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A future in crisis

The writer at Mandera Township Primary School

The writer at Mandera Township Primary School

Story originally appeared in the Standard on Sunday on Feb 22nd

To an old woman who is sitting down under the shade of a stunted acacia tree, wrestling might seem to be the simplest of things. The effort put in by the wrestlers, the energy, the perseverance and at the end of the duel the wounds that each of the fighters lick remain known only to them.

The pain from the body blows cannot be understood by anyone else. Only the loss of limb or life may inflict some level of discomfort to the watching old woman by the sidelines. Or she may just sneer and look away, diverting her thought to more pressing matters like where her next serving of camel milk will come from.

In Mandera, they say habar fadhidaa legdan la fududaa. And in that distant land right at the frontier of Kenya and Somalia, fights have been going on for decades. For generations. But the latest conflict, though bloodless, threatens to take much more than just lives. It threatens to take with it dreams, aspirations and ambitions of a whole generation plus, undo any healing that may have occurred in this fragile border region in North Eastern Kenya.

“We have been living peacefully with each other. Even when something bad happens, we have remained brothers through all these years. I don’t know what has happened now. Suddenly Mandera has become uninhabitable… this is too bad,” Ali Abdi Noor says, wistfully looking out of his shop window in the middle of his home town. Al Noor, his shop, stocks virtually everything. From fabric to sweets to brake fluid and everything in between.

The sun has finally decided to disappear behind the Gari Hills, its mission for the day accomplished. Twelve hours earlier, it came from the east, saw what mankind was up to and conquered all in its wake. Now it rests, but as darkness finally embraces the hills and the plains, another day has passed and tomorrow, we strike off another day from the calendar. Another day lost in the impasse between teachers and the government over resumption of their duties in large parts of the Northern Frontier District.

Dozens of chairs in staffrooms across three counties continue to gather dust. Students wait for their favourite teachers to come back and 1,135 kilometres from them, authorities- the ministry of education as well as union officials- sit in their air conditioned boardrooms and just like the old woman watching wrestlers in the Somali proverb, assume that a simple solution will be found to end the duel unfolding right before their very eyes.

Rashid Happi sits behind his desk at Mandera Township Primary School. He is charged with the safety and instruction of 1400 pupils at the public primary school. Under him also, are 15 teachers with whom he shares a responsibility that can alter the future of a whole generation.

On either side of his wooden desk stand miniature Kenyan flags. They do not flutter. The air in the headmaster’s office is still and from the large window behind him one can see heat radiate from the mabati roof of the school buildings.

“Of the 15 teachers, 5 are non-locals. Two have returned. Three are yet to come back. We have tried to talk to them but they say they don’t feel safe enough yet,” he says as he rearranges a cluster of sea shells. His desk is a maze of paper files and rubber stamps.

The office floor is partially covered by PVC carpeting.

“You know I can only do so much. They ask me questions about security but as the headmaster I can’t assure them. I am not in charge of security. I just give them an update of things,” he says, moving the two miniature flags closer together. His school is less than one kilometer from the Kenya- Somali border. It is as if with every touch of the flags he reminds himself of his Kenyanness

“We already lost time and we have been forced to make up for it,” Happi says. Schools opened on the 5th of January country wide. At Mandera Township, lessons painstakingly started on the 19th.

The timetable had to be reworked and replacements sought.

“We had to recall some county trained Early Childhood Education instructors to come and help us out. We had no alternatives, we have to educate our children,” he says.

This is just one of the solutions employed by school heads. Local leaders have suggested that qualifying grades of getting into teaching courses be lowered for Mandera natives so as to increase the number of their own in the profession. This way, the pressure and reliance on non- natives to teach will be eased somewhat.

But Happi says this will be a longshot.

“Even if these grades are lowered we won’t be able to compete with the rest of the country,” he says.

Even before the impasse Mandera, like most parts of the country, already had a teacher deficit. Primary education needed at least more than 900 teachers. Secondary schools were understaffed by 120 teachers.

Every wipe of the brow leaves one’s palm with fine dust. All roads within the town are in a state of construction. Dust seems to be everywhere. Clinging on to the air as if out to prove a point. Daring you to try and ignore it. As if the dust too, wants to own part of the present and by clinging onto everything, own part of the future too as inevitably, you will go with it to your journey’s end.

From Happi’s school, one takes a left turn, and then a right turn onto the main highway then drives towards the county hospital. Past the perimeter wall of the county referral hospital, one takes a final left and is ushered into the greenery of the county government offices.

Here sits Johora Mohamed Abdi, the County Executive Committee Member for Education and Social Services. She says her county has not only been hit hard, but hit hard where it hurts most.

“How do we bring our people up if not through education,” she asks.

Data from the county government shows that the whole county has 615 teachers in public schools. Of which 478 are non-locals. Of this figure more than 400 have not come back. This represents a 65 per cent loss of teaching staff.

“We have tried to send emissaries to them. We have got no feedback,” she says. “So we have been forced to adopt. We have 249 Form Four leavers currently teaching in various schools across the county.”

Above this, the county government is also offering bursaries to any of its residents willing to pursue courses in education.

These solutions seem to have provided temporary relief. But for how long will this glue hold?

There seems to be a distinct difference in the narrative from the locals and that of the non-locals. Private schools in the region employ a total of 352 teachers, of which only 31 are locals. In this sector, almost all of the non- local teachers – more than 310 (96 %) – have come back to work. Are their lives not in danger?

Sylvester Mboya has been a teacher at Al Qalam Junior Academy since 2009. On the 6th of January, a day after schools opened, classes had begun at Al Qalam.

“The director sent each of us money to buy plane tickets and come by air. We are 10 non- local teachers,” Mboya says. “Some of us have been here long enough to know how to survive.”

His boss, Mohammed Abdi Baji says the teacher boycott is not all about security. It points to a much deeper problem.

“We live in the same areas. In the past, we have had even locals attacked and killed by these terrorists. But we still live. This insecurity did not just come up suddenly. In spite of these spurts of violence, Mandera is a relatively safe town. Al Shabaab can attack anyone anywhere,” Baji, the director of Al Qalam said.

He says most of these teachers who have not resumed work are just angling for transfers.

“They have taken this unfortunate incident to arm twist the Teacher’s Service Commission into submitting to their transfer requests,” he says.

As he talks of a past in which even locals have been targeted by the Somali based terror group, it is the present state of affairs that non local teachers are most afraid of.

On November 22 Al-Shabaab terrorists hijacked a Nairobi-bound bus and executed 28 people in a chilling dawn attack. Among the dead were 22 teachers, all teaching in different schools in the border town. This attack, and another soon after that lead to the execution of 36 more has made the trip up north more daunting. For some, circumstance forces them to take the trip, hoping and praying that they will not make headline news across the country as the departed did.

“It is a miracle that I even came. But I had little option. What would you do? As a parent, I have responsibilities to my child,” Phides Njiru, a teacher told the Standard on Sunday.

A week after staying home weighing whether her union and the government might have something meaningful to say, she decided to take the two- day bus trip. With her was her 2 year old child.

Hii safari sio rahisi… kwanza kama uko na mtoto. Pili unajua kile kilipata wenzako barabarani. Ukishapita El Wak sasa unaskia tu nikama unakaribia kifo,” she says. “Lakini tutafanya nini.”

El Wak is 170km from Mandera. It is along this stretch of road that the 28 bus passengers were massacred.

So Phides, to some extent thinks those who are yet to resume their duties are justified.

Hata kama mimi ningekua na namna ingine singerudi. Ni kutafta maisha tu,” she says.

At the end of the school term, she will once again, daughter in hand, embark on the journey home.

“Lakini huko ni mbali sana. Wacha tuone nini itafanyika kati ya saa hii na mwezi wa nne,” she says. The bell rings. She goes back to class. Her face split in the middle with a wide a smile for her pupils. Only she knows the battles within her.

“Good morning class!”

“Good morning teacher Phides…” the pupils chorus after her. For the next 35 minutes her only worry becomes whether the pupils will understand the master.

Elsewhere on the main Mandera- Garissa highway, Deputy head teacher Mohammed Ibrahim is busy receiving students at his office. It is almost crunch time at Moi Girls Secondary School Mandera.

“Classes have not kicked off properly yet,” he says. A large fan faintly hums above him. Outside, only stillness and heat. His students walk around in their green buibuis and white hijabs.

“We are missing 15 non-local teachers from a total of 25,” Ibrahim says. “All my heads of department have not resumed.” The school’s student population stands at 720.

Like the others, they too have made temporary arrangements.

“The school board has already employed 15 locals to assist with the classes as we wait for a resolution,” he says.

“But I still don’t understand why they decided not to come… all of them are my friends…they have been here for years… they know Mandera. Why would they make such a decision,” he says.

Non- locals still do not feel safe. Some feel that they cannot talk freely of what really ails Mandera. They say security is just one of the issues. There have been allegations of mistreatment and being relegated to life as a second class citizen within the precincts of the town.

“We have had issues reported to us. Issues of sexual assault. Issues of mistreatment and use of derogatory names to describe us,” Sylvester Mboya, the teacher at Al Qalam said.

Local police say they have had no such incidence reported to them.

“People fear reporting these issues. Where will you take your complaints? If you go to the police you better be ready to leave the town,” Mboya says.

He says he has heard of people being targeted, threatened for making police reports on matters such as assault.

“But what do we know. Here, we are just visitors. Tenda mema nenda zako…” he says.

Beyond the education impasse Mandera holds the key to much more. If this key gets lost in national political agendas and arguments of self-preservation and ‘looking out for number one’ then Mandera will look inwards for solutions. And if the solutions are not found within him, he will cast his eyes further to already willing suitors across the border barely metres away.

“If this void continues to exist, it will be readily filled by those with ill motive as has happened elsewhere. The students must continue to learn and if the teachers change, then what they learn will also be different,” said Adan Abdulahi Sheikh, a parent and PTA member at Mandera Township. “And when this happens, who knows…”

At Al Noor, the shop with everything under the sun, a picture with a Somali proverb hangs from one of the walls.

Arrinxumo abaar ka daran.”. The English translation goes thus: A wrong decision is worse than a drought.

Some decisions have already been made. Others are yet to be made. But the drought is already being felt in this dusty, hot town. How much longer before the camels and goats keel over from hunger?

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