal they may not have otherwise. The mind wakes up there, and there are books. The more communities we visit, the more I realize that the schools are the happiest places in town, a center for optimism; and they are quickly evolving into a marker of prestige for those who attend.

This if from a high school student in Machakos, named Joy. In addition to being undoubtedly ambitious, Joy will be one of the first students to join iMentor Kenya this winter.

“We are three in our family. My mother died when I was in Standard Four. Due to the effects of that, my father became jobless and harsh to us. This made my sister decide to get married. My brother went never to come back again. Due to this I couldn’t afford school fees. I stayed idle for the whole year until village members decided to look for funds so that I could learn. Because I passed very well. Then in the year 2001 I joined Form 1 at Kyangala High School. The fees were offered for the first and second years. Afterwards, I don’t know what happened. Right now, in January, I’m expected to have 38,000 for balance and for next term.

I’m very good in school. I score the highest at class work. I’m cool with very best mentionable contact the teachers choose me as the School Headgirl. The principal understands my situation and just keeps me in school with the big balance. I’m very good in games, this year I managed to reach the District level in cross-country. I’m soccer girl’s team Captain and this year we went to Divisionals. I like playing soccer and running. I’m very hard working that even after that idle year I can manage to pass. I’m working very hard in computer as my compulsory subject to become a Dr. in Computer Engineering and Maintenance. My dreams are that one day my habitat will not be Kenya anymore and it’s my prayer to attain all this. I would like to be the light in our family. As we talk now none of my family members is supporting me. But I have devoted myself to work hard so that I can show a lot of concern to them, help them and lead them in the right direction.

Also, I am practicing so I may get a chance to compete in Athletics with those British. In fact, I don’t have time to rest."

Day 2: School 2 (Kyandili Primary School)

The next morning we are up and off to our second school tour, this time to a Primary school in Machakos where Jackson teaches.

We are there because Jane is meeting with the principal about the possibility of rebuilding classrooms (they haven't been renovated in 60 years, since the school was first constructed) and we learn about the schools new innovative program which allows parents who cannot afford school fees to help in the construction.

Since all Kenyan schools are on holiday this month, we do not meet the students. But we do get a great tour of the school and a chance to talk with the principal. Below are some pictures from the trip. This school, located in Machakos, is similar in look and feel to many of the schools we visit on our trip. See pictures below, including the way the school is putting rain water to good use and one of the coolest basketball hoops I've seen in a long time...

The classrooms...

These tanks collect rainwater. Like most schools in rural Kenya, this school does not have running water.

The playground..students learn the art of basketball, without the bank shot.

Although all classes are taught in English, students learn both of Kenya's national languages, English and Kiswahili. For students from tribal communities (many have their own languages) this means knowing three languages by the age of 7.

After discussing the renovation we leave the school, and its imposing backdrop, looking back up the mountain to Kyangala High School.

Curious what it takes to renovate two classrooms in Kenya? About $4,400.

Budget below...
(Note: 70 Kenyan Shillings per $1)


IRON SHEETS 60* 2 = 120
CEMENT 140 BAGS @ 600
ROOFING TIMBER 4² * 2² - 205 X 2
ROOFING TIMBER 3² * 2 640 ft @ 210
Y12 BARS 60 @ 570
Y8 BARS 28 @ 350
2 METAL DOORS 76¹ * 30¹ @ 3000
6 METAL WINDOWS 4 * 5 @ 2,000
RIDGES 12 @ 100
PADLOCKS 2 @ 150
FACE BOARD 148 ft @ 35
PUTTY 24 KG @ 30
SAND 2 LORRIES @ 6,000
LABOUR @ 40,000


We are on our way now back to Nairobi for the night, to prepare for our trip to Sereolipi. Everyone talks about the roads in Kenya, it is the national bemoan. Before we reach Nairobi, I get my first taste, as a lorry gets stuck in an over-wet patch of road and we are held up for an hour, unable to pass. I learn about the teenagers who come out with the earthworms after the rain. They know these patches of roads, those notorious for flooding and for the sinking of back tires. They walk long distances, shovel in hand, and wait by the side of the road for the vehicularly unfortunate. When the time is right, they will dig and pull you out, working expertly and in a team, in hopes of a tip. Need and service, entrepreneurship blooms...

A typical road in Machakos

Education in Kenya: The Basics

Like few other places in the world, the Kenyan education system is brand new again, having begun ambitious plans to reshape itself in 2003. Under the Ministry of Education, the country is currently working toward the twins goals of (1) “universal primary education by 2005 and (2) education for all by 2015.”

Some background…

Before 2003, a “school tax” ($650 a year) that far exceeded the average annual income of most Kenyan families ($371 annually per capita) prevented the majority of the country’s children, especially those form rural areas, from attending school.

In January 2003, the government of Kenya introduced free primary education for all children (students still must pay fees for school uniforms). This initiative was followed by a huge influx of students, estimated at 1.8 million, many of whom were the first members of their family to attend school. Kenya now spends slightly more than 30% of its national budget on education.

8th grade, it all comes down to this…

8th grade is the Super Bowl in the Kenyan education system and culminates in an exam that makes the SAT look like a sudoku puzzle taken for extra credit. Similar to the US, Kenya is on an 8-4-4 system-with middle school and elementary school rolled into one-and 8th grade culminates with the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) exam, given in English. The exam determines what type of high school students can attend (there are three, below).

The discrepancy in the quality of resources, facilities and teachers at these schools is dramatic (in the schools we visit, at the bottom of the spectrum: 3 students per desk, 3 to a text book, 1-100 teacher-to-student ratio). The link between which type of schools students attend and success markers—college enrollment, employment, income, depth of knowledge—is rock-solid. The test is designed as a way to manage the county’s inadequate resources, to (at the age of 13) separate the wheat from the chaff, and to propel students with “promise.” The exam is a way to use the countries resources to cultivate the few.

The twin blind-spots here seem to be:

(1) the system does not take into account the quality of the Primary schools and the education students receive there. There is a big difference between schools in rural, often tribal communities like Sereolipi and the comparatively affluent neighborhoods of Nairobi.

(2) These kids are young. Visiting these schools, I think back to when I was in 8th grade, when my sole and burning ambition was not to be fat. Additionally, a large majority of the 1.8 million students enrolled in Primary school are 1st generation learners, the first members of their family ever to go to school. It takes time, encouragement, maturity and role models to develop academic skills and ambitions.

Still, we meet many young students in Primary schools driven and focused. Working the system. Fighting back against the wind.

Footnote: These exam results are also used to evaluate Primary Schools and the allocation of government resources, schools with higher scores get more, deepening the divide.

The Division…

There are three classifications of secondary schools in Kenya.

  • District Schools—This is the catch-all rung on the schooling ladder and accepts all students. Students who have attended these schools score the lowest on the nation-wide 8th grade exams. Although there seem to be no official numbers, it is safe to say that an extremely small number of students who attend these schools go on to college.

  • Provincial Schools—These are very good schools, accepting only students who score 380 or higher (out of 500) on the 8th grade placement exam.

  • National Schools—These schools house the best and brightest of Kenya’s young scholars. Most of the students go on to a University education. Many of the members of Kenya's current government attended national schools.

The Numbers...

  • 1.8 Million: Number of students enrolled in Primary school.
  • 40%: Official, nation-wide transition rate from Primary to secondary school. Schools we visit cite this number to be much, much lower.
  • 6%: Number of Kenyans who said they attended high school, in a recent nation-wide survey of all Provinces and Districts. 64% of these people identified themselves as working, although 41% reported that they were "self-employed."
  • 7: Number of public universities in Kenya (there are 5 private universities).
  • 40,000 Number of Kenyans currently enrolled in University (.1% of the total population).

For a good, basic overview of the Kenyan education system, see the Kenya Institute of Education.


Day 1 Finale: Jackson's Ranch

After lunch, we say goodbye at the school and start our next drive, halfway back down and around the other side of the mountain to where Jackson lives, to Jackson’s compound, what seems to me a piece of land that showcases a local and evolving Kenyan success. In rural Kenya, it is not the size of the plot—land is everywhere—but rather what you are able to do with it. Jackson's is a wonderful place, built like steps into the mountain. The same piece of land where he was raised and where he planned to leave until his mother, in her last months, had a dream and advised him to stay.

Jackson’s driveway operates like a Main Street for his own small town. On one side of the dirt drive there is: a hut for laundry and cooking, anoth
er for storage and a cement house where Jackson lives with his wife Elizabeth and his three children. On the other side there are wonderful trees I cannot name, a tea-and-conversation-veranda of sorts, another mud-and-stick hut for visitors, a regal-looking turkey, a house for his goats and a coup for his chicken. Main Street is stopped at a dead-end by a cement two-bedroom house, where Jackson’s brother lives.

One step down the mountain are rows of Jackson’s crops (he is studying with a famous Kenyan botanist), both a garden for Elizabeth’s kitchen and herbs for his clinic. One step down from the crops is a half-built, five-room house constructed of homemade bricks and when we arrive the construction crew—a t
eenage mason and two seventy year-old old women—are packing up for the day. This is where Jackson, after graduating Divinity school in December, will move his family.

There is no time to rest so we do not rest. Jackson wants to hike and we do, a couple of miles back up the mountain, to see a house he is building for a recent widow gone homeless, also a plot of land he has purchased and may turn into a eco-friendly campground and cultural learning
center. The view is for miles and the sun goes down. I learn that Safari Ants, a trail of which I almost step in, can gnaw through a human arm, if they are left undisturbed and given enough time. I learn that enough time is about one week.

We return to the compound at sundown, gather in Jackson’s home for dinner. While we wait for dinner, more of the obvious dawning on me, this time—no electricity, no running water. Paraffin lamps are lit. Tea is served out of the Thermos that is absolutely ubiquitous in Kenya. It is 7 or 8 PM, perfectly dark, and I have much assimilating to do. Jackson and Jane work at their cell phones, text messages and emails and returning of messages. I go to bed marveling at the challenges: how short the day that ends at 7, how hard it is to go from one place to another. I go to sleep fatigued by Jackson’s ambition, baffled and impressed into a genuine state of wonder about the ways in which this country moves...

See all of the Photos

Kyangala High School: The Celebration

Jane and I are taken to a large building on the far side of "campus." Maybe 200 people are there for the celebration. Parents and high school students and elementary school students and members of the community. The greeting when we enter the hall is mind-blowing. We are seated on a large stage, looking out at the crowd.

And then the entertainment begins. Poems are performed. Original songs and performed. Speeches are given. All of them, literally, are amazing.

See it for yourself...

The Celebration

After the ceremony, we are treated to a feast with maybe twenty community members, including the village chief...What an amazing way to start Day 1 of our trip!

The New Computer Lab

It is time to break out the hardware and we are shown to the computer lab that members of the community have constructed in anticipation of the computer donation. It is a long, low building attached to a row and classrooms and the Headmaster and teachers are clearly proud of what they’ve put together, the locking case to hold the computers, the long row of counters and stools which will become their first computer terminals, the windows specially built to keep out dust. There are apologies for the fresh paint that comes off on our hands and clothes.

Jane and I open up the computers and everyone gets a first look.

We attempt to explain the internet, from scratch.

I anoint Kenya's first iMentor instructor.

And then we are rushed off, before maybe we have that internet explanation nailed down. We are told that we are "wanted in the hall."

The Surprises Begin

The Headmaster and the computer teacher, they are not alone. Although we see only a handful of people during the hour climb to the school, we now approach a crowd of people in the road. They are gathered outside the gates of the school and form a fold around the car as the gates pull back and we see what has been waiting for us inside—maybe 200 people assembled for our greeting.

The school is no longer on holiday.

The high school is there.

The primary school is there.

The PTA is there.

The school’s principal, Board of Directors, and the village tribal chiefs are there.

What later becomes apparent—the obvious thing that dawns on me only slowly and hours into the ceremonies—are the incredible distances each person has traveled to greet us. Hours of walking to be there when we arrived, the hours home after we leave.

See all of the Photos

Kyangala High School

Jackson has been working with Jane Newman, my host and guide, to identify schools for iMentor to partner with. Today he is accompanying us Kyangala High School, a high school enrolling 300 students and located another hour up and into the mountains. If Jackson knows what is in store for us, he does not let on.

This is what Jackson tells us. Jackson tells us that we are going to meet with the school principal and computer teacher. He tells us that Kenyan schools went on mid-term holiday last week, and even though students do not return until early January, that the principal was going to try to arrange for a few of them to be there to meet us. When I comment on how remote it is, that we have seen few homes along the way, Jackson tells us about the long distances students must walk to attend school and he tells us about the 4 kilometers he walks each day, to and from the Primary school where he teaches. What we know is that we are going to hand off 20 computers which have been generously donated by Pfzier. That the school has constructed a special “computer lab” to house them. That we are going to figure out strategies for how to integrate the internet and iMentor into the school's curriculum.

What follows is what Jackson does not tell us.

Meet Jackson

Jackson, born and raised on the Machakos farm where he is now raising his own family, is a man of the Kenyan renaissance, employed three times over. He is a teacher in a Machakos Primary School, a farmer, and a healer—he runs an alternative medicine clinic in town, treating boils, arthritis, malaria and skin diseases with recipes he has spent years collecting from elder healers and with a mixture of herbs and plants he picks from the mountains. In his spare time, Jackson is building houses for recent widows and working to secure land deeds for people who live on the farms that surround his own.


Day 1: Machakos

Day one starts off in a flourish and is full of surprises, to say the least. After leaving New York Saturday night I arrive in Nairobi, via London, Sunday around midnight. Monday morning we are up at sunrise and off to the town of Machakos, about an hour into the hills outside of Nairobi. Here we meet Jackson.


Meet Jane!

I am picked up from the airport by Jane Newman, the woman who will be both my host and my guide for the next three weeks.

Six months ago, Jane and I had met for maybe an hour in New York. Although I was struck immediately by her passion and intelligence, nothing could have prepared me for the generosity of the woman I was about to meet, the number of development projects in her charge, or the drive with which she attacks them all—simultaneously in the one big burst that seems her trademark.

She is known, from the Samburu warriors in Sereolipi to the fisherman of Lamu, as "Mama Jane."

Born in the UK, the only woman in her graduate program for Marketing, and employed in the upper ranks of NYC advertising, how did it happen?

I get bits of Jane's story over the next three weeks.

The Career
Prior to living in Kenya, Jane worked for many years in advertising in London and New York. At Chiat/Day she established the first account planning department in the United States. During the next ten years the agency grew from $30 million to $1 billion in billings. Later she was a founding partner of Merkley Newman Harty, one of the fastest growing start-up ad agencies in America. During her ad career, Jane worked with companies including IBM, American Express, Reebok and General Electric (just to name a few), as well as on campaigns to stop drug abuse, uphold human rights and protect children at risk from poverty.

The Retirement
Jane retired from advertising in 1999 and decided to travel the world, spending two years on a line that wove extensively through both Asia and Africa. On a drive from Ethiopia to South Africa, an ambitious and popular tourist trek, Jane's car breaks down. She is in Sereolipi, but maybe doesn't know that yet. She goes and sits on the side of the road and it is not long before George (the school's principal and Sereolipi's shop owner) introduces himself. He asks her about the book she is reading; puts her up in his home for the three days it takes to acquire the necessary car parts. It gives them time to talk, for Jane to be simultaneously stuck with the kindness of the Samburu community and the desperate state of education in Sereolipi. Like so many successful people, Jane has a kind of innate repulsion for the gap between potential and execution (in this case, the desire for education in Sereolipi and the simple resources that are simply unavailable). Jane's life changes.

Jane Unleashed, on Kenya
So things do not go exactly as planned. Jane does not make it all of the way around the world. She goes home to New York City, cannot escape nagging thoughts of Sereolipi, steels herself into a decision and moves to Kenya.

That was five years ago. This is what has been keeping Jane busy:

  • She designed and founded the Sereolipi Nomadic Education Trust, called the Thorn Tree Project. In just a couple of years, this project became maybe the single largest component in Sereolipi's extraordinary education boom. Much more on the fascinating Thorn Tree story HERE.
  • She began working with Kadija Rama on Pepo la Tumaini, a project which provides education and support to children orphaned by AIDS. (While I am visiting Jane, the proposal she wrote for the project secures a $150,00 grant)
  • After witnessing what she felt was a trend of Western medicine eclipsing traditional healing methods in many Kenyan communities, Jane organized a project to collect the myriad practices from many healers and publish them in a book designed to inspire the next generation of Kenyan health professionals.
  • She is leading the charge (a relentless ringing on the phones of Government officials) to test for potential well-water drilling sites in Ndanyo Wasin. The lack of running water in Ndanyo Wasin and Sereolipi leads to too many unnecessary deaths each year (and is the feature of a feature in a small UK paper while I am there).
  • She raises money (and donates personally) to rebuild classrooms in schools she visits throughout Kenya. An example HERE.
  • And she has practiced a sort of Mama Jane micro-finance (grants instead of loans) with two womens groups and one group of men in Lamu. Jane makes grants to entrepreneurial groups, allowing them to launch small businesses (Example: Jane purchased a boat for a group of fisherman, booming their business).
And this is not to mention Kizingoni Beach, 24 acres of beach front property Jane owns and runs in Lamu, Kenya. Kizingoni is one of Jane's largest Kenyan endeavors (and also a little piece of heaven on earth). Even in her for-profit projects, Jane makes a large splash in the community. Kizingoni is built using 100% local materials and workers, creating dozens of jobs previously unavailable to Lamu residents. After the houses are built, Jane employs other Lamu residents and chefs and service professionals. I meet many of these people when I arrive in Lamu during my third week. They are some of the most professional, intelligent and warm individuals I meet on my trip.

During my trip to Kenya, I will stay with Jane in her house in Nairobi, we will travel together to Machakos and Sereolipi and I'll visit her at her mind-blowing haven in Lamu. We are together almost non-stop during the three weeks of my visit.

It is an honor.

About iMentor Kenya

In February of 2007, iMentor will launch a new beta program, iMentor Kenya, matching high school students from remote villages in Kenya with American mentors in New York City. The program is designed to test the limits of iMentor’s mentoring model and to investigate the power of email and the internet to build relationships that span the globe, between individuals from extraordinarily diverse life experiences.

Students from the two schools participating in iMentor Kenya are like the majority of students attending school in Kenya, with little or no connection to life outside the villages in which they live. An exciting experiment in the growing “global village,” this program will provide these students with an introduction to perspectives and technological resources that are now staples of the western world (and that have begun to flourish in Kenya’s major cities and universities) but have in large part yet to penetrate the rural areas of the country. 2007 will be a fascinating year in Kenya’s long history, as the country strives to achieve ambitious goals for educational, cultural and economic development. iMentor Kenya will provide an important counterpoint to news reports of Kenya’s progress, giving students a glimpse into life outside their community and providing mentors with access to the personal stories beyond the Kenya’s headlines.