NAIROBI, Kenya (December 8. 2011) — Rebecca Ekusi remembers what life was like before she came to Kalokutanyang Mobile School. In those days, she spent her days tending her family's goats as they grazed in the vast, semi-arid expanse of Turkana, north-western Kenya.
But even while Rebecca — now 15 — was doing her part to sustain the household's traditional pastoralist livelihood, she yearned to go to school one day. Then a prolonged regiona drought in the Horn of Africa set in and withered the pasturelands. Over time, it killed off much of the livestock of the Turkana herders.
The onset of drought was a devastating blow, yet in an ironic twist, Rebecca says, "It was the answer to my prayers." Finally, she would have a chance to learn.
About two years ago, Rebecca and her family settled with a handful of other households in a tiny village of thatched, dome-shaped minyatas, where they eked out a living by weaving baskets and selling charcoal. About two kilometers away, the Kalokutanyang school beckoned.
At 13, Rebecca enrolled in grade one. In the shade of the mobile school's corrugated metal roof, no longer obliged to spend her days under the open sky, she started to read and write.
"When our animals were affected by the drought and died," she recalls, "I asked myself: What will happen to me? Where will I get any benefit for my future? I said let me go to school."
Kalokutanyang is one of 81 mobile schools in Turkana County, a largely neglected part of Kenya known for its timeless ways. The schools allow access to basic education for the children of pastoralists and others in remote areas.
The Kenyan Government established Kalokutanyang Mobile School in 2008, with support from UNICEF, to meet the needs of three village clusters comprising about 150 households. The school has 95 registered students ranging from 2 to 17 years of age. On any given weekday, 40 or 50 attend.
The school's only teacher, Christine Tukei, says it fills a critical gap for her students. Never before have they had the opportunity to study together. “Some of the children walk for about three to four kilometers” to attend, she notes.
In the afternoon, when children's classes end, adults who never got an education can receive informal instruction at the mobile school. During a recent visit, one wizened elder sat on the rocky ground just outside the single classroom. He said he was there to listen and learn.
UNICEF has provided Kalokutanyang with two mobile school kits and two early childhood development kits containing recreational and instructional materials. The agency has also built girls' and boys' latrines, which are to be linked to a nearby borehole through pipes that have already been laid.
When the pipes are connected, they will provide water for Kalokutanyang, another local school and the surrounding villages. For now, Rebecca's mother and the other village women must walk for hours to fetch water – unless it rains, in which case they can dig shallow wells by hand.
Once established, the water connection at the mobile school will be a key to sustainability for the entire area's children and families.
Like poor access to safe water, child malnutrition is a chronic problem in Turkana. In some places in the county, 37% of children under five were severely malnourished at the height of the current drought crisis.
Now there are indications that the situation has improved, due in part to supplementary feeding for schoolchildren. The children at Kalokutanyang Mobile School get two meals a day, prepared with supplies from the World Food Programme. The meals are a lifeline — especially for young children from pastoralist households that have lost the milk, meat and income formerly derived from their animals.
"When school is open, they eat in the mobile school because their parents cannot afford a meal at home," says Iperit Ekadeli, a mother whose four children attend Kalokutanyang.
Even before the drought crisis, education was severely lacking in Turkana. Primary school enrolment rates here lag far behind Kenya's national average. By reaching children where they live, mobile schools represent one long-term solution to the education gap for pastoralists. In addition, 60 boarding schools in Turkana, many assisted by UNICEF, allow the children of nomadic herders to remain in classes while their parents are on the move.
For Rebecca Ekusi — and millions of children like her across the Horn of Africa — education is all about gaining the skills and knowledge to succeed in the future, no matter what crises arise. "With education you become well off in the future," says Rebecca. "But without education, you will be poor. You will not have anything."