I’m having a difficult time writing what I experience. I try to put my fingers to the keyboard and relate what I have seen, heard, shared. But all that stares back at me from the screen is a blank page with a blinking line, waiting for input.
Considering that stringing words into captivating sentences that turn into stories is the reason that I am even in this place, this concerns me.
What I find myself stumped in writing about is a story of two teachers working in the middle of nowhere in a place called Seje. It’s a small community in Kenya, little more than an array of huts about five kilometres from a village that at least has a few corner stores.
The only way to find the school in which they work is to follow a long thin ribbon of red dirt that someone had the sense of humour to call a road. It bumps and winds and has potholes so big I was concerned we would be abandoning the car and walking with our field partner Edgar to find it.
We arrived safely, to a dusty patch of land with two buildings. Inside the mud walls of the first room, children sing a welcome to their rare visitors from outside the community. Bright sunlight streamed into the windows, providing the only light. Unlike most Kenyan schools, only some of the kids here wear uniforms, and they are tattered and threadbare.
The circumstances these students find themselves in are awful. It is a hot and dusty place. Most of the children are orphans, living wherever they can find a sympathetic hand or with old grandparents in need of assistance themselves.
The Seje school, with somewhere between 90 and 160 students depending on the day, can hardly be described as a school. While it has some of the building blocks of a school – desks and a chalkboard notably – there is little else to distinguish these two mud buildings as a place of learning.
For starters, only one of the buildings is even a school building. The other is the local church, converted into a makeshift classroom on weekdays.
Inside there are very few books. In fact, the grade three class has no books for their level. The grade 2-3 teacher only has one master book for grade 3, and that book is on loan from another school.
While the story of the children is sad, it was listening to the teachers share that really broke my heart. Lillian and Peter teach kindergarten to grade 4, alternating classrooms for different subjects.
Lillian is from Seje, and has three of her own children. Peter bikes to work each day from a community called Siaya, more than 15 kilometres away.
The two teachers work very hard, sacrificing more than you could imagine to give these kids a chance at a future. Seje school is not registered and therefore gets no assistance from the government. And there are no churches or communities supporting this school, which means that Lillian and Peter are volunteers. They get absolutely no money for teaching.
Yet every day, Monday to Friday, they come and teach. Why, I ask, do they not go and work somewhere and make a living? Lillian answers because if they do not teach these kids, no one will. And they can’t give up on them or there will be no future for the kids of Seje.
There was hope for this village once. A church signed on to help. A feeding program was started for the school kids. Money was sent for salaries, for school supplies, for medicine. A water tank was installed so when it rained there would be water.
But as things sometimes go, it didn’t work out and the church stopped supporting the school. The feeding program ended, the money stopped coming. The water tank sits as a cruel reminder, taunting the teachers as there is no rain and hasn’t been for a long time.
I ask Lillian where she gets her water for drinking.
“There is none,” she replies. “I just go thirsty.”
She shares with me that with no money, she cannot even feed her children and herself save for the kindness of others. And the parents and guardians in this community are no better off than she is. She is sometimes so weak, she can barely stand in front of the classroom and teach.
I carry two or three extra pens with me at all times in case one runs out while I’m interviewing. As I sat on a worn chair under the shade of a small tree interviewing Peter and Lillian, they mentioned in passing that they do not even have pens to write with and grade the students’ work. Not that it matters much of the time, most of the children have no exercise book. Guardians do not even have money for thin, cheap exercise books. They cost mere pennies but even that is too much money.
I gathered all the pens I could find and gave them to the teachers. Such a small gesture, so ridiculous in its miniscule nature, meant so much to them. Can you imagine doing your job without something as simple as a pen?
The pathetic state of the school continues. Since the school is not registered, it gets no assistance from the government in any way. The school needs major construction in order for the government to register it. Yet the government won’t supply the funding for construction because the school is not registered as official. It’s one of those chicken and egg things. And there is no hope of the community banding together for funding. There is no work in Seje, no rain for the farmers, and no hope of the citizens in this community to ever get out of their own poverty enough to help others.
The supply room has empty bottles of medicine, left over from the days of sponsorship by the church. If children are injured at school, there is literally nothing Peter and Lillian can do for them. No antiseptics, no cleansers, not even a bandaid. Oh, and there’s giant biting ants, I discovered by setting up my pinky toe for bait.
Even the flagpole which once helped to distinguish the school as something legitimate has been eaten by termites. The flag now sits folded inside a cupboard, next to the room where older local boys sleep at night with a spear to protect what little material goods the school has from thieves.
I could go on. But you get the picture. It’s sad. Really sad. And unlike most of my blog posts where there’s a happy little ending, this one has none. We left the school having had no means to help them ourselves save for a couple pens. And as I sit on a comfy bed having just eaten a deliciously filling dinner, I think of Peter and Lillian probably going to bed hungry tonight. I think of Peter biking the long and extremely difficult road to school. I think of Lillian hearing her children moan from the hunger pangs. I think of the random school child who surely will hurt herself playing in the dirt and the teachers having nothing to give her for the pain. I think of the cruel joke played on the school, with a large water tank sitting in the middle and not a drop of water in sight. And I think of how much just a little money would help these people, or one church to step up and commit to helping.
I’m sorry there’s no happy ending yet to this story. But that’s life. I leave you with one thing Peter said to us during our interview. He said there’s a verse in Proverbs that reads if a man wants to eat, he must work. Then he laughed at the irony when he said he and Lillian work very hard, yet they do not eat. That’s not right, is it?