I was sitting in the shade of a mango tree, listening to Betty Wario Okello talk about her students, when I realised that you would probably also like to hear from her. She teaches Form One students at a public school in a poor agricultural community on the outskirts of Mombasa.
After we talked about her students, I asked her two questions that I've been asking women across the country. I've been asking them to name one thing, other than money, that would improve their quality of life. I've also been asking to tell me one of their highest dreams for themselves, putting all practical needs aside.
Like so many of the women I have talked to, her answers served her children and the community, not just herself.
I'll write more about the two questions project in an upcoming blog post, but for now, here's the interview with Betty.
How many children are in your class?
I have 106 children in my class. 106.
Form One is supposed to be from age six to age eight. But you find that because of the free primary education, I have five [or] six children, the elder one is 15 because she has been staying at home, she has been working as a maid. Now, because of the free primary education, she decided to come to school because she is being overworked. Now if she comes to school most of the time she is busy in the class. But when she is at home, “wash the utensil, go and fetch some water, you look after the young child, go and sell some ice.” So you find that if she is in school, she is more comfortable than in home.
Then you find that most of the children, they come from very poor family. The parent, most of them died of AIDS.
Most of them? Of your students, how many have lost at least one parent to AIDS?
In my class, I have ten. Ten who have lost both of the parents. Six who have lost one parent. And some of them are staying with their grandmothers or grandfathers. Or some of them are staying with their relatives, which is very difficult for these children.
You find that a child comes to school, perhaps he has not taken any breakfast at all. Perhaps he has not taken even lunch. So you find it is very difficult for this child to learn.
You find some of them sleep on rags. When they come back to school, some of them have not bathed. They are smelling [of] urine, because of where they sleep.
They don’t have proper health, some of them. You find with some scabies on their skin. You talk, they are scratching themselves. But they are in class.
Some of them are determined to learn but the condition in their homes is keeping them behind. They don’t focus in the class. They have very difficult situation.
Then you find, if there is many in the class, to handle them is very difficult. One hundred. How can you handle 100 in a class? So you find that those who are willing to learn, they are very good. Those who need to be pushed, it is really a problem, a very big problem.
How do you manage not to lose your spirit as a teacher?
I love the work so much. Because of loving the work, it makes you to at least try to understand those children. You try to find out why one looks very weak in class. You call them one by one, they start telling you the life history at home. Then you start feeling sorry.
You find that perhaps, you find a child sleeping in class and you call her, “why are you sleeping in class?”
“I’ve not taken any breakfast.”
“And yesterday, what did you eat?”
“I only ate ugali with sukeme [wiki]”
“And did you sleep well?”
“And why didn’t you finish [your] homework?”
“We don’t have light in our house.”
Those are the problems we have but we love the work so much. But because we have large numbers, it is very hard to handle them. Very hard to handle them. But if there could be few, or if there could be more teachers, the work would be very easy.
You find that the government, the money that they give is on the basic needs of the school: textbooks, exercise books and pens. But uniform, the parent has to provide. And you find that, these parents, most of them, they are poor. They can’t afford buying the uniform.
If one works for perhaps one hundred shillings a day, will he afford to buy a uniform? It costs perhaps 600 or 700. If he earns 100 shillings a day, he has to save 20 bob a day to buy one uniform. And if the parent has something to do with six or seven children, how long will he save to have these uniforms bought? And how will you save at the same time [that] the children want to eat. So you find it is very, very hard. But the government does not provide uniform[s] for children in primary school.
Do you think it would help if the government got rid of the uniform rule?
It is very necessary for a child to have a uniform because if this child is not in school, it is very easy for one to identify that this is a student. So in case of any problems, the child is easily identified.
Then again, a uniform is like a discipline. You find that, perhaps some of them come from good families, now they will come to school with good clothing. These others, they have rags. But the uniform keeps them on the same line.
But can’t you tell how well-off the families are by how worn the uniforms are?
You can tell the difference. But at our school there are some people who sometimes volunteer – the churches – they chip in by buying them uniforms. Those who are in rags, they help them buy uniforms, bags, some shoes.
Tell me about a time in the past two weeks, when you’ve thought, “I’m doing a good job, I’m changing this child’s life.”
I have a child whereby this child does not want to be at home. He loves me so much, he would wish we could go with him to my house. He thinks I am coming from a very rich family because of how I handle him, how I listen to him. Whenever somebody abuses me, whenever somebody beats him, he would run for me. So he is more close to me than even the parents and I am very happy about that. Very happy, indeed.
I wish I could be having more to provide for these children.
How do you deal with that? If you have 50 students who can’t afford lunch, what do you do?
Sometimes in our school, the teachers are so much giving. Some of these teachers would come with clothes from their homes, to give [to] these children. Sometimes teachers provide lunch for those children who are not going for lunch. Because we find that, the bell goes for lunch, if you go around the classes, you find some of them sleeping.
“Why are you sleeping?”
“These is nobody at home. There is no lunch at home.”
You feel so bad. We sacrifice, instead of going to eat lunch ourself, we sacrifice out lunch for these children.
Do you meet some children who are so determined about their education, to raise themselves out of poverty?
In fact, in my school, there are children who come from very far. They have to wake up at around 4:30 to walk to school, 4:30 to walk to school! Sometimes it has rained but they have to walk to school.
On weekends, they have to sell firewood. You meet them, they are carrying charcoal, you meet them carrying firewood, because they want some food. They go sell the firewood to buy food.
One student told me that, “now teacher, if I have to sell firewood to get food, in ten years to come, perhaps there will be no firewood. What will I be selling? Now it means, I have to learn hard so that I may change the life at home. Even my parents can not afford sleeping on a mattress. We sleep on old mats, whereby sometimes it has bedbugs.”
I asked him, “why?”
“That is the life we have because my father is a farmer, a very basic farmer. My mother is just also there. So at least we have to sell the firewood to get food and we can only afford eating supper. Not breakfast. Not lunch. Because if we happen to eat lunch, then it means there is no supper. So we have to sacrifice about breakfast and about lunch so that we can get supper.”
He is very determined to learn. His name is Hanisi.
I have another one who is called Kombo. In Class One I have four girls, one is Pili, another on is Mlongo, another one is Lois Moti, another one is Meyu. They have to wake up at 4:30 to walk to school and they are very young girls. Barefoot. If you look at their legs, it has some cracks because of walking.
In fact, I remember there was a time whereby there was a case, some two young girls were going home from school. One was raped on the way back home. Now you find that they are risking their own life just to come to school to learn. It’s a pity. I really pity them.
If they come to school, perhaps it’s raining. They don’t have umbrellas. The rain, where it gets them, it will rain on them until they get to school. Then again on their way back home, if the rain comes, it will rain on them until they get home. But tomorrow, they will not fail to come to school. I’m very happy about these children.
I wish they could get somewhere else to live. Or perhaps if the school could build a small boarding school for those needy children, I think they would have done a very good thing.
What is a simple thing that would make a difference for those students?
If they could provide lunch, just lunch program for these children. If they could get something to eat during lunch hour, I think this one will make them more determined to come to school because some of them, they will really walk from home to school. But you find that the energy wasted coming from home to school, then you come to sit in a class, listening to a teacher on an empty stomach. But if you are sitting in a class on an empty stomach and your mind is telling you that there is lunch after you have sat in the class, you will not sleep.
Just a lunch program, it would really help these children.
What is the one thing that would improve the quality of your life?
Good leadership. For example, we find that some of us are farmers, we have some small businesses. Perhaps I have three mango trees or four mango trees on my farm. If I can get somewhere to sell these mangos and get something to lift me up, then I think I don’t have to go to somebody to help me.
Mostly the sufferers are women. You find that in our local areas, men tend to leave their women at home to go and work very far away, leaving these women with their children. Whereby the child, if he’s sick, it’s the mother to take care. There’s no firewood? It’s the mother to take care. There’s no food? It’s the mother to take care.
But if I’ll have an opportunity of selling my mangos, perhaps… not by somebody to come and get my mangos for two bob, and he goes and sells them at 20 bob a mango; that is exploitation. But if I can get good leadership, that would listen to my problems, then I think that one would help.
All practical needs aside, for you personally, what is one high dream you have?
I have children. I am happy the government has provided free primary education and perhaps they are saying they may provide free secondary education. But my fear is, these children will have to go to university. If you find that the secondary and the primary are free, now taking these children to university will be very expensive. If perhaps, they could be providing loans for these children to undergo the university, then I think I don’t have any problem.
Because you find that, today, a secondary education is not enough. And most of us, we can’t afford taking our children to the university. Universtities are very far from where we come from. And I have to provide where my child is going to sleep, to eat and how he or she will be going to the college. And you find that now I don’t have that money. If I could only afford to be taking my child to university, that is my biggest dream.