Writing wrongs for Africa

15th July 2005 at 01:00

"Cry Masai girl, cry! Before you left the warmth and safety of your mother's womb to fill your lungs with the first gasp of the life-sustaining air, a man probably older than your father had already proclaimed you his wife."

Thus wrote Joe Ombour of Kenya's Sunday Nation, in a moving report about Narinoi Purno, a 15-year-old Masai girl whose circumcision was rushed forward at the age of eight. Her father, panicking, ordered the operation in the hope of marrying off his daughter before she was targeted by the girls' school that had just opened nearby.

The beer flowed at Narinoi's house that night when her prospective husband brought a dowry of three cows, a goat and sheep. But Narinoi was saved by her village leader, Chief Keshoko, who, assisted by the local headmistress, took her away to a primary boarding school.

Chief Keshoko has hit upon a way to modify the Masai tradition of esaivata - the booking of girls for marriage even before they are born - rather than repudiate it.

He is mobilising his community to create a dowry fund so that elders can act as "educational suitors". They honour fathers in the traditional manner, but secure girls' future in school instead of early marriage. Since 1999, the school's population has risen from four to 350 students, with 500 additional girls booked to enter.

Joe Ombour's report came second in the fourth Akintola Fatoyinbo Africa Education Journalism Awards, held late last month in Accra, Ghana. The awards are supported by The TES as a way to help improve education reporting in Africa.

Entries highlighted some successful ways to get more children from poor families into school and keep them there, including school meal programmes.

But a number of articles also demonstrated why G8 leaders are right to insist on investment in education and anti-corruption measures in return for aid and debt concessions to African countries. Entries from Nigeria, in particular, revealed a high level of exam corruption, underfunding and political failure in the education system.

The winning entry was by Bukola Olatunji, who also took the award three years ago, for an article in the education section of Nigeria's ThisDay newspaper. She investigated the reasons why students at University of Nigeria, Nsukka in Lagos, have dubbed it "hell on earth" for its poor living conditions.

With water shortages rife, students are fined if they don't wash their teeth over butts of foul water collected from washing dishes and clothes or funnels that take their waste to a gutter below.

The water, to which no disinfectant has been added, is also used to "wash" toilets loaded to the brim and beyond with excrement. Students use their own buckets in the latrine, then empty them into the toilet, but their aim is not always accurate.

"The stench of the drainage, urine and human waste that welcome one to the hostels is unimaginable," wrote Ms Olatunji.

The cause of the overloading is that rooms built for two students are being officially allocated to six students minimum, but the average population of each room is 10, with mattresses on floors to create more sleeping space.

Add to that the "fliers", mainly middle-year students, who are not allocated a bed. They go to rooms at random to see if there is a free bed to lie on for a couple of hours and at night bring out mats and blankets to sleep on grimy corridor floors. What used to be the reading room is now home to 67 students, 40 of them official "residents" of the room.

Brendan O'Malley was chair of the Anglophone jury at the Africa Education Journalism awards in Accra, organised by Communication for Education and Development on behalf of the Association for Development of Education in Africa

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