The "classrooms" of Lengima village, northern Kenya. Photo by David duChemin

Visitors to northern Kenya, including Kenyans, are always astonished to see a part of Kenya so neglected and poor.  For the few tourists who come to the north, there is the inevitable comparison to the other pastoralists in the south and central parts of Kenya, the Maasai.

Kura and I once spent three days looking for well-run projects in the Sekenani region of Maasai Mara.  We could not find a one.  We saw funded projects that had eventually gone bust, unfinished buildings, and broken or stolen pumps for well-intentioned water schemes.  Development projects that do not include follow-up and a demand for accountability are doomed to fail.   Viable capital projects require ethical and transparent management.  If this cannot be achieved, the result is the age-old story of progress and retreat.  Yet the money continues to flow to projects in Maasailand, fueled by enthusiastic tourists who witness the appearance of poverty that hides the relative prosperity of people who have large herds of cattle and access to education and health care for their children.  No one can claim knowledge of poverty in Kenya until they have come to the north of the country.  There is a profound disconnect between the progressive country that Kenya claims to be, and the conditions in northern Kenya.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the village of Lengima.

Situated at the base of Bayo Mountain, the village is a typical Rendille settlement of 170 households, mostly women, children and the elderly.  As is typical in the dry season, the men and boys have long departed, taking with them the herds of goats and camels in search of water and pasture.  A Catholic mission has recently built a beautiful church next to the Rendille village and each Sunday a priest comes out from Korr, 35 kilometers away, to conduct services.

One of BOMA’s Village Mentors, John Galgithele, has been transferred by the government to be the head teacher of Lengima, charged with educating the children from the surrounding pastoralist villages. John is responsible for the education of 186 children in 7 grades and he is one of four teachers.  Lengima has one classroom at the back of the church, a room with with a blackboard that also serves as the teacher’s bedroom at night.  The room has no door and when we arrived the smell of skunk was everywhere.  The skunk had come into the room during the night and left behind its distinctive odor.

The other “classrooms” are three large trees that surround the church with one simple hut covered in burlap serving as an additional shady spot for the teachers to provide instruction.  Blackboards are leaned up against the base of the tree, the teacher has a chair and the children share pieces of paper and a couple of pencils. As with most schools in northern Kenya, there are no textbooks.  John tells us that there is also another village, 10 kilometers away, which has 82 children interested in going to school.  The parents of that village are now saving the money in order to build two huts – one for the boys and one for the girls – to provide a place to sleep and eat for the children.  Boarding is the only option for these children since the walk to and from school would be too dangerous.   This is lion and hyena country.

John is a dedicated teacher and he makes many sacrifices to provide instruction to the children of these nomadic villages.   Each Friday at 5 John returns to his family in Korr, arriving just before dark.  He then returns on Monday morning.  John used to walk back to Korr, a journey of three hours.  Now he has a small motorbike.  He tells me, “Mama Rungu, these people touch me so much.  They are the first children to come to school.  Until we started teaching here, they were locked out of education.  Now the children are so eager to learn.  When school is finished they are still here, asking us, ‘please, Teacher, give us more instruction, we want to learn.’”

Northern Kenyans are endlessly tolerant of appalling conditions.  But in John’s face is reflected the pain of a place that has been abandoned.  My encounters with John are always inspiring but he does not let me off easy.  As we say goodbye he tells me, “please, Mama Rungu, do not forget us.”