31 July 09
When you board a boat from Mbita, the first island you pass is Rusinga. Then, there’s Kibougi, Ngodhe, Takawiri, Mfangano and Ringiti.
When you’re boat pulls approximately parallel to Ringiti and you’re still motoring, there grows in you a sense of understanding for those Old Worlders who believed sailing into the horizon would lead one to fall off the edge of the earth.
Wait about 30 minutes after that point, though, and you’ll realize there’s something out there.
In waters whose ownership incites great debate between Kenya and Uganda rests Remba Island.
As we pulled close, I grew confused. Perhaps, I told myself, we are just stopping here to refuel before we head to whatever island school is next on our itinerary. But Remba was our destination. Existing solely as a base of operations for fisherfolk, Remba stands as a pile of rocks with corrugated tin structures shoved up against one another. Aside from people, chickens, goats and, inexplicably, cows, the bulk of Remba’s population is sam – a type of flying insect that crowds the air and makes opening one’s mouth a dreadful mistake.
We disembarked, surrounded by nonplussed fisherfolk, and I was distinctly aware of my foreignness. While Mbita has taken on a feel of familiarity, this place was not my own.
Our party made its way through the shacks, sheds and sam to the far side of the island to Remba Island Primary School. In the middle of a barren rocky expanse stood two corrugated tin structures larger than any others on the island and divided into classrooms. We ducked inside the staff room to meet the school’s faculty. Five of the school’s 9 teachers sat at desks on a dirt floor grading the school’s end-of-term exams as though unaware of their environment.
Of Remba Primary’s 150 learners, we were told approximately 130 were complete or partial orphans sent to live with female relatives on the island. It was difficult to get an exact tally on the number of pupils at the school, one teacher told us because many students were migrant and moved with the fish. They’d gone to Class 8, the teacher said, but those students had moved so now the school only went to Class 7.
Though the school operated on an inclusion model, it was more out of necessity than design as there was no special education teacher to meet the needs of the school’s 4 deaf and 3 mentally challenged learners.
When he was campaigning, Remba’s MP had promised an allocation of Ksh 500,000 to the school. They’re still waiting.
“Because community members and business owners don’t have children in the school,” one teacher told us, “they don’t see the need to fund the school.”
The closest semblance of government on the island, the Beach Management Unit, was decidedly uninvolved.
The outhouse dug for the school hadn’t been maintained by the community and the learners were left to relieve themselves in the sparse clumps of grass near the water’s edge.
As we stood in the sweltering staff room and I watched the kids through the mesh wire that was standing in as a window, I was keenly aware of a pain somewhere in my heart.
Everything was stacked against these kids. Everything. Cut off from the mainland community that had hosted us so warmly since our arrival, the only thing the children of the island in their favor was their ignorance of what they didn’t have.
No matter the resources lacking at any of the other schools we’d seen so far on the trip I’d felt a sense of growth and hope. All the schools so far would be okay.
I couldn’t see the hope here. I couldn’t see the school’s growth.