Wednesday, August 09, 2006

No Way Out: Barriers to Education in Rural Kenya

In the US, a primary and secondary public education is an expected service of the government, and funding for higher education is made possible through government financial aid. However in Kenya, any schooling beyond primary education is prohibitively expensive. Financial barriers prevent many young children from receiving anything beyond a basic education and higher education remains restricted to those lucky enough to have financial backing. Education is often thought of as the best weapon against poverty. However, in Kenya the ability to change one's plight in life is drastically limited as the very young are forced to drop from school and enter lives of manual labor and poverty.

Alfred's Story
As we rode aboard a matatu (public transportation) headed towards Ruma National Park, our friend and local teacher, Dan, noticed a familiar face along the road. It was Alfred, the best student in Dan's school and one of the most driven students he had encountered in his years of teaching. When we pulled over and asked where he was headed, we learned that he was beginning a more than 8 hour walk out of Mbita (the town) back to his rural family home. When he hopped aboard, he told us how he had been forced to drop out of secondary school because his family couldn't afford the funds for his education. Instead of continuing his schooling towards a career in law, medicine, or education, Alfred was being forced home to toil on the family land and likely follow in the footsteps of his farming ancestors. Weeks later we received word that Alfred had temporarily been reinstated in school, as his family had collected half of their annual harvest of beans and grain to bring to the school in exchange for a portion of his tuition. The family had been forced to sacrifice half of its annual sustinence and source of income for the entire next year.

Fortunately, Alfred's story has a happy ending as a local community group, headed by our friend Dan, was able to use outside sponsorship to keep him in school for the remainder of his secondary education. As one can imagine, the majority of children are not so lucky and are forced to fishing and farming once the cost of secondary education becomes prohibitive.

Benson's Story
We first met Benson (pictured above) upon a boat ride from the mainland back to Mfangano island. In talking to him we found he was interested in attending medical school with aspirations to study in the US then return to his home and become a doctor for the islands of Lake Victoria. In an area where there are only 2 doctors in the entire district and none servicing the islands, it is clear that his future could make an immeasurable impact upon the health of the thousands of island inhabitants. Benson was endlessly curious about medical school and life in the States. He quickly became friends with the group and he began to come along on our mobile clinic to observe, learn, and help with translation.

Benson helped us realize the barriers to receiving a university education coming from a rural area. First of all, the lack of communication on the islands made it very difficult to apply for schooling, and next to impossible to hear about the rare scholarship opportunities available. Secondly, the cost of schooling is incredibly high, especially coming from an impoverished, rural upbringing, and there is little hope of government assistance by way of loans. Benson was left to fundraise amongst his family and the community, as well as work to raise the minimum funds before and during school. He described the process as equivalent to a full-time job, in addition to his studies.

At this time, he has been accepted to a Kenyan University for microbiology, a prep degree for medical school in the US. However, he has not raised enough money to start school this semester. In the meantime he continues fundraising and is forced to join local fishing boats for spare cash to survive. It is a travesty that the life of such a bright, driven young man with altruistic goals is being wasted mindlessly pulling fish out of nets from the sea.

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