For many girls, pregnancy signifies the end to their education, but this girls’ school in West Pokot County is reviving hope for dropouts
Chelangit Mkong, 20, clasps her hands nervously and takes a deep breath, “The pregnancy was not meant to happen,” she says. This statement and its variations resonate among several of Mkong’s schoolmates at Mtelo Girls High School in West Pokot County.
In this school, atop the steep Sekerr ranges, a majority of the students are married, teenage mothers or both.
A Form Four student, Mkong is a married mother of a six-year-old. She has left her child under the care of her mother-in-law so as to go back to school. Yet, like many other girls who have children or are married, Mkong did not choose this path; she was pushed by circumstances.
Completing primary school education for Mkong was a struggle. She depended solely on the meagre earnings her father derived from working as a casual labourer in the gold mines in Central Pokot Sub-county. “My mother had gradually lost her eyesight as I was growing up,thus she could not work,” says Mkong.
A bright and inquisitive student, Mkong beat the odds to score 260 marks out of 500 in KCPE in 2012. “I was one of the best students in my school and got admitted to a secondary school nearby,” she says. However, like many girls in the community, hope of advancing her education was shrouded in uncertainty.
“Many girls drop out of school as they are subjected to female genital mutilation, early marriages and child labour in the gold mines.
Others drop out due to pregnancy and poverty,” says Charles Chepusiren, the assistant chief, Chepkundol Sub-location, Sekerr Location.
Mkong’s father could not afford school fees and instead, hinted at plans to marry her off for dowry, usually between 15 and 30 cows.
Determined to continue with her education, Mkong started working in the gold mines and gradually saved enough money for school fees. She was devastated to find out that she was pregnant following a brief relationship with her boyfriend. When her father’s demand to marry her off persisted, she chose to get married to her child’s father.
“Since I was going to get married off anyway, it was better for me to settle with a man I knew,” she says. At 14, she was a mother, a wife and out of school.
In 2014, Mkong joined Mtelo Girls High School through funds raised by a local church. Since 2015, she has been one of the beneficiaries of a scholarship programme by World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organisation that’s keeping vulnerable girls in school.
Mercymila Lemwato, the school principal, says that they are dedicated to giving girls and young mothers in the area a chance to escape the numerous factors that stifle their ambitions and growth. Mtelo, the first girls secondary school in Sekerr Location, has created a safe space for girls to escape challenges that bedevil them at home.
“Parents leave home early to go to the gold mines and come back late at night, thus most have neglected their parental responsibilities.
Young girls are forced to work in the gold mines to supplement family incomes. As they leave the mines late in the night, they interact with men and risk getting pregnant,” says Lemwato.
The elite of the community founded the boarding school in 2014 to curb the high dropout rate among girls in the area. When the school started, 90 per cent of the 60 girls enrolled were teen mothers. Currently, 60 per cent of the 300 students are teen mothers and 30 per cent married with children.
The efforts by Mtelo elites to protect girls from various human rights violations by keeping them in school have been galvanised by World Vision, through construction of vital facilities and by offering scholarships to needy girls.
The school, which started off with four classrooms that turned to dormitories at night, now has a dormitory, toilets, water tank, two laboratories, administration block and a teacher’s quarter, thanks to the organisation.
“The efforts are geared towards ensuring that the school provides favourable environment for girls to learn. We also offer girls life skills training to help them make informed choices,” says Moses Chepkonga, the child protection and education manager at World Vision.
Mkong, who aspires to become a doctor, considers herself very fortunate to be accorded a second chance to pursue her education. Being in school has rekindled hope for a better future for her and the family. The father of her child is currently undertaking a teaching course at Kitui Teachers College.