Bus number 10 of Riara Primary School in Nairobi snaked its way from a virtually empty Mombasa Road to the Eastern Bypass before branching on to Outering road. It was 4:37 am and Nairobi had not woken up save for the early matatus that drop off drunkards and are boarded by the early risers.
The early morning showers had reduced to scattered droplets only visible when vehicles’ head lights shone through the darkness. At the turn off on to Outering road, touts signaled a man in a black and blue jacket, an umbrella under his left arm and a young girl in uniform probably aged eight.
The two crossed the road and waited for transport to school. The Riara bus driver ignored them and continued with the journey. At Kitindo shopping centre in Pipeline Estate, sex workers had not yet retired for the night when the bus sped by.
But partly hidden by the darkness, another young girl in a navy blue uniform stood on the roadside, next to a female adult, probably her nanny. It was 10 minutes to 5 am but the scenes witnessed by the Saturday Standard on the two nights while trailing school buses are becoming common around Nairobi.
Children as young as four waiting to be picked by school buses at wee hours in order to beat Nairobi’s crazy traffic has become part of life in the big city. It is an issue that has split the city into two.
Some say the early hours are a necessary evil that ensures children get the very best out of education while others say it is the surest way of killing our children.
Proprietors of private schools which have entrenched this culture say it is in the best interest of the children.
“The bigger interest is getting the children educated. If we had a transport system that will enable them get to school at 8am, we would even pick them at 7:30 am,” Peter Ndoro, the chief executive Kenya Private Schools Association says.
Psychologists however say children need up to eight hours of sleep and anything less than that is taking their childhood away, which may turn them into rebellious adults.
“Sleep is very important for children. As much as parents want good education for their children they may end up spoiling their future without knowing like in such a scenario,” Dr Frank Njenga says.
“You may think that you are making them learn to become independent only to realise that you don’t even know your child at all,” he says.
For the parents, it is a never-ending debate. Jared Otieno who repairs shoes in Nairobi wakes up his two children, one who is in Class Eight and the other in Class Three at 5:30 am.
“They leave at 6am,” he says.
“It is not safe at all to make them leave the house before sunrise because those are the hours of criminals and rapists,” he says.
Collins Otieno, a business man wakes up his children at 7am and stays near the school they attend. He says this is what all parents should do.
“As much as we want them to succeed, their safety is also paramount. If you can afford the school fees then it means you can afford to live in the vicinity of the school is,” he argues.
Posing as parents seeking to get a slot for their children in a number of such private schools, the amount of fees we were told could cost some parents both their arms and legs -- or even all their body parts.
Top private schools
Kianda School charges Sh78,300 for Form Ones and Sh86,300 for Form Fours per term. That is inclusive of lunch.
Those joining the school pay an acceptance non - refundable fee of Sh25,000. Transport fees which is optional ranges from Sh9,000 for those who live near the school such as Loresho and Sh25,000 for those who live in neighbourhoods such Donhoolm, Umoja and Diamond Park.
Riara charges between Sh61,000 for pupils in the reception class- an equivalent of kindergarten and Sh98,000 for Class Eight pupils. Parents then pay Sh1,100 per year for medical cover, Sh1,000 for Parents Teachers Association and Sh10,000 as caution money. For transport, parents pay between Sh10,000 per term for those who live around the school and Sh38,000 if you live in Muthaiga.
The Aga Khan Academy charges between Sh211,600 for Grade 1 to Sh234,000 for Grade 8 pupils per term. Parents who want their children to be dropped off and picked by the school buses pay between Sh30,000 to Sh50,000 per year.
According to the International Schools Database, it costs about $10,500 (Sh1 million) a year to educate a child aged 10 and below in Nairobi’s top private schools. The database ranks Nairobi’s high fees as being more expensive than more advanced cities such as Doha, Cape Town, Abu Dhabi and Kuala Lumpur.
Top on the list of Nairobi’s exclusive schools is the International School of Kenya (ISK), which charges parents Sh2.7 million a year per child. The Banda School, Rossyln Academy and Kenton Preparatory charge Sh1.5 million a year followed by Kenton Preparatory School which charges Sh1.4 million.
The fees makes the high end schools an exclusive club for wealthy Kenyans and expatriates. Furthermore these high end schools use the British Curriculum which creates a disconnect between them and the masses.
This leaves the upper and lower middle class parents with tier two private schools. The best schools in this tier are however located in upper middle class neighbourhoods where the rents are equally high.
In Kilimani where Riara School is located, rent for a four bedroom house is Sh200,000 per month. Along Bogani road where Makini is located, rent for a four bedroom house is Sh250,000. At Loresho, which is around Kianda School, a tenant in a three-bedroom house parts with Sh75,000 per month.
On the flip side, the farthest neighbourhoods from these top schools where children are picked in the morning as discovered by the Saturday Standard, rent for a two-bedroom house in Umoja is Sh12,000 a month. In Donholm, rent a three bedroom massionette is Sh25,000 a month while in Kitengela, a four bedroomed house goes for Sh27,000 a month.
So why would a parent a spend a fortune taking their child to a school whose fees is higher than what they spend for rent and the distance ends up inconveniencing the child?
“It is a middle class thing,” Faith Simiyu, a psychologist says.
“Parents, especially those who belong to the middle class sacrifice a lot to attain a certain status and this also includes the need to want their kids to attend the best schools available. In most cases, those schools are not located near where they stay,” she says.
Since the schools are very far away and considering Nairobi’s crazy traffic, the institutions opt to pick the pupils very early in the morning. This can be as early as 4:30am especially if the school and place where the children reside are on opposite sides of town.
The school bus rule is that those who are dropped home last which could be at any time between 8pm and 9pm will be picked up first. And those who are picked up first have to go round a number of estates as other pupils board the bus.
By the time the day breaks and most of the vehicles in Nairobi are on the road, scenes of pupils sleeping in buses in morning traffic gridlocks are common. Anna Munyiva doesn’t see this as a problem.
“The timing is appropriate especially for kids in upper primary who need the time, otherwise they will reach the school at 9am. My kids are picked at 6.45 and they miss the first lesson almost every day,” she says.
Jay Wambui who refused to take her child to such a school after she was told the bus would pick her at 5 am strongly disagrees.
“I once saw another school bus with children in those wee hours get hijacked at gun point,” she says.
“The earliest a school bus can pick my baby is 6:30am and by 6pm she should be home,” she says.
At stake are about 7,000 annual slots available in national secondary schools after KCPE exams. Joining to a national school almost guarantees one a place in university which sets a child on a good trajectory of life.
But for the private schools, the bragging rights of producing the top candidates each year are constantly at stake. Some of them keep their pupils, especially those who are supposed to sit KCPE, up to 7pm or 8pm. We found a school which does this in Tena Estate.
And the hustle for the young kids does not end when they step out of the bus on reaching home. Most private schools load their pupils with tonnes of homework which leaves them with little room to be who they are supposed to be, kids.
“It is mental torture. By the time the kids get to school, they are already fatigued to learn anything and they still have to do six or seven assignments. It is crazy,” Peris Anyango says.
According to the Traffic Amendment Act passed by Parliament in 2016, all school buses should only operate between 6am and 6pm. They should also have seat belts and have a speed limit of 50km per hour.
But since the Act was signed into law, little has been done to enforce it apart from the directive issued last month by former Education Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i who ordered all school buses be painted yellow.
The National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) says 6am to 6pm rule applies to school buses traveling long distances.
“Those who are picking or dropping off kids within the cities are treated as commuters,” says NTSA director general Francis Meja.
“In this case it is parents who are supposed to ensure that their kids are safe.”
The result of this dalliance with danger has been catastrophic. Two years ago, a bus belonging to Makini School stalled during flash floods for a whole night with 18 children on board. The bus which was ferrying the children home stalled near South C Mosque at 8pm and help did not arrive until 3am.
In October last year, gangsters attacked a bus belonging to one of the high end private schools at 5:30 am near Villa Franca estate on Mombasa Road. Thugs numbering about a dozen had set up a road block and were robbing passengers when the school bus approached. They managed to get access to the bus and roughed up its driver as the pupils watched.