A prolonged drought ravaging the northern Kenyan towns of Garissa and Wajir has interrupted a unique education system. Pastoralist children have been attending mobile schools, learning as they travel with their communities.
Two teachers accompanied the nomadic families wherever they went. The teachers travelled by camel, carrying a bag of books and a small blackboard. The mobile school was set up to accommodate the traditions and customs of the pastoralists while ensuring that children did not grow up illiterate.
But since June 2010, extended periods of drought in Kenya’s northern grazing areas have forced many pastoralist children to miss school.
In September, mobile schools in areas with shallow wells and dams closed due to a lack of water and pasture. By November, all mobile schools closed as the drought intensified. Boreholes dried up and pastoralists were forced to move across the border to Somalia in search of pasture.
Hassan Guhad is a community elder of a pastoralist group in Meri, a remote settlement in Wajir district. He says, “We put on a brave face after some of our livestock left for Somalia and others perished here right in front of us.” Some community members fled to urban areas. The school teachers also left.
The mobile school system began in 2008. A community-based organization in Wajir, called Frontier Indigenous Network, convinced community leaders that secular education was vital for their children and a key to prosperity. Thanks to mobile schools, many pastoralist children have completed primary education and attended secondary schools in northern Kenya.
The mobile schools are organized to suit the rhythm of the nomadic communities. Teaching begins in the early hours of the morning. The children then tend to their goats and donkeys. Classes resume in the evening.
Local teachers, who understand English and the local Somali language, use various teaching aids in these remote grazing areas. Ali Abdi is one of the teachers. He explains, “We use wild fruits when teaching them mathematics so that they can understand mathematical terms like minus, plus and numbers.” If no wild fruits are available, the children count cattle and camels.
Asha Mulki is coordinator of the mobile school program for Frontier Indigenous Network. She hopes the schools will be back up and running in 2011, weather permitting. The rains are not expected until March. So the school children will be behind schedule for writing examinations and graduating to the next level. According to Ms. Mulki, some may never return, because their families have lost everything to drought.
She adds, “Community members will come back to grazing areas and resume their pastoral lives if we get good pasture and rainfall. But if the situation continues like this, we don’t know when the school will resume. It all depends on the weather and rain.”