UNICEF – Children miss the first day of school – 24 Jan 08

Following post-election conflict, thousands of children miss the first day of school

© UNICEF Kenya/2007/Otieno
A half-empty classroom at Ayany Primary school in Kenya. Post-election conflict has displaced thousands of children and kept many from attending school.

By Juliett Otieno and Pamella Sittoni

NAIROBI, Kenya, 24 January 2008 – The violence that erupted in the aftermath of last year’s disputed presidential elections has made life chaotic for many in Kenya.

Perhaps nowhere was the effect of this unrest on education more pronounced than during the recent return to school – when thousands of displaced children across the country failed to attend their classes.

At Ayany Primary School near Kibera, teachers were faced with classrooms of only 15-20 children, instead of the usual number of 75 students per class. Headmistress Elisheba Khayeri broke with tradition by skipping the morning assembly and hoisting the flag without any traditional fanfare.

No social workers are currently available, so the teachers themselves provided counselling to any children who had witnessed or experienced violence.

“All the children coming in today are hurting. We thought we could use the first day to share experiences, before learning starts,” Ms. Khayeri said.

‘It is us who are suffering’

Some of the students who had followed the events surrounding the elections voiced their opinions or asked questions. Joshua, a 12-year-old student, expressed disappointment that the leaders he looks up to have as of yet been unable to agree on anything that could bring them peace.

“It is us who are suffering. We witnessed a lot of fighting and we are still afraid. For as long as there is no solution, we do not know what will happen next,” Joshua said.

Teacher Leah Asego is a patron of a support group that helps orphans at the school. She has taken 15 children into her home since the onset of the violence.

“Many of them live alone or with their siblings,” Ms. Asego said. “They decided to come to my home when homes in their neighbourhoods were being torched. They were very fearful. Some of them stayed with me until early in the New Year. I am happy some of them made it to school today.”

Focus on education, not violence

Many of the children lost their school uniforms after being forced to move due to safety concerns. Ms. Khayeri said the school would take in displaced students, regardless of their whether or not they have their school uniform.

She also expressed gratitude that there was still a school for students to come to on the first day.

“This school was used as a polling station during the election and when the violence erupted some people wanted to set it ablaze. Some local youths who were once students here stepped in and managed to have the mob move away and leave the school untouched,” Ms. Khayeri said.

As Kenya continues to work towards a peaceful resolution to the conflict, the focus at Ayany Primary School is not on the violence, but on bringing children back to school.

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