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Hard times at Kenya's desert school

By Jonathan Barker
BBC News, Marsabit

The turmoil following the elections in Kenya has had a serious economic impact in some of the remotest corners of the country, such as the northern oasis town of Marsabit, which is suffering from fuel and water shortages.

The headmistress of the school at Marsabit is called Beatrice and she has her own reasons to be alarmed by the turmoil that has been rocking Kenya in recent weeks.

School children
The children at the school are from nomadic tribes
Her boarding school in this northern oasis town is surrounded by hundreds of miles of desert, dust and scrub, and water often has to be transported in from afar.

"Last term my girls were allocated 10 litres of water a week for washing themselves and their clothes," she says. "That's the equivalent of the flush of a toilet. But since the troubles, water has got a lot more expensive, and they'll just have to manage with less."

Down south in Nairobi and the Rift Valley, the country has been shaken to the core by the post-election conflict. The violence has not spread to Marsabit, but the shattering effects on the Kenyan economy have.

The airport is so rarely used, the pilot flies over the strip before landing to make sure there are no goats or cows on the runway
"Here we are dependent on people from the south sending us food," Beatrice continues. "But truck drivers are now afraid to go south because of the violence, so our staple diet of beans and maize has doubled in price."

Social status

Marsabit seems to be a part of Kenya that largely gets forgotten.

Before I set off on my journey to this distant Kenyan outpost, I told a Kenyan friend where I was going.

A map of Kenya showing the capital Nairobi and Marsabit
"Marsabit - you're going to Marsabit - oh!" and that is where the conversation ended. People here do not seem to have much to say about the place.

Beatrice's boarding school educates girls of the nomad tribes of this region with evocative names such as Rendille, Borana and Gabbra. She is determined to improve the social standing of the girls.

"At the moment," she says, "there's a pecking order which starts with God, then come the men and boys, the cows, the sheep, the goats and finally the women and girls."

People here cannot see the point of educating a girl, when she will become someone else's wife. But not all parents have the same attitude.

Fourteen-year-old Gumato's parents are too poor to pay for school fees, but they have found a way to educate their daughter.

"My mother has been selling milk to the school to pay for my fees," Gumato says. "After the election she was hoping she could educate my sister too - but she doesn't talk about that now."

Nomadic lives

Beatrice and Gumato showed me round one of the school dormitories where 70 girls sleep.

"Because our girls are children of nomads, constantly on the move as they seek fresh pasture for their animals, they have to come to a boarding school," Beatrice explains.

"They can't guarantee they'd always be near a school if they were day girls."

Dozens of bunks were pushed up against each other.

By the end of the term I'll be so in debt my creditors won't give me anything
Beatrice, boarding school headmistress
To get into their beds, girls have to climb in through the end of the bunk. There is just no room to get in at the side.

But for Gumato it is wonderful: "At home my whole family sleeps on animal hides on the ground - it is so comfortable having a mattress and my own bed."

Debt worries

Before the election, Beatrice could help to support girls like Gumato. Then she could balance her budget and have a bit left over for girls who could not afford to pay their fees.

But Beatrice tells me it is different now: "For two days last week, " she says, "we had no diesel, which means our water - transported from 30 miles (50km) away is much more expensive - by the end of the term I'll be so in debt, my creditors won't give me anything."

That afternoon, the headmistress introduced me to another girl, 15-year-old Habiba.

She told me later that Habiba's mother was so determined to get her daughter through school, she was working in the school grounds earning the equivalent of 1.50 ($3) per day, 50p ($1) of which was going towards school fees.

"I want to be a doctor when I leave," Habiba tells us.

And she has got the ability, confirms Beatrice.

"But, I'm not sure I can pay her mother any longer," she went on, "all the school funds have to go towards basics like food and water now," she says.

"I know Habiba's father would like her to get married, and already has a husband lined up."

Marriage proposals

Girls like Gumato and Habiba want to stay at school, but paying their fees is a problem. With the economic situation in decline, Beatrice just cannot help them anymore.

"I've seen prospective husbands outside the school gates at the end of term with sometimes as little as a bag of tobacco as a dowry," she says.

"In the past I've pleaded with the girls not to get married and have helped them pay their fees, but now there's little I can do to stop them."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday 6 March, 2008 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Kenya
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