By James Elder
NAKURU, Kenya, 19 February 2008 – When Yvonne’s family fled the violence that ravaged their village, the eight-year-old lost her home, her precious plastic necklace, her school uniform and her classroom.
“We don’t have much,” she said, “but we always had our school.”
The violence that swept through Kenya after December’s disputed presidential election occurred as children such as Yvonne sought to start a new school year. As UNICEF strives to provide safety and stability to hundreds of thousands of Kenyan children, education is fundamental
Last week, Yvonne was finally back in school – in a UNICEF tent classroom at one of the camps here the conflict-torn Rift Valley. She was elated.
“I have two dresses that my mother saved from our burning house,” she said. “This one is my favourite. It’s my Sunday church dress, but coming back to school was special so my mother allowed me to wear it to school.”
Classroom as sanctuary
As Kenya’s crisis continues, UNICEF is urgently seeking $6.6 million for emergency services. Much of the money would go toward protection, education and assistance for more children.
“The classroom is a sanctuary for so many children like little Yvonne,” said UNICEF’s Representative in Kenya, Olivia Yambi. “It’s safe, secure and somewhere they can begin to play and learn, and move beyond the horrors that they’ve experienced.”
Pinto Omondi, 13, is a student at a school in Nairobi’s biggest slum, the scene of the capital’s worst violence. More than 300,000 Kenyans have had to flee their homes over the past six weeks. As many as 1,000 have been killed. The number of reported cases of rape has doubled. UNICEF estimates that 150,000 children are in makeshift camps spread across the country – and more than half of these are children under the age of five.
Real progress in difficult times
So sudden was the eruption of violence that many families fled their homes with only what they could carry. Now living temporarily in fields, showgrounds, schools and churches, the children play in dusty patches amidst the elderly sleeping on their mattresses and those who simply sit, reliving the terror that befell them. Families’ meagre dinners burn over open fires, and toilets are overcrowded and unsanitary. These are the people UNICEF seeks to support.
This past month in Kenya, UNICEF has:
- Provided nutritious foods to 70 per cent of the children in the camps
- Ensured that more than 15,000 children are going to school in UNICEF tents
- Provided over 50,000 people with access to safe water
- Supplied 50,000 family kits, which offer shelter materials, cooking pots and utensils.
“We have made real progress in a short space of time and amid great logistical challenges,” said Ms. Yambi. “But we have many more children who need our help, and they need it today.”
Three young girls stare at the remains of their grandmother’s home. UNICEF is urgently seeking $6.6 million for emergency shelter, education and protection for Kenyan children affected by recent violence. Selfless acts provide safety
While Yvonne was back in school and talkative, her friend’s fearful expression told another story.
“She saw her uncle cut up and killed by youths with machetes,” one of the girl’s teachers said. “She hid with her auntie, but she saw it all.” In response, the teacher visits the girl most nights in the camp, tries to help with her homework and gives her what food she can.
It is a selfless act, like others that are being repeated across Kenya daily. Despite having their lives thrown into disarray, Kenyans are ceaselessly stepping up to help each other. Here are just a few examples.
Francis, 17, spends his days helping children in a newly established camp next to his hometown. “This is a time for forgetting about me and looking after others,” he said.
In Kenya’s largest slum and the scene of much fighting, a teacher, Leah, housed and fed 20 children for two weeks when the violence threatened their lives. “These children live in horrid conditions every day of their life,” she said. “How could anyone seek to make their pain even greater? There was no question that I would do everything I could to keep them safe.”
And then there’s Anna, 9, who goes from door to door with her friends asking neighbours for any socks they can spare. She then hands them out to girls in the camps. “Socks keep your feet warm at night,” she said. “Next, I want to collect shoes for them.”
That would greatly please Yvonne. “Some of my friends have no spare clothes, no books, no shoes,” she said. “Some are in school, but some still aren’t. I just want us all to be together again, safe in school and in church.”