Two NGOs try to cope with eastern Africa’s overcrowded schools

Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania are among the Eastern African countries that have in recent years dropped their previous small fees for primary education and made it free. These fees weren’t the only barrier to education – parents may still be deterred from sending their children to school by the cost of supplies or uniforms and the lost opportunity to put them to work in the families’ fields – but enrolment has nevertheless shot up, with many schools reporting more than twice as many students as before.


It’s hard to argue against any move to make schools more accessible in a world where education is increasingly a prerequisite to earning a decent living. Yet this policy is bringing with it almost as many problems as it hopes to solve. While the number of students has surged, the staff to teach them and the space to house them have increased scarcely at all. Ill-trained teachers routinely have classes with 100 students or more. Their classrooms often have no supplies, sometimes no furniture and occasionally not even solid walls. And “free school” is reduced to a sad synonym for “poor school.”

During a tour of rural schools north of the Kenyan port city of Mombasa, I got a first-hand look at the problem of schools crowded almost to the point of dysfunction, and an insight into approaches to addressing this problem.

Children are shouting and waving as the Aga Khan Education Services (AKES) four-wheel-drive jounces down what passes for the main road in Marimani, a “village” of 3,000 peasant families with home and fields sprawled over 50 or 60 square kilometres of scrubby land. “Talk about opportunity costs,” mutters Atrash Mohamed Ali, the manager of AKES’s Kenya School Improvement Project. “These children are school-going age. Yet here they are, herding goats.”

He tells me, however, that the number of school-skippers is down sharply from three or four years ago. Today it’s probably no more than 100 of the 800-plus kids in the village – about a fifth as many as it used to be before the Kenyan government waived the low but daunting fees that kept millions at home.

Just down the road I see the result of all those extra kids in school. In Marimani, as in villages and towns and poor areas of cities across the country, scores and scores of kids are shoehorned into unfinished, unfurnished classrooms. With some perched on concrete blocks and more just plunked on the bare concrete floors, their education is in the hands of a relative handful of often ill-trained teachers who, each with 100 or more kids to teach, may need most of the term to learn their names.

When tuition fees were eliminated, enrolment at the government-run Marimani School, for example, shot from 300 to 733 – including 332 girls, who in the past were often kept at home. The school was slated for some new construction at the time, but it didn’t make any difference. It still has just eight classrooms (and nine teachers) because the old adobe-brick classrooms are falling down faster than the money can be found to properly finish the new concrete-block ones. One old classroom with gaping holes in the wall is still pressed into use as a staff room, but the others are fit for nothing at all.

Thus classes are being taught in a new shell that still has gaping windows-to-be left open to the elements. Only a couple of the rooms have desks. In the most crowded classrooms – like Morris Mwavita’s Grade 2 class of 133, or Bessie Randu’s Grade 1 class of 99 – they’ve shortened the school day and divided students into two shifts of “only” 50 or 60 each.

Most of the teachers in Marimani, as in government schools across Kenya, came to the job with no more than two years of basic training. On the job they found no structured mentoring, no easy way to break in – it was sink or swim from Day One.

Bringing some order to the chaos

Aga Khan agencies have been immersed in education in this region for a century, ever since Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, then leader of the world’s Ismaili Muslims and grandfather of the current Aga Khan, established a network of schools. At that time, the approach was for Aga Khan agencies to set up their own schools and run them according to rigorous standards that tended to raise the bar for education throughout the region. For years, Aga Khan schools provided grounding for thousands of East Africans, including the likes of Firoz Rasul, the Vancouver entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist who built Ballard Power Systems from a start-up to a leader in the emerging fuel cell industry, and his wife Saida. Aga Khan Education Services still runs its own elite schools for the few who, with luck and perseverance, will become the future leaders that sub-Saharan Africa so badly needs. It now also conducts two different teacher-training programs to help the government schools make the best of a bad situation.

And so Atrash Mohamed Ali and his staff come to Marimani often, trying to bring a little order to the chaos of Marimani School. Their tools are training programs both for teachers and for the local school management committees, learning materials to help with professional development and for direct use in the underequipped classrooms, and structured mentoring programs that focus on the most vital challenges, such as how to manage huge classes and how to foster and promote a fair chance for girls.

This approach is a more basic version of a sophisticated teacher-training program pioneered by Aga Khan agencies in rural Pakistan and now run throughout East Africa by the Aga Khan University’s Institute for Educational Development office in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

The office, established five years ago with funding from the Canadian government and the Aga Khan Foundation, asks schools to nominate their best teachers for a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree at the Aga Khan University’s main campus in Karachi, Pakistan. Those who make it through the rigorous selection process and earn their degrees come back not only to full-time jobs in the school system, but also with an obligation to volunteer about half-time over the next few years to help upgrade the qualifications of their peers.

Rupen Chande, who heads the office, told me that so far there are only 50 master’s graduates from East Africa – 24 from Tanzania, 17 from Kenya and nine from Uganda – but they have already helped 850 other teachers earn certificates for upgraded qualifications. In a region where the number of teachers who have university degrees “is horrifyingly small” – from zero in government-run pre-primary schools to fewer than 10 per cent in the high schools, where the best-qualified teachers are usually found – this in-service training makes a huge difference, Chande said.

Training a new generation of leaders

Aga Khan schools, too, are changing. Newer initiatives range from the prestigious eight-country Aga Khan University – which welcomed Firoz Rasul as its new president on May 1 – to the 66 humble madrasas, or nursery schools, found in nondescript little buildings in Mombasa and up and down the coast from there.

Seventeen years ago, Naima Shatry toddled off at age three to the very first Aga Khan madrasa in a single shabby room in the heart of old Mombasa. As others recall it, there were just three students in the program at the time, though Shatry remembers “a few” more than that. What she remembers much more clearly is her teacher, Bi Swafiya, and the love of learning she exemplified every day.

Today, having topped her class in high school, Shatry is not only a devout and knowledgeable Muslim – the only goal of the old madrasas that the Aga Khan institutions replaced. She is also acing first-year medicine at the University of Nairobi. That’s exactly the kind of role the modern madrasas are keen to foster.

Najma Rashid, project director for the Madrasa Resource Centre, said the Aga Khan nursery schools were set up in the late 1980s to replace traditional madrasas that focused only on the Qur’an. The limited curriculum left the children who attended them, mostly Sunni Muslims, at a disadvantage when they started primary school, and far too many dropped out.

The imams who taught at the traditional schools were initially suspicious, she told me, but they were consulted at length about what would be taught at the new madrasas. The result is a three-year program that emphasizes not only the core values and beliefs of Islam but also secular learning, especially numbers and letters, both Arabic and English. It’s child-centred and substantially play-based – a far cry from the old days of rote learning and corporal punishment.

The results? The schools attract children from a broad range of backgrounds – a little over half of them Muslims and the rest more or less equally split between Christians and Hindus. And, even though most of the kids come from homes where little or no English is spoken and where there are few, if any, books, most of them can read, often fluently, by the time they start primary school at age six.

Shatry said the multiple legacies of the madrasa have stayed with her. Despite her deep commitment to her own faith, her friends today – the old ones from school days in Mombasa, and the new ones from medical school in Nairobi – come from a broad mix of religious backgrounds. And, she said, “I learned to like school. I still do.”

The network of madrasas has been growing for a decade at the rate of about five new ones a year. Although Aga Khan Education Services subsidizes each start-up, it won’t carry them indefinitely. They are, like virtually all Aga Khan undertakings, expected to sustain themselves in the long term. In the case of the madrasas, that’s after three years. This means that school fees, set by the local committees that run each madrasa, vary widely according to the means of the village or the neighbourhood. Salaries also vary for the mostly young women trained to teach at the schools.

“These are primarily school-leavers – dropouts,” said Najma Rashid. “There are usually no other opportunities for them in their communities. The Kenyan system is very paper-oriented. But we’ve shown that we can take these semiqualified women and give them skills of value … We have been able to empower them to learn new skills and get a good job. The biggest problem we have as a result is that they’re hired away in droves by other schools that can offer them higher salaries. It means we have more turnover than we should.”

When Shatry finished nursery school, she went on to an Aga Khan primary school in Mombasa, not unlike the one in Nairobi attended by Firoz and Saida Rasul. But when the time came for high school, she was a few years too early to compete for space in the latest Aga Khan educational undertaking – Mombasa’s showcase Aga Khan Academy, the first of 19 such institutions planned for Islamic areas in the developing world.1

The academy, a US$20-million architectural marvel in a country where a dollar goes about two and a half times further than in Canada, opened in the fall of 2003 with classes from pre-primary to high school. But its focus is the high school – its students chosen solely on merit in a means-blind process that provides partial or full scholarships for those who can’t afford the hefty fees (by Kenya’s standards) of about US$2,700 a year. It’s still teaching Kenya’s high school curriculum, but is poised to phase it out in favour of the International Baccalaureate program that was developed in Switzerland and is taught in 3,000 elite schools around the world.

The other 18 schools will all be similar to this one – an 18-hectare residential campus with first-class labs, special areas for the study of the arts, religion and culture, design and technology workshops and a wide range of sports facilities. This first academy, which doesn’t yet have facilities for the boarders who will eventually double its enrolment to about 1,000, has students from pretty well every ethnic group and religion found in the cosmopolitan city of Mombasa. It has attracted faculty from far and wide, including two teachers from Canada. But it is, at least for now, largely populated by students from backgrounds that are somewhat privileged.

Sheliza Darveck, a senior student and one of a small minority of Ismailis who attend the school, says she went to one of the better primary schools in Mombasa, and so did most of her classmates. Students from the overcrowded poorer schools, she said, rarely have marks good enough to get them in the door.

Firoz Rasul sees the web of Aga Khan initiatives to improve basic education as a way to deal with that problem over time – to bring poor schools to the point where they routinely produce students who can compete for elite further training in institutions like the academy or Aga Khan University. The result, he told me, will be a new generation of leaders who are solidly grounded in the humanities and sciences, and who have a network of friendships formed across social, cultural, religious and even national lines.

I find it as hard to quibble with this noble objective as with the goal of free primary education. Yet excellence and inclusiveness seem to be mutually exclusive goals in countries that really can’t afford either one.

Putting pressure on the government

9 africa 268Like the Aga Khan institutions in Kenya and Tanzania, ActionAid in Malawi is committed to seeing the government schools succeed. In a strategy that may seem odd, ActionAid is trying to achieve this goal by backing away from the kind of direct support for schools it used to provide. What led to this change of direction is that old bugaboo of international development – the fungibility of aid.

“We started as a service delivery charity in 1991,” says Collins Magalasi, who runs ActionAid’s Lilongwe office. “We provided schools, water, teachers’ houses, bridges, roads, food when it was needed and that sort of thing … But government was very clever. Where ActionAid moved in, it tended to withdraw.”

When the European-funded charity opened a school, the government was almost sure to close one – or at the very least to change its plans to open one nearby. The result was no net gain in education services for all of ActionAid’s spending. As a result of this experience, ActionAid is shifting its efforts to working with poor people directly and becoming much more rights-based. “It’s the duty of the government to provide for its people,” Magalasi said. “We try to force them to do it.”

ActionAid still does some direct service delivery, “but only as a means to force government to do what it is supposed to do. For example, the government will say it can’t open a school because there’s no place for the teachers to live and teachers won’t come if there’s no housing. So we will build the teachers’ houses, and then we’ll say to the government, ‘Your excuse is no longer valid. Now you must provide the teachers.’”

The boy behind the grille

The challenges facing all these countries are driven home to me by one of the pictures I brought home from the Mombasa madrasa where Naimi Shatry began her educational journey. It’s not the best shot in my album, and its impact is subtle. It shows a group of little boys in simple blue uniforms having fun on a teeter-totter. Behind them – and behind a grille that closes off their play area from adjoining yards – is another little boy who is not in uniform, not having fun, not in school.

I know nothing of this boy and what opportunities may, or may not, be open to him in his lifetime. But to me the image stands as an icon for all those who are excluded from even the “free” schools in poor countries of the world, let alone those that charge, however small a pittance the fee might be.

Yet the value of education can’t be measured by quantity alone. Quality is key. And no matter how much groups like ActionAid cajole and bully poor governments like that of Malawi, schools there are at such a low level that any aspiration to excellence is a long, long way off under even the best circumstances that can be imagined. Ditto in the grossly overcrowded classrooms of Tanzania and Kenya, no matter how good the in-service training for overextended teachers.

So all of these approaches have a valid, and urgent, role in the battle against mass poverty. If schools for the masses can be made good enough to at least give students the basics they need to thrive in a modern economy, and if a few elite schools can produce competent and committed leaders, it won’t bridge the whole gap between the rich and poor worlds. But it will be a mighty step.


1 Similar schools are planned for Nairobi; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Kampala, Uganda; Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo; Antananarivo, Madagascar; Maputo, Mozambique; Dhaka, Bangladesh; Mumbai and Hyderabad, India; Karachi and Islamabad, Pakistan; Kabul, Afghanistan; Osh, Kyrgyzstan; Khorog and Dushanbe, Tajikistan; Damascus and Salemieh, Syria; and Bamako, Mali.