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  • Alex Lekishon

Celebrating Young Writers from the Maasai Mara

In January 2022, we held an event at Mara Discovery Community Centre to honor the young writers who contributed to the book "Student Voices from Kenya: The Effects of COVID-19 on Learning and Livelihoods." Journalist Alex Lekishon was one of the reviewers who chose and compiled the stories for this book. He reports on the need and impact of this writing initiative and the feedback from participants at our event in January.
Young writers were interviewed on national television at the January book launch.
 

by Alex Lekishon


On March 15, 2020, the Kenyan government abruptly closed all schools and colleges nationwide in response to Covid-19, disrupting nearly 17 million learners countrywide. The closure of institutions not only affected learners and teachers, but also brought forth numerous economic and social issues, including interrupted and loss of learning, education exclusion, homelessness, nutrition and economic crisis, childcare challenges, increase in teenage pregnancies, financial costs to households, and sexual exploitation among others. The effects were more severe for the underprivileged children and their households from the rural poor communities.


With the government adopting a remote and digital mode of learning, the education gap increased even more, as learners from rural areas were excluded from online education because of challenges with access to internet and reliable electricity.

Oliveseed Foundation in partnership with Mara Discovery Centre in Aitong came up with an idea of a writing competition during Covid-19 for students living and schooling in the Maasai Mara and its environs. In January 2021, as students were returning to school, Maasai students in rural Narok County came to Mara Discovery to spend a day writing about their time at home. Over 80 students showed up to participate.


In 2021, Oliveseed published the book Students Voices from Kenya, a compilation of stories, narrations, and experiences during Covid-19 written by these students. These young people from villages across the Mara documented their time at home while the whole world was brought to an abrupt halt by the pandemic.


Most of the parents from the rural Maasai Mara were not able to finance school-related expenses such as learning materials and daily internet bundles as tourism, the main economic and income generating activity, was severely affected by the pandemic. In addition, most of the homes here lack electricity, and so the students were disadvantaged compared to their counterparts who can afford these items. This further widened the inequality gap and impeded the ability of young people to access quality education and continued learning, resulting in limited and minimal learning especially in rural informal settlements.


Additionally, smartphones are beyond reach for most of these communities. Even when adults have smartphones, tensions around privacy and children’s unsupervised internet use render access to learning non-existent. In some secluded areas where electricity and technology do exist, the cost of the internet is prohibitive. Such disadvantages present challenges for the marginalized families and learners who must compete with their more privileged peers during national examinations.


Because of this saddening inequality, this project from Oliveseed provided students with an opportunity to narrate and document their challenges when away from school. “We've been wanting to do a writing program here for a long time, and thankfully we were able to launch this last year with students writing about their time at home during Covid-19,” noted Barb Mackraz, founder and executive director of Oliveseed. “It’s so important for young people to develop their voice and the confidence that comes from writing, and to share their stories with the rest of the world so they are not forgotten,” said Barb.

Students Voices from Kenya compiled together 27 of these stories. “This book will be useful for all learners and anyone else to read and understand the challenges and experiences these students went through during the pandemic,” said Amos Kipeen, co-founder and director of Oliveseed Kenya and founder of Mara Discovery Centre.


At the January event, all the young writers received a certificate and a copy of the book, and the top three chosen by the teachers also received a Kindle. Many of the writers were also interviewed on national television. Parents, teachers, and 100s of well-wishers came to show their respect for the students.

Writers & their parents were honored, amid dancing by many well-wishers

Linda Njapit, a writer from Aitong Primary School who was interviewed, spoke about the disturbing challenges most of the learners underwent during the pandemic. “This program was very instrumental in helping us improve our language and general performance in school,” she said. She also encouraged parents to keep their daughters in school as much as their sons.

Linda speaking about life during the pandemic and what this project meant to her

Patrick Lepapa, one of the teachers who compiled the stories, noted that it is important for the learners to develop the reading and writing culture at their tender age. “From an author’s point of view, the learners are on the right trajectory in documenting and putting their minds together in coming up with this amazing book for their reference in the future,” he said.


The public school library initiative started by Oliveseed also helped during the pandemic period, as evidenced from various students from these schools who participated in the writing competition. Jolene Hsu, a great friend of Oliveseed who visited from the USA during the January book launch, commented on the thirst and need of education among the Maasai people, and she stated that the library initiative was well thought out. “I think it’s a great way of teaching English language to the students,” said Gee Gee Williams, another great friend of Oliveseed who was present at the book launch.


Children from marginalized communities whose parents may have low literacy levels, limited education, and limited time to engage in their child’s learning process were especially at risk of loss of learning. Not only are these parents frustrated at having to homeschool without adequate preparation, but they also cannot reinforce their children’s learning considering they have limited knowledge themselves. This further indicates that remote learning cannot entirely replace classroom learning, as it is intended to supplement knowledge that children already have.


School closures also had implications for learners who relied on school food programs as a main source of nutrition. With everyone at home, the ability of families to provide food for their children was further reduced with the loss of income and jobs. School food programs provide health benefits for the most vulnerable children, thereby increasing enrollment rates, reducing absenteeism, and improving food security at the household level. During the height of the pandemic, Oliveseed Foundation came in handy by providing food for multiple families across the entire Maasai Mara.


Student Voices from Kenya is a dream come true, and it will serve many generations to come. This has marked the beginning of building a reading and writing culture to our generations. The initiatives from Oliveseed will continue to expand and explore various pertinent issues like cultural experiences, education, environment, and empowerment as the key tenets and pillars of the foundation.

 

About the Author

Alex Lekishon is an environmental and cultural journalist and travel consultant based in the Upper Maasai Mara, with a keen interest in writing and documenting the rich Maasai cultural diversities, environmental matters, and wildlife and cultural conservation among the Maasai community. Alex is a graduate in Journalism and Mass Communication from Mount Kenya University and has been a contributor to the People Daily Newspapers on matters of environmental journalism in the Maasai Mara.