We risked hatred and death to start our primary school in Kenya

Children in conflicts, Girls' education

I was born in Ekeiyo Marakwet County, Kenya. My parents were illiterate but against all odds they managed to send all nine of their children to school because they knew in order for their kids to have a better future we must all go to school.

Our home borders two counties – West Pokot County in the east and Baringo County in the north. Historically the Pokot community makes up the majority of the inhabitants of this area with the Marakwet minority seen as a traditional rival.

Every year several lives are lost due to the unending conflicts between the two over pasture and cattle. Because of this continuous conflict, the two communities are subjected to untold poverty – no schools or hospitals have been built and there has been no meaningful development in the area.

While growing up, my siblings and I had a difficult time. We were branded as traitors and cowards by fellow villagers for failing to join them in their outdated and barbaric practice of cattle raiding.

We were seen as outcasts for going to school instead of joining the boys in the bush; no one wanted to associate with us. Our school was not spared either.

On several occasions our neighbours raided our school, destroyed property and raped young girls. I will never forget when standard eight girls were dragged out of the classroom and raped in the school parade ground by gun-wielding bandits from neighboring communities.

All our pictures show children at Dira Primary School

This unending conflict between Pokot and Marakwet has brought us untold suffering and loss. I have lost my father, classmate, and friends. Two of my favourite people were shot outside the staffroom while trying to protect the girls from rape.

Enmity and hatred between the two communities are so high that no one wants to associate with one another. We grew up being taught that Pokot are our enemies and ought to be wiped by all means.

There were a lot of hurdles I faced as I went through my primary and secondary education. On several occasions my parents were unable to pay the school fee and I was sent home.

Often this was because our Pokot neighbors had stolen our cattle, our main source of livelihood. To make matters worse, when I reached home from school I might sometimes not know where my parents were; they had run for safety from the conflict and it would take me up to two weeks to find them.

Once during my holiday break, while I was in university, my friend and I met a small boy from the Pokot community. This moment changed my perception and way of thinking.

He was just a 10-year-old boy herding cattle. My friend suggested this was the right moment to take revenge, to make him pay for the stolen cattle and the deaths of our parents. I called him so that we may begin “working on him”.

When he saw us the little boy tried to run but realised that his chances of escaping were small. Scared to the bone he heeded our call, slowly and reluctantly approaching us. He was an emaciated young boy, a few pieces of tattered clothes covering his fragile body.

Since he seemed harmless we decided to interrogate him. I asked him why he was not in school. He told us that in their community there were no schools and the only role for young boys was to look after calves while young girls looked after little babies.

“Where do you attend church?,” I further enquired. He told us he’s never even heard of a church and most people have never seen one. I gave him some of my food and water.

I realised the boy was terrified and my friends were eagerly ready to descend on this helpless creature just for misplaced revenge. I had only one option, to see the boy to safety by escorting him into their border. I instructed him to gather his cattle herd, which he did, not knowing where we were heading.

As we moved he told me how he has heard about school and how he wished he could own some nice clothes like the people he saw in the market place and buy a big car like the one owned by their local member of parliament. Instead he had the guns and arrows owned by his father that were used to shoot his mother during a quarrel.

Because there was no school he had no option but to stay at home. He asked if I could take him to our home so that he may attend school. A brave but futile request.

Upon reaching the border I asked if we could meet the following day so I that I may bring him some food and nice clothes. After making sure he was safe, I went back to my friend. He was so angry with me for letting his prey go and did not want to go back home with me because I was seen as a coward and a traitor.

The following morning I went back to our designated meeting point. This time I went alone and was extremely careful because I didn’t know what the little boy had told his parents.

I arrived first and hid in a small shrub nearby just to be safe. I waited for him for almost an hour. As I was about to give up, I spotted him heading my way. I stayed hidden to make sure he was alone because even a small mistake can cost you your life.

After carefully observing him for 20 minutes I realised he had a calabash with milk. In my community a calabash with milk is symbol of peace and friendship. Later I learnt he was told to do so by his father and then I knew I was safe.

During a lengthy conversion he shared his ambitions and how he felt bad seeing people fight over cows. He wished he could attend school to help people move out from poverty.

I was so touched and inspired. I asked myself how a small boy could have such visions of changing people’s lives for the better while I had filled myself with hatred and revenge. I realised I had to do something. After seeing each other off, I promised him we should meet soon. That is when I started doing the unthinkable.

When I reached home I told my mother how I wished to be a missionary in our neighbouring community, Baringo County. My mother thought I was crazy. Once she realised I was serious, she started crying that it was suicide mission and that I was as good as dead. Others thought I was under influence of drugs.

But my mind was made up. I had promised to help my young friend. I approached the Methodist Church in Kenya to share our mission, to change lives. With the blessing of the Church we embarked on one of most difficult tasks. Several people predicted our death in weeks.

My new young friend invited me to his home. His parents were our first converts. There was a strong suspicion held by both communities that we were spies.

But we stood our ground; we are just Christians who have come to spread the word of God. To support we our claim we moved along with medicine, food, clothing and other humanitarian assistance. We managed to convince them that we were genuine missionaries.

We started our first church under a tree. Within three months we started a small primary school – Dira Primary School. We realised the only way to change and improve the living standard of our people was through education. This inspired us to advocate that all kids should be in school without discrimination.

My NGO, 4better2morrow, in collaboration with the Methodist Church in Kenya, has managed to do the following:

  • Reduced the hatred and animosity that existed between the two communities and that one can rise above cheap tribal hatred to make a difference
  • Attended to over 1000 kids who needed medical attention
  • Gave financial assistance, clothes, shoes and a school uniform to all children who attended the school in order to motivate them
  • Built four classrooms
  • Showed young men, who were formerly cattle rustlers from the two communities, an alternative way of making a living such as how to make money from growing watermelons
  • Assisted women on the best way of making a livelihood rather than the dangerous and illegal activity of brewing local beer

By God’s grace, courage and love, I am living. It takes a lot of courage and determination to trek over 20 kilometres every day with a heavy load of medicine, food and other humanitarian goods.

We passed through bandit-prone areas, big rivers with crocodiles (yet no bridges), all the while sacrificing our few resources and comfort, while risking our lives just to make sure that others could live in peace.

We might not have changed the whole place but at least we have touched some lives. Dira Primary School is now three years old. My young friend is now in standard three about to join class four and later will achieve his ambition of making difference in his community. I am still alive to tell the story despite what others predicted.

Whether you are small or financially incapable you still can make difference. A small piece of kindness can have a big positive effect in the society. To date we are still based in Baringo County, giving hope to the hopeless, assisting the weak and downtrodden in society. I am not rich but at least we have done our part.

You can follow Norbert on Twitter here.

More news

See all news