Tuesday, May 23, 2006


Today I visited a small private primary school in a relatively pleasant neighbourhood on the outskirts of town. The school building is a partially completed house that is provided to the community by the owner (I'm not sure if rent is paid, but likely it is). The walls are bare bricks, the floor is packed dirt which probably turns to mud in the rain. The windows have wooden slats nailed across them, with barely any light coming through. Small classrooms are separated from each other with plastic sheeting. There is no electricity, no running water, and the latrines are indescribable, and certainly not suitable for girls reaching the age where they need a bit more privacy. Many young girls in Africa drop out of school simply because there are no suitable toilets for them to use.

The young head teacher told me that they began the school year with 300 pupils, but were now down to 250; the others had been sent away for non-payment of fees. Pupils pay $2.50 a month. That is an enormous sum for a parent who has several children and may only earn a dollar a day. Those who do earn a dollar a day are actually pretty lucky - the vast majority are unemployed and earn nothing. They barely scrape by, and many children die before the age of five. School fees go towards paying the teachers, paying various taxes, and mandatory insurance. And you can be certain that it's all a scam - they receive nothing in return for the taxes, and no insurance monies are ever paid out. It's a parody of what an education system should be: where the state should be paying teachers' salaries and building schools, not stealing from them.

Our session at the school began outside in the sun, with our trainers coaching the teachers in four large circles of young pupils playing games that are designed to improve their concentration, coordination skills, and mutual acceptance of each other. While I watched, a few neighbourhood kids, no more than 3 or 4 years old, sidled up to me. After a while, one slid his tiny hand into mine. I wondered how much affection some of these children get at home, where there are usually too many children, and parents too hassled with the struggle just to feed them to give them individual attention. Is that just a western concept? Don't all children need attention and affection? And while I was watching and thinking about these things, a young boy was suddenly in front of me. "I've been chased out", he told me, looking like his world was coming to an end. He's 11 years old, with worn clothing and inappropriate badly fitting boots, but clean and bright looking. His name is Shukuru; he wants to study. And today his dream just came to an end because his father doesn't have work and there's just no way he can pay his school fees.

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