Every weekday since the Covid-19 pandemic forced schools to close, Said Moulid goes to a compound in the outskirts of Minjila shopping centre in Garsen at about 9am.
The 13-year-old takes out his books and pencils from his backpack, settles on a traditional woven Oromo mat and joins his fellow classmates. The class stays rapt at attention as their teacher, Nyoka Mwangona, takes them through the day’s lessons.
Later, the teacher sits with each pupil for individual attention or with a group for the reading sessions. Sometimes they huddle around a radio and listen to the lessons.
The class takes place under two huge trees in Mzee Maulid Nuru’s homestead and is part of the Accelerated Learning Programme (ALP). The programme seeks to improve the lives of disadvantaged school-going children by increasing access to equitable and innovative educational opportunities.
The two-hour classes in the village elder’s home enable learners like Said to study at their own pace to acquire basic literacy and numeracy skills.
The learners were selected after undergoing rigorous assessment using global educational tools used to identify competencies that every child should have by Grade 2. The decision to have the programme was informed by studies over several years, by Uwezo, the Ministry of Education and other educational institutions, that had showed a worrying trend.
One of them was a study by Uwezo East Africa in 2015 that revealed that only 20 per cent of pupils in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania can read and do basic mathematics in the third year of primary school.
It was worse for children from poorer households and disadvantaged areas, especially those from arid and semi-arid regions, who consistently showed lower competence in learning.
Early foundational learning is critical for a child’s later learning, the findings show. In short, a strong early learning foundation is the ladder to ensure a future where they can adapt and thrive.
The programme was a natural fit for the Safaricom Foundation, which worked with Zizi Afrique, and local Community-Based Organisations (CBOs), like Maridhiano in Tana River, to set it up. Zizi Afrique is a Non-Governmental Organisation that works to promote equity in education.
For the ALP, Zizi Afrique has adapted the Teaching at the Right Level approach, which aims to improve basic numeracy and literacy skills. The concept is borrowed from Pratham, India.
The Safaricom Foundation distributed over 900 solar-powered radios, over 2,200 study workbooks, assessment tool kits, and other learning materials.
The involvement of the CBOs was important because of the unique circumstances of learners around the country.
“We started it because for a long time, the evidence of assessment was showing that while children were going to school, they were not learning much. They were not able to read simple texts and they were not able to do basic numeracy,” says Dr Sarah Ruto, who oversees ALP.
The programme’s basic premise is that teachers should build on what the pupil is already able to do rather than relying on the curriculum despite a learners’ ability.
Said, for example, was a farmhand prior to enrolling in school after he lost his parents at an early age. Bakero Abdallah, a neighbour, took him in and ensured he went to school.
“Boys prefer herding because it is considered an easy way of wealth creation. Often, they herd livestock that belongs to their fathers, uncles, or other relatives from the extended family and are paid back with one cow or two goats every year for the number of years of their services. If the animals give birth, the calf or kid is given to them. This cultural practice makes it difficult for the boys to go to school,” said Abdalla.
For girls, they are unable to pursue their studies because some are married off early – some as young as 13 years or less – to old men who are considered wealthy in their societies.
Girls are involved in house chores such as fetching water and firewood, cooking, and taking care of their younger siblings, further locking them out of class. Since the inception of the program, learners from 40 primary schools across Tana Delta sub-county in Grades 3 to 5 have been evaluated through education tools that test the learner’s basic reading and numeracy competency.
“When we selected Said into the program, he couldn’t read, write, nor solve simple arithmetic problems. However, he has since improved and we hope that in the next month or so, he’ll graduate from the program because right now he can competently read words, full paragraphs, short stories and even solve basic addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication problems in math,” said Nyoka Mwangona, Said’s teacher.
Mwangona handles 36 learners who are all pupils from the nearby Sheli Primary School.
Now, Said can confidently read more than 20 words, a paragraph with four sentences, a 60-70-word story, and solve basic arithmetic problems from learning toolkits developed by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development in collaboration with Uwezo East Africa.
Currently, there are about 40 camps across the sub-county like the one Said attends for two hours every day are supplemented by weekly visits by the teachers for personalised home-based learning sessions. The pupils are also helped to develop a study timetable to plan their studies at home.
Besides learning how to read and solve basic mathematical problems, they also follow lessons from a radio program once a week through Radio Amani – a community radio station in Minjila.
The connections with the local communities have been of great help. At Minjila, Mzee Nuru readily offered his compound for the classes. At Abaganda, 15 kilometres away, the area assistant chief, Omar Kedhie, hosts the classes at his home and doubles as a teaching assistant.
The programme, though, has not been without challenges.
Maurice Karisa, the Chief Executive Officer at Maridhiano CBO, said their work is often undermined by poor network connectivity, cultural practices, poor roads, and poverty.
“Poor network connectivity especially in Abaganda, Galili, Baomo, Kitere, Gatundu, Miticharaka, and Semikaro education camps has made it difficult for learners in these areas to fully participate in the program. The learners are sometimes unable to participate in educational programs broadcasted through radio because of connectivity issues. Network connectivity is a major issue and even if the radio works, the learners are still unable to make phone calls or send SMS as the lessons progress,” said Karisa.
Coupled with poverty, cultural practices and poor roads (having to use a canoe, motorbike or walking for long distances) means teachers, project facilitators and implementers have to navigate these issues while working in the vast county.
Still, the programme has shown that with creativity and innovation, progress can still be made.
At the Idsowe community-based learning camp, Doreen Yemima is very impressed at how much her daughter, Faith Mvua, has been able to achieve in just 30 days of attending the programme.
“I never went to school myself; I was married at a very young age and I believe that my daughter will be able to benefit from education and help our family,” said Doreen.
The shy Faith says that before she was enrolled in the ALP, she struggled reading text in both Swahili and English and solving basic arithmetic problems.
“I used to struggle in school, but today I enjoy reading my class course books and can solve Grade 5 arithmetic problems with ease,” she said.