At Mkokoni Primary School in Kwale County, a little boy crawls across the classroom, letting out a playful squeal. Another child, who is barely two years, scurries past a teacher who is educating a group of girls on the tenets of English language.
The girls repeat what the teacher is saying in unison. Some of them have babies latched on their breasts and eyes focused on the blackboard. Occasionally, the children join in the repetition and their voices merge to become a confused choir their teacher Mwinyihaji Tenga has gotten used to.
“They do not have anyone to baby sit for them. If you tell them to come without their children, nobody will come,” says Tenga.
Their lessons are unique. They take place in an extra classroom set aside by Girls Advocacy Alliance in collaboration with the school for mothers who fell off the cracks by getting pregnant when they were barely 15. They come with babies strapped on the backs and tins of porridge in bags. For break, unlike their age mates who run out to play, the teenagers step out to breast feed their babies and play with them before resuming lessons.
Saumu Abdala was 14 and in class eight when she discovered she was pregnant. It halted a lot of things in her life, including the pursuit of her dream to become an engineer.
“The hardest part is finding food for the baby. If you want to leave to look for a job, your parents tell you to take the baby with you,” she says.
Tenga says Kwale has hundreds of teenagers who are out of school due to early pregnancy. He tells of the many children he knows who have resorted to commercial sex after giving up on resuming school.
“It reaches a point where everything stops making sense. Your baby cries the whole night. There is no food so your body cannot produce milk. You look for ways to make things work.
When someone promises to marry you, you take the offer,” says one of the girls who admits that on many nights she goes out to “piga densi”, their euphemism for prostitution.
They are a part of the often ignored yet rapidly growing statistics of young people dropping out of school as the country struggles to fulfil the “education for all” vision.
Data from the Ministry of Health’s District Health Information System (DHIS) paint a grim picture of an estimated 378,497 adolescent girls between the ages of 10-19 presented with pregnancy across Kenya between July 2016 and June 2017.
Kigen Korir, a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) programme officer, says adolescents lack parental guidance and education programmes on how to deal with issues of sexual reproductive health.
“Incidences of sexual and gender-based violence are still high and have been linked to boda boda riders, teachers, fishermen, touts and in some instances family members,” he says.
Mwejuma Ali, one of the students, says even though going to school with a baby is tedious, she appreciates the prospects of a changed future. She got pregnant at 16.
“When you get pregnant, you drop out because of the shame. Everyone believes you have known older men and you will corrupt other children,” she says.
Their lessons are often scheduled for when schools are closed, or in the afternoon when they can get an extra room to study.
Mwejuma says she loves the idea of young mothers attending classes after others have gone home, or during school holidays.
“It can be uncomfortable for other pupils who were once your classmates to stare at you when you walk to school with a baby,” she says.
Kigen says although Kenya has made great strides in institutionalising and facilitating school continuation and re-entry among pregnant girls, there is still stigma.
“Some schools are yet to fully comply with the provisions of existing policies on school re-entry. Stigma and discrimination is still rampant in schools so most girls prefer to drop out of school during pregnancy or not to return to their schools after pregnancy for fear of being ridiculed,” he says.
In 1994, the education system adopted the National School Re-Entry Policy. This was followed by the National School Health Policy (2009), the National Adolescent Sexual Reproductive Health Policy (2015) and more recently, the development of draft National Guidelines on School Re-Entry.
Mwejuma and her classmates hope for a better future, devoid of the struggles they had when they got their babies. They believe their class with produce teachers, doctors and engineers who will be known all over the country. Their teacher says that even though the babies are a distraction, and he has often had to stop lessons when one of the babies gets fussy and uncontrollable, he focuses on the end goal.
“I want them to know that someone believes in them and they have a chance to start over,” he says.