Learning is a journey of a thousand miles. A journey that begins with simple steps like learning vowels, alphabets, and even numbers. It may seem simple to those who began school while young, but to the Rendile women here in Korr, Marsabit, their quest to gain literacy, is a pursuit of a lifetime.
As the sun battles time to keep its rays on earth, the unconventional class is warming up at noon under an acacia tree that offers some respite from the scorching heat.
From afar, you might think this is a village baraza since the women are adorned in their home clothes and cultural attire of beads, necklaces and anklets.
However, as you draw closer, the repetition of Kiswahili words in broken form reveals these are students, albeit adults.
The ever-blowing wind keeps flapping their books as the seemingly unbothered teacher goes on with the day’s lesson. It’s not a typical classroom.
The women sit down, on the sand as they face the small blackboard strapped on the tree, which occasionally provides shade to the eager learners.
The thirst for education makes these women even carry babies to class. They will comfortably breastfeed as the lesson goes on. Some children will break into cries due to hunger, boredom or seeking attention from their mothers, but this does not stop the teachers.
“We teach them basic vowels and numbers before we start constructing a sentence. Later, we advance to reading stories,” explains James Esymsaga, a teacher at Tirrim Trust Center.
A full class session takes 40 minutes, with most lessons starting in the afternoon when the women are done with their house chores.
They first begin with Rendile classes, where they are taught how to read and write in Rendile.
The Bible is core in the teachings. They are taught how to read scriptures and through this, they can easily transition into reading, counting, and writing in Rendile.
Teaching them Rendile is also meant to ensure the language and culture are not extinct in the near future. “We come from different villages but when we are here, we are one. After class, we go home discussing what we have learnt,” says Dorcas Wambile Anzaro, a student.
Swahili lessons are taught in bits. Those who graduate from Swahili classes can easily read and write after a successful transition from Rendile classes.
Henry Hirkena Fofen, a literacy coordinator at Tirrim center, says Swahili lessons were started to give a transition to the women learning Rendile.
“The only challenge is they can read, but they don’t know the meaning of the words. We have started with the basics, alphabet, vowels, and teaching them the meaning of the words,” says Henry.
“It may seem simple education, but this community is marginalized. Education here is almost a privilege since being a pastoralist community, women get married at an early age as young as 13 years,” he added.
Henry revealed that most women have to get permission from their husbands to attend school. “All these students are still young, though they are mothers. They missed the opportunity to attend school, but we have given them a second chance. We have to mobilize and talk to the village elders to allow the classes to be held,”he added.
David Gargule, director, Tirrim Trust, says for the longest time, Rendile community never used to send their children to school.
“But we encourage them to send their children to school and show them the importance of education, says Gargule.
After two years of learning Rendile and one-and-a-half years of learning Swahili, the women graduate and are given certificates for their literacy programme.
Once they graduate, every woman is given a goat as a sign of accomplishment.
“We do curriculum-based tests, three of them in a term, then we combine the whole results in a year to grade them,” explains Henry.
Najire Bolo is a Rendile literacy teacher. She finished her Rendile literacy classes four years ago and now undertaking her Swahili classes. Though not fluent in Swahili, she is gradually mastering the language.
“In 2021, I started working at Tirrim before I went back for Swahili classes,” she says.
One of her joys is that she is now able to go through her children’s homework, unlike before, when she had to seek help.
“Most shopkeepers used to steal from us since we didn’t know how to count. Before, I didn’t know how to load airtime on my phone, but I can buy credit and even send money to my son in Foraa. Also, we now can read a doctor’s prescriptions,” says a beaming Najire.
Pastor David Gargule, who is spearheading the Tirrim Trust, a Christian organisation, says the initiative was to ensure the community is empowered and to reduce illiteracy levels.
“The idea was to ensure residents, especially women, are educated. Our vision is to empower them so that they can know how to read and write, help themselves and know what is happening in the country,” added Galgule.