Hard times at Kenya's desert
By Jonathan Barker
BBC News, Marsabit
Thursday, 6 March 2008
The turmoil following the elections in Kenya has had a serious
economic impact in some of the remotest corners of the country,
such as the northern oasis town of Marsabit, which is suffering
from fuel and water shortages.
The headmistress of the school at Marsabit is called Beatrice and
she has her own reasons to be alarmed by the turmoil that has been
rocking Kenya in recent weeks.
Her boarding school in this northern oasis town is surrounded by
hundreds of miles of desert, dust and scrub, and water often has
to be transported in from afar.
"Last term my girls were allocated 10 litres of water a week for
washing themselves and their clothes," she says. "That's the
equivalent of the flush of a toilet. But since the troubles, water
has got a lot more expensive, and they'll just have to manage with
Down south in Nairobi and the Rift Valley, the country has been
shaken to the core by the post-election conflict. The violence has
not spread to Marsabit, but the shattering effects on the Kenyan
" The airport is so rarely used, the pilot flies over the
strip before landing to make sure there are no goats or cows on
the runway "
"Here we are dependent on people from the south sending us food,"
Beatrice continues. "But truck drivers are now afraid to go south
because of the violence, so our staple diet of beans and maize has
doubled in price."
Marsabit seems to be a part of Kenya that largely gets forgotten.
Before I set off on my journey to this distant Kenyan outpost, I
told a Kenyan friend where I was going.
"Marsabit - you're going to Marsabit - oh!" and that is where the
conversation ended. People here do not seem to have much to say
about the place.
Beatrice's boarding school educates girls of the nomad tribes of
this region with evocative names such as Rendille, Borana and
Gabbra. She is determined to improve the social standing of the
"At the moment," she says, "there's a pecking order which starts
with God, then come the men and boys, the cows, the sheep, the
goats and finally the women and girls."
People here cannot see the point of educating a girl, when she
will become someone else's wife. But not all parents have the same
Fourteen-year-old Gumato's parents are too poor to pay for school
fees, but they have found a way to educate their daughter.
"My mother has been selling milk to the school to pay for my fees,"
Gumato says. "After the election she was hoping she could educate
my sister too - but she doesn't talk about that now."
Beatrice and Gumato showed me round one of the school dormitories
where 70 girls sleep.
"Because our girls are children of nomads, constantly on the move
as they seek fresh pasture for their animals, they have to come to
a boarding school," Beatrice explains.
"They can't guarantee they'd always be near a school if they were
Dozens of bunks were pushed up against each other.
" By the end of the term I'll be so in debt my creditors
won't give me anything "
- Beatrice, boarding school
To get into their beds, girls have to climb in through the end of
the bunk. There is just no room to get in at the side.
But for Gumato it is wonderful: "At home my whole family sleeps on
animal hides on the ground - it is so comfortable having a
mattress and my own bed."
Before the election, Beatrice could help to support girls like
Gumato. Then she could balance her budget and have a bit left over
for girls who could not afford to pay their fees.
But Beatrice tells me it is different now: "For two days last week,
" she says, "we had no diesel, which means our water - transported
from 30 miles (50km) away is much more expensive - by the end of
the term I'll be so in debt, my creditors won't give me anything."
That afternoon, the headmistress introduced me to another girl,
She told me later that Habiba's mother was so determined to get
her daughter through school, she was working in the school grounds
earning the equivalent of £1.50 ($3) per day, 50p ($1) of which
was going towards school fees.
"I want to be a doctor when I leave," Habiba tells us.
And she has got the ability, confirms Beatrice.
"But, I'm not sure I can pay her mother any longer," she went on,
"all the school funds have to go towards basics like food and
water now," she says.
"I know Habiba's father would like her to get married, and already
has a husband lined up."
Girls like Gumato and Habiba want to stay at school, but paying
their fees is a problem. With the economic situation in decline,
Beatrice just cannot help them anymore.
"I've seen prospective husbands outside the school gates at the
end of term with sometimes as little as a bag of tobacco as a
dowry," she says.
"In the past I've pleaded with the girls not to get married and
have helped them pay their fees, but now there's little I can do
to stop them."