By Eastern Newspaper Correspondent
shortly after sunrise, three boys step off their motorcycle, pat the dust off their checkered shuka cloths, and enter their family’s boma – an enclosure built from thorny acacia branches in eastern Samburu.
Now that they are morans, the teenagers are considered adults and are no longer permitted to sleep in their parents’ house. Instead, they go each evening to sleep in a nearby school building and return home in the morning. The school has been shut since the Covid-19 outbreak, and benches have been moved aside to make room for mattresses, and a makeshift kitchen.
“This is our life now,” says William Lenanyekie, 16, after his breakfast of tea with goat’s milk. He walks out of the family enclosure in Resim to take the goats out for grazing, as he’s done every day for the past seven months. Like many of his peers, he has decided not to return to school. “I prefer to stay here, and do something useful.”
In March, a few days after announcing its first case of Covid-19, Kenya closed all educational institutions. For the Samburu, semi-nomadic pastoralists, the timing coincided with a special ceremony – held only once about every 15 years – that marks a boy’s rite of passage. At the centre of this ceremony is circumcision.
Once they are morans, the boys are considered responsible for their community’s protection. They can also make their own decisions and get their first taste of freedom.
Schools across Kenya have begun to restart lessons for pupils sitting exams. But many Samburu teenagers are not expected to return to class when schools fully reopen, reversing years of efforts to get children in the region into school. Since the last ceremony was held, education has played an increasingly important role in the lives of boys and girls in Samburu, where school enrolment was booming.
“Nobody was prepared for what was going to happen,” says Jane Mutua (pictured), head of the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) in Samburu. “Everybody thought we were going to close for maybe a month or two. But now it’s already happening – education [has gone] out of their minds.”
The TSC has asked teachers to contact pupils and convince them to come back, but the timing of the initiation ceremony has not helped matters. “We are bound to lose more students than would have been [the case] if the initiation ceremony had taken place during the school season,” says Mutua.
Nkaibeli Lesori, head of the school committee in Resim, which opened its first school 15 years ago, says: “Many boys have left. They look after cattle in faraway places. We worry that they have forgotten everything that they’ve been taught in school.”
Not just the curriculum, but also the benefit of education, says Mutua. “If you go a bit in the interior, there’s nobody to remind these children that education is good for you. This child forgets totally. You find them going back to their traditional ways of doing things and to their traditional beliefs.”
In contrast to their mostly illiterate parents, the majority of Resim children were in school before lockdown, she says.
William says his break from school has given him the confidence to live on his own. “I see the virus as an advantage,” he says. Currently, he sees no reason to return to education. “I don’t need to know more than I know now.”
Ben Learat, 16, disagrees. He is now a moran, and grew up in the same family household as William but he sees school as his ticket out of rural life. “I’ve been here all my life, I want to leave this area,” he says. “I want to go to university and be a doctor.
“Now we have to look for grass in faraway places,” he adds, referring to the cattle his father asked him to herd as soon as his school closed.\
It’s not just boys who are dropping out, says Nasieku Letipila, the Samburu county director of social services, but girls are too. “I think we’ll have another calamity after this.”
When a new generation of morans is initiated, the previous cohort becomes young elders, who are then eligible to marry.
“This is the time of marriage … They marry off young girls. It’s common. And most especially, at this particular time, this transition of the morans,” says Letipila. “[Marriage] means no school anymore. You cannot be a wife and a student at the same time.”
Child marriage is illegal in Kenya but Letipila expects many young girls to have been married off in lockdown. “School has been a safe place for girls,” she says. “Nobody will marry them off when they are in school. But because of the long duration that they are staying at home, we have lost many girls.”
Nabulu (pictured), 17, who did not want to share her last name, escaped being married off by running away to the nearby town of Wamba. She had fallen pregnant by another student who had offered her food but wanted sex in return. “I fell for his trap,” she says.
When her father learned of the pregnancy, he wanted her to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) and get married. “When I refused, he started beating me and my mum,” says Nabulu, who now lives in hiding with her mother.
“Most pregnant girls will not go back to school,” says Letipila. “They will start doing odd jobs, just to sustain themselves and to feed the child.”
In Resim, teachers expect that out of 110 pupils, 20 will drop out. The TSC anticipates that more will drop out in Samburu. “If we can salvage three-quarters of every class, I think we’ll have gone a long way,” says Mutua. “I am hoping that I will be right. If we don’t land on the sun, we can land on the moon.”